Volunteers run this popular Cape Breton tourist site — and its future is in jeopardy
Gypsum Mine Trail welcomes thousands of visitors every year
André Bourgeois can remember bushwhacking his way to an abandoned Cape Breton mine as a young boy in the 1970s, wading through the evergreen brush until reaching the rocky pit that shuttered at the outset of the Second World War and eventually flooded with water.
It's a far different scene today. Thousands of people now march through a cleared, relatively flat trail in Chéticamp, N.S., each year to reach the unique site.
It's a short walk with a big payoff.
With its picturesque blue-green lake, rocky cliffs and a look-off point perfect for Instagram, it's no wonder the Gypsum Mine Trail is the second-most visited outdoor site in Cape Breton, behind only the Skyline Trail.
But what many do not know is that the relatively new tourist destination is privately owned and run by just a handful of volunteers.
"We're on the world-famous Cabot Trail and we're right next door to the world-famous Cape Breton Highlands National Park. These are both federally and provincially funded and supported, marketed and advertised," said the 55-year-old Bourgeois, a member of the Gypsum Mine Trail committee.
"And here we've got this little site that used to be a mine with no marketing or advertising dollars, no employees, privately donated land and it's run by five or six dedicated local volunteers. It's pretty amazing when you think about it."
The trail is a collection of privately owned donated lands and has exploded in popularity over the last decade, in part due to social media, said Bourgeois.
The tourists that flock here year-round on foot and through the island's network of ATV and snowmobiling trails are quick to post photos of the breathtaking scenery, especially the view from the top of a look-off point, accessible only after scaling a sharp incline with the help of a thick rope.
"Hidden gems don't really exist anymore…. It's hard to keep anything quiet, private, or secret. It's part of the time we live in," said Bourgeois, who spent his early years in the Acadian fishing village and moved back to the area about seven years ago.
"And then I'd say again over the last 20 years, increasingly with each year, hiking has become more popular, outdoor destinations have become more popular."
That has put strain on the site and upgrades are required to accommodate the ever-increasing traffic.
But the most pressing issue currently facing the volunteer organization is acquiring about an acre of land that has been put up for sale. The parcel forms roughly half of the site's parking lot.
The lot is already overflowing with vehicles during the high season, often spilling onto the roadway. It can become a safety issue, given the road's speed limit is 70 km/h, said Bourgeois.
The owner has agreed to sell the land to the committee, but it must now find the money to purchase it.
The committee started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $50,000 by May, which will go toward the land purchase and other upgrades to the site. Those include expanding the parking lot and installing washrooms and garbage receptacles.
"Really, we don't have another option. We just have to, come hell or high water, raise this money and buy that piece of land," said Bourgeois.
Gypsum is a mineral consisting of water-containing calcium sulphate and was used as a building material beginning in the 1780s, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
The Chéticamp mine's history dates back to the late 19th century.
It was discovered in a mountain in 1897 by M.W. Grandin, a prospector from New Glasgow, according to historical information compiled by the committee.
In 1907, Father P. Fiset, Chéticamp's parish priest, and his nephew, Louis, who was a doctor, formed the Great Northern Mining Company, the Mining Association of Nova Scotia's website said.
By spring of the next year, equipment for the mill was delivered and hauled by horse and cart to the site. The first gypsum rock went through the mill later that summer.
Ownership of the mill changed hands a number of times over the years until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, when it was permanently shut down.
Shipping to England — where many of its gypsum customers were — was no longer possible and its Montreal market was too small to justify continued operation of the site.
The mine's last shipment to England was dumped at sea so the boat could immediately be used by the government in the war effort.
The Gypsum Mine Trail follows the former railroad connecting the port in Chéticamp to the mine.
Construction began in 2009, with investments from the municipality, a local ATV club, sponsorship from the Economic Council of Chéticamp and lots of volunteer help.
Until the committee was formed in 2019, all physical work on the trail and upkeep was organized and carried out by locals on an ad hoc basis.
Bourgeois said the site has federal and provincial funding secured for future upgrades, but that funding is contingent on the committee acquiring the land.
He said the money raised will help ensure people can enjoy the trail for years to come.
"It's really gratifying to see, on a beautiful hot summer day, so many people visiting. They're taking pictures, they're swimming, they're having a great time," said Bourgeois.
"It really is an exceptional situation we're in, but this is an exceptional site."