Bras d'Or Lake

From Academic Kids

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Bras d'Or Lake, Nova Scotia.

Bras d'Or Lake (pronounced "Bra-door") is a large body of water dominating the centre of Cape Breton Island in the province of Nova Scotia, Canada. Bras d'Or Lake is sometimes referred to as the Bras d'Or Lakes or the Bras d'Or Lakes system, however its official geographic name is Bras d'Or Lake.

Cape Breton's first European explorers/settlers were from France, with the name Bras d'Or translating into "Arms of Gold", likely referring to the sun reflecting from its waters. The Mi'kmaq Nation named it Pitu'pok, roughly translating into "Salt Water."



With an area of approximately 1100 square kilometres, the extents of Bras d'Or Lake measures roughly 100 km in length and 50 km in width. Surrounded almost entirely by high hills and low mountains, the shape of the lake is dominated by the Washabuck Peninsula in the centre-west, Bouladerie Island in the northeast, and a large peninsula extending from the centre-east dominated by the Boisdale Hills. The effect of the Washabuck Peninsula and Boisdale Hills divides the lake into northern and southern basins, linked by the 1 km wide Barra Strait.

The effect of local topography has resulted in the following major components of Bras d'Or Lake:

Northern Basin

  • Great Bras d'Or
  • Little Bras d'Or
  • St. Andrews Channel
  • St. Patricks Channel
  • Whycocomagh Bay

Southern Basin

  • Denys Basin
  • St. Peters Inlet
  • East Bay
  • West Bay

The largest part of the lake measures approximately 25 km across in the southern basin, framed by East Bay and West Bay with Denys Basin to the north and St. Peters Inlet to the south. The Barra Strait is crossed by highway and railway bridges running between the Washabuck Peninsula and the Boisdale Hills.

Ocean Outlets

The waters of Bras d'Or Lake are connected to the Atlantic Ocean by two natural outlets in its northeastern extremities, with the smaller "Little Bras d'Or" in the south and the "Great Bras d'Or" in the north. These outlets encircle Bouladerie Island, which is also the largest island in Cape Breton. An artificial connection to the Atlantic is also available at the southwestern extremity of Bras d'Or Lake in the historic "St. Peters Canal" located in the village of St. Peter's.


The following major rivers empty into the lake (which can also be defined as a gulf or estuary):

  • River Denys
  • Middle River
  • Baddeck River
  • Skye River
  • Georges River

The lack of significant tidal exchange with the Atlantic, coupled with freshwater outflow of rivers and innumerable streams results in lower salinity in Bras d'Or Lake than in ocean waters. The limited circulation of the lake means that the waters of Bras d'Or are potentially threatened by sewage discharge from community sewage treatment plants and individual septic tanks, as well as recreational boaters.


Bras d'Or Lake is home to an array of wildlife with successful lobster and oyster fisheries, as well as the pursuit of other marine species. The lake's largely undeveloped shorelines have resulted in significant concentrations of Bald Eagle populations. Hunting for migratory birds and land mammals such as deer and moose is a favourite pastime during the months of October and November.


A favoured vacation destination in its own right, the remarkable scenery of Bras d'Or Lake has become increasingly popular with tourists, as well as recreational boaters (see cruising). Baddeck is the recreational boating centre of Bras d'Or Lake with several marinas, a yacht club, and various services for cruisers. St. Peter's also provides marina and boating services, with some services also provided at Grand Narrows, Whycocomagh, and Little Bras d'Or. The heavily indented shoreline and numerous protected coves and harbours provides for a boaters paradise.

Commercial shipping is presently limited to the Great Bras d'Or and St. Patricks Channel where a large gypsum quarry is located at Little Narrows.

Bras d'Or Lake waters were also once used as a shipping route for coal and other commodities originating in industrial Cape Breton up to and during the Second World War, passing via barge through the St. Peters Canal to destinations on the Atlantic coast of mainland Nova Scotia, or the Northumberland Strait. Marble was quarried into the early 20th century at Marble Mountain on the bluffs above West Bay, with the majority of production being shipped by barge through Bras d'Or Lake for transhipment at Sydney.

Lakeside Development

The largest communities located on Bras d'Or Lake are the villages of Baddeck, Eskasoni, Little Bras d'Or, St. Peter's, and Whycocomagh. Remaining parts of lake shorelines are largely rural with some farming, although encroaching urban sprawl from Sydney in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) is approaching East Bay. Many cottage and recreational properties are located in rural areas, largely owned by people from Sydney, Halifax, or from out of province.

There is little significant protection for shorelines from development in the form of designated parks or conservation areas. In addition, Nova Scotia does not sufficiently protect rural areas from subdivision of property.

Until modern roads were built in the 20th century, coastal freighters/steamships would make the rounds to various lakeside communities, frequently making connection with passenger trains at Iona/Grand Narrows where the railway crossed the Barra Strait.

Unlike the industrial part of CBRM where coal, steel, and manufacturing industries flourished in the early 20th century, and the petroleum, manufacturing, and pulp and paper industries located in the Strait of Canso region since the construction of the Canso Causeway in 1955, Bras d'Or Lake has no major industries within its watershed aside from logging and gypsum extraction.

General Interest

Famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell made his summer/retirement home in Beinn Breagh ("Beautiful Mountain" in Scots Gaelic), a lakeside community near the village of Baddeck. It is because of Bell's connection to this area that the Bras d'Or Lake and Beinn Breagh and/or Baddeck routinely get featured in National Geographic maps showing eastern North America.

In 2003, National Geographic Traveler magazine rated Cape Breton Island its #2 worldwide destination (for sustainable tourism) along with New Zealand's South Island and Chile's Torres del Paine, with #1 being the Norwegian fjords.

"The Bras d’Or Lakes are my favorite landscape on planet Earth. Nestled into the rolling hills of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, their pristine tidal waters reflect centuries of Scottish culture, music, and friendly people."
Gilbert M. Grosvenor, Chairman of the Board, National Geographic Society

Bell and his researcher assistants also used Bras d'Or Lake as the launching point in summer and winter of massive kites during experiments into heavier-than-air flight. Some kites required towing by large barges into the upper basin of the Lake off Bell's estate prior to launch. The result of these experiments resulted in the February 1909 flight of the Bell-designed Silver Dart from the frozen waters of Baddeck Bay - the first airplane flight in Canada and the British Empire.

HMCS Bras d'Or, a 1960s-era Royal Canadian Navy experimental hydrofoil reportedly the fastest warship of its generation, was named after Bras d'Or Lake, in honour of Alexander Graham Bell's work with developing hydrofoils on the lake's waters.

VIA Rail Canada's weekly Halifax-Sydney tourist passenger train, the Bras d'Or is named in honour of the spectacular scenery provided by Bras d'Or Lake along the eastern part of its journey.

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