A hidden gem no more: How popularity is ruining a once-quiet beach and proposed nature reserve

by Brittany Wentzell

  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>Cars are packed along the side of Carter&#8217;s Beach Road on a weekday in August. Traffic has only increased over the past few years to a beach that was once called a &#8220;hidden gem.&#8221;</p>
  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>A truck with a trailer and lawn mower on the back sits at the end of a line up of over 55 cars on Carter&#8217;s Beach Road.</p>
  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>Some residents are making a bit of extra cash by allowing visitors to park on their property.</p>
  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>The beach is busy on August 15 despite it being a week day.</p>
  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>Portable toilets sit at the entrance of the path to get to the beach along with signage on rules for the beach.</p>
  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>A garbage can filled to the brim in the mid afternoon of August 15. The can is maintained by Department of Natural Resources, however Nova Scotia Environment would like to see the can removed and a &#8220;pack in pack out&#8221; mentality be encouraged.</p>
  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>A sign asking visitors not to block their driveway or mailbox sits in front of the property of Brian and Leanora Fisher.</p>
  • <p>A screenshot of a photo of Carter&#8217;s Beach on the photo sharing application Instagram. The image depicts someone illegally camping. The image is one of over 3,500 tagging the beach.</p>
  • <p>A screenshot of a photo of beach goers having an illegal campfire on Carter&#8217;s Beach. The image is from the photo sharing application Instagram.</p>

"Oh my God, it's so beautiful," exclaimed a young woman seeing Carter's Beach for the first time on a breezy afternoon in August.

That's not an uncommon sentiment. With its white sandy shores and aqua blue water, hundreds of people flock to the Port Mouton beach every day in the summer.

Just a few years ago the beach was known only to locals, but with thousands of hashtags on social media, "listicles" on best beaches in Nova Scotia and endless travel blog posts, it comes as no surprise the beach continues to explode in popularity despite the fact that it's a pending nature reserve under Nova Scotia Environment (NSE) and has few services.

Carter's is considered ecologically and archaeologically sensitive and although it does not yet have the higher protection of being a nature reserve, which would limit the amount of human activity that can take place on it, it is still a protected beach making activities such as camping, fires and ATV use illegal.

But because of the impact of social media - traffic and other activities are not slowing down any time soon, much to the dismay of local residents. And the annual crush of visitors causes problems ranging from blocking access to emergency vehicles, to ruining the once-quiet beach with their garbage.

Over the last few weeks LighthouseNOW staff visited Carter's Beach Road several times to see what locals were encountering and how visitors had discovered the beach.

LighthouseNOW spoke to around 25 visitors, the majority of whom were from the Halifax Regional Municipality. However, cars with licence plates from Ontario, New Brunswick, Quebec and various American states were also spotted.

Many of the beach goers from beyond the South Shore acknowledged social media is what prompted them to check the spot out.

One man said he just typed in "best beach in Nova Scotia" and the website Trip Advisor brought Carter's Beach up to the top. Others said friends' Facebook posts attracted them.

LighthouseNOW found over 3,500 hashtags on the photo sharing application Instagram alone as well as dozens of posts on travel websites and blogs. Although there is a Carter's Beach in New Zealand, the vast majority of the references were for the Nova Scotian destination. In comparison, Risser's Beach, a popular provincial park in Lunenburg County had just 1,500 hashtags.

But for the local residents it all adds up to headaches over the last few years as they say they struggle to retrieve their mail, get out of their driveways, and even keep their properties clean.

The Region of Queens Municipality has cut down on advertising the spot, even removing it from their tourism guide altogether in an attempt to quell the flow of visitors.

Some have caught on to the idea of keeping the beach hush-hush. A list in the newspaper The Coast that featured the beach prompted some readers to chastise the publication for continuing to publicize the location.

Problems with parking

Parking has been a persistent issue on the 900-metre road, although the presence of no parking signs on the ocean side of the road has alleviated some of the congestion this year. Those who don't obey the signs risk receiving a parking ticket from the RCMP.

Staff Sergeant Derek Smith of the Queens District RCMP opines that this year has been better than the last as far as parking is concerned, with more people appearing to respect the no-parking signs. The latter are important as they're there to keep the road way clear for emergency vehicle access.

Getting emergency vehicles to the beach has been a worry for years, one that came to the forefront when LighthouseNOW was speaking to residents and two ambulances whizzed by, their horns blaring as they tried to get people off the road. Drivers scrambled to pull off where they could, while others had to reverse back down the road to allow the ambulances room.

Residents Leanora and Brian Fisher live a couple hundred metres from the beach. They use signs and saw horses to keep people from parking in their driveway. It's not surprising - on some days beach-goers seem to bring everything they own, from trailers with lawn mowers on them, to RVs and campers.

A beach-goer recently confronted Leanora after the visitor parked too close to the Fishers' driveway. When Leanora asked the driver to move, the woman suggested Leanora have her licence revoked if she couldn't get out of her driveway. The driver didn't move her vehicle until Brian threatened to have her towed.

LighthouseNOW staff witnessed a young man in a silver sedan attempt to use a neighbouring property's driveway as a turn-around spot, despite fish boxes being lined up along the gravel driveway to stop that very activity.

"This isn't a turn-around spot!" a man shouted.

The man - David Williams, a resident on the road, was refinishing the exterior of a truck on his parents' property across from the Fishers. He was worried about gravel and dust kicking up from the gravel driveway and hurting the vehicle.

Amy Steele is David Williams' partner, they live next to the Fishers and say noise, traffic, and garbage often drive them to leave their residence for the weekend and head to the cottage.

"The garbage is disgraceful, they'll just throw things in your ditch," said Steele, regarding the visitors.

Still, some residents have seen a silver lining in the traffic.

Gary Williams, a long-time resident on Carter's Beach Road, has set up a spot offering $8 parking for the day on his property. Sometimes he makes over $50 in a day.

The noise and the traffic isn't a big deal to him and his partner Bonnie Stapleton.

"We find it interesting. It's like a little community," said Stapleton.

"You meet a lot of nice people to talk to, find out where people are from," said Gary Williams.

Gary Williams is selling his home because he wants to downsize and move closer to Liverpool, but he and Bonnie say the property could be good for someone looking to use the traffic to the beach to their advantage.

Hazards of living on the road

Steele and the Fishers have also witnessed people drinking and driving.

"I told the RCMP if you came down here at 4 p.m. on a weekend with a breathalyzer, you'll make a fortune," said Leanora.

"There was a guy and a girl probably in their late 20s, they were fighting about who was going to drive because they were both drinking and finally the girl decided to drive and the guy got in and they got up to the no parking sign here before they realized they had forgot to close the trunk. They had a hatch back open," said Brian.

Steele says one evening several people lifted their beer bottles and toasted her and her partner before climbing into their cars and leaving.

RCMP responded that they have set up a couple road blocks this summer, but so far have not caught anyone drinking and driving.

Services and amenities

As you approach the crowded parking lot, a sign with the rules of the beach is barely visible as it peeks out from behind a set of portable toilets. The smell of the two toilets is overwhelming on warm days.

"It's so disgusting," says one visitor as she exits one.

The Region of Queens Municipality hired a private contractor to put the portable toilets at the site and maintain them. They're emptied every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The only garbage can, maintained by the Department of Natural Resources, is overflowing, bags protrude from the lid, and take-out boxes and bags, beer cans and other items litter the ground around it.

In an email to LighthouseNOW, NSE says they will be doing a trial run of removing the can altogether, something they say will cut down on garbage. Signage asking visitors to pack in and pack out will be placed on site and the beach will be monitored to ensure garbage is not accumulating.

Last year over 30 kilograms of trash was collected during an annual clean up of the beach that locals organized. It was also noted that 170 instances of used toilet paper were found, which indicated people were likely relieving themselves on nearby dunes and behind private properties.

The pending nature reserve status doesn't seem to stop many visitors from brazenly breaking the rules of a protected beach, including camping illegally (and then posting the footage on social media) and having campfires. One resident said they recently heard an ATV on the beach.

"They have bonfires down there every night and fires aren't allowed and if anything caught on fire, it's like tinder wood down there," said Steele.

One resident who didn't wish to be named told LighthouseNOW, she believes sailboats and yachts that make use of the calm harbour may be contributing to the fires when they arrive on shore and that perhaps signage on the beach may be required to curb the activities.

Conflicting ideologies

"This is a really good example of a number of conflicting pressures on a property and the need for collaborative decision making," said Richard MacLellan, CAO of the Region of Queens Municipality. "This isn't a decision that can be made in Halifax; it needs to be made involving the community, involving all of the stakeholders."

There are different ideas of what should happen with the beach, with some wanting to build it up as a destination and others wanting to limit access. Although NSE has argued that less conveniences will limit stays on the beach, the municipality made the move to place the portable toilets there after complaints from residents, and now the department says they'll be adding permanent outhouses in the future.

The municipality also committed to widening Carter's Beach Road last summer to try to combat some of the parking problems.

When will things change?

The so far four-year wait on the beach's pending nature reserve status has local residents, Brian and Leanora Fisher, and others in the area, frustrated.

Brian Fisher cares about the beach, not just the road. He, along with others who are worried about the beach's environmental sensitivity, have put up stakes - a symbolic fence in some of the sand dunes, encouraging visitors to keep off and stop the erosion of the dunes.

Brian says some of those stakes, which were bought through the support of NSE, have been pulled up and, he believes, even used for firewood.

Brian would also like to see signage at the beach to point visitors in the direction of several other local beaches and encourage them to take in spots like Summerville and Kejimkujik Seaside, which are official parks and have all of the needs of visitors covered - from parking to bathrooms to garbage disposal.

NSE has held multiple community consultation meetings. At the most recent one, representatives from the department said they plan on forming an advisory group that would include locals to help the department find some answers to problems.

However, NSE says there isn't a timeline for the change in designation from pending nature reserve to nature reserve.

"I don't think anything will change," said Leanora. "[The Region of Queens] like the people coming and they don't care that we live in a parking lot."

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