Flushing Out the Aboiteaux by Charles Francis

Belleisle Marsh in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley hamlet of Belleisle stands as proof that agriculture, wildlife management and recreation can coexist in harmony. Cattle- primarily Belted Galloways- graze there and in late summer farmers cut hay. Spring sees birders with cameras, notepads and binoculars. Duck hunters take up their annual vigil each fall. In winter there is trapping. Hikers can be found on the marsh all seasons. There are two aboiteaux on Belleisle Marsh. They work in conjunction with the Annapolis River. They allow fresh water to exit the marsh and prevent salt river water from accessing the marsh. Generally speaking, aboiteaux are large sluice boxes constructed to allow ditches and streams to drain to the sea when the tide is low. A gate in the sluice box swings up allowing the outward flow of water. When the tide rises, the gate closes blocking ingress of the river or salt sea. The aboiteaux is an ingenious device. But, every so often one will clog and need to be cleaned out. The word aboiteaux is almost universally accepted as French in origin. This does not necessarily mean that aboiteaux are a French invention. Aboiteaux and Acadian are almost synonymous, at least in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Because of this particular linguistic linking some late nineteenth and early twentieth century authorities thought the aboiteaux an Acadian innovation. That is why Acadians were sometimes referred to as defricheurs d'eau (clearers of water). However, there were aboiteaux in western France before the French ever came to the New World. It also appears the Dutch use of the device antedates that of the French. And, in England the Car Dyke and Offa's Dyke date back almost to Roman times. The aboiteaux on Belleisle Marsh are of relatively recent origin. They are not Acadian constructions. They were built between 1948 and 1951 under the authority of the Maritime Dykeland Rehabilitation Committee (MDRC). The MDRC was a joint federal and provincial agency. The particular provinces in this case were Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The MDRC came into existence to preserve or reclaim salt marsh farmland. The MDRC no longer takes responsibility for the Belleisle Marsh aboiteaux. In fact the MDRC no longer exists. Donnie Troop, who knows Belleisle Marsh as well as anyone, told me that as far as he knows Nova Scotia Power sees to the proper functioning of the aboiteaux there. Troop has been trapping the marsh for more than thirty-five years. Donnie Troop was trapping Belleisle Marsh back before the causeway connecting Granville Ferry and Annapolis Royal effectively damming the Annapolis River was constructed. The causeway was built in 1960. Back when Donnie began trapping he came down from Bridgetown on the river, by boat. That was well before the ponds than now define the geography of the marsh were constructed and Ducks Unlimited took an active interest in the ecology of the marsh.

Today when people refer to Belleisle Marsh they are almost always referencing Belleisle Marsh Wildlife Management Area. The area is a Ducks Unlimited constructed wetland. It falls within the guidelines of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Belleisle Marsh Wildlife Management Area began when the province purchased 383 hectares (700 acres) from local residents in 1990. Sixty-nine hectares are designated wetlands habitat; 135, wildlife and seventy-nine, agricultural. Back when Acadians lived here, however, there were a good many more acres under cultivation. Settlement of the Annapolis River (the French called it Riviere Dauphin) in the Belleisle region by Acadians began in the 1670's or a bit earlier. It is estimated there were some thirty houses there by 1750 . This figure is for all the marshland of the Belleisle area. What today is Belleisle Marsh Wildlife Management Area had at least six houses and probably more. There are five distinct Acadian surnames associated with the management area and at archaeologists have unearthed two cellar holes of at least one family, the Savoie. A painting purported to date from the era of Acadian settlement of the Belleisle Marsh Wildlife Management area shows highly regular, well defined fields extending to the river. That the Acadians of Belleisle Marsh built dykes there is an accepted fact. The remains of the Acadian dykes of the seventeenth and eighteenth century served as a base for those built or reclaimed in the 1948 to 1951 period by the MDRC. The Acadians of Belleisle built dykes to keep salt water from inundating their crop land. Agriculture and salt water don't mix. There is a oft-times overlooked additional reason as to why the Acadians built their dykes, however. The Acadians were of an orderly mindset. Their well defined fields speak to this sense of order. So do the Acadian homes made of hand hewn timbers joined by mortise and tenon and pinned with tree nails. Archaeological evidence indicates some homes on the marsh were spacious and well enough appointed as to be considered comfortable in any circumstances. The dykes of Belleisle Marsh added to the Acadian sense of order and regularity. The dykes were a man made interface between the river and the land. Because of the dykes, the waters of the river could no longer infringe on the land at the time of annual high spring tides or- hopefully- during storm tides. More than an attempt to bring order to nature's vagaries, however, the dykes brought order to the landscape. The dykes of Belleisle Marsh made the landscape aesthetically pleasing. The dykes enhanced the river's banks already pleasing curves, pleasing- that is- to the eye. Just as the eye likes straight lines so it likes gentle curves. Today Belleisle Marsh and Pre' Rond on the river's southeastern bank form an almost perfect oxbow. It is a meander. While the natural course of the river aids in the formation of the oxbow, the dykes on the river banks further delineate the overall effect of oxbow symmetry. Prior to the building of the dykes of Belleisle Marsh, the interface between river and land can best be described as fuzzy. The dyke made it possible to focus on the interface as if it were an object itself. By itself, the dyke as interface is 2-dimensional. (It separates 3-dimensional objects with volume, land and river.) That is the way the mind sees the interface, as object. Yet, from the perspective of geometry, the dyke interface is 1-dimensional, a line. The Acadians could not have accomplished what they did in making the curves of the Riviere Dauphin pleasing to their eye had it not been for the aboiteaux. And, they built the aboiteaux with the same care that they used in building their homes. Unlike the concrete sided sluice boxes that serve Belleisle Marsh today, the Acadian sluice boxes had sides made of the same sort of hewn beams that went into

their homes. The Acadians, though, must have been a good deal more conscientious in keeping their aboiteaux clear of debris than is now the case more than 250 years after they were forced to give up their homes. After all, the Acadians saw their lands and drainage systems every day, it was not a matter of checking out an aboiteaux a few times a year. There is no way of telling exactly where the Acadians placed their aboiteaux on Belleisle Marsh. MDRC records offer no insight into the matter. Probably, however, they were not all that far from the current aboiteaux. One MDRC aboiteaux is at the mouth of Hogan Creek. In fact it delineates the creek mouth. The other drains a number of seasonal streams and ponds. The Hogan Creek aboiteaux is to the southeast, the other to the west. The concrete sides of each aboiteaux extend well out from both sides of the dyke. The concrete contains slots- now empty- that once must have held protective grates. On occasion Donny Troop has been asked to trap particularly industrious beaver on the marsh. There have been attempts by the pesty creatures to dam both aboiteaux. Anyone walking the dykes and pathways maintained by Ducks Unlimited can see evidence of just how busy beaver are. The are some tree stands on the marsh that look as if they have been attacked by rather sloppy professional loggers. White birch and other trees lie helter-skelter along marsh drainage ditches. On occasion I have seen piles of sticks and mud that have been cleared from the aboiteaux. The clearing was done with a backhoe. With results of the beaver's efforts at damming removed, the water's natural flow flushed what silt and debris remained into the river. The Acadians were wise. Their wisdom was of a natural sort. They did not seek to overturn nature's limits but rather to enhance them. This was what their dyking did. The dyke strengthen the interface of land and river. The aboiteaux, a sort of tunnel through the underpart of the dyke with a flap that responded to tide and stream flow was a simple device. The aboiteaux's simplicity approached the sublime. Only nature- in the form of the beaver- could disrupt its functioning, but that disruption wasas it is today- easily cleared and flushed away.

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