Why Bear River?

Bear River valley.
Bear River valley.

2019 marks 12 years since Larry and I moved to Bear River from downtown Toronto. The novelty still hasn’t worn off and it still feels like we are getting away with something fantastically amazing. It’s almost accidental that we wound up living here now. I want to share that journey with you again and to tell you the pros and cons of our lives here.

We came to Nova Scotia to our niece and nephew’s wedding in 2003 and fell in love with Cape Breton, the northern most part of Nova Scotia. The air smelled so fresh, the people were so friendly, the landscape was so beautiful, the fresh fish tasted so good and we felt so happy to just be here.

The trees during yesterday's walk in Kniffen's Hollow, Bear River.
The trees during a walk in Kniffen’s Hollow, Bear River.

I’ll never forget sitting in the back of the taxi that brought us home from the airport to our semi-detached house in downtown Toronto after our visit to the Cabot Trail. The highway was grey and ugly; the air smelled bad, the urban sprawl was unending. We sat in silence blankly staring out the windows all the way home.

All that next winter we talked about Nova Scotia all the time. We wanted so badly to live in a community where there were other artists. We’d brought home a brochure that featured fine arts and crafts in the province and Larry zeroed in on where groupings of artists lived. Then he went online to look at photos of those areas and also at real estate listings. What he discovered was that Bear River was a beautiful village, from a geographical perspective and in terms of what was still standing in on it’s main street. The house prices were low compared with Nova Scotia’s prime south shore (Lunenburg, Mahone Bay) but especially in comparison to Toronto.

Hundreds of winding creeks feed into Bear River.
Many winding creeks feed into the Bear River which feeds into the Bay of Fundy.

While Larry researched weather, geography and real estate, I googled the village and its people. Every time I came across the name of a person in Bear River, I searched the internet for more information about them. We started with the names of the local artists in the studio brochure guide. Larry found an Elections Canada street map and we printed it out and marked all the addresses of the artists, filmmakers, and grape growers that we’d come across on the internet. By the end of the winter, we had fleshed out a picture of Bear River and its inhabitants.

Aerial view of Bear River by Judy Amirault.
Aerial view of Bear River by Judy Amirault.

The following summer we came to spend a week in Bear River and a week in Annapolis Royal, a nearby community that also has a lot of resident artists, as well as a theatre and a vibrant summer artist’s and farmer’s market.

Bear River won our hearts from that first visit. There was an unpretentious feel to the community and people we met felt like long lost relatives. The river and its tidal drama was beautiful. Our short visit reinforced our desire to move here.

Winter is pristine and beautiful.
Winter is pristine and beautiful.

For a long time we had wanted to be able to devote more quality time to our artistic endeavours, but we hadn’t worked out the financial part of leaving well-paid, non-creative jobs with benefits. It’s much harder to leave a good job than a bad one.
People at work joked about their “Golden Handcuffs.” Our big mortgage and debt made it seem incomprehensible that we could step away from it all and survive.
Indeed we know many people shared this sentiment that we heard:

Let me get this straight. You want to quit your jobs, sell your house and leave your friends and family and familiar surroundings to move 2,000 miles away to a little village where you’ve spent a total of 7 days as holiday tourists during the best time of year?

Yup. That’s exactly what we wanted to do. I know that some friends thought we were crazy fools.

The woods are within walking distance of the village.
The woods are within walking distance of the village.

The following summer we returned to Bear River for 3 weeks and actively interviewed some of the artists we’d met through email and asked them about the money aspect of life. People told us that it was possible for a couple who owned their own house to live on less than 20 thousand dollars a year, but that 30 was fabulous. I heard the same figures over and over, but it just didn’t seem possible that people could live as well as the artists in Bear River did on such meager amounts.

The beauty of this village is evident in every season.
The beauty of this village is evident in every season.

In the end, we took the leap. We followed our hearts and our gut feeling about Bear River. We quit our jobs, sold the house in Toronto and moved to paradise.

Tomlin woods.
Tomlin woods.

People from the city I left are always curious about how the transition has really been for us. Sometimes they ask because they too are considering leaving the city. Sometimes they ask because they may be thinking about making some dramatic change in their life and they want some sign or affirmation that things will work out well for them.

Here are some unscientific income suggestions before you pack your bags:

  • come with a builder’s specialty skill (plumbing, electrical, roofing, drywall finishing, heating)
  • come with a pension
  • come with work that can be done via the internet
  • be prepared to work for low wages (minimum wage to $20 hr for semi-skilled, unskilled jobs; up to $30 hr for skilled)
  • be prepared to derive income from a variety of sources (2 days a week as a clerk, selling honey from your bee hives, trading your labor for a tangible thing like cordwood)
I love the gothic windows of this modest church.
I love the gothic windows of this modest church.

Bear River Pluses

  • the community is friendly and welcoming
  • the scenery is beautiful, inspiring and the air is clean
  • studio space is cheap ($300 a month for a river view studio)
  • structuring your own time each and every day means having choices….only the weather trumps your choice
  • there is no easy access to consumer goods, so you won’t be spending money
  • people are all in the same economic boat and are open about sharing tips on economizing
  • people make up their own (free) things to do such as potlucks, watching DVD’s together, walking through the unmarked, but well known trails, cross-country skiing, making music together
  • lots of people volunteer here and it makes all the difference to the quality of life
Music nights at the Rebekah Music Hall cost $8. People bring treats to share..
Music nights at the Rebekah Music Hall cost $10. People bring treats to share.

Bear River and area Challenges

  • it’s impossible to earn anywhere near a ‘big city’ income, so budgeting is really an essential skill
  • because of employment challenges, most youth leave Bear River and the largest demographic is boomers and up
  • it’s tough to live at a distance from family and former friends, but online communications helps maintain bonds
  • there is no easy access to consumer goods which can be super inconvenient when you need to buy art supplies – but online shopping for supplies means door-to-door delivery
  • it’s a challenge to stay task focused when there are many opportunities for socializing or staring at the scenery
  • there is limited and distant access to health care
  • there is a lack of diverse cultures like in Toronto
  • government funding is practically invisible
  • all community improvements are initiated by individuals or community groups, both formal and informal.
Both our ‘kids’ have lived all over the world since we moved here, but always find time to visit us here in Bear River. Jesse came and helped out at Sissiboo Coffee Roaster.
Emily has joined me for many birthdays.

Of course, this blog and the opinions expressed are just mine and Larry’s and are not shared by everyone. The fact is that over the last 40 years more people have come and gone from Bear River than have come and stayed suggests that this village is not everyone’s cup of tea. The employment challenges here have forced many to greener pastures. At the same time the working possibilities that the internet presents continue to draw a younger crowd of newcomers to Nova Scotia.

Whether local or come-from-away, there is a universal, quiet affection that Bear Riverites feel for this place.

We are 12 years in and have absolutely no regrets for moving here. These have been exceptional years for us because we can now spend all our time in our creative and community pursuits.
People continue to move here and also move away, but the Zeitgeist remains the same.  Folks who are looking to carve out independent lives that are distanced from popular culture in a slightly bohemian community.

Low tide on Bear River.
Low tide on Bear River.

30 thoughts on “Why Bear River?

  1. Hi, what a great article! We recently moved nearby (Digby Neck), and love it. We are homeschooling our 3 children and I am trying to find other homeschool families in the area to connect with. Is there anyone in your community who you could suggest I get in touch with?

  2. Hello Flora and Larry,

    I was happy to stumble across your blog since my wife and I just bought a house in Bear River (on Riverview Road) and we are looking forward to moving there permanently, hopefully sooner than later. We had considered retiring in Nova Scotia and came last June to explore various areas and properties, returned last October and Bear River was chosen in part for its artistic leanings, scenery, and location (I am a classical trained musician from Germany, living in Calgary, who never felt at home in the Prairies).
    We are looking forward to becoming part of this friendly and unique community and to experiencing Spring this May in Bear River.

    1. Welcome Reinhard! I often walk past the house you have purchased. It has a gorgeous view. I look forward to meeting you both. We just live down the road from you so you’ll have to drop by sometime. Have a good move. I remember that final packing up and slight trepidation, but this place still has our hearts. 🙂

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. Hoping to make it to Bear River within the month. I never even noticed it was there until a few weeks ago. If being there in person feels the way that looking at it and reading about it over the internet does, then hopefully we will be new residents before the year is over.

  4. Liebe Flora,
    Wolfram Schubert sitzt gerade neben mir (Helma) und wir haben Deine Bilder und Videos angesehen.
    Er fand es ganz interessant wie Du es vorgeführt hast und Deine Arbeiten findet er sehr schön. Inge, also meiner Mutter, gefallen besonders die Iris. Wolfram kann sich sehr gut vorstellen, daß Du viele Menschen damit erreichst. Wir haben gesehen wo Du lebst und daß Du immer noch jung und schön bist und Deine netten Kinder.
    Dir und Larry ganz, ganz liebe Grüße !!!
    Sie sind alt und gesund. Inge hat heute Geburtstag und sie sind heute bei mir in Magdeburg. Die letzten drei Tage waren wir in Amsterdam bei REMBRANDT und VAN GOGH.
    WOLFRAM, Dein alter Lehrer, WIRD 2016 BEREITS 90 JAHRE ALT.
    Liebe Grüße

  5. Hi Natalie!
    I checked out your website and see that you have been all over this continent. How lucky to see all those places!
    The village website is http://bearriver.ca and you’ll find links there to most of the websites in the village. You might also want to look at http://bearriverarts.wordpress.com It’s an events listing site which will give you an idea about some of the activities in the village. Bear River Arts and Action has a facebook page and it is displayed in the sidebar of both websites.
    I’m glad the post was helpful. It’s so hard to advise people because of individual needs and preferences, so it’s great that you’ll have a chance to visit. You might want to check out Bridgewon where there are a number of young families, some who homeschool.
    We moved here 7 years ago and absolutely love our choice.

  6. We too are looking for a place in Nova Scotia and have been told by others that Bear River is a place to check out, which we will be doing shortly. It’s good to hear there are homeschooling kids in the area, I have a 7 year old girl that I homeschool (we full-time in an RV at the moment – rvhomeschool.org). Is there a community Facebook page or something where I could connect with other’s in Bear River and not burden your blog? Love your blog, and this post was so helpful, Thank you!

  7. Hi DJ,
    What a shame that the real estate agents are so negative (and clearly ill-informed) about Bear River.
    I moved here from Ontario 7 years ago with my two children (then ages 7 and 11) and have loved every moment of it. If nature, homeschooling and close knit community living are what you are looking for then I think Bear River is ideal.

    I think there are lots of young families here…I live on Riverview Road and one morning on my way to work I counted over 17 children waiting for the school bus on our street. That was a couple of years ago and there’s been a few wee ones born since, my own included.

    Although my older two children are now 14 and 18 years old, I now have a two year old so am very much plugged into the Mom and tot scene here. We have a lovely play group that meets every Friday, the host of which is a certified doula and LaLeche League leader. There are beautiful, kid friendly walking trails and swimming holes in very close proximity to town as well as a sweet little ice cream parlour and a family owned pizza place that even offers gluten free options! As of March this year I’ll be starting to teach art classes for children and youth, and there are a number of festivals and events in the area that my kids have enjoyed participating in over the years.

    Now that our older boys are teenagers, Bear River gets a little boring for them. However, my husband helped remedy that by building a “man-cave” gathering place in the loft of the barn for our two older sons complete with pool table, 1/2 pipe for skate boarding, a punching bag and sound system. Our barn becomes quite the gathering place for teens during the summer but I love having them around.

    Hopefully this helps you out a little. I agree with Flora that it would be wise to visit, check out a few towns and weigh all the pros and cons before making a decision.

    Best of luck finding your new home!

    1. Hello…and what a lovely story 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing! Three people have been in touch with me since my post and each person has been so thoughtful, helpful and open about their life experience in BR.

      The realtors that have the opinions that they do should know that their words have influence. If I hadn’t posted here and received such a warm response I would have been steered clearly away from BR. Instead, we are still looking forward to visiting this summer…and whether BR rings home for us we shall see…but I can wholeheartedly say that my impression so far is fantastic 🙂

      Have a wonderful weekend 🙂


      Sent from my iPad


  8. Thank you so much Flora! We want to find a community that is safe, close to nature, has a strong community network- we are trying to get away from big box stores and houses so close together they almost touch! I am a teacher by trade and so homeschooling is our preference as well. There is a house we are interested in on Session St….I can’t seem to get any info on it as of yet…would you know anything about this part of town? Your info is very welcomed 🙂

  9. Hi there DJ.
    As you can tell from this blog, I LOVE living here and I would say the majority of people who live here would agree. But it’s not everyone’s ideal community and there are challenges to living in a small community that is a 1 1/2 hour drive from the nearest movie house or big box store.
    I don’t have small children so I can’t speak to facilities.
    There are some families here with small children.
    I mostly never feel isolated here…perhaps the internet plays a role. But the other big part (for me) is that my social life is richer now than when I lived in Toronto because I have time to be with people and people have the time and the motivation to be social. I think that’s because the ‘activities’ are self-created. So if moms want to join a play group, they organize one themselves, or approach the Y in Cornwallis to set one up.
    The greatest challenge here is employment and many people who come here and leave are seeking better employment and are forced by circumstances to leave.
    There are lots of beautiful communities in Nova Scotia. If I were you, I’d make a list of all the ‘must haves’ ‘perks’ and include the ‘activities’ that you’ve identified. Then rank those in priority and then score the communities that you’re considering.
    Please note that Bear River uses amenities from Digby (15 min) to Annapolis Royal (25 min) and children from Bear River are bused to schools in both communities.
    Finally, my advice to you is to come and visit and see for yourself. And check out our blog about activities in the community to get a feel for some of the events that happen here.

  10. Hello there,

    I am new to this site.:) My family is considering moving to Bear River from Alberta. We have three small children and are so tired of the fast pace here. Although from what I seen and heard via the internet about how beautiful and peaceful BR is…a couple of realtors have tried to steer us away…saying it is too isolated and the facilities available too limited for a young family….thoughts and advice greatly appreciated! DJ

  11. Hi Paul, The real estate market in Bear River is, in my opinion, a buyer’s market. I say this because house prices are low.far lower than it would ever cost to replace them, and houses are generally on the market for a couple of years before they sell. Because of this I think there are enough rental homes. And because housing costs are low more people can afford to buy than say in an overpriced urban setting like Toronto or Vancouver or Halifax and choose that over renting. The $300 studios in town are at the Oakdene Centre and are currently filled, but there have been recent years where one or two or three have sat empty for months at a time. I wouldn’t know how to predict or analyse this. I do think that a well marketed experiential package that included accommodation, studio space, perhaps meals and instruction could be successful. Maybe it’s all about finding a ‘niche’ market. I think the best way to find out is to come to the area for a vacation and stay in a few b and bs and ‘interview’ the owners about their experiences, meet the local studio occupants and find out why they rent the spaces they do. And if you are interested in upcoming and past events in Bear River, please check out the blog I manage called Bear River Arts and Action. I hope this helps! Flora

  12. Good morning Flora,
    I have now caught up with the part of your blog called why Bear River and got a major shiver as I came across the response from Eric Allen Montgomery. His is a voice from the past and he is dear friend. We had lost touch.Thanks for this morning gift. It was also great being part of the Briar island gang once more and having some time out to spend with all of you .Briar Island is as special as ever.

  13. Hi Josie! Granville Ferry is nice too. (For readers…it is the very pretty scene across the basin from Annapolis Royal and is a 4 ½ minute drive from Annapolis.

  14. Stumbled upon your blog today. We had virtually the same experience — a quick trip out and, suddenly, one is possessed by the province and MUST move. I happened to be captured by Granville Ferry. I could never go back to Toronto.

  15. My husband and I are planning to move to Nova Scotia this summer from the UK. We were already looking at the Annapolis Valley area. You’re story is so inspiring and has put Bear River right at the top of our list of areas to look at when I come over to house hunt in a couple of months! It sounds very much like our dream place and I can hardly wait to be there to get a real feel for the place!

  16. You’ve moved to one of the most beautiful parts of our province — a belated welcome to you both! I’m thrilled to have come across your blog this morning and will look forward to following your adventure.

  17. Hi Flora,

    We are coming to Bear River at the end of May and had noticed the blog on the Bear River Cafe. Is it still operating? We’re artists too and it was interesting to hear about your reasons for settling there. We’re exploring moving to Nova Scotia too. Have you been to Brier Island?


  18. Hi John,
    I’ve sent you an email with homework about families with children here in Bear River.
    I’ll mention here again that several young families have moved here in the last few years, although the population tends to be older compared with a city culture. The entire population of Nova Scotia is fewer than 1 million so it’s a challenge to serve a small, scattered population.
    It is encouraging to see younger families moving here because it brings a special energy to a community.
    By the way, I LOVE the cabin you’ve built in the woods. Who needs a house in Vancouver when you have paradise in a forest?
    At the same time, I hope you and your family get a chance to check us out!

  19. Very happy to have stumbled across your blog!

    We are currently considering a move to Anapolis Royal, Bear River, or somewhere else in rural NS. We’re in the very early stages of this, driven partially by the realization that we’ll never be able to afford a home in Vancouver, and that high rents, will keep us from saving for retirement, and our two boy’s educations.

    This post has covered many bases, but I have one more… are there many folks with little kids out there?

    Any info would be helpful. Thanks!

  20. Good evening Flora, and greetings from Guelph.
    I just reconnected with an old dear friend Phyllis Woods (she and Bob are just two of several BR connections I’ve had over the years), and in asking how life in Bear River was these days, she directed me here. Lovely.

    Phyllis and Bob headed east about the same time I headed west for 17 years, starting on Hornby Island BC for a year (first staying on land owned by Kathy Sauve, an ex BR resident), back into Vancouver several years, and the last 4 I was Out There up the Sunshine Coast in Roberts Creek.

    Your “pros & cons” list is matched out on the Gulf Islands and Up The Creek. Similar idyllic escapes from city life, similar difficulties in sustaining and surviving. Marvellous communities ripe with artisans, musicians, writers, healers, bohos and hippies of all ages and damn near impossible to find ethnic food or art supplies or healthy means to escape the SAD doldrums when winter rolls and the trees encroach and the rains never end.

    3 years ago I returned to Ontario but stopped >just< shy of returning to TO; couldn't handle (or afford) THAT. Guelph is proving to be just about best of both worlds – small town community and big city offerings, with little of the crap. (of course there is some, but that's true of anywhere with humans). Now if only it had an ocean…

    One of these days I will come visit your fair community; in the meantime I thank you for sharing so delightfully.


    1. Hi Eric,
      I really enjoyed looking at your work on the link you included. I especially liked the Dream Fragment 3 from the memory boxes. I think it was in my dream memory too!
      It’s interesting how similar both coasts are….you’ve gotta wonder if the water is the big influence.
      Guelph and Peterborough both sound like ideal spots to live in Ontario. Not too big and not too small. We definitely are missing that critical mass here that could support major theatre and art shops and health care facilities…! But, the community is wonderful and people like Robert and Phyllis are inspiring too.
      Thanks for writing!

  21. Hello Bear River Denizens –oh so many who have been and gone — I too spent time in the crotch of the river .. dreaming dreams.. even attempted offering hospitality to anyone who was wandering about in ’82-’83??? memories, while vivid — do sometimes lose their time markers.
    Kudos to you for preplanning to maintain a life in such an inspirational locale — and kudos to Rob B-N for creating secure space for others! BearRiver was the Best of Times, and the worst of times, all at the same time. But, even so I loved every memory I made…

  22. It’s hard to believe sometimes that we used to sit on my front porch and in your living room and discuss this move like it was something that would never happen. All the what if’s, maybe’s and should we’s don’t mean much now.
    It was the doing it – getting off the chair and doing it. I am so glad that we all came to the same conclusion, I don’t think I could have stayed on Queensdale without you.

  23. Hi Flora and Larry, I too have a passion for Bear River.I grew up in Bear River, moved away, and made the decision to retire and return to this community. I have been here since June 2009. The people, both long time residents and newcomers, have been most welcoming to me. I am thrilled with my decision to return to this unique and diverse tidal village. which has continued to sustain itself throughout the years with the help of its caring inhabitants. My hope is that more people will discover Bear River and embrace all that it has to offer. As a newcomer recently shared with me, people who come to Bear River, either get it and stay on, or they move on. This particular new resident stayed on and is making a valuable contribution to our community. Take care.

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