Province of Nova Scotia Designates Mary Harper Nature Reserve

The Province of Nova Scotia and the Bras d’Or Preservation Nature Trust have shown some of the perseverance of the late Mary Harper, by working diligently for the past several years to achieve yesterday’s announcement and designation by the Department of Environment of the 24.3 hectare Mary Harper Nature Reserve. Located on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lake along St. Patrick’s Channel, the Nature Reserve will serve to help the province meet its goal of legally protecting 12 percent of the province and will conserve valuable shoreline and wildlife habitat on the Bras d’Or Lake. A nature reserve is the highest form of legal protection that can be placed on conservation land in the province.

Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau announced the creation of the Mary Harper Nature Reserve on October 12th, 2011. “I’m pleased that we are protecting a beautiful and important piece of our province,” said Mr. Belliveau. “I congratulate the Bras d’Or Preservation Nature Trust for their efforts to preserve this land and its wildlife for future generations.”

The Bras d’Or Preservation Nature Trust accepted the land as a donation from Mary Harper, and has been carrying out her wishes to permanently preserve the property. “This is wonderful news,” said Grosvenor Blair of the Bras d’Or Preservation Nature Trust. “The designation of these lands as a provincial nature reserve is a very fitting tribute to Mary Harper and her love of Bras d’Or Lake.”

Mary Harper was a quiet, tenacious, courageous, and generous woman.  At the age of 79, she became the oldest person to sail the Atlantic single-handedly. She attempted the crossing the summer before, but facing gale force winds and 10-15 foot waves, she was forced to return to the Newfoundland coast. Her son, Jonathon Harper, commented that “She was so dejected” to have to turn back [1]. Not to be deterred, sure enough, in 1994 she set sail again, and this time completed the 2700 kilometre journey across the Atlantic on her 30 foot sloop, the Kuan Yin II.

Being a slight person, some people mistook Mary Harper as being frail. Those who played tennis with her, however, knew better. Mary was married to Harry Harper, Vice President and Executive Editor for Reader’s Digest and ran her own retail business selling women’s sports equipment. They lived and raised their family in Westchester County, New York [1].

Although Mary Harper had been sailing off and on since she was a child, it was really after her husband’s passing that she took a renewed interest [1] [4].  Doris Colgate, in Sailing: A Woman’s Guide, reports that learning to sail on her own helped Mary Harper to re-establish her independence. She took a navigation and offshore sailing course and had her boat carefully outfitted to make it easier to handle on her own [2].  The sailing environment of the Bras d’Or Lakes was an ideal place for Mary to practice and improve her sailing abilities.

In the 1950’s Mary had biked with her husband from their home in the States to Baddeck, NS. 20 years later they returned and bought their summer home on the shores of the Bras d’Or, adjacent to the Mary Harper Nature Reserve.

Those who have sailed with her, have remarked that Mary Harper was very careful with her preparations. She studied navigation charts closely and knew well the technicalities of sailing. She was an able captain, capable of navigating through adverse conditions [1]. The journey across the Atlantic would test her courage and capabilities. On arrival in Crookhaven, Ireland at the end of her 25 day journey, she told reporters that “One storm was pretty scary, and the boat shook all over. But I survived the night and everything was OK. There is no point in worrying when you’re this old” [3].

Mary Harper continued to make solo sailing trips along the coast from Newfoundland to Maine well into her 80’s. She once remarked that as soon as she set sail, she felt that the whole world was hers to play in: “I feel like a free spirit” [4].

The Mary Harper Nature Reserve will not only contribute to conserving the natural heritage of the Bras d’Or Lakes and watershed, providing a safe haven for plants and wildlife, but also pays tribute to a woman who influenced the course of history for this piece of land, and whose personal achievements and story can continue to inspire residents and visitors to Nova Scotia.

Before setting out on her trans-Atlantic crossing, Mary Harper told the St. John’s Evening Telegram, “I wanted to do it, I’ve always wanted to do it, so I decided to do it.”

Ownership of the Mary Harper Nature Reserve remains with the Bras d’Or Preservation Nature Trust, who will continue to ensure that it is kept just as Mary Harper wished it to be.

[1] Wood, Anthony R. “At 78,  She’s The Captain Of Her Ship. Her First Atlantic Crossing May Have Failed, But She’s Not Anchoring Yet.” Philidelphia Inquirer July 23, 1993. Available Online:

[2] Colgate, Doris. Sailing: A Woman’s Guide. Camden, ME: Ragged Mountain Press, 1999.

[3] News Service. “79-Year-Old Sails Atlantic” Reading Eagle  August 12, 1994: A2. Available Online:,5161157 .

[4] Oickle, Krista. “Sailing Alone at 85.” Liverpool Advance. July 5 2000. Available Online: .

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