Fascinated by legendary tales of treasure, I road tripped to Nova Scotia to explore the secrets of Oak Island
“A Knights of the Templar CROSS? On OAK ISLAND?” boomed the narrator’s voice on one of the History Channel’s highest-rated shows, “The Curse of Oak Island.” While binge watching during lockdown last spring, my partner and I mocked the dramatic rising intonation that accompanied every twist and turn on the reality series. Still, we were riveted.
Currently in its ninth season, the show chronicles the escapades of Rick and Marty Lagina, brothers from Michigan searching for a treasure they believe is buried on Oak Island, a 140-acre private isle in Mahone Bay, on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. The two aren’t the first to stake their claim. Since 1795, treasure hunters have invested massive amounts of time, money and resources in a quest to unearth Oak Island’s fabled riches.
But what exactly is this trove? That’s part of the mystery, although pirate loot, Shakespeare’s manuscripts and the Holy Grail itself are among the theories. While the brothers have yet to reveal any legendary riches, the hard-to-explain discoveries to date — like ancient coconut fibres that couldn’t possibly be native to a North Atlantic island, and parchment with ink dating back to 3,000ish BC — have been enough to keep people riveted.
Each time I saw the aerial view of the forested island and the Atlantic shoreline, I commented how wonderful it would be to visit. Each time a scene was set at the Mug & Anchor, the cosy British-style pub, my hubby commented how fun it would be to have a pint there.
So last August, our family drove almost 2,000 kilometres from Toronto to see Oak Island for ourselves.
“You have reached your destination,” our GPS chimed after four days of travelling, as we pulled into the Oak Island Resort & Conference Centre. Despite its name, the 120-room hotel and marina is not on the actual island, which has been closed to the public since the pandemic hit. But the island’s walking tours and interpretive centre may be opening to the public again on May 1 (in past years, the guided tours have sold out within hours).
From the resort, we had a clear view of Oak Island: tree-covered, jutting out of the deep blue Atlantic waters on the horizon, pretty but smaller and less mysterious than we’d imagined. Fabled history aside, it resembled the hundreds of other islands in Mahone Bay.
“Maybe we could swim over?” we joked, but decided on dinner instead. Naturally, we had to try the Mug & Anchor, and upon entering, were thrilled to spot the show’s archeologist, Laird Nevin. And later, just as we were finishing the delicious homemade fish cakes and a brew, who should walk in? None other than Rick Lagina himself, one of the treasure-seeking brothers. We resisted the urge to rush over and gush: “Do you know we drove almost 2,000 kilometres because of your show? And please, tell us what you’re doing on Oak Island now.”
The following day, we met another cast member on an excursion with Salty Dog Sea Tours, owned by Tony Sampson. A professional diver who has been on the show since season one, he’s carried out underwater missions, like searching flooded mine shafts.
“Hold on to your hats,” Sampson shouted as we took off in his comfy Tritoon boat. As we motored along, he regaled us with stories of pirates, sharks and unsolved mysteries. “This area is what we call the Oak Island Triangle,” he said at one inexplicably unlucky stop, telling us about film drones crashing into the ocean, camera failures, and sonar and GPS mishaps. “We can’t explain it.”
At last, Oak Island came into closer view. “There’s Smith’s Cove,” said Sampson pointing at the bouldered beach. “That’s where Gary (the show’s metal detectorist) found the Knights Templar cross from the 1300s.” A shiver ran down my spine, and I could almost hear the narrator’s booming voice from the show. And finally, before our eyes was the Money Pit, whose discovery in 1795 ignited this multimillion-dollar treasure hunt. From the boat, we could see the shafts, including Borehole 10X, and the heavy equipment operating.
Were they making any progress? Did the treasure even exist? On a harbour tour of nearby historic Lunenburg, I asked our captain his opinion. “I think the whole thing is a hoax,” Captain Chris told us as I snapped pictures of the majestic Bluenose II schooner, which was serendipitously celebrating its 150th birthday. He loved watching the series but concluded: “It’s just a legend.”
Most of the residents I met agreed with this sentiment, but not all.
“Some people think it’s a bunch of nonsense, and some think these are the guys who are going to find the treasure,” said Danny Hennigar, curator of the Explore Oak Island Display at Chester Train Station.
Hennigar told me this story had intrigued him since 1973, when he got a job as a tour guide. “Interest was high even back then.”
What does our curator believe? “I’m convinced somebody did something, pre-European contact, deep underground,” said Hennigar. Perhaps they didn’t bury treasure, but then again: “What else would you do that kind of work for?”
“Some locals are skeptical,” conceded Sampson as we finished up our Salty Dog boat tour. “But they love what it does for the community,” he added. “With the popularity of the show, we’ve had a lot of tourists come to see Oak Island, and they fall in love with Nova Scotia.”
I nodded my head. We had fallen hard, too. Our road trip hadn’t just brought us to Oak Island. Along the way, we had listened to the waves crash at Peggy’s Cove, gone wildlife watching while kayaking the calm waters at Blue Rocks, explored the colourful village of Lunenburg and marvelled at coastal views along winding roads. We may not have unearthed any pirate loot, but we found treasure all the same.