CAPE ENRAGE, New Brunswick -- The sound of waves lapping the shore offered mild comfort as I dangled from a rope off a cliff. I glanced over my shoulder to Chignecto Bay, an arm of the Bay of Fundy, where a small group of kayakers paddled along the coast of southern New Brunswick. About 140 feet below my shaking knees, I could see a sprawling rocky beach where visitors searched for shells and fossils of ancient sea creatures. Above me, standing on a sturdy wooden platform, was the one person who would make sure that I didn't fall: Kaelen McCarthy, 21, a student at New Brunswick Community College in St. Andrews.
"Take your time," said McCarthy. "I'm holding on to you."
"Just resting," I said, gathering the nerve to continue my descent.
Rappelling a 150-foot cliff using ropes and a harness is one of several activities offered at Cape Enrage, a sliver of land that juts into the bay and overlooks the coast of Nova Scotia 5 miles away. Here, visitors can go on guided hikes or kayaking trips, explore a lighthouse dating to 1848, enjoy homemade fish chowder and chocolate periwinkle cheesecake in The Keepers' Lunchroom, and poke around a small gift shop. What's unique about Cape Enrage is that it's run entirely by students.
The once-abandoned light-keeper's house was slated for demolition by the government in the early 1990s when a local high school physics teacher, Dennison Tate, and six of his students decided to try to save the derelict property.
"I grew up watching the automation of lighthouses and the destruction of keepers' houses," said Tate, 59, whose father ran lighthouses on White Head Island and Machias Seal Island, off southern New Brunswick and Maine. "I saw beautiful properties demolished or replaced by concrete structures that look like cinder-block tanks. Luckily, we arrived at Cape Enrage in the nick of time."
In the summer of 1993, Tate and his students set to work. They scraped paint, built shutters, cleared away overgrown vegetation and landscaped the grounds, despite the Canadian Coast Guard 's plan to tear down the house come summer's end. In the process, the students learned about the area's history, fossils, and unique water patterns: The tides around Cape Enrage are some of the highest in the world, rising as much as 44 feet, and unusual "raging" currents are generated as the tidal water surges over the area's reef.
The Coast Guard was so impressed with the group's efforts that it delayed demolition . The provincial government soon purchased the property and told the group to keep up the good work.
In the next decade, the number of student workers grew to 27. They renovated the house, added fencing and stairs to the property, and built several buildings, including an adventure center and a gift shop made to look like an old whistle house or fog-signal building. By 2001, Cape Enrage was recognized as one of the province's top attractions.
"What people like about this is the fact that we've been able to maintain a balance between protection and development," said Tate.
Today, the Cape Enrage Project is run by a mix of high school and university students from the Maritimes. Tate and his wife, Ann, a retired nuclear medicine technician, work as volunteers to oversee the property and train the students on how to do everything from running the gift shop, restaurant, hostel, and office to leading hiking and kayaking trips. The proceeds go to running the organization and paying student wages.
"We're here when issues come up that the students don't have the experience to deal with," said Tate. "But we view this as a four-month training experience, when the students learn how to run an organization."
"There's no hierarchy here," said Bethany Williamson, 18, who started working at Cape Enrage when she was 14. "We all take turns baking, cleaning, waiting tables, working in the gift shop, and running the adventure activities."
Added Kate MacFarland, 23, "And for most of us, this has no link to what we're studying in school. Bethany is going to be a nurse, Amber is studying interior design, and I'm going to be a teacher. But this is a chance for us to gain responsibility."
The students offer tours of the lighthouse, explaining its history and that of the local Acadian settlement, and the nature of the area's unusual tides. Visitors can also climb up to the lighthouse's lantern and upper deck for stunning views of the area.
Guided wilderness hikes go along the fossil beach, where it's common to see eagles, common eiders, and Atlantic porpoises, and, depending on the season, semipalmated (half-webbed) sandpipers , which stop at nearby Mary's Point on their biannual South America-Arctic migration. Along the beach, there's also evidence of a quarry that provided the sandstone used to build some of Boston's old buildings, according to Tate.
Half-day kayaking trips take paddlers on a journey along the cliffs to Waterside Beach and then up Long Marsh Creek to a saltwater lake where there are mussel and oyster farms.
In season through Labor Day weekend, students at the adventure center teach visitors how to climb and rappel the area's sandstone and sedimentary cliffs.
As I dangled from my rope, I was glad to know that the students are trained on how to run some of the riskier activities by a staff member who also trains local firefighters, police, and emergency rescue crews in "extreme vertical environments."
"Don't worry, you won't fall," McCarthy said. "I've taken kids as young as 5 rappelling and there's an 82-year-old woman who owns a B&B and comes every year on her birthday."
Another visitor, who was probably half my age, whizzed past on a different rope, bounding down the cliff using her feet to push off the rock wall while her instructor belayed her from above. I watched her spin around in circles, flip upside down for fun, and step down safely on the beach.
I finally loosened my white-knuckled death grip on the rope and inched my way down. I hiked back up to the cliff-top platform and rappelled again, gaining more confidence with each descent. By the end of the 2 1/2-hour adventure, I could rappel 150 feet without freezing and even descend headfirst. Best of all, I had an unfettered view of the chiseled, rocky coast, the sparkling waters of the bay, and several curious porpoises that frolicked offshore.
Kari Bodnarchuk, a freelance travel writer and photographer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.