Storm Season in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island
Watching Hurricane Dorian’s projected path before flying to Nova Scotia to visit friends in early September, Marc and I knew there was a chance the storm might meet us there. We weren’t too concerned. It was too far south to disrupt our flight from New York City and was sure to weaken as it headed north. We’d be at our friends’ house for more than a day before it hit, if it did—it might swerve out to sea; and it would be long gone by the time we continued on to Prince Edward Island.
Our friends, Flip and Carol, split their time between New York City and Nova Scotia. Their house in Kingsburg, NS, sits at the tip of an 80-foot bluff surrounded by water. Beautiful location. Amazing views. Very exposed. We learned later that Flip had often talked about wanting to be in the house during a big storm. He got his wish. Dorian did weaken on its trek north, but not as much as it would have had waters been colder. It didn’t swerve out to sea. It came ashore almost directly on top of us on Saturday, September 7, as a Category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds and 65-plus foot waves.
Kingsburg, NS: Thursday 9/5 – Monday 9/9
Our flight to Halifax and drive to Kingsburg went smoothly. Friday, September 6, was lovely if cool and breezy…
…except for the nasty-looking spider I brushed off my neck at the beach. Yikes! Anyone know what it is? Wolf? Orb-Weaving? Funnel Weaver? Whatever it was, thank you for not biting!
The sky turned overcast and the wind began ruffling the seas later that day.
Saturday, September 7, was all Dorian.
It was fun and exhilarating at first, even after the power went out, watching the wind and waves kick up and the rains come in.
It became less fun when the winds kept building, the rain began pounding, windows and doorways began to rattle and leak, and the house began to vibrate.
It was no fun at all when the rain began blowing horizontal, the occasional big wave began shooting up over the bluff and smacking the house, and a tall, east-facing window started to buckle and creak under the assault of the unrelenting winds.
Not knowing what else to do, we began taking shifts bracing the window and breathed sighs of relief when the winds finally shifted off it and our faith that the house and people and pup in it would survive was restored.
Spirits buoyed, we even dared step outside during a lull to shoot more photos and video.
The house lost a few roof shingles, revealed a few leaks and chinks. But she was built well and proved her sturdiness. And the next day was a stunner, the night as beautiful as the day.
Dorian was the most intense storm any of us had ever experienced, and it was only a Category 2, passing over us fairly swiftly—nothing like the Category 5 Dorian that had hit the Bahamas a week earlier with 185-220 mph winds and stalled there for days. Even during the worst of it, at our most anxious, that’s all we could talk about. “Can you imagine being in the Bahamas?” We couldn’t. Read more about the devastation Dorian wrought there and see photos and video here, here and here.
Still, for Nova Scotia and other parts of the provinces, Dorian was bad enough: widespread property damage, power outages everywhere; the worst hurricane in recent times—or second-worst after Juan in September 2003, depending on who you talk to and where they were during the storms, which had different tracks and affected different parts of the Maritimes differently. Read more here, here and here.
But it’s not like severe storms are a rarity in the Maritimes. Just the opposite. They’re such a commonplace that contrasting and comparing them is almost a sport. Which was worse: Dorian or Juan? And does either compare to Ginny in October 1963? White Juan in February 2004 dumped the most snow in 24 hours, but at least three other winter storms since have given it a run for its money. Prince Edward Islanders still talk about the Yankee Gale of October 1851 as the blow to end all blows. But some say it’s become confused in lore with the August Gale of 1853. Memory is tricky.
One thing you learn for certain if you get caught in the Maritimes in bad weather: Locals are a hardy, sturdy, resilient lot, native-born and come-from-away both; a set-your-jaw-and-make-the-best-of-it bunch—stoics with a sense of humor.
They do crazy things like hop in their car in storm conditions that already have us lesser mortals housebound and tackle a winding, climbing, unpaved road hemmed in by low-hanging brush to deliver dry fireplace kindling and homemade libations to their neighbors, check the wave action from a cliffside view, and share a glass and a few laughs before heading back out in even worse conditions to guard the homestead and take outdoor selfies grinning in the thick of the storm.
They do even crazier things like tackle the same road in near darkness after the storm has had its way with it all day, not even knowing if the road is clear, to drive out to the point, climb out of the car, muscle their way against the winds to the edge of a bluff, plant their feet wide on slippery rock and shoot video of the waves exploding up over bluff right at them. Because how often do you get a chance to do that, eh? Then they come by the next day—a glorious, blue sky, sparkling sea day—with wine, snacks and berries—because, no power, otherwise the berries will just go bad—to soak up the sunshine and share the video they shot the night before, which, of course, is amazing and which I promise to post as soon as I get a copy. (Standing by, David.)
Pictou, NS: Monday 9/9 – Tuesday 9/10
Tip: If you’re continuing on to a B&B elsewhere in the provinces after a bad storm and decide to call ahead to see how that area fared, don’t assume “Oh, we’re fine, yes, we’re open for business” means “We have power.” It doesn’t. If you want to know about power, you have to ask. “Power? Oh, no, no power,” Gail LeBlanc, co-host at Evening Sail in Pictou, clarified cheerily when something told me to inquire more closely. “But we expect to have it back by tomorrow.”
Our original plan had been to spend one night in Pictou (Pick-toe) on Nova Scotia’s northeastern shore and ferry across the Northumberland Strait from nearby Caribou to Prince Edward Island the next morning. The post-Dorian plan was to get ourselves to Pictou and see what was possible from there. Flip and Carol’s power came back midday Monday, just as we were leaving. Worst case scenario, we figured: we’d end up back at their door.
Power was back on in Evening Sail’s part of town by the time we arrived. Hot showers, flush toilets—we were good. But it had gone out again along the waterfront, where the restaurants were, which meant driving 15 minutes into New Glasgow for something to eat.
Getting back on the highway after a three-hour drive was not my idea of fun. But Marc likes his hot meals, so off we went and lucked upon the Appleseed Modern Diner, which we would have mistaken for a warehouse if not for the sign: a big space, purple-and-green inside, next to a family gaming arcade, with really friendly employees and really good, homemade, locally sourced food. Marc was a happy camper.
Me, I love a good, hearty, friendly, chatty B&B breakfast: the people you meet, the travel tips you pick up, the news and gossip you hear. Breakfast at Evening Sail ticked all the boxes and then some. Guests gathered at a long wooden table in the big, bright kitchen. Fresh-baked muffins and scones awaited, the coffee was good, and co-host Michelle LeBlanc, a born comedian, kept us hugely entertained with hilarious stories of international guests and local scandals while her mom, Gail LeBlanc, whipped up batch after batch of her perfect pumpkin pancakes. It was hard to leave. But we all got baggies of scones and muffins for the road.
The People vs. the Pulp Mill
We spent a little time that morning exploring the town and harbor. Very quiet and picturesque, except for the industrial plant belching smoke into the air across the harbor. We’d seen it as we approached Pictou the evening before; it was impossible to miss. “What’s that?” I had asked Michelle at breakfast. Pulp mill, she said. It’s been polluting First Nation waters for decades. The air, too, whichever way the wind blows, which is often over the town. The mill is finally supposed to shut down, she said. “We’ll see.”
The mill, I’ve since learned, is the Northern Pulp Mill in Abercrombie, which has been operating under different owners for more than 50 years, pumping toxins into the air and effluent to a treatment plant in Boat Harbour, where it passes through a series of settling ponds and then into a lagoon before being pumped out into Northumberland Strait. The pollution and health problems it brings, not to mention the unsightliness of the mill, have impacted Pictou’s ability to attract tourists, which is unfortunate because it’s a charming historic town. Read more here. But that’s not the worst of it.
Environmental racism. It’s a term I should have known but didn’t until I started reading up on this particular example of it. Boat Harbour used to belong to Pictou Landing First Nation, a Mi’kmaq band. It was all Mi’kmaq land originally: all of Nova Scotia, Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island; parts of Quebec and New Brunswick; and possibly parts of Newfoundland and Maine. The Mi’kmaq (mig-maw) called it Mi’kma’ki, or Mi’gma’gi. Now there are 13 bands, or First Nations, in Nova Scotia, including Pictou Landing; two in Prince Edward Island; two in Newfoundland; three in Quebec; and 15 in New Brunswick.
Pictou Landing First Nation was apparently assured no damage would be done to Boat Harbour’s waters—clean, teeming, life-giving waters—if they let the pulp mill use it. The six-minute video below makes brutally clear what happened instead and is still happening today.
When a pipe broke, not for the first time, in June 2014, spilling raw waste over a burial ground among other places, the Mi’kmaq decided “Enough” and blocked repair crews until the provincial government promised to close the treatment plant by January 31, 2020 and begin restoring Boat Harbour.
Northern Pulp was given until that same date to find another way to handle its waste. The plan it came up with: build a new treatment plant, change the treatment protocol and pipe the waste over land and under water across Pictou Harbour, past Pictou and out into Northumberland Strait, where it ends up after sitting in Boat Harbour anyway. Only problem—or, not the only problem but the one that got the most people up in arms: the proposed new outlet would be farther out in the Strait, in more open water, important fishing grounds, near a channel that serves as a herring and lobster hatchery.
Faced with broad-based protests, blockades, logistical problems, and demands for a more thorough environmental assessment, Northern Pulp came back in early October with a slightly tweaked version of the same plan and noted it would need to keep the old waste system running until the new one was complete because if it couldn’t process waste, it couldn’t operate, and if it had to shut down, it might pull out of Nova Scotia altogether, and where would the province’s lumber mills and forestry industry be then?
The government denied the extension. The Environmental Minister has until December 17 to approve or reject the amended plan. Meanwhile, marches and protests continue. The cleanup of Boat Harbour is expected to cost more than $200 million and won’t start until 2021. Read more here, here and here. Support those who say the treatment plant must close here.
Prince Edward Island: Tuesday 9/10 – Friday 9/13
Prince Edward Island had also been hit hard by Dorian. The Northumberland Ferry running between Caribou to Wood Islands on PEI’s southeastern shore and the eight-mile-long Confederation Bridge from Cape Jorimain, New Brunswick, to PEI’s south central shore had both been shut down during the storm. They were operating again by Tuesday, September 10, the day of our crossing, but power was still out in many parts of PEI, and stretches of the famed Cavendish shore, including the campground, were closed due to storm damage.
We called ahead the morning of our crossing to The Beach House Inn by the Sea, where we had booked three nights, to see how the inn had fared. “Oh, we’re fine, yep, open for business,” co-host Gary Jourdrey assured me heartily. Uh-huh. Meaning you have power? “Oh, no, no power. But we have a generator.” Oh. So we can flush a toilet. “Yep. Flush toilets, running water, the basics.” OK. We could work with that.
Northumberland Ferries runs two vessels between Caribou and Wood Islands: the smaller, older, boxier-looking MV Holiday Island; and the larger, newer, more seaworthy-looking MV Confederation. We got the Holiday Island going over, and it was fine: windy but not too rough. No rocking.
It’s about a two-hour drive from the Wood Islands to The Beach House Inn by the Sea in French River on PEI’s quiet and rural north central shore. Our route took us past Charlottetown. We weren’t sure if we’d get back that way, so we decided to stop for lunch. I was picturing quaint, quiet, off the beaten path. We caught sight of the cruise ships as we crossed the Hillsborough Bridge. What? We turned down Water Street and soon found ourselves in a tourist mecca: cruise ships in the harbor, lines of cars in the large parking lots, tourists wandering everywhere and myriad shops, restaurants, food courts and other facilities ready to serve them.
It was our first but not last encounter with crowds of tourists. Here’s what we soon learned: They come by the boat- and bus-load. The buses especially seem filled mostly with old white people with white hair. (Full disclosure: we’re also old white people but with darker hair.) We encountered these crowds, the few times we did, in fairly predictable tourist spots. The buses seemed to arrive in bunches and leave in bunches, disgorging their passengers for a set period of time and then vacuuming them back up and moving on to the next destination, suggesting you could avoid them if you knew their schedules and routes, which we didn’t.
Fortunately, our stop in Charlottetown turned out to be well-timed, coming just as passengers began heading back to their ships. The crowds thinned quickly, we got an outdoor table on the upper back deck of Peakes Quay without waiting, and had a delicious and leisurely lunch in the cool air and bright sun.
The Beach House Inn by the Sea
We arrived in the exquisitely rural and remote corner of French River around 5:00 p.m., driving southeast along Cape Road with the Gulf of St. Lawrence on our left and New London Bay and Lighthouse ahead. The Beach House Inn sits near the end of the road, across from a soybean field stretching to the sea.
We hoped power would be restored by the time we arrived. It wasn’t. But owner and co-host Brenda Dereniuk welcomed us with some good news. The inn, once a Bible Camp, consists of five rooms in a spacious, two-story main house and four cottages. Our room was in the main house, so we wouldn’t just have flush toilets and running water during generator hours; we’d have hot running water—the cabins only had cold. Oh. OK. That helped.
We dropped our bags in our second-floor room—the snug and cozy Linden room, with its lovely bay window looking out through a row of 100-year-old linden trees to the waters of the Gulf and Bay—grabbed our backpacks and, following Gary’s directions, headed down the road, across the soybean field and down a gentle slope to the beach.
I’d never been on a beach like it, though it reminded me a little of the Wisconsin Dells my family visited often when I was a child. A red sandstone beach—PEI is mostly red sandstone. The cliffs all crumbly, the beach all wind- and water-carved sand, shelves and rock formations. How much had Dorian taken away?
Marc and I had it all to ourselves: just us and the endless stream of seabirds—Cormorants? Hundreds, it seemed—heading northwest low over the water.
On our way back to the inn, we came upon a stone marker commemorating the arrival of early settlers to the area in 1773 and honoring the victims of the Yankee Gale buried nearby. We first heard about the Yankee Gale from Gary the next morning at breakfast. There was a graveyard up in the woods not far from the inn, he said. Like no graveyard you’ve ever seen, and an easy walk. We didn’t try. A hurricane had just come through. Trees, branches and power lines were still down everywhere. Maybe next time.
Back at the inn, we sat on the front porch with the wine and vodka we’d picked up en route, taking in the view through the trees to the 100-year-old New London Lighthouse and considering whether we felt like driving anywhere for dinner. It had been a long day of travel, we’d had a late lunch, we still had the baked goods Michelle had provided—had it really been only that morning? Power was still out in unpredictable places, there were no restaurants nearby that we knew of, and wherever we went meant driving back in total darkness on unfamiliar roads. Nah. We’d wait for breakfast.
We also toyed with asking Brenda and Gary for a discount on our already reasonable room rate, which became even more reasonable converted to U.S. currency, because, after all, no power, right? But we decided that wasn’t exactly their fault, and, really, what were we lacking? We had a flush toilet and hot water morning and evening. We had our own flashlights for reading in bed. We had our beautiful bay window with its view of the sea and panes we could crank open to hear the ocean’s moods. We couldn’t flip on a light or turn on TV, but both were available in the living room until the generator went off if we needed them. We didn’t.
Our room, the last available when we booked, was the smallest in the house with a private bath across a carpeted landing. I reminded Brenda we’d be interested in upgrading to a more spacious room if anyone canceled. Surely after a hurricane someone would. No one did. The tables in the breakfast room with its sweeping views of the fields and sea were filled the next morning. Brenda prepared breakfast in the large kitchen, working wonders on generator power, while Gary served and cleared, told jokes and stories, and kept the mood warm and friendly and the coffee flowing.
Power would have been nice for charging phones, chilling wine, late-night bathroom runs and going up and down a steep staircase with a low overhang—watch your head! But we adapted. We made do, as most everyone did, and earned points—didn’t need more towels or anyone making our bed—for our low-maintenance ways. “You’re the kind who give Americans a good name,” Gary said at the end of our stay. Marc and I looked at each other, wondering but not willing to ask what he meant.
Behaviors and traits we soon learned lose guests points:
1.Whining. A group of maybe eight people had arrived at The Beach House before us. They’d huddled together in the living room during Dorian and weathered the storm in good spirits, Gary said. But now, one of them—complain, complain, complain. We’d met the woman in question. She seemed nice enough if a bit stiff. She and her roommate were sharing one of the two spacious upstairs rooms. They had a private deck, a flush toilet and hot running water in their own en suite. What was there to complain about? The generator, Gary said. Never mind that there’d be no water or power for anyone without it. Their room faced the garage and she didn’t like the noise. Brenda rolled her eyes. “There’s always one.”
2. Not doing for others. Three days after Dorian, the inn’s property looked pretty pristine. Why? Because neighbors had pitched in to clean up the storm debris. We returned at the end of one day of exploring to see a big pickup pulling out of the driveway. Power? No. A neighbor heading home after filling a couple of big water tanks at the inn because he didn’t have running water and Brenda and Gary did, so, of course, what you have you share. Which was another bone they had to pick with the complaining guest—and her roommate, too, for that matter. They had hot water. Their traveling companions in the cabins did not. But did they ever say, “Hey, come use our shower”? No.
Oooh, yeah, that’s bad, Marc and I agreed, feeling virtuous until we remembered that we had hot water, too, and our bathroom was across the hall, meaning anyone could use it when we weren’t in it without disturbing us. We weren’t part of their group, but we knew their situation. We could have offered, too, but it never crossed our minds.
3. Being a wuss. Our first morning on PEI was gray, cold, windy and rainy. We lingered over breakfast, dawdled in our room, waiting for the rain to stop, hopped in the car when it seemed to let up only for it to start coming down again heavy when we were less than a mile down the road. Damn. We turned back, thinking maybe we’d just hang out at the inn until the weather cleared. I went up to our room to grab another layer, ran into Brenda heading into another room with a stack of fresh linen on my way out. “Oh, you’re still here,” she said, more statement than question. Uh, yeah. “We’ll be out soon,” I said, feeling suddenly embarrassed. And we were.
A Farmer’s Rain
It rained and blew on and off all day that day, and, looking back now, I think it may have been my favorite day on PEI. Marc and I layered up against the weather, braving the elements, testing our grit, getting in sync with the storm’s rhythms: oh, now it’s raining again; oh, now it stopped. Driving around exploring, taking in the monochromatic beauty of the island shrouded in mists. Stopping whenever we felt like it, anyplace that looked interesting. Dashing from the car into the Seagull’s Nest Gift Shop on the wharf in North Rustico and warming our hands over a blazing heater before browsing for treasures and finding two wonderful books: the beautifully illustrated Counting in Mik’maw by Mi’kmaw artist and quilter Loretta Gould; and Stanley T. Spicer’s slim collection of Glooscap Legends. Glooscap. I’d heard of him…
…Walking into the The Preserve Company in New London when it was so packed with tourists checking out the jams and teas, tea cups and crafts, that all Marc and I could do was laugh. Three busloads—and all the unoccupied tables in the charming restaurant overlooking the River Clyde reserved for a fourth. Crazy!
…Moving on to the Fine Crafts Gallery in Rustico, and having that serene, airy space all to ourselves, browsing the crafts, chatting with the saleswoman, tempted to buy any number of things but settling on a set of handwoven, rainbow-colored placemats by fabric artist Anne Marie Buote….
A farmer’s rain, Gary called it. We’d just come through a hurricane. Were we going to let a little farmer’s rain ruin our day? We might have if Brenda hadn’t poked us. Thanks, Brenda!
We had an early dinner that afternoon at New Glasgow Lobster Suppers, another place I’d imagined would be a little out-of-the-way spot that turned out instead to be one of the biggest tourist draws on PEI: a huge place with upper- and lower-level dining halls where you decide what size lobster you want as you enter, buy your ticket, are seated in a vast room and get soup, salad and all-you-can-eat mussels with your meal.
We arrived before the doors opened at 4:00 p.m. to make sure we’d get a table before the tour buses arrived—no reservations for groups smaller than eight—and were shown through the empty main dining hall to one of the best tables in the house: just the two of us at a table for four right by a window overlooking the River Clyde. We’re not in New York City anymore, Toto.
It wasn’t cheap, and the soup and salad were okay not great, but the rolls were delicious, the mussels and lobster juicy and sweet, the dessert gigantic, and as a one-time experience it was fun. Plus, New Glasgow Lobster Suppers has been in operation for more than 60 years, since the first lobster dinner was held as a local fundraiser in what really was hardly more than a shack, so good for them.
The main dining hall seats about 350. The downstairs level seats about 150 more. We weren’t there long, maybe two hours. The place was empty when we arrived. By the time we left it was full.
The next day, a brisk, windy, cloudy-to-blue-sky day, we drove out to Lennox Island, passing a string of beautiful churches and stopping at the Acadian Museum in Miscouche for a brief visit along the way.
The Acadians were early French settlers in the Maritimes who basically got along with the Mi’kmaq. Both resisted British domination and lost. The Acadians were forcibly deported in the mid-1700s—their lands confiscated and the settlers shipped back at great loss of life to France and other countries and colonies where they weren’t especially welcome. Some ended up in what is now the state of Louisiana, seeding Cajun culture. Some later returned to the Maritimes and PEI.
Lennox Island is a small island in Malpeque Bay, connected to mainland PEI by a causeway completed in 1973. Before then, the only way to reach it was by boat—which made it an appealing place for the British to settle the Mi’kmaq of PEI once they’d claimed all the land and divvied it up among themselves.
Lennox Island First Nation owns Lennox Island, at least. It was bought for and turned over to them by the Aboriginal Protection Society of London in 1878, making it the first Canadian reserve fully owned by the residents. It’s now also home to Minigoo Fisheries, the only Canadian lobster processing plant fully owned and operated by indigenous people.
It was a long drive to Lennox Island with no special event to attend—the annual powwow is in July. We’re glad we went. I’d read just enough of Glooscap Legends to know Glooscap seems to rank second only to the Creator in the Mi’kmaq pantheon. I didn’t know until I read the information panels outside the Lennox Island Mi’kmaq Culture Center what a central role Glooscap and PEI both play in the Mi’kmaq creation myth: PEI as a kind of Garden of Eden the Mi’kmaq call Epekwitk, or Abegweit (“cradled on the waves” or “lying on the water”); Glooscap as the intermediary who fashioned the island from a piece of heaven at the Creator’s instruction and either deposited the Mi’kmaq upon it or split a tree with an arrow and brought forth the first woman and man.
Myth rooted in fact, as it so often is. Archeologists have found evidence of aboriginal encampments on PEI and, more specifically, around Malpeque Bay, dating back at least 10,000 years.
It’s hard to know how many Mi’kmaq ancestors once harvested these lands and waters: They wandered with the seasons. Now there are two bands, or First Nations, on PEI: Abegweit with three communities, or reserves, farther east; and Lennox Island on Lennox Island. And Lennox Island is shrinking.
Like all PEI, Lennox Island is basically red sandstone. Protected from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to the north by a thin barrier strip and only about 26 feet above sea level at its highest point, it’s losing landmass to rising seas and more frequent and severe storms faster than the rest of PEI as a whole—and PEI is also eroding.
The causeway to Lennox Island survived Dorian—it was shored up after being damaged by a storm in 2010—and the part of the island we saw didn’t look too badly hit. But we were at the south end, the protected end. A 2018 study predicts that Lennox Island will likely be “one of the first Canadian communities requiring relocation due to climate change,” and the band is already dealing with that eventuality. Learn more here, here and here.
Warming seas and the invasive species they bring are also complicating PEI’s mussel harvest, and changing weather patterns are no friend to its potato farmers. Potatoes are sensitive to all kinds of things, and potatoes are PEI’s signature crop. There’s even a Potato Museum in O’Leary I was hoping we’d get to, but you can’t do everything in three days.
Summerside & Stanley Bridge
We did swing south to Summerside on our way back from Lennox. If you get there, a friend had said, look up so-and-so at such-and-such restaurant. We couldn’t remember either name and couldn’t reach our friend, so we just drove around, walked along the waterfront—windy, of course—and stopped to eat at Sharky’s.
Finally a place that looked and felt like a local joint, and we were there during an off hour when it was empty. The food was passable, the waterfront location unbeatable, the décor a kick: fishing nets and floats strung from the ceiling and café curtains hand-painted by the owner in a shark motif.
That night, our last on PEI, we went to a Ceilidh (kay-lee)—an evening of Celtic music, dancing and storytelling at nearby Stanley Bridge Women’s Institute Hall. Saw a flyer at Gallant’s Country Food Market in New Glasgow and, more familiar with the roads now, decided to go.
It was a beautiful evening for a drive…
…And quiet. So blessedly quiet.
Stanley Bridge Hall was built in 1868. It was a Presbyterian church, then a Masonic lodge, was sold to the 116-year-old Sterling Women’s Institute in 1978 and has been hosting this particular ceilidh for 22 years. What a night: fiddling, singing, joke-telling by Tom McSwiggan—some clever, some groaners, some that got even the performers’ wives and moms out of sorts—step-dancing, sing-alongs, a 50-50 raffle, and an ice-cream social in the basement during the break.
Co-host Michael Pendergast thanked everyone for not leaving during intermission. The man sitting next to me won the raffle. He stood up, grinning, eyes shining, and told everyone in the hall that he had been born on PEI, didn’t live there anymore, but had been coming back to the island and this ceilidh every year for the past 20 years. He won about $250.
We’d seen power trucks working the lines on our way to Stanley Bridge, saw pinpricks of light in the dark distance as we drove back to the inn. It was past generator hours. Power? There was only one way to find out. We pulled into our parking space, turned off the engine, got out of the car and listened. Lights but no hum. Yes! Power!
French River had been without power for five days. We were there three, and we never heard a gripe, groan or word of complaint from Brenda or Gary—just stiff-upper-lip shrugs and laughing stories about how bad the winter of 2015 had been, remember that? Feet of snow like concrete keeping them housebound for days until the plows finally got through, though they didn’t lose power that time for some reason, thank goodness.
Even Brenda and Gary close down and head south during the worst of winter if they can, though. As do Michelle and Gail of Evening Sail. As do our friends Flip and Carol and most though not all of their friends in the Kingsburg, NS, area. All over the Maritimes, shops and restaurants close, tourists disappear and the resident population shrinks. The dedicated year-rounders, native-born and come-from-away, are a breed apart.
French River, PEI, to Millbrook, NS: Friday 9/13
I knew the Beach House Inn was popular, among other things, for Brenda’s breakfasts, and even working on generator power, she did not disappoint. How much better could her breakfasts be with power? We found out on Friday morning, before heading back to the ferry.
We arrived at the Wood Islands Ferry Terminal early enough that morning to do a little more exploring before our departure and decided to try for a quick trip to Cape Bear Lighthouse on PEI’s southeasternmost point, only about 16 miles east along Shore Road.
Travelers’ luck. Shore Road turned out to be beautiful, running parallel to the Strait with fields rolling down to the sea.
Vineyard by the Sea
About halfway to Cape Bear, we chanced upon the Rossignol Estate Winery in an area called Little Sands and turned in for a look.
More gorgeousness. The place was all empty, quiet spaces, vineyards and sunshine, wind and sea. Just the donkey and goat ambling over to inspect us and the bright yellow dandelions dancing in the stiff breeze. Proprietor John Rossignol uses no pesticides, I’ve since learned, relying instead on planting techniques and the winds off the Strait to keep his grapes fungus free.
We didn’t taste the wines. It was early and time was short. We just browsed the gift shop and art gallery and picked a few greeting card prints of Dagny Rossignol’s paintings while a young woman at the counter set out glasses. “Looks like you’re setting up for a tour bus,” Marc joked. She smiled. She was.
Alrighty then. Best be on our way.
It was easy for us to be tour-bus snobs, though. We weren’t the ones whose income was tourism-dependent and who had to make enough during the high season of roughly May through October to cover the rest of the year. Still, when those bus doors open and the tour groups descend, it can’t be easy for any proprietor.
We chatted a bit about that with the saleswoman at the Fine Crafts Gallery in Rustico. “It must be a real double-edged sword,” I said. It can be, she agreed. She remembered one time when a coworker didn’t show up and she was the only one in the gallery when a tour bus arrived. Just her and a sudden swarm of people all needing help and attention. How much is this? Do you have more of these? Does this come in other colors? Can you wrap this? Can you ship that? How much is that in American? Do you take this card? And the tour guide standing in the doorway, looking impatient, pointing to her watch.
Lighthouses are everywhere in PEI—63 of them circling the coast, nine open to the public. Cape Bear Lighthouse and Marconi Station, built in 1881, is one of eight that have been designated National Historic Sites. Its claim to fame: the Marconi station that once stood near the lighthouse was technically the first in Canada to receive a distress signal from the Titanic as it was sinking on the night of April 14, 1912. Technically. In fact, a station in Newfoundland was the first to receive a signal, but Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada then, so….
The Marconi station isn’t there anymore, but there’s apparently an interesting museum on one of the lighthouse’s upper floors, above the gift shop. We didn’t see it. We had a ferry to catch, so we just walked to the edge of the bluff to check out the view.
The wind was fierce. I was getting the impression it always is. The ground was still wet and soft from Dorian. Emergency fencing had been erected along the edge of the bluff, and signs, some blown over, warned, “Stay Back.” Red sandstone can crumble and fall away in chunks. Cape Bear Lighthouse was moved back from this crumbling edge once in 1947 and again in 2014-15. East Point Lighthouse on PEI’s northeastern tip has also been moved twice. North Cape Lighthouse on the northwestern tip has been moved six times.
A huge flatbed hauling five loads of logs was parked on the side of the road near the ferry terminal when we got back. We’d seen these log trucks everywhere on the highways of Nova Scotia and PEI, all zipping past before I could get a good photo.
I got out of the car to take a picture of this one. The cab was empty. The logs were all long and slender, fairly uniform in size, and so fresh cut you could smell the sawdust and resin. Cut where? Bound where?
I know now that logging and forestry are two more items on an ever-growing list of pressing economic and environmental concerns in PEI and throughout the Maritimes. According to the Summary of Prince Edward Island’s Eco-system Based Forest Management Standards Manual, PEI has some 642,474 acres of public and private forest land, most of which has been subject to “decades or even centuries of pressure from land clearances for agriculture and settlements, poor harvest practices, the loss of some native species, and the introduction of new species, diseases and insects.” Today, these forests are “divided into thousands of small parcels owned by thousands of individuals,” making it “hard to achieve larger scale changes or improvements….”
According to an article in PEI’s Journal Pioneer, the Nature Conservancy of Canada is now scrambling to preserve PEI’s last-remaining, relatively untouched salt marshes and older forests as part of a larger effort to save what’s left of original old-growth forests and the species they harbor throughout the Maritimes. According to an article in The Guardian, PEI doesn’t have any true old-growth forest left: old, yes, but not that old. According to the Journal Pioneer, all that’s left throughout the Maritimes is less than five percent.
The official name for these old-growth forests is Acadian Forests: a reference to Acadia, the name the Acadians gave to the land—as if no one had lived on or named it before them. Read more here.
Whooieee, that Northumberland Strait! We had considered ferrying to PEI and taking the Confederation Bridge back. But driving eight miles on a two-lane bridge you can’t see over the sides of that rises 197 feet above the water at its highest point? Never mind. And we like ferries—when the waters are calm. But would they be? The skies were blue, but the wind was whipping.
We got the larger, more seaworthy-looking MV Confederation for the trip back and stayed out on deck, out of the wind, for the entire crossing. About halfway across white caps started forming and the boat begin rocking. Not heavily, but enough. We saw the smaller, boxier MV Holiday Island at a distance crossing the other way, and I wondered how well she was handling the seas.
And there waiting for us on the other side were the smokestacks of Northern Pulp.
Millbrook, Nova Scotia: Friday 9/13 – Saturday 9/14
We spent our last night in the provinces at a Hampton Inn near Truro, NS, which I knew was close to a few Mi’kmaq trading posts but didn’t know until later is 51 percent Mi’kmaq-owned and located on Millbrook First Nation land—built three years ago in a commercial hub called the Millbrook Power Centre: fast-food outlets, hotel, motel, trading posts, bingo parlor, cultural center—all very compact and convenient.
I don’t know how we missed the 40-foot-tall statue of Glooscap standing in the garden behind the Millbrook Cultural & Heritage Centre as we approached the hub—too focused on Google Maps, I guess. But we couldn’t miss it on our way back to the hotel after a quick meal at the First-Nation-owned Cheese Curds/Habaneros: Glooscap looming head and shoulders from behind the Centre’s pitched roof, holding a lit torch in his left hand—a blaze of orange light in the falling darkness to rival the orange glow of the rising full moon.
The photo below isn’t mine. It comes from a Nova Scotia Government Facebook page. It’s the only one I could find that conveys any sense of what it was like gazing up at that statue at dusk, and it still doesn’t really capture it.
Legends Bingo Parlor was across the drive from the hotel: a sprawling building not originally intended for bingo but used for gaming now. I’d watched a woman being pushed into the building in a wheelchair. Bingo was that big a deal? We stopped in for a look on our way back to the hotel.
The two male guards at the entrance waved us in with a smile. A woman with long sandy-colored hair wearing a deep-pocketed bib work apron stood at the entrance to the main room—a cavernous, low-ceilinged, dimly lit space, where a few dozen patrons sat scattered at long rows of tables with multiple bingo cards spread out in front of them, stamping their cards with a stamper as a woman behind a podium at the far end of the hall announced numbers into a microphone in a mellifluous voice.
It was a light turnout that night, the woman in the apron explained, as if she knew us and knew we’d be expecting more. Someone had won a big pot the night before. She named the type of game they’d been playing, as if we’d know it. We stared at her blankly.
“Bingo!” a woman called from one of the long tables, and our new friend sprinted off. She bent over the woman’s cards, nodded vigorously and shot an arm into the air. “Bingo!” she called out, confirming the win. She returned to us, smiling, ready to run again. “Hey, what about that moon, eh?”
The moon! Yes! Wasn’t it gorgeous? It had just begun rising as we entered the bingo parlor, was fully risen when we left: big, fat, full, intensely orange, hanging low in a deep navy blue sky. I tried to get a decent photo but couldn’t and finally settled for just standing there in the parking lot, staring, taking it in. Which is when it occurred to me: The bingo parlor was a low, windowless space. The moon had just risen. The lady in the apron had been working her shift for a while. So what did she mean, what about that moon? When had she seen it? How did she know?
Back in our modern, comfortable, fully-powered hotel room with the cushy chaise positioned in front of a picture window with a sunset view, we realized, hey, we could turn on the TV. I reached for the remote. Marc stopped me. Seven days without television. We felt peaceful. We felt cleansed. We were flying home and back into the fray tomorrow. Did we really want to spoil the serenity now?
Millbrook Cultural & Heritage Centre
I thought if we got on the road to the airport early enough our last morning, we might have time to detour up to Burntcoat on the south shore of Minas Basin, said to have the most extreme tidal swings on the planet and an area that also figures in Glooscap lore: his home is said to be on Mount Blomidon at the Basin’s western end.
We didn’t get there. We decided to take a quick look inside the Millbrook Cultural & Heritage Centre first and got totally sucked in—by the modern, airy, light-filled museum space itself and by the depth and breadth of the exhibits and displays. The quillwork alone blew me away. “Marc, look at this. Those are porcupine quills.”
A striking blanket bearing what looked like a stylized image of an eagle caught my attention. Looking closer, I learned it was a thank-you gift to the centre for hosting an installation called “The Witness Blanket” by First Nation Master Carver Carey Newman in October 2015: a long, low, freestanding, multi-paneled wooden screen showcasing artifacts reclaimed from Residential Schools, churches, and other government buildings as a monument to “the atrocities of the Indian Residential School era.”
I knew next to nothing about Canada’s Indian Residential School program until we visited the Lennox Island Culture Center, which had a copy of the official apology issued on June 11, 2008 by then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on display. Marc didn’t understand why I felt the need to photograph it. But he didn’t read it. I did.
I now know the government’s century-long policy of taking children away from their families “to kill the Indian in the child” remains a deep and open wound among survivors and their families and Canada’s indigenous people as a whole.
A conservative estimate is that more than 150,000 children were taken from their families and sent to these schools between the 1870s and 1996, when the last school was finally closed. At a ceremony last September, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation revealed the names of 2,800 formerly anonymous children who had died in these institutions. According to an article in CTV News, another 1,600 children who died have yet to be named.
A Mi’kmaq language class was in session in a room off the foyer leading to the back garden during our visit: a teacher I couldn’t see instructing what looked like a small group of mostly older students. The door was open, so I listened in as I browsed the nearby language displays. Across the foyer, Marc pressed a button on an interactive wall panel and was suddenly being loudly addressed and asked to repeat words in Mi’kmaq, too. Dueling language lessons.
We went out into the garden for a closer look at the 40-foot statue of Glooscap. A fitting height: legend holds he was a giant.
Made of steel, Styrofoam and fiberglass painted to look like bronze, the statue originally portrayed Glooscap holding his torch shoulder high in his left hand, as he still does, and extending his right arm forward, as one would while striding the earth. His right arm is down at his side now, adjusted shortly after the statue was erected in 2005 to correct what some saw as the unfortunate positioning of his right forearm: a long appendage protruding at a downward angle below the waist when the statue was viewed from the highway from the back and sides.
Time to hit the road. I stopped to read one last information panel outside the centre on our way to the car and was immediately annoyed with myself that I hadn’t read it sooner. What’s this? The centre is only a short distance from a place called Debert Palaeo-Indian Archeological Site, where researchers have found evidence of aboriginal encampments dating back more than 13,000 years, making it the oldest site found so far in Nova Scotia and one of the oldest in all Mi’kma’ki.
“Just down the road” the panel read. I checked later: 15 minutes by car. The oldest Mi’kmaq archeological site in all Nova Scotia, and I hadn’t known a thing about it until then. Could we have visited? Did they conduct tours? Why hadn’t I known about it sooner?
Because I hadn’t been looking, that’s why. Hadn’t been looking, hadn’t been asking, didn’t know anything about the Mi’kmaq and didn’t even know I didn’t know. This was the ninth time Marc and I had visited our friends in Kingsburg. Almost every time, we had tacked on a few days of exploring before or after our stay. I’d come across mention of the Mi’kmaq, but nothing had really registered. Why were the Mi’kmaq becoming so visible and interesting to me now?
Was it because we had visited Prince Edward Island, mythological land of their birth? We’d never visited PEI before. Was it because we’d stuck to our travel plan even after Dorian, not knowing what storm-related discomforts might await? It wasn’t hugely brave or adventurous of us, granted. But something called.
Glooscap, Gluskap, Kluscap, Koluscap—the name is a Wabanaki word (the Mi’kmaq are a Wabanaki tribe), spelled different ways and said to mean different things: Liar, Trickster, Man from Nothing. The creator made him from three bolts of lightning according to one version of his origin story. Or he made himself out of leftovers after the creator made the universe. Or he made himself out of nothing, simply willed himself into being. Always, though, Glooscap is known as a friend to the Mi’kmaq: kind and generous, wise and just, a protector and teacher who can take different forms, alter landscapes and transform animals for the benefit of the people.
Our first day on PEI, during our late-afternoon walk on the deserted red-sand beach in French River, Marc looked down and saw a white feather at his feet. He picked it up to add to an ever-evolving collection of sand, stones, shells, rocks and other natural tokens of our travels that he keeps at home in a sea-green glass bowl. “My spirit bowl,” he said, joking not joking. I’d never heard him call it that before.
Coming down the wooden steps of the Lennox Island Mi’kmaq Culture Center after our visit, Marc and I saw a man of indeterminate age, brown like the earth, standing erect, still and silent, hat in hand, against the shrubbery to the left of the path. His clothing was worn, his face lined, his manner gentle. Even so, he startled us. There were no other people about; it was as if he had appeared out of nowhere. We exchanged friendly greetings as we passed and continued on.
“That was strange,” I said to Marc after we’d walked a few steps. “What do you suppose he was doing there?”
We looked back. But he was gone.