Nova Scotia's Enduring Seafaring Tradition (Travel Holiday)
For centuries, the people of Nova Scotia’s southwestern shore have looked to the ocean for their livelihood. Settlers in search of good farmland found soil rich only in rocks, leaving them no choice but to farm the sea. Over the years, many prospered on the water, catching cod on the great fishing grounds of the Grand Banks, selling the dried fish to Europe and the West Indies, and, during Prohibition, smuggling rum and whiskey ashore in the coast’s countless coves. Plenty more despaired, as loved ones disappeared forever in the fog, as fishing fleets were decimated by August gales, and, most recently, as cod was overfished nearly to the point of extinction.
Still, a sea-faring tradition that goes back generations can’t be broken just because there’s no cod biting the bait. On a recent trip along the Lighthouse Route, the road tracing every twist of the southwestern coast, I was delighted to discover that the old skills were definitely—some might even say, defiantly—alive. Fishing communities from Cape Sable Island to Lunenberg are discovering a profitable new use for their past in tourism. Tourism here, however, is not the trivial stuff of lobster boat planters and miniature lobster earrings sold by locals who refer to visitors as “summer complaints.” Nova Scotians hope to preserve their distinctive culture for their sons and daughters and their sons and daughters not so much by selling it as by sharing it with visitors.
That’s how I came to meet Captain Joel Goreham, who, when he’s not out lobstering with his brothers on the “Mine, Yours and Ours,” runs C&J’s Ocean View Tours around Cape Sable Island. Although it’s barely an hour’s drive from Yarmouth, where the ocean-going ferries from Maine dock, Cape Sable is a world of its own—and Captain Joel, whose family first settled on Cape Sable Island back in the 18th century, is happy to share its secrets.
Cape Sable is an unprepossessing place, clusters of simple saltboxes interspersed with fields of salt hay, brightened by drifts of wild roses. Until the causeway to the mainland was built in TK, Cape Sable Island was so isolated that its inhabitants spoke their own local dialect, traces of which inflect the language to this day. Halibut, for instance, is pronounced “hollibut,” someone heading down the coast to the next big town announces that he is going to “Shallborne,” not Shelburne, “tide” is pronounced “toide,” and the letter “R” doesn’t exist, so that fishermen dock in “Clahk’s Hahbuh.” When someone’s angry, she’s said to be “having a rinktum,” and a man with few prospects is said to be no better than a nubbins, the term for a hired man aboard a lobster boat.
Even the lobster boats here are idiosyncratic, built to a design created by Ephraim Atkinson in the village of Clark’s Harbour in 1907. A typical Cape Island boat, as they’re called, is 38 feet long with a broad 12-foot beam and a shallow draft, marrying stability in North Atlantic swells with the ability to sneak over treacherous shoals to drop lobster traps or set trawls. Though they’re the workhorse of the inshore fishing fleet, the Cape Islanders are anything but drab. At Kenney’s Wharf in Clark’s Harbour, the fishing boats bob like dance partners in a gaily colored set, one with a mustard hull and turquoise deck, another royal blue with a snow-white cabin and orange trim, a third the exact color of the sky, the coaming smartly striped in navy and white. Long-liners sprout bouquets of the oversized orange floats that hold up each end of quarter-mile-long fishing trawls. There are even a few swordfish boats, recognizable by a catwalk ending in a metal pulpit, called “the bucket,” where the harpoon man balances. “My father would have done that,” says Captain Joel.
Captain Joel takes us into the boat-building shop owned by Bruce Atkinson, Ephraim’s grandson. Workers are putting the final touches on a turquoise Cape Islander. Like most boats today, the Patience Too is made of fiberglas, rather than wood. Another sign of changing times: The office pin-up calendar shows a Tom Cruise lookalike and the pair of sneakers furred with threads of dried fiberglas are pink. It wasn’t too long ago that women were considered such bad luck on the water that a grandfather wouldn’t even let his granddaughter come aboard. In fact, the only thing worse was a pig, considered such an invitation to disaster that if anyone on board even said the word “pig,” the captain would spin the wheel and head back to safe harbor. The P-word is still taboo but there are now plenty of female “fishies.”
The best place to pick up the local lore—and a tasty bowl of seafood chowder—is Geneva’s By The Sea Restaurant. “By The Sea” is right: At high tide, the water comes up to the other side of the road. At low tide on a clear day, you can see men “mossing”—raking up golden mounds of Irish moss from the rocks and piling them into traditional wooden dories. During Nova Scotia’s notoriously thick June fogs, however, you can’t even see the water.
Most days you have a good chance of running into Lee Stoddard, mayor of Clark’s Harbor, who’s a dead ringer for Commander Whitehead from the old Schweppes commercials. Between Lee and Captain Joel, you can quickly find out the best beaches for birdwatching, who might take you out for a row in his dory, and how to get a ride out to the Cape Light, the second highest lighthouse on the Atlantic Coast. The wireless operators at Cape Light once passed along the news of the Titanic’s sinking; today, the apostrophe-shaped island is home only to migratory birds, seals and sheep. “If anyone’s looking for paradise, that’s the next thing to it,” says Lee.
If you can’t get to the lighthouse, you can get a good view of it from Hawk Point, reached by taking a right turn at the Hungarian Cemetery. While rocks were the bane of ships off the Maine coast, Nova Scotia’s greatest peril was sand bars (early French explorers named Cape Sable for the word for “sand”). Their low-lying profile made them barely detectable in good weather; in thick fog or a winter gale, they were deadly. One victim was the Hungarian, which went aground in 1860 with the loss of 200 passengers and crew, many of whom are buried in the graveyard that bears their doomed ship’s name.
Cemeteries are a good way to catch the close-knit character of traditional fishing villages. Most of the stones bear the same four or five family names: Kenney, Crowell, Goreham and Nickerson around Cape Sable and Barrington; Bush, Tumblin, Hirtle and Corkum around the LaHave Islands. As one old-timer explained it to me, “Before cars came along, a man could only court as far as he could sail or row.”
What’s most poignant about the old cemeteries is what’s missing: memorials to drowned fathers, brothers and sons whose boats disappeared without a trace. According to tradition, one couldn’t erect a gravestone without a body to bury, leaving the women to look out at the empty sea and hope and grieve.
However, there’s no place for pensive thoughts in Shelburne, 35 miles down the coast. Its old wooden buildings, narrow alleys and cobblestoned streets are a favorite of film directors seeking authentic-looking settings for historical films. Everyone’s still abuzz over the filming of “The Scarlet Letter,” especially the folks at the cooperage who made the wooden bath in which Demi Moore lathered up.
At one time, Shelburne was home to 13 shipyards and seven dory shops. Today, the Shelburne Dory Shop is the last of its breed. Part museum and part workshop, it’s a mandatory stop for anyone interested in Nova Scotia’s maritime past. The peapod-shaped wooden boats were the backbone of the cod-fishing fleet: 20 at a time would be stacked on the decks of the schooners as they ran down to the fishing grounds, then one or two men would get in each, row out in an enormous circle around the mother ship and start setting trawls. The flat bottom and flared sides could hold 1,000 pounds of fish without the boat flipping over.
“It’s not all that difficult to build a dory,” says Curtis Mahaney, a rangy man with twinkly eyes, an old-fashioned tennis hat hiding white hair and a pair of bright red suspenders with “Curtis” embroidered on the right one and “Mahaney” on the left. He should know. He was trained by his father, Sidney, a master builder with more than 10,000 dories to his credit who was still fitting thwarts at age 96. “Why, a little 12-footer, I can build one in seven days by myself,” Curtis, 68, claims, although it’s hard to see how he could do it when he likes to stop and chat so much. He points out a “priest,” the wooden club used to send halibut to their just reward and explains that all the boats are painted “dory buff” because the pale yellow shows up better in fog than any other color. This summer, the Dory Shop Museum hopes to offer classes in dory building and Curtis will doubtless be an enthusiastic teacher.
From the big windows of the Dory Shop’s airy loft, I can see the fishing boats chugging down the long, narrow bay. Far out, past the squat, red-roofed lighthouse, past the spruce-covered headlands, the open sea glitters in invitation.
Eric and Donna Ensor can help. The Ensors run McNutt’s Island Coastal Encounters, all-in-one trips that include a cruise in their trim blue Cape Islander, the Swallow, a circumnavigation of McNutt’s Island, bird-watching (southwestern Nova Scotia is set plunk in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway), and a sleeves-rolled-up lobster cookout in their screened dining tent in an island clearing.
We meet at the Fort Point fishery on the other side of the bay from Shelburne, a mirror image of the wharf at Clark’s Harbour with the addition of a barnlike—and aromatic—fish processing plant. The fishery is run by the van Baskirk family, whose now-middle-aged children were the last generation to grow up at the Cape Roseway lighthouse on McNutt’s. Roger van Baskirk takes a break from loading supplies on The Bar Tender to reminisce about wind so constant that the only way his mother could have a garden was to weight the topsoil down with rocks. And fog! “One time, the foghorn never shut off for 28 days. It blew every two minutes. You got so used to it that after a while you just didn’t hear it anymore.”
Today, however, it’s so clear that the sun seems to be shining straight from Spain. There’s enough of a swell to make me brace my feet apart but a fresh wind, tingling with the wild scent of open ocean, blows away any thought of queasiness. Donna’s spotting cormorants, terns, eider ducks, black-legged kittiwakes, and an oncoming flock of shags. A seal rocks lazily in the swells and as we round McNutt’s Island, Eric suddenly points out a pair of dolphins. Behind us, the basalt bedrock forms a glistening black backdrop to a multi-colored tapestry of kelp, seaweed and Irish moss. When Eric cuts the engine, the only sound is the soft slurping of the waves washing the rocks.
The scene is so peaceful that it’s hard to imagine that 60 and 70 years ago, nearly every secluded cove on the southwestern shore was the setting for a cat-and-mouse game between rum runners and the Canadian authorities. Prohibition in Canada lasted as long as—and in some provinces, much longer than—in the United States and many captains found there was more profit in “bottle fishing,” as it was called, than in hand-lining. The liquor was shipped in to the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, then transferred to sleek schooners that smuggled it into Canada and the United States. Thanks to the warm ocean currents that kept its harbors ice-free all winter, Nova Scotia helped the coastline from Cape Cod to Newfoundland earn the name “Rum Row.”
Of course, no one will ever confess that his or her relatives might have been involved in less-than-law-abiding activities but Eric has heard plenty of stories of someone casually walking into a bank with a satchel stuffed with old-fashioned bills that he just “found” in the attic. Similar stashes, I’ve been told, helped pay for the ornate sea captains’ mansions in towns like Riverport and Petite Rivière. One afternoon, I borrow a sea-kayak from the proprietor of the 17 South Bed & Breakfast Inn in Lockeport and find myself thinking how a quiet beach would make a good landing spot or a pine-sprigged island would serve as camouflage.
If anyone knows all the harbors up and down the coast, it’s Mike Watson. With his grizzled beard, weather-beaten face and battered blue jeans, he could easily play the part of a smuggler. In fact, he’s the owner of the LaHave Bakery, whose potato and 12-grain breads are renowned and whose oatmeal cookies are divine.
Three years ago, Watson decided that if people couldn’t come to his bakery in the village of LaHave, he would bring the bakery to them. He converted the galley of his sturdy old scallop dragger, the Selchie I into an industrial kitchen and with his wife and daughter manning the dough mixer and the ovens, set sail, offering fresh baked goods to coastal towns throughout the Maritime Provinces. “I’ve always wanted to go to sea but I didn’t want a little yacht,” Watson explains. “I wanted a boat that worked because that’s how you get to know people.”
The sailing bakery’s success spawned another dream: to expand the market and renew Nova Scotia’s historic ties with the West Indies. The Selchie I will be in southern waters this summer, but Watson promises to return next year.
After a soup-and-sandwich lunch in the bakery’s comfortably cluttered tearoom, I turn off the main road and head out along Crescent Beach to the LaHave Islands, a close-knit cluster of communities, much like Cape Sable Island. The wind is whipping off Crescent Beach, much to the delight of windsurfers who bounce from whitecap to whitecap. The road is barely wide enough for two cars and after crossing a bridge to Bell Island, it narrows even further, then stops altogether. Clearly, the automobile is still an adjunct to a boat in getting around the mini-archipelago.
I’m heading to the LaHave Islands Marine Museum, located in the former United Church on Bell Island. It’s a prize. When the call went out to preserve local history, residents enthusiastically culled their attics, barns and fish houses for dipsy leads, used to measure the depth of the water and sample the bottom, dory paraphernalia and other artifacts of island life. The sixth grade of the Petite Rivière elementary school interrogated their aging relatives for “Our Lives by the Sea,” a lovingly produced local history. (In the chapter on smuggling, one little snitch writes, “We heard in one of our interviews that one of the fastest rum-running boats to work in our area owned by Mr. Herbert Newell Sr.’s grandmother’s second husband. It used to drop off alcohol in Broad Cove and at Cape LaHave.”) Most afternoons find folks bringing their old photographs to be scanned into a computer archive and telling stories that they’re delighted to share with visitors. This isn’t really a “please touch” museum, but show the slightest interest in an object and if its donor is there, she’ll shove it into your hands and explain its significance in her life.
Back on the Lighthouse Route, I notice that the houses are becoming grander, the little towns more frequent. I’m approaching Lunenburg, the main town on the southwest shore and barely an hour from Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia. History lives in Lunenburg, in the superb Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, a bigger, more sophisticated version of what I found in the old church on Bell Island, in the historic houses once home to sea captains, ship builders and merchants, and on the waterfront that still bustles with boats that make up one of the major fishing fleets of the North Atlantic.
Built on a steep hill whose cobblestoned slopes must have been hell on horses, Lunenburg is a model of prosperity, past and present. Its 18th-century German, Swiss and French settlers built to last, and their wooden houses and churches—many distinguished by the five-sided dormer window known as the “Lunenburg bump”—have been so well preserved that UNESCO designated the town a world heritage site. One of those is Lincoln House, where Tony and Tina Morris serve afternoon tea in a room that’s a dream of flowered wallpaper, polished wooden wainscotting and chintz cushions on overstuffed chairs. Upstairs are three guestrooms with four-poster beds and lace curtains shielding windows through which Charles Edwin Kaulbach, the wealthy 19th-century merchant who built the house, would have peered down to the harbor to see whether his ships had come in.
Now, as then, the heart of the town is on the waterfront. Interspersed with the throbbing diesels and steel hulls are a surprising number of tall wooden masts, the tallest and most famous of which belong to the Bluenose II.
The Bluenose’s story goes back to 1920, when a formal race series between American and Canadian fishing schooners was established. Gloucester sailors won the trophy the first year and took it home to Massachusetts, as shameful a blow to Canadians as when the United States lost the America’s Cup to Australia. Nova Scotians responded by building the Bluenose, whose very name refers to a nickname for Nova Scotia sailors. She was launched in Lunenburg in March, 1921, spent the season fishing on the Grand Banks and in October, recaptured the trophy. For the next 18 years, the Bluenose never gave up the trophy. And she was true to her purpose, having more than once been a high-liner on the Banks (the term for the ship whose crew caught the most fish in a season).
World War II ended both the race and the era of sail. The Bluenose was sold to carry freight in the West Indies and in 1946 foundered on a Haitian reef. In 1963, the Bluenose II was launched, built from her namesake’s plans, in the same shipyard and by some of the same men. Even her captain has the same name as the original master, not surprising in a way because Captain Wayne Angus Walters is Captain Angus Walters’ grandson.
Today, the Bluenose II is used as a training ship, as well as offering short sailing tours to the public. But when the crew lets out the laundry, as the saying goes, and 11,000 square feet of gleaming white canvas curves in a fresh offshore breeze, you quickly forget about the other tourists and petty concerns back on land. You hear only the twanging of the stays and the creaks that a wooden ship makes as she talks back to the sea. It’s a conversation that’s been going on for years and on Nova Scotia’s southwestern shore, is likely to continue for a long time more.
The Nova Scotia Tourism Association has divided the island into seven driving routes. The Lighthouse Route covers the 339 kilometers along the southwestern shore from Yarmouth to Halifax. Start gathering information from the South Shore Tourism Association, P.O. Box 380, Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada BOJ 2E0; 902-624-6646 or by e-mail HYPERLINK mailto:email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s easy to plan your own itinerary but there are plenty of opportunities to get a closer look at local life, lore and culture. Coastal Peoples Learning Network (902-875-4455) offers one- to six-day courses and tours in subjects ranging from model boat building and cooking salt cod to maritime folk music, historical cemeteries and bird-watching along the Atlantic Flyway. For guided tours of Cape Sable Island and the western coast up to Yarmouth, contact C&J’s Ocean View Tours in Clark’s Harbour ( 902-745-2586). Eric and Donna Ensor operate McNutt’s Island Coastal Encounters (902-875-4269 or 902-875-6177 between June and October), boat trips out to Cape Roseway lighthouse that usually include a wonderful lobster dinner cooked by Eric in his camp on McNutt’s Island. One of the best ways to explore the coves and crannies of the southwestern coast is by sea-kayak; Rossignol Surf Shop in Liverpool (902-354-3733) offers half-, full-day and overnight camping paddles around Lockeport, the Port Mouton Islands and Port Joli Bay, summer habitat to porpoises, seals and whales. Most of the towns offer guided walking tours and harbor cruises; for more information, contact the local visitor information center.
It’s possible to dine out along the South Shore without ordering fish but that’s kind of beside the point. Fish chowder, a cream-choked hodgepodge of chopped clams, scallops and hunks of cod, haddock, halibut and pollock, is to this part of the world what a boiled lobster is to Maine. Some of the best examples can be had at the Geneva’s By The Sea Restaurant in Clark’s Harbour (902-745-3663), White Gull Restaurant in Lockeport (902-656-2822) and the Old Fish Factory Restaurant at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenburg (902-634-3333).
Other good places for a meal include: Charlotte Lane Café in Shelburne (902-875-3314), whose smoked Shelburne County trout is matched only by the scallops and shrimp in sea parsley pesto and the broiled salmon fresh-caught from the Bay of Fundy. The wine list includes a sampling of Nova Scotia bottlings, including the award-winning Jost L’Habitant Blanc, reminiscent of a lemony Sauvignon Blanc made from the local l’acadie blanc grape. The LaHave Bakery on Rte. 331 just before you get to the LaHave cable ferry (902-688-2908) sells soups, sandwiches and pizza for eating in its cozy tearoom, as well as all the fixings for a do-it-yourself picnic. Don’t forget the oatmeal cookies!
People who like to stay at bed-and-breakfast accommodations are in luck, as the South Shore is full of them. The pickings are a little slim on Cape Sable Island but Penney Estate Bed & Breakfast in Northeast Point (902-745-1516) is friendly and comfortable. Seventeen South in Lockeport (902-656-2512) not only is in a convenient location for day trips up and down the coast but has the best view, bar none: Situated on a small hill, its modern rooms overlook Lockeport’s inner harbor, the beach, the lighthouse and the Cranberry Islands. Owner Maggie Mitchell loans out her canoe and kayak to adventurous guests; others can sprawl on the Adirondack chairs and watch the sunset. Lincoln House in downtown Lunenburg (902-634-7179) has been restored to the Victorian splendor of its original owner, a wealthy merchant and member of Parliament. Hosts Tony and Georgia Morris serve a full afternoon tea, complete with scones and clotted cream, just the thing after a brisk sail on the Bluenose II.
For a change of pace, make reservations at the White Point Beach Resort in Summerville (800-565-5068). Two-bedroom cottages with galley kitchen, fireplace and outside deck overlook the beach, where the management thoughtfully provides nightly bonfires (you provide your own marshmallows). The grounds are a-scurry with an ever-multiplying population of rabbits, which children delight in trying to catch.
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