Tag Archives: Guysborough County

Have island, will rusticate

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Born and raised to the age of eight in the largest, noisiest, sharpest-elbowed city in Canada, I gave no thought to the pastoral life of country folk I’d occasionally see on CBC television during the supper hour.

All that began to change in 1971 when my father managed to acquire a 10-acre piece of land that belonged to his family’s ancestral homestead in northeastern Guysborough County, Nova Scotia. It was a peninsula of forest framed on two sides by a pond and on the other by beach frontage. He called it ‘The Island’, possibly because owning an island seemed more impressive than owning a peninsula. I certainly thought so.

As a new cottage rose rapidly near the crest of the property, which offered spectacular views of Chedabucto Bay and still does, I began to imagine myself as some sort of Scottish laird. On summer vacations there, I would spend every day patrolling the borders, searching for poachers and other interlopers. I dreamt of one day building my own cabin in the woods.

None of this will be new to anyone who ever grew up on a patch of land near any sizeable body of water. But unless I’m very much mistaken, recent interest in owning islands is on the rise. The Telegraph-Journal has featured New Brunswick islands for sale not once, but twice in as many weeks. The latest, apparently, will only set you back a cool $3.7 million.

As the story reported, “Sandy Robertson stepped out of his vehicle onto a snow-covered clearing to show off a beloved trait of his private island. The absence of noise, just wind whistling through the trees, complements the serene, panoramic view of where the St. John and Kennebecasis rivers meet.”

Not long ago a website called Notable Life devoted an entire feature to island life, beginning its write up thusly: “Thinking about buying a condo? If you’re in Toronto, the average one of those will run you about $370,000, or in West Vancouver around $590,000. But maybe you’re considering a stand-alone, single-family home in Toronto for an average price of just over $1 million?

“Or perhaps you’d like to land somewhere between a savvy investor, a lover of nature and tranquility, and a Bond villain, and buy yourself your very own island. You’ll probably be shocked to know (we still can’t really believe it) that across Canada, there are currently more than thirty islands on sale for under $500,000. Now, some of them have not been developed, so they’ll require some additional investment to make them ‘liveable’, but when you consider. . . (the) country’s real-estate market. . .it’s pretty amazing to imagine that for such a small price-tag, you could have exclusive access to such considerable beauty.”

Consider, for example, Nova Scotia’s Big Tancook Island, which Notable Life described in 2015 as “An absolutely stunning property Island, these 11.6 acres boast 449 feet on the ocean. Sub-divisible, this parcel might become a roomy family compound, grounds for the only hotel or campground on the island, or a sailing destination just six miles from the world-famous Chester Yacht Club.” At that time, the asking price was about a hundred grand.

I have a theory about all of this. Whenever the world takes an especially bitter turn (Donald Trump, Brexit, the rise of populist political parties in Europe), those with enough coin in their pockets will cast their eyes both wearily and jealously to a place they need a boat to reach – there to rusticate happily like the country folk we secretly and always wanted to be.

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Dancing in the light

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A word to the wise: A daily, six-kilometer fast walk and a nightly, 45-minute endurance routine on a floor mat does not prepare a 55-year-old body for a sudden dismount from a handstand – especially if said body lands on its tippy toes, like Baryshnikov on a really, really bad morning.

“CRUNCH!” was the sound heard round the living room of the Bruce family homestead in Port Shoreham, Nova Scotia, on Labour Day.

To be clear, this was not morning and I cannot confirm or deny the presence of certain liquid substances at the ready to lubricate the traditional, family dance party that, thanks to a wide variety of eclectic music on hand, tends to drown out the yipping and yapping of the ever-increasing population of coyotes in that dark, starry Guysborough county of the Maritimes.

What I can confirm is the solicitude of my wife, sister, brother-in-law, niece, nephew, and a close friend from England. We had been dancing for hours, affecting every style – from punk, to doo-wop, to head-banger, to ballroom, to the hokey-pokey – before I managed in one fell swoop (literally) to crack my foot.

“I think it looks dislocated,” my wife helpfully advised, having surveyed the 90-degree angle the big toe on my right foot had assumed.

“Maybe, you could pop it back in,” my nephew offered.

“I don’t think it’s broken,” my niece observed. “Can you move it?”

I looked at all of them as if they were terrorists intent on hobbling me forever. (After all, my dance moves put them all to shame. . .ahem).

“Look away,” I instructed. “I will handle this.”
And so I did. I grabbed the offending appendage and hauled it over to the neutral position. “CRUNCH!”, again, was the sound heard round the living room. And the dancing continued, as it most certainly should have (sans moi, bien sur).

In fact, there is no better way to appreciate the Maritime spirit than from a reclined position. The odd mood of contemplation that injury and humiliation engender is a priceless asset in the ancient effort to get back onto one’s feet.

Sitting there on the couch, watching them all dance like fools, I remembered why my wife and I and our grown children, with children of their own, fully appreciate this part of the world.

This is where the main chance hits the yellow brick road. This is where fantasy meets reality and you slide down the rabbit hole with both. This is when, the moment you think you’ve got everything nailed down in Bristol fashion, you break your foot.

It’s happened before in this region; it will happen again.

The trick is to ice that part of our Maritime souls, to exercise it, to nurture it, to believe in its recovery – in its sturdy capacity to surge ahead even, especially, when it’s injured.

In a nerdy sort of way, I recalled a passage from the 2014 Ivany Report in Nova Scotia: “While the continuing retreat of the federal government from a regional development role and fiscal weakness at the provincial level are serious constraints, the single most significant impediment to change and renewal is the lack of a shared vision and commitment to economic growth and renewal across our province.”

Yup, say it brother.

“How’s the foot?” my niece inquired. “Can you move it yet?”

I smiled and said, “Shall we dance?”

And so we did, in the light of a strong moon, a starry sky and the company of family. She pranced like a gazelle; I limped like a troll.

But, at least, we danced.

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What old Guysborough town teaches

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When the mid-summer sun shines sweetly on the roads of Guysborough town, and a breeze brings news of waves breaking on the far shore of Chedabucto Bay, you know it is high season – that time of the year, after the last black fly and before the first frost, when this village of 400 at the eastern tip of mainland Nova Scotia is at its best.

Up and down the main street – which may be only as long as quick breath on lover’s lane – evidence of revival is everywhere. Bunting flies at pretty cafes and shops festooned with homemade goods and specialty fare.

There, along the boulevard, the Rare Bird Pub & Eatery jostles the Skipping Stone Cafe and Store. Not far away, the Full Steam Coffee Co. shakes hands with the Harbour Belle Bakery. Elsewhere, the Osprey Shores Golf Resort caters to those of a clubbier mindset, and the DesBarres Manor Inn provides a year-round destination for romantic foodies of every inclination.

Here was where Prince Henry Sinclair was rumoured to make landfall in 1398. Here was where peripatetic Acadians settled between 1604 and 1659. Then, in the 18th Century, came the Scots and the Irish, fresh from the Napoleonic wars.

My original forebear, a fellow by the name of James, apparently sailed from Scotland with a land grant of 100 acres, given to him as a reward for his military service in Europe. Of course, in the late 1700’s, there were no roads to speak of, let alone physicians. So, when a tree fell on the poor sap’s head, he did what most transplanted Scots of good, sturdy character did at the time: He died.

Still, the family he sired and the community he helped build persisted which is, all things considered, a minor miracle.

One of the more urgent conversations in Atlantic Canada concerns the plight of its rural areas, most of which can boast notable provenances. Faced with aging and dwindling populations, inadequate access to educational opportunities, crumbling transportation and communications infrastructure, and winnowing industrial bases, many are on the brink of extinction.

In fact, more than once in both distant and recent memory, Guysborough, itself, has flirted with calamity.

Once, lumbering and shipbuilding dominated the local land and seascapes. Not anymore and for all the reasons familiar to coastal communities across the region (changing technology, a shrinking pool of skilled labour, shifting government policies and priorities).

Commercial fishing, a traditionally vital engine of employment, came to a screeching halt during the 1980s and ‘90s in the wake of the federally imposed cod moratorium. Since then, stabs at long-term economic development have enjoyed only mixed success, though don’t utter such a blasphemy anywhere in Guysborough County, lest you prepare yourself for a long debate.

Still, the deeper truth is, as prominent Maritime writer Harry Bruce (pater familias to me) once noted, “Wave after wave after wave of Maritimers have left their beloved homeland, rolling westward again and again to seek jobs up and down the Atlantic seaboard, in the American midwest and far west, in Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies, British Columbia, and the northern territories . . . Maritimers, more than other Canadians, have had to keep their eyes on the horizons, and Leaving Home has long outlasted the golden age of sail as part of their heritage.

Yet, now that Alberta has given up the ghost of its oil and gas promise, we may live long enough to witness a mass return of Maritimers to these shores.

Perhaps this is all that old Guysborough town teaches: faith.

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Ode to a summertime moment

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

The view from the base of the old Ash that hangs precariously over the equally ancient woodshed at the edge of the family property on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore hasn’t changed in 75 years. Not, at least, in any way that you’d notice.

A ten-acre field of high grass stretches down to a spruce and fir tree line. A jumble of broken trunks and scrub give way to a tidal pond which nearly encircles a drumlin of scrappy forest that overlooks the mighty Chedabucto Bay.

You could walk a straight path from the shed to the shore, and do that all day, back and forth, and never meet another soul. This is, after all, a part of the world for the leaving of things, not for the returning.

According to a Statistics Canada survey, Guysborough is the least populous and prosperous county in Nova Scotia. The number of residents three years ago was just over 8,000, or roughly two for every square kilometer, earning $20,000 less in any given year than the average Haligonian.

In fact, the population has been shrinking (along with wages) since 1871, from a high of 16,555 to a low three years ago of 8,143, which was, itself, a 10 per cent drop since 2006.

What’s happened to Guysborough is now happening all across the Maritimes. This eastern district was merely among the first to send the flower of its youth to points west. Of course, the restless, generational search for work is bred in virtually all rural bones down here.

“Wave after wave of Maritimers have left their beloved homeland, rolling westward again and again to seek jobs up and down the Atlantic seaboard, in the American midwest and far west, in Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies, British Columbia, and the northern territories,” my father, the writer Harry Bruce, penned in his lengthy love letter to the region, “Down Home”, in 1988. “Leaving Home has long outlasted the  golden age of sail as part of their heritage.”

Indeed, it has. But sometimes on a soft, mid-summer afternoon, when the view of the bay from the base of the old Ash is clear and bright, you get a rousing sense of alternatives. History need not always repeat itself in exactly the same nauseating way.

You cock your ear to the merry squeals of your three-year-old grandson robustly engaging a soccer ball and his substantially older (and vastly more patient) cousins on the field beside the main house.

Meanwhile, your sister and her husband are attempting to dislodge a toy airplane made of balsa wood from the lower canopy of a maple tree into which it has careened.

Evident experts on such matters, they take turns hurling various items, purloined from the woodshed, at the flyer, until a garden rake becomes firmly wedged in the elbow  of a large branch. Now airplane and rake appear determined to remain where they are until at least the first nor’easter blows through.

You could solve their problem in an instant. There’s a ladder in the shed next to the winter wood. But you wonder. . .

“Leave this to me,” you shout, as you leap from your perch and start bounding towards the maple.

You gaze straight up and with one determined leap wrap your arms and legs around the trunk and commence to shimmy in a manner that’s both workable and undistinguished.

Stepping nimbly among the branches, you manage to guide a homemade contraption from the sibling ground crew to their quarries and, eventually, shake loose both rake and flyer.

Safely back on the ground, you cheerfully accept the applause of your family and marvel at the sheer effort it has taken to coordinate this reunion – harder than climbing a tree at age 53 – in this most out-of-the-way spot in the backwoods of Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, where the population has, nevertheless, if only for a summertime moment, spiked by eight.

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