Island of Contradictions

Swallowtail Lighthouse, Grand Manan Island

(excerpted from Moncton Times & Transcript, September 14, 2001, original article 3000 words, with sidebar information)
© Deborah Carr

The west coastline rises dramatically and abruptly from the point where frothing blue-green waters of the Bay of Fundy rise and fall. Tidal surges crash with a resounding rumble against isolated and forbidding – albeit spectacular – crumbling walls of shale and sandstone.

On the east, the land slopes gently to form an undulating coastline of small bays and coves, most harbouring snug and functional communities clustered about the shore.  Ocean rhythms are gentler here.  Caressing waters reach out to embrace the land, not erode.

Grand Manan.  An island of contradictions.

September is a beautiful time on Grand Manan.  With the bulk of tourists gone, residents are taking a breather, and the pace slows to a regular beat.  Visitors can find themselves totally alone on the shores, with only the company of an occasional playful sea mammal or the serenade of a sea bird.  With the back-to-school rush and the heat of the summer behind, the island makes for a peaceful, quiet getaway.

Grand Manan is an island for those who can entertain themselves.

This picturesque island lies thirty-five kilometres (22 mi.) off the coast of mainland New Brunswick.  Though a well-known tourist destination, it has not been tainted by its popularity.  The island people, while welcoming visitors with open arms, refuse to change the established way of life for the sake of a few short summer months.

The 90-minute ferry ride from mainland Black’s Harbour to North Head is a transference zone.  Leave the world behind on the shore and tuck your watch into a back pocket.

The purpose of a getaway to Grand Manan, is just that.  To get away from the hustle and bustle.  To experience a true fishing island.  To talk to the local residents and learn from their wisdom. To make friends where you had none before.  To re-acquaint yourself with nature’s wonders.  And to wind…way…down.

Grand Manan.  A breath of fresh sea air….

Twenty-four kilometres (15 mi.) long and 11km (7mi.) wide, the island offers a lot of territory for visitors to explore and a network of hiking trails criss-cross the island and follow the coastline.  Trail maps are a must and can be picked up at the Island’s Museum in Grand Harbour.

Many of these trails were traditional rescue routes as the perilous underwater shoals and currents surrounding Grand Manan have claimed many a life and ship throughout the fishing history of the island.  Along the coastal trail leading from the Southwest Head Lighthouse, a sign points to the cliff face where one fortunate individual incredibly managed to climb to safety following the wreck of his vessel.

The clear cold waters are home to an abundance of marine life that has kept island fisheries thriving for generations. But beneath the surface lie many a testament to the ocean’s unforgiving side. Over 300 vessels have been wrecked around the island over the past two centuries.

A hilltop cemetery behind the Anglican Church on Cemetery Lane in North Head, holds a monument to one such tragedy.

It was in 1857 when the French barque, Lord Ashburton, floundered helplessly on the deadly shoals of the island in a hurricane.  Twenty-one crew members perished in the wreck and the faithful islanders recovered every body, burying each in this small cemetery.  The original wooden plaque erected in honor of these lives was replaced by a stone monument in 1910.

A short walk further down this shady lane leads to the picturesque Whale Cove beach, affording views of the geological tidal formation called ‘Hole in the Wall’ on one side and ‘Seven Days Work’ on the other.

The Grand Manan Archipelago is a geological timeline in itself.  The oldest rock exposed on the island is estimated at 640 million years old and coastal walks reveal a smorgasbord of sedimentary and metamorphic rock.  An actual fault line runs from Red Point on the east side of the island northward to Whale Cove.  It can be viewed along the beach about 150 meters right of the Red Point Road and observers can note the line where the reddish sedimentary rock of the Triassic age came into contact with the ancient grey Precambrian rock.  The black sand located at this point is mildly magnetized.

Seal Cove Wharf

In Seal Cove, wharf-side shanties once abandoned to decay have metamorphosed into an eclectic tribute to the once thriving herring fishery of the community.  Here you can wander along the wharf and see first-hand, the daily chores of the herring fisherman.  It is a place to linger and to give free reign to your curiosity.  And perhaps to try your hand at repairing fishnet.

Local fishermen are happy to spin a yarn or two and educate visitors on the finer points of a fishing livelihood and how it has changed and evolved through the years.  Perhaps you may be invited to go along as he checks his weirs.

It was here that I ran into ‘Mike Zimmer from New York’, a self-described ‘town lunatic and black sheep’, who purchased several deserted buildings along the wharf ‘for a price less than a month’s rent on Long Island’.

As weathered as the doorframe he leaned on, and clinging to a stained Corelle mug of cold instant coffee like it was part of his anatomy, Mike told me he lives within the time-worn buildings all summer, returning to some vague life in New York during the colder months.  I persuaded him to abandon his leaning post and give me the 50 cent tour and as we wandered through the eclectic buildings, he explained the smoking of herring and the tricks of the trade.

“Didn’t know a thing about this when I first came,” he admits.  The transplanted New Yorker eventually wrested enough information from the skeptical old timers, the latter finally deciding he was not going to leave them alone until they gave up some of their knowledge.

The herring are caught in the many weirs visible in the waters around the islands and separated by size.  A herring smaller than seven inches is called a sardine.  With heads and tails removed, sardines are packed raw, then cooked in the tin.

The old smoker building with its blackened interior still harbours the round fire pit, which in past times would fill the structure with smoke, preserving hundreds of herring suspended on spears.  My nose wrinkles and tingles.  Mike has built a small smoker to demonstrate the concept.  Smoking is a method of curing the fish in order to extend life when refrigeration is not available.

Upstairs, strings of golden herring hang in an open window framed by red shutters. “Course, I can’t sell any of the herring,” he shrugs, “you know, food laws and such.  I just give it away.”

In the ‘museum’, old fish baskets and herring spikes in bundles of 100 are arranged in artful representation as backdrop to an array of fishy treasures.  Mike estimates about 40,000 of the 3 foot spikes came with the buildings.  A deformed lobster claw under a glass cloche, a dried bundle of seaweed spines, a collection of sardine cans and a Bath Brick all invite a raised eyebrow.

“The seaweed is pretty interesting,” says Mike, explaining that the spines are cut away then rolled into rope-like bundles and dried.  “I picked this up in Brazil, they eat it there all the time.”

“And the Bath brick, I bet you can’t guess what it is for,” he grins.  It turns out the brick is somewhat like a pumice stone, but used for honing fishing knives.  It is called a Bath brick because it was made in Bath.  “Fooled more than just you,” laughs Mike.  “See?  You’re s’posed to ask questions.”

More surprises followed.  In another building, painted spikes decorated the walls like porcupine quillwork, and a life-sized paper maché ‘Mike’ lounged on a yard sale recliner.  Amongst old signs, once-useful buoys, fishnet and fish memorabilia, a fire-engine red sports car sat gleaming.


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