Let ‘Er Rip

louise-et-Jonathan

“J’aurais quelque chose a dire.”  Barachois

The Sterling Women’s Institute is the Stanley Bridge Hall on the corner of Route 6 and Rattenbury Road on the north-central coast of Prince Edward Island. The small town of Stanley Bridge spreads out in all directions.

A new traffic circle at the old intersection keeps the traffic moving. On one corner is the Race Trac gas station and farther down is the farmer’s market. Where the road flattens out at the river is the actual bridge that kids spend the summer jumping off down into the channel flowing out to the New London Bay.

The Women’s Institute is a yellow two-story clapboard building with white trim and a fair-sized deck. From the vantage of the front deck is a solitary house across the street, a cropland spread out wide and long, and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a quiet building on rising ground, except when six nights a week ceilidhs fill the hall with Irish Scottish Acadian fiddles guitars pianos and step dancing.

The hall holds close to 150 if every seat and bench along the side is taken. The night the Arsenault Trio – Helene Arsenault Bergeron, Jonathan Arsenault, and his mother Louise Arsenault – joined by Gary Chipman, played their first show of the summer in Stanley Bridge on a Wednesday night, there were upwards of a hundred ready to go.

“It’s great to see you all, thanks for coming,” said Marsha Weeks, the host of the show.

“All set?” asked Gary Chipman.

“All set,” said Louise Arsenault.

Ceilidhs are concerts, but more like musical gatherings, often staged at small halls in the Canadian Maritimes. Not so long ago, and sometimes even today, they were more along the lines of a kitchen party, a kind of jam session at home with the neighbors. Whoever could play a fiddle or a guitar or belt out a song at the top of their lungs would inevitably find themselves in the kitchen with everyone else. In the middle of January a case of beer might be close at hand in the snow just outside one of the windows.

The word itself comes from the Old Irish for companion.

“On long, dark winter nights it is still the custom in small villages for friends to collect in a house,” Donald Mackenzie wrote explaining ceilidhs more than a hundred years ago. “Some sing old songs set to old music or new music composed in the manner of the old.”

The music at Prince Edward Island ceilidhs is alert animate full of life, mainly jigs and reels, with a mix of waltzes and country songs. There are occasional vignettes about life on the island, some island humor, and stories about islanders making the music. Most of the shows are set in community centers, churches, town halls, and Lion’s clubs.

The Arsenault Trio ripped into the ‘Acadian Reel,’ an Evangeline Region tune in the Cape Breton style played in 4/4 time, in other words, on the fast side. From kitchen parties to laser-lit techno dance floors, the same rhythm pattern is part and parcel of the carousing. The signature style of Acadian fiddling is down home rhythmic drive with sawstroke syncopation, sometimes called shuffles.

“When you do the shuffle,” said Louise Arsenault, “it’s like two up bows in a row. That was dad’s style.”

The Evangeline Region of PEI is the land west of Summerside, from Miscouche to Mont Carmel to Abrams Village. Flags in blue, white, and red with a single gold star fly from front porches and front yards. Mailboxes are painted in the Acadian colors. The annual Agricultural Exhibition and Acadian Festival features boot throwing, horse pulling, and a big music and dance party at the end.

The communities are about co-operatives, farming and fishing, vittles and fiddling.

“Where’s everybody from?” Marsha asked the crowd.

Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Ohio, Florida, and Australia were some of the answers.

“Massachusetts,” a man called out.

“Whatever you said,” said Marsha. “I can’t pronounce that.”

“Wellington,” another man called out.

Several in the audience, probably all from Prince Edward Island, laughed. Wellington is a small town on PEI. It is home to the head office of College Acadie as well as the Bottle Houses, which are three fantasy-like buildings made of approximately 30,000 recycled glass bottles.

Most of the year islanders have the island to themselves. In the summer ten times as many people as live on PEI visit there for a week-or-two.

“They gave it 150% and we could feel it down to our tappin’ toes,” said a man from Amherst, Massachusetts.

The Aussies in the audience thought it was an “all there bonzer” show.

“The energy was amazing,” said a woman from New South Wales, Australia. “We all clapped and stamped our feet.”

Gary Chipman announced he was going to sing a song.

“I’ve been told I have a great voice, but that I’m going to ruin it by singing,” he said. Still and all, he has been singing for many years. He sang ‘Prince Edward Island Is Heaven To Me,’ a country song penned in 1951 by Hal Lone Pine and recorded with his Lone Pine Mountaineers.  

“The air is so pure, and the people so gay, Prince Edward Island, I’m coming to stay, there’s swimming and hunting and fishing galore, the sun shines so bright on its long golden shore, a touch of God’s great hand this island must be, Prince Edward Island is heaven to me.” 

“Yes, sir!” somebody rang out at the end of the song.

Somebody else called out a request for the ‘Arkansas Traveler.’

“It was some hot day today,” said Louise Arsenault. “You can go from your fur coat to your bikini just like that here on this island.” A few days earlier it had rained eighteen hours straight and never reached fifty degrees. The day of the show it was a breezy sunny 74 degrees.

“Arkansas Traveler!”

“Has anybody got a drink in his car?” asked Gary Chipman, to keep his singing voice well-oiled. He told a joke about a young woman in a tight skirt trying to board a bus.

“Arkansas Traveler!”

The ‘Arkansas Traveler’ is a plantation fiddle tune, a quick reel, from the early 19thcentury, one of the most famous of American fiddle tunes. Back in the day it was a barn raiser, meant to tear the audience up. The band tore into it, followed by ‘The Maid Behind the Bar’ and ‘Farmer’s Daughter.’

Jonathan Arsenault played ‘Cottonwood’ on his guitar. In the second half of the show he played ‘Jerry’s Breakdown.’ Written by Jerry Reed, a Nashville guitarist and country singer, the song is played finger-style on guitar in a similar way to the banjo.

“It’s a wicked hard tune to play, but Jonathan makes it look easy,” said Gary.

“When I was a boy, mom bought a little guitar at a flea market,” said Jonathan. “That was her only guitar back then. She sat me at a table, put the fiddle in her lap, and played a set. I learned to flat top pick from my mom, from the fiddle, since she didn’t have a second guitar to show me what a fret was.”

Step dancing is a part of most, if not all, ceilidhs on Prince Edward Island.

“Louise and I are from Acadian backgrounds,” said Helene Arsenault Bergeron. “We grew up with fathers playing the fiddle. In those days they didn’t have a lot of accompaniment, so they accompanied themselves with their feet. That way they always had their accompanists with them.”

She and Louise Arsenault stepped to the front of the stage.

“When you hear that every day, you learn how to play and dance and you don’t even remember learning it. We saw our fathers, aunts and uncles, and grandfathers, and it was just kind of always there, and so we’re going to do a dance for you now.”

The dancing was sparkling high-spirited swashbuckling.

“I was waiting all night for that,” said Jonathan.

Step dancing descends from traditional Irish dancing. Tap dancing is a modern form of it. It is a looser form. The arms move along with the feet. Step dancers keep their upper bodies still with their arms at their sides, except when they don’t, when they’re fiddling at the same time.

Creating your own melody by using your feet is challenging enough, but fiddling a reel at the same time as step dancing like the Arsenault’s do is gnarly, time to sit up and take notice. Louise and Helene do it like a walk in the park, no matter the large front tap on one of Helene’s shoes secured with black electrical tape.

Louise grew up down the road from Helene and Albert Arsenault, who she would later collaborate with in a roots music band. Her father, Alyre Gallant, played music, too. “I grew up in a musical family,” she said. “My father played the fiddle and my mother played the pump organ. I started playing when I was seven. I learned a lot of tunes from my dad.”

At a time in the 1960s when few Prince County girls picked up the fiddle, her father jigged tunes when she was a girl so she could find them on her instrument.

The first half of the show ended with a series of reels. “Whoop, whoop,” someone in the audience shouted. Someone else stamped their feet. It was getting dark on the other side of the windows. It was still fired up inside the hall.

The second half opened the same way as the first half, with the ‘Acadian Reel.’ The song is the work of Eddy Arsenault, a carpenter and fisherman and one of the hands-down best fiddlers on PEI for more than 70 years. Helene Bergeron’s father, he blended local Acadian fiddling with the Scottish approach.

“Is this a new tune,” asked Marie Gallant Arsenault the first time she heard the song a few minutes after its composition. “It is lively.”

“Yes, it is,” said Eddy Arsenault. “What are we going to call it?”

“That sounds right like Acadian music,” said Marie. “Why don’t you call it the Acadian Reel?”

The name stuck.

Even though Eddy Arsenault wrote it, it’s the kind of song that was never new and never gets old.

Gary Chipman strolled into ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ inviting everyone to join in, which many did, some of their voices uncommonly good.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray, you’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.”

After Gary put his guitar down to the side, Helene stepped around her piano to the front of the stage, and brought some perspective to the sunshine song that had brought a warm glow to the hall.

“Louise and I used to be in a band called Barachois,” she said.

Helene Arsenault Bergeron got her start as a fledgling in a barn putting on step dancing shows set to old records scratching out fiddle tunes. She watched her elders. “The kitchen parties we had at my grandfather’s and at our house, everybody was always jumping up to dance because the fiddling, the music was so lively.” By her 30s she was one of the best step dancers on Prince Edward Island. She took up the piano, taking on the Cape Breton style, with lift, syncopated, marked by step dancing rhythms.

“Jonathan would come on tour with us when he was a small boy, and he just loved this song we’re going to do for you. Some of the older generation, they used to compose songs as a way of keeping track of local events. It’s a song about an old maid, an old girl, whose neighbor, a young girl, asks for advice about getting married, but the old girl is disillusioned, so it’s not a very encouraging song.”

Louise threw her head back and laughed zestfully full-mouthed.

“It’s called ‘The Family Song,’” said Helene.

Later in the summer Gary might tell a joke about a RCMP officer who calls his station from a crime scene.

“I have an interesting case here,” he says. “A woman shot her husband for stepping on the floor she just mopped.”

“Have you arrested her?” asks his sergeant.

“No, not yet, the floor’s still wet.”

After more hoedowning by the band, Helene and Louise brought two chairs to the center front of the stage.

“Helene and I are going to do a sit down dance,” said Louise. “It’s not because we’re lazy. We can dance standing, we can dance sitting, so here we go!”

Their arms at their sides, their hands gripping the sides of their seats, able-bodied, their feet a breakdown blur, seeming to never leave the floor no matter the tapping, they chair danced up a storm.

Marsha Weeks walked out from the wings with her fiddle.

“You know it’s a great show when the host comes back on stage,” said Jonathan.

Gary, who taught Marsha how to play, picked up his fiddle, as did Helene and Louise.

Gary Chipman has been playing the fiddle since he was five-years-old. He says it was “about a hundred years ago.” Later in life he picked up the guitar and vocals, when “Elvis Presley and the boys came along and the fiddle was out.” With the revival of PEI fiddling in the 1990s, he rosined up his bow again. He earned a degree in clinical psychology, but says it “only made me a smarter fiddle player.”

A hundred years later he concedes, “I’m going to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.”

They played an arrangement of the ‘Tennessee Waltz,’ a tune from the 1940s whose lyrics were first written down on the back of a matchbox and whose music by Pee Wee King remains sad and lively to this day, tracing a man and a woman turning around and around a dance floor.

“I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz, when an old friend I happened to see, I introduced her to my loved one, and while they were dancing, my friend stole my sweetheart from me.”

They played a pretty arrangement on four fiddles of the pastoral melody ‘The Rosebud of Allenvale.’

Although they had been letting it rip all along, at the last Gary and the Arsenault’s let it rip. “We’re going to end with the fastest tune of the night, I’m pretty sure,” said Marsha. They dove headlong into an instrumental version of the ‘Orange Blossom Special.’

Laisse les aller!

The tune is for raising high the roof beam. It is sometimes just called ‘The Special’ and is known as the fiddle player’s national anthem. For a long time fiddle players needed to know how to play that one song before being able to join any bluegrass band.

“It is a vehicle to exhibit the fiddler’s pyrotechnic virtuosity,” wrote Norm Cohen in his book about railroads in folksongs. “It is guaranteed to bring the blood of all but the most jaded listeners to a quick, rolling boil.”

No one at the Stanley Bridge ceilidh was left jaded as the last notes of the ‘The Special’ steamed away into the night.

“She’s the fastest train on the line, it’s that Orange Blossom Special, rollin’ down the seaboard line.”

The show ended with hootin’ and hollerin’ and a big round of applause.

“If you had a great time, please tell everybody at your cottage and campgrounds,” said Marsha as the lights came up. “If you didn’t have a good time, you can just see Gary in the kitchen after the show.”

It wouldn’t be a kitchen party if something lively wasn’t going on in the kitchen.

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Lobsterman

111209-lobster

“It will bring tears to a grown man’s eyes,” said Kelly Doyle, a lobsterman who works out of the Prince Edward Island harbor of North Rustico. He was talking about lobster claws. The bite force of a large dog in pounds per square inch is about 500 PSI. A good-sized lobster’s crusher claw exerts about 1000 PSI.

“I had a claw on my hand one morning, he was squeezing my finger, and not letting go. He’s got you and you think, that’s it, he can’t go no more, but then he’ll squeeze some more. My brother Kenny had to take a screwdriver to it. Kenny is a big man, and he had a big screwdriver, but it took him a few minutes to pry it off of my finger.”

A 27-pound lobster was caught off the coast of Maine in 2012. The claws were so large they would “break a man’s arm,” said Elaine Jones of the Department of Marine Resources.

“We don’t catch those kinds of monsters,” said Kelly. “The biggest one I ever caught in my traps was maybe 7 pounds, max. But that’s a damn big lobster, a foot-and-a-half long.”

29 million pounds of lobster were harvested on Prince Edward Island in 2014, much of it during the spring season, which is May and June. It is a limited entry fishery. “1200 lobster fishers land their catches at approximately 42 ports all around the province,” said April Gallant of PEI’s Agriculture and Fisheries. Many of them are pulled up from the north shore, from Malpeque to St Peter’s Bay. The Rustico fisheries are roughly the axis of the lobster world along that shoreline.

Besides North Rustico, there are the towns of Rustico, Rusticoville, and South Rustico, all named after a fisherman by the name of Rene Racicot, a French Norman who came to PEI in 1724. Racicot became Rustico among the Acadian-French settlers.

The reason the north shore was settled was fishing. After the deportation of Acadians by the British in 1758, and the eventual return of those who had hidden or survived drowning and shipboard epidemics, fishing was what meant life or death for their families.

“I’ve been fishing for 30 years,” said Kelly Doyle, “although I took a few years off, which was a little sabbatical.” After leaving PEI for Montreal in his early 20s, he returned in 1983. “I built a cottage, but I couldn’t get a job anywhere. The next spring I got offered a fishing job in North Rustico.”

Although fishing in North Rustico dates back more than two hundred and fifty years, groundfish stocks contracted in the 20th century. Shellfish and crustaceans, especially lobsters, emerged as the species of choice. Lobster landings almost tripled between 1960 and 1990.

In the early 1990s a moratorium was enacted limiting the taking of many kinds of groundfish. “We were shut down completely,” said Kelly. “No more white fish. All we were allowed was lobster, although we could still catch our own bait, like mackerel and herring, at that time.”

Nowadays lobstermen buy their bait. “I come in, pull up to the wharf, and Doiron takes every lobster I’ve got,” said Kelly. “I buy my bait from them, too.”

North Rustico’s Doiron Fisheries got its start when Aiden Doiron bought his first fishing boat in 1957. One day, when a man asked him for a cooked lobster, he said, “I’ll be right back.” He grabbed a lobster, a pot, and cooked the lobster on the spot. The Doirons still sell fresh fish out of a shanty on the wharf.

“We cook lobster on the boat sometimes,” said Kelly Doyle.

Thirty years ago he often bagged his own bait for lobstering, late at night. “There was a freshwater run about 2 or 3 kilometers down Cavendish Beach, where the gaspereau would come up from the ocean, smell the fresh water, and spawn there. When they came back down we caught them in nets.”

Alewife is a herring called gaspereau in Atlantic Canada. Catching them meant waiting for them to swim back to the ocean with the tide at midnight. “We would net them by hand, standing in waist-high water. When we got them on shore they’d be flapping around and sand flying everywhere. We’d fill up 40 or 50 boxes and carry them by hand back to our pick-up trucks.“

Neither motor vehicles nor horses are allowed in the National Park, which is what Cavendish Beach is. “We’d ice them up for the morning, get home by 2, and then back up at 4 o’clock, 6 days a week in the season.”

There are 37 boats in the harbor at North Rustico. All of them are made of fiberglas, all are equipped with diesel engines, and all carry a trove of electronic gear. Hulls cost upwards of a quarter million dollars. The annual cost to operate Kelly Doyle’s boat, which he co-owns with Paul Doiron, a man he’s known since grade school, is nearly $50,000. “The word boat is actually an acronym,” he said. “It means break out another thousand.”

Seventy years ago lobster boats were all wood, ran on 6-cylinder gas engines, and most of them didn’t come with a cabin that anyone could stand up inside of. It wasn’t until the 1960s that windshields were added for protection against the elements.

“In those days in the winter motors were removed and taken home,” said Norman Peters of the Fisheries Museum. “Boats were hauled to a field and turned upside down to keep rain and snow out. I remember playing under the upside boats and finding bits of fishing line to use to fly kites.”

“Our boat is the Flying Spray,” said Kelly. “It’s hull number177, built in Kensington, so it’s called a Provincial. It’s a great lobster boat, very dependable, although a little on the rocky side. It’s good going into it, but it doesn’t like being turned. It throws you around a bit.

“Most of my career was in wood. The best thing about fiberglas is it doesn’t leak. Except, not like wood, they don’t float at all. If you put a hole in them they sink pretty well instantly.”

Lobstermen start their day early. “He gets up at 4:20 in the morning,” said Kelly Doyle’s girlfriend, Ryoko. “I make his breakfast and lunch and he’s gone before 5. I go back to bed and sleep a little more.”

Paul Doiron captains the Flying Spray and Kelly Doyle is the sternman. Both are in long johns through May and sometimes into June. “On top of those I wear insulated overalls and when I get to the boat I oil up,” said Kelly. “We put on oilskins, a full bib, and a jacket. It’s so you can stand in the rain for hours.”

After they’ve cleared the North Rustico harbor the first thing Paul Doiron does is turn on his GPS to locate their traps.

“The first guy I fished with only had a compass,” said Kelly Doyle. “But, it never really worked right for him. They fished by strings back then, by their compasses and landmarks. You would probably find your buoys, but on a dirty morning, no. They’re only so big floating in a big ocean out there.”

Fishermen on the island are restricted to 300 traps by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. In the early 19th century lobsters were so abundant they washed up after storms. Islanders used wooden tongs to pick them up, although many were ashamed to be seen eating lobster because it was regarded as a poor man’s dinner. There used to be no rules about harvesting lobster. But, by the 1890s there were problems with declining stock.

“Many fishermen had from 1200 to 1500 traps,” said Norman Peters. In the latter half of the 20th century the fishing season has been shortened, fishermen must be licensed, and taking spawning lobsters isn’t allowed. “It’s the responsibility of those who are fishing today to conserve our fishery,” said Mr. Peters.

Once out on the Gulf of St. Lawrence the Flying Spray looks for its traps. “We’ve got 37 bunches of 8 traps and one trap of 4,” said Kelly Doyle. Traps are connected by a line, eight of them along a stringer, and attached to buoys with a unique color for easy identification. “There’s 8 traps between buoys and that’s called a set, or a full trawl. They’re all numbered in our GPS and we pick them up every morning.”

The Prince Edward Island gulf coastline is largely ledge and sand. When the frozen shallow waters thaw in April lobsters move in from the deeper ocean. They return to warm shoal water for egg-bearing females to hatch and release in springtime and early summer.

“Hard rock is what you want for lobsters, rock that looks like mountains,” said Kelly. “Sometimes they’ll cross sand. Most of the time sand is full of crabs and crabs hate lobsters. When lobsters cross sand they scare the crabs out and you can have a tremendous catch the next day. You’ve got to think like a lobster, about the depth of the water, how warm it is, and when you think they’re going to be there.”

When the fishing is good he, and often a hired hand, haul one lobster after another out of the traps they’ve pulled, slip rubber bands over the claws of the keepers, loading them into onboard tanks, and re-bait the traps. As the traps are lowered back into the ocean the most important rule for sternmen is to not step on rope, get snagged in the rope, and get dragged overboard.

“Lots of guys will get caught for a minute,” said Kelly, “but the last guy who drowned out of this harbor was Jackie Dussett in the 1960s. He got his leg caught and was just gone, overnight. The tide worked him loose the next day.”

Lobster fishing on Prince Edward Island is not usually unusually dangerous, but it is hard work, in more ways than one. Everything on a boat is hard. “Everything’s hard as steel,” said Kelly. “Or, it is steel. No matter, whatever you hit hurts.”

Boats bob and toss at sea since the ocean is never steady like dry land. “I’ve been hurt every year I’ve fished, banged up like an old man.” Working on a lobster boat means working on an exposed, slippery, and moving platform in weather that is bad as often as it is good. Tourists drown in small swimming pools. Fishermen are faced with miles of open water.

Next to logging, commercial fishing is statistically the second deadliest kind of work to be in, deadlier even than police work or firefighting. “Fishing at sea is probably the most dangerous occupation in the world,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“I come out of the cabin one morning last year, coming up the three steps, when something came off the sea and literally threw me out of the cab. The momentum of the boat picked my body up like it was weightless. I banged on the bulkhead and just like that you’re on the ground, hurting, black and bruised.”

Unlike many fishermen on Prince Edward Island, Kelly Doyle doesn’t come from a fishing family. The first Doyle came to the north shore from Ireland in 1847. He was granted land along was is now Doyle’s Cove. They raised thoroughbred horses and later bred black silver foxes for their pelts. When fox furs went out of fashion his grandfather and father mix farmed, growing turnips, barley, and wheat.

“I have three brothers and they all became fishermen,” said Kelly. “We weren’t fishermen, but I think it was in our blood. We were all at ease on the water. None of us got sick. But, I’m the only one who still fishes. It can be hard on you.”

In season the Flying Spray sails for lobster every day it can. Some days, like after a storm when the 7 kilometers of line they carry are tangled and need to be untangled, they are out for up to 15 hours. “Gear starts to move. Before you know it it’s all snarled, mine and everybody else’s. You’ve got to pull it up, bind your gear, and that’s rough.”

Lobster cages weigh about 20 pounds without the 44 pounds of concrete ballast in them. When they are wet they are more than 100 pounds. “Thank you to the man who invented hydraulics!” said Kelly. “Years ago it was all hauled by hand. The forearms of those guys in Rustico back then were like Popeye.”

Although not born to it, although his business interests have expanded to include Coastline Cottages and PEI Select Tours, and although it is exacting, physical work, Kelly Doyle plans to continue lobstering.

“I had been out of fishing for a few years, but bought back into it. My first year back I thought I was going to die. It was a tough spring, shitty weather, and I was going to bed at 7 o’clock, just beat up. It’s all about wind, which creates seas, which creates bouncing around like a cork.”

Seas can be dangerous and storms terrible. But, the lives of commercial fishermen are subsumed by their boats, the waters they sail, and the work they do. “Later part of March, you’ll hear a seagull on the coast, it just seems to draw you back,” said Francis Morrissey, a fifth-generation lobsterman in Tignish, on the northwest tip of the island.

“This is the best place in the world to be fishing,” said Mike McGeoghegan, past president of the PEI Fisherman’s Association.

Oceans are more ancient than anything, including mountains. Men have fished for more than 40,000 years, from about the same time modern humans moved into Europe. 1,100 kilometers of red sandstone shoreline rim Prince Edward Island, some of it sand beaches, some of it cliffs, all surrounded by the wide sea.

“I’m going to fish this year, at least I will as long as I’m on this side of the sod,” said Kelly Doyle. “To tell you the truth, if I die, I hope it’s out there.”

Red Island PEI. If you enjoyed this article, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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