Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

All Hands On Deck

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By Ed Staskus

“What were we thinking?” Kate Doucette asked her mother, who was peeling potatoes in the kitchen of their eatery as they geared up for the second week of their new restaurant’s first season the summer before last.

“I know, we need fish-n-chips on the menu,” said Joanne Doucette.

On the Dock is at the far end of Harbourview Drive in North Rustico, around the bend of the harbor up from the lighthouse, catty-corner to Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing, on the north central coast of Prince Edward Island. The dining room is literally on the dock. More than two-thirds of the tables and chairs are outside, spread out over a big deck, on the edge of a square wharf on the ocean.

“I’ll go over to Doiron’s and get some,” said Kate.

She walked down the street and got five pounds of fish.

Doiron Fisheries, a fish market on the Inner Harbour, chock full of shellfish, lobsters, and fresh Atlantic seafood, is about a half-mile away, by way of a boardwalk, at the other end of the street.

“It wasn’t that much,” said Kate. “But mom wondered, what are we going to do with all this fish? Maybe we should freeze some of it, she thought, just to be safe. By the time she put it in the freezer, though, she had to take it out, since we were selling so much of it.”

When they sold out the fish-n-chips, Kate Doucette took another walk back down the street to Doiron’s, this time for more than just five pounds.

“It’s a simple menu, chowder, fish cakes, but it works,” she said. “We had lobster rolls from the beginning, because dad catches all of our lobster. After working here, me and mom go home and shell lobsters a couple of hours every night.”

The fish cakes are chips off the old block from her father’s handcrafted cakes. “On Boxer Day, Christmastime, parties, the whole family would come over for dad’s fish cakes. He served them with homemade mustard pickles.”

Joanne Doucette has made mustard pickles for a long time. “It’s a recipe that’s known around here,” said Kate. Every week is National Pickle Month when it has to be. “We make batches of them for the restaurant.”

“It’s hearty home-style cooking with the freshest seafood,” said Megan Miller, sitting outside in the sun on the seaside, pushing back from her table and empty plate of fish and pickles.

Kate’s father, Robert Doucette, is Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing. He ties his 45-foot fiberglas boat up at the end of the dock outside the restaurant. He harvests lobster in season and takes tourists out to catch cod and mackerel in July and August. His brother Barry and he bait hooks for tuna in September.

“His boat used to be called the ‘Jillian Marie’, who is my older sister,” said Kate. “But, when I got old enough to realize my name wasn’t on the boat, I got a little ticked off. When he got his next boat he called it ‘My Two Girls’.”

Bob Doucette has been working out of the North Rustico harbor for more than 40 years. “He grew up in a little white house right here,” said Kate. “He hasn’t gone far. Their house used to be up Lantern Hill, but it was moved down here, on the back of a big truck.”

Joanne and Bob Doucette met when they were 14-years-old. “They’re both from here, North Rustico, born and raised.”

Kate and her sister grew up in a house in a thicket of trees a mile-or-so up the road, behind her Uncle Ronnie’s Route 6 Fish-n-Chips “We were so lucky to grow up where we were in the woods all the time,” she said.

There’s something about woods that you can’t find in books, at school, or on the infobahn. Moss grass shrubs insects birds trees will teach you what you can never learn from flatscreens. Trees wise you up to being grounded from the trunk down and limber on top from the branches out.

North Rustico is a community of about 600 residents. The bay is sheltered by Robinsons Island and houses a fleet of forty-some lobster boats. Fishing is the town’s main focus, although, since it has direct access to Prince Edward Island National Park, it has long been popular with vacationers.

All summer long kayakers launch their boats from Outside Expeditions at the mouth of the harbor, paddling up and down the north coast. It’s a way to get focused on the wide-open water. When you’re tucked into a kayak and paddling, there’s literally nothing else you can do.

“Dad used to bring me down here when I was a kid,” said Kate. “I was a huge little tomboy. He bought me a kit with a saw and hammer for my seventh birthday. He made me a miniature lobster trap to work on while he was repairing his traps.”

By the late 1990s the wharf was rotting. “Dad still had a slip for his boat, but you could hardly walk anywhere, it was just run down.” The wharf was rebuilt and a new red-roofed building, the front half housing the Fisheries Museum and the back half housing the Skipper’s Café, was built with provincial and town funding, built on the spot where Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing shanty had stood.

“They moved all the shanties to the side when they built this,” said Kate.

“We grew up down on the harbor. My sister Jill and I worked in the canteen from the time I was 12-years-old, in the shanty, where reservations were made. We sold chips and chocolate bars and soda, except Jill and I ate all the chips and chocolate until dad finally ended up only selling ice cream.”

Kate Doucette’s grandmother opened the first restaurant in North Rustico in the 1940s. It was the Cozy Corner, at the convergence of Route 6, Church Hill Road, the gas station, the post office, and the road down the harbor. Her grandparents later opened the Isles, a sizable seafood restaurant, up the road.

“My Uncle Ronnie was a big part of it and mom served there for years. The whole family worked there. They had a bakery in the basement and I’d run over every afternoon and get fresh rolls.”

One day the restaurant burned to the ground.

“It was a pretty big upset,” said Kate. “We were lucky there wasn’t any wind and none of it got into our woods.”

Towards the snowy front end of 2016 Kate Doucette was living in Charlottetown, the capital and largest city on Prince Edward Island, taking business classes part-time at UPEI and working full-time, while her boyfriend Sam roughnecked oil rigs more than three thousand miles away in Grande Prairie, Alberta. One evening her mother paid her a visit. Joanne Doucette had a proposal for her daughter.

Kate was surprised by what her mother stumped for that night.

“I wasn’t thinking of doing a restaurant, for sure,” she said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought that was going to be our conversation.”

The Skipper’s Café on the ocean side of the Fisheries Museum in North Rustico was closing. The Port Authority was leasing out the space. She was being offered first crack at it.

Kate Doucette called her boyfriend in Alberta.

“Go for it,” said Sam MacLeod. “You’ve got to take a risk sometime.” Even though it was going out on a limb, it wasn’t necessarily risky, since most risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.

“It’s in our blood,” said Kate. “I’ve been serving since I was 16-years-old. I’ve had a hell of a lot of other jobs, but I’ve always had a serving position on the side.”

Her family and she began making plans.

“The guy who owned Skipper’s Café, he was closing since he wasn’t feeling wellish,” said Kate. “Then he told us, ‘Oh, I might run it for another year,’ but by the first of May he closed and took absolutely everything out of the place.”

Many of the restaurants on the north shore of Prince Edward Island are seasonal, opening roughly at the first sign of summer and closing more or less at the start of fall. From a business point-of-view, there are two seasons, June July August and winter.

“We started from fresh, but it was a crazy month. We had to get all our licensing, buy all our equipment, and design our menu. Our tables were made by a local carpenter. We rebuilt the kitchen, which is very small, and the first summer we worked with table fryers. It was insane. I don’t know how we did it.“

The difference in fryers is that the oil capacity of tabletop models might be seven or eight pounds. The capacity of commercial deep fryers, which can have two tanks, is often 50 to 85 pounds.

“The first thing we did when we closed in October was get a commercial fryer, a grill, and a seven-foot range hood,” said Kate. “We still peel all of our potatoes with a little hand cutter. There’s a machine that can do it, if we could find the space to put it. Right now, Sam does it. He calls it his corner office.”

The reason Sam MacLeod gives a leg up at the potato peeler back in the corner is that Kate Doucette called him one day in the middle of their second summer, when he was working in Alberta. He is on rigs twenty days in the oil fields northwest of Calgary, and then off ten days, which he often spends having flown back to PEI.

“I was crying,” said Kate. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, either I’m going to kill my mother with all the work she’s doing or I’m going to have to close down.” After working all day, and after closing everything down at night, her mother was spending two more hours peeling potatoes for the next day, every day.

“It was just too much,” said Kate.

“I’m going to take August off and come back and help you guys,” said Sam.

Sam MacLeod and Kate Doucette met in a Subway on the eastern end of the island at the moment Kate knocked over her young niece. She and her sister, Jill, were distributing Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing fliers at tourist cottages. They stopped for lunch. She and Mila, Jill’s daughter, were walking across the dining room to the soda fountain.

“I had my hand on top of her head and I accidentally pushed her over,” explained Kate. “She fell down.”

Sam MacLeod, who had just pulled into the parking lot and walked in the door, stopped where Mila was lying on the floor in front of him.

“Is she all right?” he asked.

“I hadn’t even noticed it happened.” Kate looked down at her niece. “Oh, she’s fine, she just kind of fell over.” Sam gave Mila a helping hand up.

“He’s nice, he’s cute,” said Jill as they watched Sam drive away in his white knight white pick-up truck.

Six months later, on a Friday night, while in a bar and grill in Charlottetown with friends, she recognized a young man wearing a red hat at the bar. She walked up to him

“Do you remember me?” she asked.

“You’re the girl who pushed that kid down on the floor,” he said.

“She survived,” said Kate, grasping at straws.

They exchanged phone numbers. Twenty days later, a few days after Christmas, Kate and Jill were loafing in their apartment in Charlottetown. “Jill and I were going to hang out, have a chill night.” But then, out of the blue, she got a text from Sam.

“Do you want to go out to dinner?”

“I told him to give me a second. He took me to Cuba the next month. We’ve never spent a night apart since then, except when he’s out west.”

The couple built a house in Stratford, outside Charlottetown, but then rented it out on Airbnb. They planned on building something in North Rustico, but in the meantime realized they needed somewhere to live. They considered buying a camper and parking it in her mom and dad’s backyard.

“We found a reasonably-priced one on-line. It wasn’t the nicest, though, kind of shitty, and I was thinking, at the same time, do I want to shower in a camper all summer?”

She showed a picture of the camper to her parents. They took a close look at it, retreating to the other end of the room to compare notes. “I could see them kind of talking. They knew we were trying to save money.”

“Just stay with us,” said her mom. “We’ll fix you up a room. We’ll make it work.”

What she meant was, since they were already all working together, if they were all living together, it would make seeing one another all the time sticky. It might be too close for comfort. That’s why, since God has given us our relatives, many thank God they can pick their friends.

It would take some sufferance, fifty-fifty payoffs. They made it work.

“We’re only there to sleep, anyways,” said Kate. “We don’t cook there, we don’t hang out there, we don’t do anything, really. We’re always working. You give up your whole life half the year when you work at the restaurant.“

On the other hand, if you’re doing what you want need and enjoy doing, you’re never actually  clocking in to the daily grind rat race any day of your life.

“The one place I’d rather be in the world is down at the harbor,” said Kate. “It’s hard, you see everyone working so hard, but to be with the people you love the most, my mom and my dad, my sister, my boyfriend, I can’t think of anywhere’s else I’d want to be.”

Joanne Doucette runs the show in the kitchen. “You’re not going to have anyone in the kitchen who cares more about you than your mom.” Kate is the hostess server business manager, Jill busses serves odd jobs, while Sam and Bob run errands deliver seafood peel potatoes and take out the trash.

Kate’s niece Mila is in training.

One evening at closing time, looking for something to do, her Crocs at the ready, Mila asked if she could clear the outside tables.

“You can take the salt and pepper shakers and candles in, but leave the flowers,” Kate instructed her.

When Mila was done, two men were still at the last occupied table on the far side of the deck, their plates pushed to the side, kicking back at the edge of the ocean. “She went right up and took their empty plates off the table. They ended up giving her five dollars.”

“Kiki, Kiki!” Mila whooped, running up to the front counter, waving her five-dollar bill.

“She calls me Kiki. It just happened. She just one day decided,” said Kate. Since no one is allowed to give themselves a nickname, it might as well be your six-year-old niece. Catching a break, Kiki is better than, say, having to answer to Pickles.

“I don’t work here, but I help out all the time,” said Mila on a warm breezy sparkly afternoon, a broom a head taller than her in her hands, sweeping up around the chairs and under the tables on the deck, in the interval between lunch and dinner.

When you’re helping out it’s all hands on deck.

There’s no keeping Mila down.

Photograph by Vanessa Staskus

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

 

Feed Your Head

[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] Two workmen eating a fried full English breakfast in cafe

By Ed Staskus 

“Remember what the dormouse said, feed your head, feed your head.”  Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane

There are no dormice on Prince Edward Island but there are plenty of mice. There are house mice, field mice, and meadow jumping mice. There are rats, too. There is the Norway rat, otherwise known as the brown rat. There are so many of them in the world that, next to human beings, they are the most successful mammal on the planet.

The trouble with the rat race is, win or lose, you are still in a rat race.

Mice are little bundles of energy and love to chow down. They eat fruits, seeds, and grains. They are omnivorous, which means they eat plants and meat. They eat just about anything they can find, always on the prowl.

Every day is a field day for mice on PEI. The state of the island is that its land mass is 1.4 million acres and almost half of it is cleared for agricultural use. Back in the day swarms of vermin would show up out of nowhere and eat everything in the fields. In the 19th century the years 1813 to 1815 were known as “The Years of the Mouse.”

“We had a mouse in our cottage a couple of years ago,” said Frank Glass.

“We heard something at night scratching around in the kitchen. The next morning, Vera found droppings.” His wife tucked all the food away and told Kelly Doyle, the proprietor of Coastline Cottages, which are five cottages up a high sloping lawn from the eponymous Doyle’s Cove in North Rustico. He found a tiny hole at the back of the cottage the mouse had chewed through to get in, plugged it up, and set a trap under the sink.

“That’s the end of that mouse,” said Frank.

“You know what they say,” said Vera.

“No, what?”

“It’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.”

The second mouse never showed up, though, staying away in the barley field behind the cottages.

The first farmers at Souris suffered many infestations. Vermin can and will lay waste to croplands. The first of a dozen plagues of mice through the rest of the century happened in 1724. When the time came to give the town a name, the townsfolk called it Souris, which is French for mouse. Even though they are not welcome, the town’s mascot is a mouse.

Integrated pest management systems have gone a long way to controlling infestations in the 21st century. It doesn’t mean complete eradication of pests, but rather bringing their numbers down to where losses are below economic injury levels. It’s about not throwing the baby out with the bath water, but rather ensuring crop protection while reducing human health risks and environmental damage.

Mice have since gone that’s entertainment on Prince Edward Island. In 2010 small bronze mouse statues were hidden around Charlottetown. They were based on Eckhart the Mouse, who is a character from PEI author David Weale’s book “The True Meaning of Crumbfest.” The around town game was about downloading clues and trying to find all of the hidden in plain sight little urchins.

Mice in the wild live a year or two. The bronze rodents are still in Charlottetown. They’ve been living on their charm and good looks.

Wherever there are mice there are foxes, and since there are a lot of foxes in the National Park between Cavendish and North Rustico, there are consequently a lot of mice. Foxes are omnivores and eat seeds, berries, worms, eggs, birds, frogs, and fungi. They are a lot like the mice they stealth for and snatch up. They eat everything. In the winter they mostly eat rabbits and mice.

“We saw a fox and Orby Head at the same time the first time we drove up to the far side of the island,” said Frank.

Vera and Frank were on a car trip across Nova Scotia, their second in as many years, when somebody mentioned Prince Edward Island.

“What’s that?” asked Vera.

They took the Northumberland Ferry at Caribou to Prince Edward Island the next morning, rearranging their plans, and stayed at the Sunny King Motel in Cornwall. The next day they had lunch sitting at the bar at Churchill Arms in Charlottetown. Vera had a Havarti and vegetable sandwich and Frank had a Churchill’s clubhouse.

“How long are you here?” asked the bartender.

“Just a day or two,” Frank said. “We both have to get back to work by Monday.”

“Where are you from?”

“Northern Ohio, west of Cleveland, on Lake Erie.”

“Eerie as in scary and strange?”

“No, it was named after the Erie tribe of Indians.”

“You mean Native Americans?”

“Right, the native Indians. The Iroquois called them Erie, which means long tail, because they wore bobcat fur hats with the tail on the back.”

“Don’t bobcats have short stubby tails?” asked the bartender.

“That’s the funny part,” said Frank.

“We had never even heard of Prince Edward Island before,” said Vera.

“I’ve seen some Canadian maps where PEI isn’t even there,” said the bartender, refilling their coffee cups. “Just New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and the next thing is Newfoundland, which is barely Canadian.”

“I’m originally from Sudbury,” said Frank, “and I had an idea there was something here, but I couldn’t have told you what it was.”

The bartender gave them a Visitor’s Guide.

“You might try the central coastal side of the island, Rustico, Cavendish, the Brackley Beach, up around there.”

They took Route 7 to North Milton and Oyster Bed Bridge, took a left to North Rustico, and kept going to Cavendish. They saw a Visitor Center, turned right, and drove to the National Park. It was mid-September and the entrance stations were closed. There were no boom barriers. They drove onto the Gulf Shore Parkway. The road followed the curve of the ocean, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the landscape rolling.

They stopped at MacNeill’s Brook and took a walk on the beach. The freshwater outflow comes from MacNeill Brook, part of David and Margaret MacNeill’s farm and house a hundred years ago, when they were cousins and neighbors of Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote “Anne of Green Gables.”

They stopped at MacKenzie’s Brook and walked up to a grassy bluff. The brook passes underneath the parkway through two culverts. There was a long beach to the west and red sandstone cliffs to the east. One enormous rock in the cliff face had a large hole in it. Vera and Frank lay on their backs on the grass and looked up into the sky. The sun was warm on their faces and the breeze was cool.

Frank and Vera stopped at Orby Head, parked in the gravel loop lot, and walked to the edge of the cliff.

A colony of double-crested cormorants was nesting in the cliffs. Some of them were fishing off the shore, others were drifting, their heavy bodies low in the water, while others were chilling in the sunshine on a ledge. They are large water birds with small heads on long necks. Their thin strong hooked bills are about the length of their heads. The birds are dark, brownish black with a small patch of yellow-orange skin on the face.

The folks from Lake Erie watched the waves breaking.

“Oh, man, this is where we should come next year,” said Frank, getting back into their car.

“I am with you,” said Vera.

Before they could pull out, a red fox ran diagonally across the small lot and jumped into the brush, hellbent after something running for its life.

They passed Cape Turner and a minute later the road dipped down to Doyle’s Cove. On their left were two older frame houses, one green and the other white. The white house had a sign on it that said, “Andy’s Surfside Inn.” On their right, up a grassy slope, were some cottages. The sign at the front of the drive read “Coastline Cottages.” They drove up the drive to the office and parked in front of the small neon open sign in the window,

A Japanese woman carrying a blue plastic bucket came out of one of the cottages. She told them her name was Katsue and that the owner was away, but she could show them one of the cottages, the one she had just finished cleaning. By the time Frank and Vera left, their names were on the big paper schedule on an easel in the office for a cottage the next September right after Labor Day.

A year later, driving up and down Route 6 between North Rustico and Cavendish in the night, after twelve hours in the car, having lost all sense of where exactly the park road and the cottages were, they finally found the Visitor Center on Cawnpore Lane. It was closed, but they heard voices across the street at Shining Waters. One of the cottages was still lit up and four men were talking laughing drinking on the front porch.

None of them knew the Coastline Cottages, but all of them knew where the shore road was.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” Vera said, shooting Frank a vexed look. “Maybe we won’t have to sleep in the car after all.”

In the event, they almost fell asleep on the deck of their cottage after they found it, wrapped in blankets, looking at the wide expanse of stars in the inky sky, stars they never saw at home, where the lights of the city always obscured the heavens.

“Keep your feet on the ground and your eyes on the stars,” said Frank.

“I know you just said that, but who said that?” asked Vera.

“Teddy Roosevelt, in that biography about him I’m reading.”

“We are all stars and we all deserve to twinkle.”

“Who said that?”

“Marilyn Monroe.”

Frank read more books than watched movies and Vera watched more movies than read books. He was a by-the-book man and she had her head in the stars.

The next morning, the day clear brisk windy, they unpacked and went for breakfast at Lorne’s Snack Shop in North Rustico They both ordered sausage eggs hash fries and toast at the kitchen hole at the back of the front room. There were hordes of potato chips on wire racks attached to a wall where they stood.

“We’ve got a couple gutfounded,” Vera heard the woman at the counter say to the other woman at the stove. “Fire up a scoff.”

They sat down on worn chairs at a green table. Everything was in apple-pie order but worn. There were scattered card tables in a back room and shelves on two walls full of VCR tapes for rent. The other walls were covered with movie posters. A rough and ready man eating threw them a glance.

When the front counter woman brought Franks’ plate, he asked, “Is that for both of us?

“No, that’s your, we’re just doin’ the other toast.”

“It’s a good thing we haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon.”

“Where y’ longs to?”

“What’s that?” asked Frank.

“Where yah from?”

“The States,” said Frank. “What country are you from?”

“G’wan, here in Canada, man, Newfoundland.”

“Oh.”

Twenty summers-and-more later, Frank and Vera drive the one thousand twelve hundred thirty-five and a half miles from Lakewood, Ohio to North Rustico, staying for two or three weeks. Lorne’s Snack Shop is gone, their poutine a strike-it-rich memory. The Co Op is gone, and although the food market isn’t any bigger, it’s better. Amanda’s and their humongous pizza pies is gone, replaced by Pedro’s Island Eatery, their big plates of fish on a new deck. The hard scrabble park road has been replaced, flanked by an all-purpose walking running biking path. The old booths at the entrances to the National Park have been torn down and rebuilt.

“This is swank,” Frank said. “What do you call these things, anyway?” he asked a teenager in a green shirt in the toll booth.

“The guardhouse,” she said, leaning out the window of the air-conditioned guardhouse.

The town is bigger than it used to be. A trove of large houses has been raised in the triangle formed by Harbourview Drive, Church Hill Avenue, and the North Rustico beach. When winter comes most of the occupation leaves and the houses sit empty. A brick-faced line of condos has been built on Route 6 between Co Op Lane and Autumn Lane.

One clear sky summer evening Frank and Vera threw their beach chairs in the back of their SUV, popped open a bottle of wine, and drove to Orby Head to see the sun set. They unfolded their chairs at the point edge of the cliffs, poured themselves wine in plastic water cups, and settled in, the orange red orb of the sun sinking down over Cavendish. A sweet-tempered breeze drifted in the stunted trees.

A minute later they were rushing back to their car, their wine splashing, the cork God knows where, swatting at the mob of mosquitos after them, as though they were fodder. Frank zipped up the windows and slathered aloe he had in a backpack on his arms and neck.

“What the hell,” he said, as they settled into the Adirondack chairs on the grass in front of their cottage. “You try to enjoy some out of doors and see what it gets you, a swarm of biters.”

“The out of doors gets you a lot, and not just good legs and a suntan” Vera said.

“Some people say the mosquito is the official provincial bird of PEI,” said Kelly Doyle. “The sunset hour is when you’re most likely to feel them. If you were to stop at a certain place, like Orby Head, and get surprised by the little buggers, just move on. As long as it’s not the sunset hour, they won’t follow.”

It’s the price you pay to feed your head.

A Stanford University study found that students who walked in a green park for an hour-and-a-half exhibited quieter brains than those who walked next to a rip-roaring highway. They manifested less activity in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with depression. Walking in nature was shown to improve frame of mind. It also avoided clouds of carbon monoxide soaking into the lining of your lungs.

A study at the University of Exeter Medical School in En­gland found that people who moved from concrete spaces to green spaces experienced clear-cut improvement in their mental health. The boost was long-lasting, mental distress over all lessened even three years post-move

An analysis in 2018 of more than a hundred studies on green spaces found that the benefits included upgraded heart rate and blood pressure, lowering in cholesterol levels, and better sleep duration and neurological outcomes. There were also discernable reductions in type II diabetes, cardiovascular mortality, as well as overall mortality.

You don’t need to be a little mouse at the bottom of the beach staring up at Orby Head, or wash down the ‘Drink Me’ potion Alice did to get the perspective, or slip away on Grace Slick’s Orange Sunshine, to have the zero cool red cliffs make your head spin. Just go there and see for yourself. Go, just don’t go at sunset. Don’t stand too near the edge, either.

“Maybe about fifty feet of our land has fallen away since I was a boy,” said Kelly. “It might be climate change, but the storms are definitely more intense. The island is made of sandstone. We’re like a BIC lighter, not meant to last. There’s no stopping that, it’s just our geology.”

There is no granite or hard rock to keep away the breaking waves. “Everybody knows it,” said Adam Fenech, director of UPEI’s Climate Lab, echoing Kelly. He meant everybody on the island, like the Doyle’s, who have been there going on two hundred years. But nothing lasts forever, not mice, not red sandstone, not even hard rock. In the meantime, put on your walking running biking shoes, get out into outer space, never minding what’s in the cards.

Feed your head is where it’s at.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

Soul Music

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By Ed Staskus

“Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.”  Benjamin Franklin

“I’ve always been obsessed by weddings,” said Marsha Weeks. “I used to buy wedding magazines when I was 7-years-old and dream about planning a wedding.”

Most kids don’t grow up to be the firemen and rock stars, much less heroes and explorers, they dreamt about becoming. It’s less than 1 out of 30. It’s a long shot when it comes to becoming a hero, or even a wedding planner. The rest of children, because of ups and downs, twists and turns, turn out becoming and doing something else, mechanics, working in stores, teachers, and doctors.

Marsha Weeks grew up in Fredericton, a small rural community in western Queens County on Prince Edward Island. The province is Canada’s smallest, made up of only three counties, as well as the most rural. It is the only province without a metropolis. Most islanders live in country and small town areas.

After graduating from high school she moved west, almost three thousand miles west, enrolling at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. She stayed for ten years. “I did hospitality management, managed restaurants,” she said. When she moved back to PEI she worked in hotels in Charlottetown, the capital, then went into sales and marketing at the Stanley Bridge Resort, not far from where she grew up.

“I now work for the Children’s Wish Foundation,” she said. She is a wish coordinator. “We grant wishes to children from the ages of 3 to 17 who have been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses.” Founded in 1983, the charitable organization has chapters in every province and territory of Canada. It has granted more than 25,000 wishes. The most popular ones include travel and meeting celebrities.

Super heroes are splashed across the pages of comic books and IMAX screens, battling super villains and saving the world. Real heroes are usually real people helping another real person. She helps kids hitch their wagons to a shooting star.

She also helps grown-ups get hitched to their sweethearts. Since returning to Prince Edward Island, she has become a licensed marriage commissioner and officiant. Dreaming about weddings and watching re-runs of “Say Yes to the Dress” has finally paid off.

“The provincial government started licensing it in 2006, because there was a demand for same-sex marriages,” said Marsha. “There was the church, too, which doesn’t allow marriages outside of the church. A priest wouldn’t be allowed to marry somebody on the beach.”

When 90 people flew to the island last summer for the wedding of Matthew MacDonald, a PEI native, and Katie Shaver, they landed at a wedding officiated by Marsha Weeks staged on a red cliff overlooking the Northumberland Straight.

“It was important to us to showcase the island and have a real east coast feel,” said Katie. “We were blessed with perfect weather, a quintessential late summer PEI day!”

Although you have to take the birds and bees into consideration, as well as inclement weather and the buffet table surviving the wind, nothing beats getting married outdoors. Unless you mistake the lay of the land and your car gets marooned. “Someone from Ontario coming to a wedding here decided to drive over the dunes on to Cavendish Beach,” said Marsha. “They got stuck in the sand and had to be towed out.”

In any event, the flowers are already there – pink and purple lupins line the fields, roads, and ditches in June and July – and your photos will look great.

Almost 900 marriage certificates were issued in the province in 2018, according to PEI Vital Statistics, nearly 400 of them going to couples with a relationship to the island, but not necessarily living there. The Marriage Act was simplified in 2016, allowing people off-island to marry with passports, doing away with the need for birth certificates. There are almost one hundred marriage commissioners licensed to conduct a legal marriage ceremony.

Marsha Weeks is one of the busiest of them. On a summer day last year she officiated five weddings on a Saturday. She didn’t wait for all the traffic lights in all directions to go green before getting going.

“I started at Cavendish, a destination wedding, went to Fox Meadows Golf Course, a farmer’s field in Brookfield, to the woods at Clinton Hills, and ended up on a back road on the Trout River, at a private residence.”

For once, she hired somebody to drive her. “I didn’t want to risk being late, and I wanted to be able to give them as much attention as I could,’ she said. “I didn’t want to just jump out in time for their ‘I do’s’”

It isn’t only traditional wedding season bells, either.

“I recently officiated a large wedding in western PEI,” she said. “The bride and groom chose to incorporate their children with a sand ceremony to symbolize the blending of their two families into one, and presented the children with necklaces as their own special gifts. It was a reflection on how important one big happy family meant to the couple.

“That same day I officiated a small intimate wedding in Charlottetown. The bride and groom couldn’t keep their eyes off of each other for even a second, and as they exchanged their vows, their love for each other radiated. It was honestly beautiful.”

Most people, as recently as ten years ago, used to get married in a church. Nowadays most people get married in a civil ceremony. “I think it’s going to continue that way,” said fellow commissioner Marlo Dodge. “You can get married wherever you want, whenever you want. You can tailor the ceremony to the way you want.”

As long as you include the legal parts, you can write your own ceremony.

Not many people, however, write their own music. There are scores of wedding ceremony songs, from the traditional to the modern. “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles is still popular, as are Josh Groban’s “The Prayer” and “Fairytale” by Enya. “The Wedding March” by Felix Mendelssohn has stayed a Top 10 on the soul music charts since it was first played in 1858 as a recessional for a royal wedding.

Marsha started making soul music on her own when she moved back to Prince Edward Island.

She had gotten the hang of the pump organ as a tot sitting at her grandmother’s side. “One of the fondest memories I have growing up is of her playing hymns. She loved playing for herself. I’m like that. I get something out of it on the inside.” She started taking fiddle lessons six years ago from Gary Chipman.

“Someone recommended him,” she said.

She couldn’t have tied the bowstring knot with anybody better. Gary Chipman learned to play the fiddle when he was 5-years-old. His father, a well-known Charlottetown-area fiddler, taught him his first tunes. By the 1960s he was often featured at local dance halls. He toured with Stompin’ Tom Connors and is well known for his down east Don Messer style of fiddling.

“The Cape Breton style is rhythmic, with Scottish cuts,” said Marsha. ”The down east style is melodic, it flows, it’s a lot faster.”

If Don Messer played with little ornamentation and great assurance, Gary Chipman plays with expressiveness and great assurance.

“I was taking lessons from him, but I had not heard him play,” said Marsha. She heard him one afternoon at Remembrance Day. “I couldn’t see the stage, but I could hear a person playing. That is amazing, I thought. Who is playing that fiddle?”

It was her music teacher. She had only ever heard him play scales. She didn’t know he had played on the folk musical TV variety show “Don Messer’s Jubilee” when he was still a lad. “My chest swelled so much I thought it would burst, it was so exciting,” said Gary. The half-hour show at the time was second in viewership only to “Hockey Night in Canada.”

“These are the good old days, today,” said Gary. “I’m going to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.”

“Musicians don’t retire,” said Louis Armstrong. “They only stop when there’s no more music in them.”

“The Don Messer show was near and dear to a lot of people in Atlantic Canada,” said Marsha. ”When they cancelled it, there was a huge protest. Not riots, but a huge uproar.”

Since brainstorming is the marriage of ideas, Marsha put on her thinking cap. She went to the beach on the national seashore. She went for a walk by herself. She went home and took a hot shower. It’s where some people do their best thinking. Warm water helps increase dopamine flow to the brain. She let her thoughts take center stage.

“I’ve always had an element of promotions and event planning in my career. His natural ability to play music, my entrepreneurial spirit, it was a kind of natural fusion, and I decided I wanted to organize a show.”

They put together a performance, and then did another, and then ”it kind of blossomed after that.” They spent two seasons doing shows at Avonlea Village and two seasons after that at Stanley Bridge. In between they took a Don Messer show on the road.

Avonlea Village is in Cavendish, on the north-central coast, the small town Lucy Maud Montgomery called Avonlea in “Anne of Green Gables.” It is a re-creation of the 19thcentury town, merging purpose-built with heritage buildings. The Women’s Institute in Stanley Bridge is 4 miles up the main drag on Route 6. There are ceilidhs at the community hall six days a week in the summer.

“The Stanley Bridge hall has such a soul,” said Marsha.

Two years ago Gary Chipman spent summer nights there playing with Keelin Wedge, a hairpin turns wizard on the fiddle, and Kevin Chaisson. Last year he played Mondays with the Chaisson Family Trio and Wednesdays with the Arsenault Trio. Jordan Chowden, a world-class step-dancer, made the stage boards go percussive. The Chaisson’s from Bear River have deep roots in PEI’s music scene They are part of the spearhead keeping traditional fiddling alive and well on the island.

Marsha hosted the shows, joining in when the opportunity arose, although keeping up with the Arsenault’s was no mean feat.

“Their liveliness is amazing,” she said. “If we were playing ‘St Anne’s Reel,’ they definitely add more notes to it. They put their own spin on everything. It’s their Acadian style and it’s fast.”

Before the shows Marsha does all of the social media, organizes the schedule, takes notes during rehearsals, and types up the play list in capital letters. She makes sure the doors of the hall are open, the lights are on, and the soundboard is right on.  “I’m always so proud to hand them their play list, although by the end of the night they might have done a few songs on the page,” she said. “It’s just the way it is. Most of the time it works.”

During the shows Marsha is the emcee and stage manager. “Everybody likes the sound of their instruments through the monitors a certain way. They’ve got to have water. Gary has to have his guitar on his right side, or else he gets all tangled up.”

She is also the timekeeper. “It seems like I’m the boss of it, but that’s only because they never think to look at the clock. They would keep going all night. Gary is the biggest offender. I don’t necessarily want the music to stop, either, but I’m the one who knows the show has to end at 9:30.”

Marsha’s own fiddle has become an extension of herself. “I understand now what I was missing,” she said. “It’s a part of me, a part of who I am. It’s a part of what makes myself me. You don’t have to be the best. You just have to feel it.”

It’s her own soul music.

“I don’t think of it as a genre. It’s more of a feeling,” explained Louis Kevin Celestin, a Montreal DJ and partner in the hip hop duo the Celestics, explaining soul music.

“Don Messer was my idol when I was a kid,” said Gary. “I thought his band was the best type in the world.  I had the dream of doing my own tribute show.”

The dream came true in 2015 when he did a tribute show at Winsloe United Church, on the road between Oyster Bed Bridge and Charlottetown. Gary’s daughter was in the band and the Charlotte Twirlers, a square dance group, hoofed it up.

Two years later Marsha and Gary took “A PEI Salute to the Music of Don Messer and His Islanders” farther down the road. They took the Messer-style toe-tapping jigs and reels to National Fiddling Day in Charlottetown and the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside. They took the show to Harvey, New Brunswick, Don Messer’s hometown.

“It’s of real sentimental importance to me, having tried to emulate the sounds of Don Messer for my entire fiddling career,” said Gary.

“The older the fiddle, the sweeter the sound,” is what they say.

In September 2017 they took the show to Walter’s Dinner Theatre in Bright, Ontario. “I don’t even know where Bright is, but we’ll find it,” said Gary. When they found it they sold out all the nine shows they did during their week’s run at the watering hole and show hall.

“Gary plays old tunes in new ways,” said Marsha. “He’s the real deal. He puts his own twist on things.”

Sometimes Marsha puts her own twist on weddings. Sometimes stepping up to the altar and step dancing happen all on the same day. Sometimes somebody’s first dance is in the center aisle at the Stanley Bridge community hall, to the soul music of three or four island fiddlers serenading you.

“There were the two moms, the couple, their son, and me,” said Marsha. “It was an intimate wedding.”

The couple from Alberta had come especially to PEI the middle of last summer to get married. “I try to personalize it. I want them to have an amazing experience when they’re making their forever promises to each other.” There’s a forever kind of happiness in making a commitment. The first event many couples plan together is their wedding. There’s nothing unfun about it, either.

“Marsha brought a genuine joyful vibe that is priceless. We felt she was truly happy for us. We are so glad we chose her to officiate our ceremony. That joy is something one can’t pay for.“

Even though the climate is more mild than it should be thanks to the warm water out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, summer is short and winter is long on Prince Edward Island. It starts to snow in November and lasts until April. Harbors can be frozen solid into May.

“I’m a bit of an old soul,” she said. “I work full-time, but in the winter I slow down, recharge. I write, do projects, and plan for the spring. I practice my fiddle. I practice every day.”

Winter is when wishes get organized and saved up for the heyday of springtime.

“If I could just do weddings and fiddles all the time, it would be my perfect life,” said Marsha Weeks, springing a smile.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

 

 

Cabin Fever

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By Ed Staskus

The nearly 80,000 people who plug away every day on Prince Edward Island go to work in lots of places, including groceries school offices, aerospace and bioscience and pouring coffee and serving breakfast, but mostly in agriculture, fisheries, and tourism.

Grains, fruits, and potatoes lead production on farms, bringing in cash receipts of about $500 million.  “Good soil is better than money in the bank” was once a commonly used expression on Prince Edward Island. It is still true, although it doesn’t hurt to have a bundle in the bank, something for a rainy day.

The lobster fishery lands 40 million-some pounds, valued at more than $200 million. Every last person on PEI is too few to eat all the lobster, so exports are vital. There are more than 4,000 commercial fishers and 47 licensed processing facilities. The enterprise employs as many as 8,000 people during peak production times.

Tourism rounds out the big three. A million-and-a-half visitors come from all over the world to golf, eat, relax, and experience “Anne of Green Gables.” It is far more come and go in summertime than lives on the island.

When you live and work on PEI summer starts when the snow melts and the days get longer. If you are in a business dependent on tourism, ice cream theaters restaurants transportation accommodation, summer starts when summer is over.

Tourism on PEI generates 15,000 to 17,000 full-time, part-time, and seasonal jobs. When summer is over many in the trade go somewhere starting in mid-autumn, looking for a few weeks of summer in another country. The sweltering heat of Cuba is a sticky thing, but it is super in winter, when there are plenty of dry sunny days and lots of blue sky.

Visiting Prince Edward Island in summer means warm enough to go to the beach, swim sail kayak, and go walking, running, and biking. There are plenty of days in July and August when t-shirts and short sleeves are the order of the day, and maybe a pullover for cooler nights. It’s about four months on PEI of being able to get out the door and outdoors.

It is aces having a big cabin if you get cabin fever. But nothing is as wide open big as being out in the open air. Besides, not everyone has a big cabin, or a cabin big enough. Even the largest cabin is dwarfed by the overarching sky.

Yoga means “to yoke.” Even though nobody gets paid for doing it, it is a kind of work. It is also its own reward.

Most people consider yoga an indoor activity. It is mostly practiced indoors, the weather being what it is in North America. Yoga studios are almost always inside buildings, anyway. That is a good thing if it’s the middle of winter in Vermont, or the armpit of summer in Mississippi, or fall winter a wet spring on Prince Edward Island.

Almost 120 inches of snow falls during the winter on PEI. Skiers going to Vermont are happy if 80 inches has fallen during the season. The wind off the ocean can make everything feel colder than it is on the island. Sometimes harbors are still frozen stiff into May.

That was why Frank and Vera Glass never left northern Ohio on the edge of Lake Erie to go to Prince Edward Island until June. Although it was never a sure thing, they tried to make sure they could get outside as much as possible.

Doing yoga indoors means being able to practice in the middle of a blizzard or a thunderstorm, or even a light sprinkle. It means doing it in a space set aside for exercise and breathwork, or just meditation, without interruption. It means being able to be consistent in one’s effort, a good habit thought to be fundamental to gaining ground.

No rain checks are ever needed when unrolling a mat at your local studio or your rec room. They are private spaces, spaces in which the environment is controlled. If you’re looking for insight, lightning might strike, but it won’t be literal lightning. If you’re just looking for a dry place to exercise, you’re in the right place.

Some yoga, like Bikram Yoga, is only done indoors only, in sealed-up steam-filled rooms, like heat-ravaged parts of the world in the grip of a climate change event, when you might as well be outside. Even then it probably wouldn’t live up to what Bikram Choudhury, the eccentric mastermind of hot room yoga, calls his “torture chambers.”

K. P. Jois, the man who inspired and developed Ashtanga Yoga, on which most yoga exercise of the last half-century is based, recommended that it be practiced indoors.

“Outside don’t take,” he said. “First floor is a good place. Don’t go upstairs, don’t go downstairs.” When asked about yogis in in the past practicing in the forest, he simply said, “That is very bad.” K. P. Jois was a man of few words.

Even though there are problems associated with practicing outdoors, including that it will inevitably defy the weather forecast and rain the one day you try it, people do it all the time. Southern California is littered with classes like ‘Beach Yoga with Brad.’

“Ditch the confines of the indoors!” recommended CBS-TV Los Angeles, reporting from the great outdoors.

“If you’re doing yoga indoors then you’re cheating yourself,” said Sarah Stevenson, a Yoga Alliance-certified instructor in Orange County. “The sun’s rays and fresh air provide not only improved physical health, but also spiritual and emotional wellbeing.”

It isn’t just warm clime folks, either, who roll out mats regardless of rocks and roots and bugs. From Missoula to Minneapolis, any place where the winters are long and dark, the sun-starved come out in droves in the summertime.

Frank was a fair weather man, but some don’t wait for the solstice.

Members of ‘Y-8’ routinely practice their ‘Alsteryoga’ on the thick ice of the rock- hard Lake Alster outside the northern German town of Hamburg. They make sure to pull the hoods of their insulated sweatshirts over their heads when in headstand.

Whether it’s ice or sand or grass, the instability of ground outdoors makes for an easier said than done experience. Some people even practice on paddleboards when rivers and lakes have defrosted. “When you’re not on a solid wood floor surface, you end up using different parts of your body,” said Jennifer Walker, an instructor in Maine. “Outside, you end up engaging your core much more to stabilize your whole body.”

Although Frank Glass often got out into their backyard in the summer and fall, he still rolled out his mat indoors more often than not because he had carved out a space he liked at home, and because the weather in Lakewood, just outside of Cleveland, is unpredictable, while the midges and mosquitoes that fly up out of the Rocky River valley are predictable.

Sometimes, though, he jumped the traces.

The three mostly sunny weeks he and his wife Vera spent in North Rustico, on the north central coast of the island, at the Coastline Cottages, he moved his mat outside. Sometimes in the morning, but more often in the afternoon, when the crab apple trees at the back of their cottage cast welcome shadows, he unspooled it on the grass and set about doing yoga exercises, warming up with sun salutations.

“When I practice outdoors, there is this amazing energy,” said Angela Jackson, an instructor in Oakville, Ontario. “I feel more connected to the earth, the birds, the animals, the sky, and to myself.”

He did it almost every day, because they were on vacation with plenty of time, and because the days were warm, and it was fair and breezy where they were on the Atlantic Ocean. He was bitten every one of those days, sometimes more often than less, by creeping flying bugs, occasionally by black flies from the scrubby conifer woods next to the fifty acres of soybeans behind the cottages.

Prince Edward Island is predominately a farming and fishing province. There are croplands and cattle and fishing boats everywhere. A few years earlier they had stayed in a cottage one town down next to a field and a barn full of cows and thousands of flies. Every room in the cottage came equipped with a fly swatter. They checked to be sure all the screens were safe and sound and in place.

The reason we feel more connected to the earth when we do yoga outdoors is because we are standing directly on the earth, on the soil and grass of it. PEI is made of soft sandstone and its soil is an iron oxide red. The contrast of bright green grass and red land beneath a high blue sky on a sunny summer day is always striking.

Frank saw lots of sky doing things on his back on his mat behind the cottage. Insects crawling took shortcuts under him, the long way over him, or just bumped into him and zigzagged away. Seaside birds flew overhead. Most of them were cormorants, an easy to spot coastal bird with short wings and a long neck. There were plenty of wood warblers and a couple of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, darting in and out of the crab apple trees.

One afternoon behind their cottage a week-and-a-half into their stay on the island, a red fox hunkered down thirty-some feet away on the grass and kept his eyes on Frank for a long time. The fox surprised him, out in the open, even though he knew they were all over the north shore. They had seen plenty of them, on the shoulders of roads, or the edge of woods, always looking for handouts.

Vera ran on the all-purpose path every day and kept a wary eye out for them.

From 1900 until the 1930s black silver fox farming – the silver fox is a mutation of the island’s ubiquitous red fox – was a booming cash crop on PEI farms. Fox pelts were in high style but used to cost an arm and a leg because they could only be got from trappers. No one knew how to raise them until in the 1890s two men, a druggist and a farmer, perfected a way to domesticate and breed them.

It made many of the locals rich. The price for a bred fox pelt, never mind a trapped pelt, in 1910 was a jaw-dropping $1,200.00. To put that into perspective, farm laborers on the island in 1910 averaged a dollar a day in pay for ten-and- twelve-hour days.

The Great Depression and changing fashion in the 1940s crippled the market and by the 1950s fox farming was finished on the island. Most farmers simply let their animals loose. The foxes were glad to go, glad to be back on their own, glad to not have to be a fashion statement anymore.

“My grandfather raised horses, and kept foxes for their pelts,” said Kelly Doyle, a North Rustico native whose Coastline Cottages they were staying at. “But then they weren’t cool anymore, so he let all his foxes out, and since my father couldn’t make a living at that became a farmer.”

Rubbing eyes with a fox in woods or fields used to be out of the ordinary, but nowadays sighting have become commonplace.

“Whereas foxes once avoided human contact, they now venture up to parked cars, presumably looking for food,” said Ryan O’Connor, who grew up on PEI and is a historian of Canada’s environmental movement.

Although some of the issues with yoga in the great outdoors are biting bugs and bad weather and sometimes too much sunshine, rarely is the issue a wild animal. Red foxes are wild, but not so wild, too. They live in woodlots and sand dunes, are intelligent and adaptable, and have no trouble living in close association with human beings.

They are still wild, though, living out in the wild.

One moonless night, sitting on their deck overlooking Doyle’s Cove, they heard a god-awful noise somewhere out on the long dark sloping lawn. The next morning Kelly Doyle had to clean up the remains of a dismembered rabbit. Every fox hunts every night for mice rabbits voles.

Frank don’t know when the red fox slipped behind their cottage to watch him on the yoga mat. He saw him midway through his series for the day, when he lengthened into plank from down dog and transitioned into up dog, and there the fox was, nearly near-at-hand.

There is a rule at the Coastline Cottages. “Don’t Feed the Animals.” The rule is to discourage foxes from loitering, looking for food for their kits. Frank and Vera hadn’t seen anyone breaking the rule, because who wants a fox at their door cadging for a handout? But there was the red fox, plain as day, behind their cottage, giving Frank the once over.

“They won’t bother you, or bite you,” Kelly had told them.

Frank had no reason to doubt him, so he continued doing what he was doing, sneaking a peek at the animal now and then. The fox wasn’t small or overly large, maybe 20 or 25 pounds, with a reddish-brown coat, white under belly, and a black-tipped nose. One of his eyes was cloudy, as though the animal had been hurt or had a cataract.

He lounged and shifted and moved more like a cat than a dog, although foxes are a part of the dog family. His ears were triangular. When he cocked his head and his ears went up erect, he looked like a Maine Coon cat with his muzzle in mousing position.

All during the rest of Frank’s yoga practice that afternoon the fox never made a sound, and even seemed to doze off for a few minutes. He stretched and yawned. When he went away, sliding into the soybean field, he walked on his toes, heels off the ground, agile canny swift. No amount of yoga Frank ever did was ever going to get him to be able to move like that.

He didn’t see the fox with the bad eye again the rest of their stay, although Vera spotted him one day miles away near MacNeill’s Brook.

Living far north of Mason-Dixon, Vera was by necessity forced to run on a treadmill and Frank to do yoga indoors most of the time. But moving one’s mat outdoors isn’t necessarily for the birds, if only because that’s where the energy is. The fountainhead is under the arching sky in the wide blue yonder.

In the world of yoga, the word prana means energy or life force and pranayama means breathing exercises. To practice outdoors is to be immersed in the source of prana, whether you mean it as the source of life or simply as the air we breathe.

Bringing a breath of back roads air into your body mind spirit is refreshing. Great wafts of it are even better. It’s no holds barred taking in the old-school oxygen of the island. There’s more air in the air on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean than there is in most other places.

There was more than enough of it for both the red fox and Frank the afternoon they shared it, both of them dwarfed by a sweeping horizon and puffy white clouds blowing out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, behind a cottage next to a soybean field.

“How was it?” Vera asked when Frank stepped back inside through the door.

“It was a breath of fresh air in my brain,” he said.

A version of this story appeared in International Yoga Journal.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

 

 

Road Map

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By Ed Staskus

“Go ‘round the world on a country road, and who knows where you might end up.” Craig Campbell

There are more than six thousand kilometers of two-lane roads up and down the Atlantic Canada province of Prince Edward Island. Almost 2000 of them are unpaved. All of the unpaved roads are red clay dirt tracks. Many of the paved roads are also a reddish hue.

“At one time there was island stone and beach sand that was used in concrete,” explained Jamie Reid, the PEI operations manager for USCO Concrete.

The landscape of Prince Edward Island is layered over sandstone bedrock. The sandstone is leavened with iron oxide, or rust, giving the countryside its distinctive red color beneath wide blue skies overlooking green fields. The Indians who lived on the island before European colonization called it Epekwitk. They believed their god Glooscap, after he finished making the rest of the world, mixed his colors with a final flourish and made their land, their home.

Sandstone can be dug up by backhoes and is still sometimes used for local and seasonal roads. Wet weather transforms unpaved byways and tractor passages into what some islanders call baby poop.

“When I was a kid most of the roads around here were dirt,” said Kelly Doyle. “Sometimes after a bad winter storm you couldn’t go anywhere for a day-or-two.”

The first roads on PEI were built in the late 1760s. At the turn of the 20th century cars were banned on most roads most of the time, especially on market days. A Red Flag law was legislated, ordering there be a man at the front of every car with a red flag, ready to wave it just in case things got out of hand. But by 1920 cars could go anywhere and the red flags were put away.

Kelly Doyle has lived in North Rustico, a small town on a natural harbor on the north-central side of Prince Edward Island along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, most of his life. He owns the Coastline Cottages on the eponymous Doyle’s Cove on the National Seashore, operates PEI Select Tours, and was a lobster fisherman for decades of seasons.

“I grew up on a mixed farm. It wasn’t anything elaborate, basically turnips, which is a rutabaga, and we grew grain, barley, and wheat. My father was the farmer.”

Mixed farms are for families who need a farmer three times a day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Tom and Doris “Dottie” Doyle farmed 100 acres, although at one time the family had almost 400 acres. “Most of our land is rented,” said Kelly Doyle. ”We used to have seven fields on our one hundred acres, but now it’s three fields.”

By the early 1900s PEI’s thick forests had been largely cleared and ninety percent of the island’s land was being farmed. There were more than 12,000 farms, almost all of them between fifty to one hundred acres. The land was sub-divided by dykes, which are walls built of rocks dug up from the fields.

“Those dykes were full of berries,” said Kelly. “Our mom used to send us back in the fields with buckets. We’d come back with them full of wild raspberries and blueberries.”

After World War II province-wide development, tractors, and technology led to modernization and bigger farms. One-crop planting became common. By 2006 there were only 1,700 working farms on Prince Edward Island and more than half of them were growing potatoes.  PEI is sometimes called the Million Acre Farm. Other times it’s just called Spud Island.

“Fields were smaller fifty years ago,” said Kelly. “Maybe it should have stayed that way. Now they’ve ripped out all the dykes and sprays kill all the wild berries. It’s a shame to see it.”

Tom Doyle, however, was the only Doyle who ever farmed.

“They were boat people from Ireland in 1847,” said Kelly. “It was on his third sailing here that my great-great-grandfather landed and stayed. He did something so that the Queen, or somebody, granted him land, and two shore lots.”

By 1850 a quarter of the people on Prince Edward Island were Irish. The last wave of immigrants was called the Monaghan settlers because they came from County Monaghan. They usually paid their own way to North America and made their own way once on the island, rather than submitting to tenant farming.

Most freeholders farmed and controlled livestock. By the mid-1800s PEI was already exporting surplus foodstuff all over eastern Canada and to Great Britain. The Doyle’s, however, raised horses and propagated thoroughbreds. The family later took advantage of fashion and bred black silver foxes for their pelts.

The riddle of breeding foxes for their pelts was solved in the late 19th century on Prince Edward Island. Twenty years later single pelts sold for as much as $2000.00, at a time when farm laborers made a dollar a day. In 1913 the provincial government estimated foxes were worth twice as much as “all of the cattle, horses, sheep, swine, and poultry” on the island.

When fish and crop prices went south, men turned to fox breeding. No one overly minded the stink, the skunk-like smell of the fox farms. The fur bubble burst on the eve of WW2. “When they went out of style my dad let all his animals out and he became a farmer.” By the early 1950s the fox industry was finished.

Kelly grew up on the family farm and went to the nearby Stella Maris School, across the street from the Church of Stella Maris Roman Catholic Church. The school was built in 1940 and burned to the ground in 1954. “We stood looking utterly helpless in our misery,” a nun at the nearby Stella Maris Convent wrote in her diary. A year later, a year before Kelly’s birth, the town re-built their school. “It is the most modern fourteen room school in the province,” the Guardian newspaper touted in its feature article.

“I went grades one through nine. Almost everybody my age quit in grade nine. It was the 70s. There was no need of education around here. Fathers would tell their kids, you’re not going to do anything in school, get to work in the boat. All of us said we’ve got better things to do and banged out of there.”

As a young man he wasn’t ready for boat work, or steady work of any kind, instead roaming Lower Canada, living in Montreal and sowing a bushel full of wild oats, until returning to North Rustico. He built a cottage on family land on a hillside overlooking Doyle’s Cove, but couldn’t find work.

High unemployment in Atlantic Canada has been a constant since the 1950s. The eastern provinces have more seasonal jobs, like agriculture, fishing, and tourism, than Canada’s other regions, leading to seasonal lay-offs and involuntary part-time work.

“Back in the 70s and 80s, she was pretty lean here. There was no money around for years.”

In the 1980s the gross domestic product of Prince Edward Island was the lowest in Canada, only 56% of the national average. Next to Newfoundland, the province had the lowest per capita income in the country. There was the fruit of the sea, though. When Kelly was offered work on a fishing boat putting out of the town harbor, he took it.

“When I first started fishing everyone had a gasoline engine in an old wooden boat. Everything was done manually, except for hydraulics to haul gear off the bottom. The steering was even done by chains. Then everything went fiberglass, everything went diesel, and everything went hydraulics.”

As late as the 1980s fish men went door-to-door, making a living selling cod, until a ban on the taking of ground fish was put in place. Fish stocks had been over-exploited up and down Atlantic Canada. They were severely depleted.

“When I started fishing, people were baiting hooks and hauling trawls for halibut, haddock, and cod. Then the moratorium came in. All we were allowed was lobster.”

Kelly harvested hundreds of thousands of lobsters for almost three decades.

“Lobster traps were invented a while ago and they’re as simple as mousetraps,” he said.

Except, unlike mousetraps, lobster traps are remarkably half-baked, even though they almost always get the job done. Invented just more than one hundred years ago, they have changed little in the interim. Even though entrances to the traps are one-way, any lobster that tries to escape can get away, if it has a mind to.

“My theory is there are two ways lobsters get caught,” said Kelly. “One way is what I call simple mindedness.” Since lobster brains are less than the size of the tip of a fountain pen, he might be right.

“Lobsters won’t usually back out the same way they’ve come in. They crawl up the net, there’s a flap on it, then once they’re in that they can’t go back. The other way they get caught is they just stay too long in the trap eating bait, and when we jerk it out of the water, they get tossed into the back by the sheer momentum of us pulling it up with the hauler.”

Since lobsters spend almost all day and night racking their brains about where their next meal is coming from, crawling on their walking legs to get to it, and finally eating all the crabs, mollusks, fish, and even other lobsters they can get, it lends considerable credence  to Kelly’s second theory.

Kelly Doyle’s brothers, John, Mike, and Kenny, all fished. “We weren’t farmers, exactly, but we weren’t fishermen, exactly, either, although I think it was naturally in our blood, since every one of us was at ease on the water.”

John Doyle fished for several years before marrying and moving to Ontario to raise a family. Mike Doyle was one of the first satellite television providers on PEI. “Mike had rubber boots and oil gear and he went out, too, but then he got into TV’s.”  He later transitioned from catching lobsters to serving them at his Blue Mussel Café, a seasonal seafood restaurant, at the far end of the harbor.

Kenny Doyle spent fifteen years fishing on local boats, and the next ten years fishing commercially with his brother, Kelly. “He’s captained deep-sea fishing boats out of Rustico for fifteen years, too. Kenny’s an able man behind the wheel.”

Cathy and Elaine, the Doyle sisters, stayed on dry land. They did so for good reason. In North America fishing boats sink to the bottom of the sea at the rate of one every three days. Imperfect unpredictable storms roil the ocean. “You get black and bruised,” said Kelly. “During those seas, you do everything slower. You have to be a lot more careful with your gear, your traps, and the rope under your feet. You always have to watch your P’s and Q’s.”

Kelly fished with his partner, Paul Doiron, a man he’s known since they were youngsters, although nine years separates them. “Paul, that’s my buddy, that’s my partner in crime.” Their boat was the Flying Spray, a modern, high-bowed 40-foot fiberglass craft built in nearby Kensington. “Paul’s roundish, built a bit like a buoy. He lives right here in the crick.”

North Rustico has been known as ‘The Crick’ for many years. “There was a creek that ran right through the village,” said Kelly. “The people from Charlottetown either didn’t know what a creek was, or misunderstood, and ended up calling it the crick, so we ended up being nicknamed that.”

There are only three houses on the shore lots on the northwestern side of Doyle’s Cove. One of them is a newer house built by Kenny Doyle, the other is the old Doyle family house, and the house nearest the cove was Andy’s Surfside Inn. Andy Doyle was Kelly Doyle’s uncle. “Andy turned 90 a couple of years ago and was still over there.” When he passed away, a cousin took over the house, renovating it.

Kelly’s all-year cottage, large sliding glass doors fronting red cliffs and the curving shoreline, is on the field side of the Gulf Shore Parkway, which the National Park road between Cavendish and North Rustico. Since the late-80s he has built one by one five seasonal cottages adjacent to his, which are the Coastline Cottages, on the crest of the hill overlooking Doyle’s Cove. In the new century he added a kidney-shaped saltwater swimming pool.

“People thought, I’m turning it into a tourist trap,” he laughed.

“Most of my friends ended up getting married. I ended up having cottages and getting in debt.” He is not on the rocks, but “there was no money around here for years. We’re all making a living now, but there still isn’t any great amount of it.”

He owned and operated Amanda’s, a fresh seafood diner, in town across from the market, for many years. It wasn’t in his blood, but it was  In the 1960s his parents had a small restaurant in nearby Cavendish.

“It was 7 cents for pop, 30 cents for a hamburger, and 17 cents for fries back then,” he said. “That was the kind of money you made in 1964. There were six kids in our family. Some of those French Acadian families around here had twenty births. It was no different for anyone.”

Besides his cottages and fishing for lobster the months of May and June, like many men and women on Prince Edward Island he has always had other jobs to keep his head above water. He operates PEI Select, a tour guide service catering to Japanese tourists visiting Anne’s Land, the imaginary home of “Anne of Green Gables”. The series of books by Lucy Maud Montgomery, about a plucky red-haired girl, are big in Japan. In 2014 a Japanese-language version of the “Anne of Green Gables” musical wrapped up a sold-out nationwide tour by playing in Tokyo.

In the spring he rents his farmland to neighboring farmers for hay, grain, and soybeans. He doesn’t let potatoes on his land. “They grow food that uses the least herbicides and pesticides,” he explained.

Coastline Cottages, the Doyle houses, and the cove are in the National Park, but are not the National Park. The park was established in 1937 and encompasses more than five thousand acres of coastal headlands, sand dunes, and beaches. The Doyle’s didn’t sell their land when the park was being created on the central north shore of Prince Edward Island.

“But they have the patience to wait everybody out,” said Kelly. “That’s the beauty of the National Park. You don’t want to sell right now? That’s fine. Your son will want to sell, and if he doesn’t want to, his son will. If it takes two hundred years, we will get you out of this park.”

Only change is unchanging, even though when times change it sometimes seems like not much is different. “There’ve been a lot of changes around the island, but it’s nice to go home and say it hasn’t changed much right here. That’s another beauty of the National Park. Since it’s a national park, it stays the same.”

About 285 million years ago Prince Edward Island was a mountain range. Over time it evolved into a low-lying basin as glaciers advanced and retreated. Most of the ice was gone by 10,000 years ago and the island slowly took shape.

Living in a traditional farming and fishing community, looking past the sandstone cliffs of Doyle’s Cove and out over the wide Atlantic Ocean, from the vantage point of Kelly Doyle’s deck it can seem like only a little has changed in a long time.

“Only the rabbits and trees get bigger,” he said.

Before the rebuilt Gulf Shore Parkway, which features a new all-purpose trail as it winds down a long highland past the cove, there was the old Gulf Shore Parkway, while before that there were tracks, and before that there weren’t any roads, at all.

“When the road came in sometime in the 1950s it cut our farm in half,” said Kelly. Before it was a road it was a hillside. When it rained in early spring or late fall, and especially when it rained all day, the slope that is now the road turned into a slippery slope of PEI sandstone, red clay goop.

The Doyle’s always still got to where they had to go. Getting somewhere is staying on your feet, knowing how to drive, trimming your sails. Sometimes any road, or even no road at all, will get you where you want to end up.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

The Second Anne Shirley

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By Ed Staskus

“Many people think I was the first Anne, but I wasn’t,” said Gracie Finley.

Every summer for the past fifty-five years the musical “Anne of Green Gables” has played on the main stage of the Homburg Theatre at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. The show is based on the 1908 best-selling book written by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

No show on London’s West End or on Broadway has been on the same stage for more seasons. It is not only Canada’s longest running smash hit, it’s the longest continuously running musical theater production in the world. Nineteen actors have played Anne Shirley since 1965.

“I was the second Anne, not the first. It’s an urban myth that I was the first, probably because I’m a local girl.”

Although Gracie Finley is a local girl, she is in the same way that Anne Shirley, the red-haired orphan from Nova Scotia, hero of the story, is a local girl on Prince Edward Island.

“I’m an Islander,” said Gracie. “But I was actually born, hold on to your hat, in Sheffield, Alabama.”

Her father was an American serviceman from Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, where there is a statue of James Finley, one of his forebears. The woodsman Daniel Boone came clean when he said, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” James Finley was one of the scouts who helped guide Daniel Boone and clear the confusion through the Cumberland Gap in the 1790s.

Her mother was in the Canadian Armed Forces. They met in London, backstage at the Royal Albert Hall, during World War Two, at a fund-raising joint services concert. Fund-raising led to raising the roof and they married not long after.

In the 1940s Walnut Ridge was a farming community of fewer than three thousand. Croplands of grain, oilseeds, and dry peas were its chief commodities. Alberton, on the northwestern shore of Prince Edward Island, her mother’s hometown, was in the 1940s a silver fox farming community of fewer than a thousand.

“Alberton, those are my roots,” said Gracie.

After the war the newlyweds moved to the United States, to Walnut Ridge, to hot muggy summers and wet chilly winters. The closest ocean was nearly five hundred miles away.

“My mom had a big problem moving to the south. She was a young girl from PEI. It was awful after the war.” It had been awful for the underclass before the war, during the war, and it wasn’t any different after the war. “She just couldn’t stand what was going on there.”

Jim Crow had ruled in Arkansas since 1868 with the passage of laws segregating schools. By the turn of the century white primary law had been institutionalized, effectively disenfranchising the black vote. In 1957, after a Supreme Court ruling struck down so-called separate but equal education, the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division had to be mobilized to enforce the federal ruling in the state. The Ku Klux Klan to this day maintains its national office in Arkansas.

“It upset my dad, too. The decision was finally made. We were high-tailing it out of there.”

Gracie and her mother, although living in the south, had been spending their summers on Prince Edward Island through the 1950s. “She had to get away. We stayed at my grandparent’s farmhouse up in Alberton.” After pulling up stakes, moving nearly two thousand miles northeast, the family settled down to spring summer fall and Gulf of St. Lawrence winters on the island, winters being waiting for the next spring.

By 1965, when the newly-minted “Anne of Green Gables” headlined the Charlottetown Festival for the first time, Gracie Finley had several years of small fry ballet classes under her belt, was experienced in grade school theatrics, but had not yet founded the drama club at her high school-to-be. That summer she performed with the Circus Tent Theatre at the Confederation Centre.

“We did children’s productions in the afternoon. We didn’t get paid, but we could have jobs as ushers in the main theater at night.” She was thirteen years old. Chutzpah is something you either have or you don’t. “I saw the show from the first season. I snuck into rehearsals. I met Jamie Ray, a Texan who originated the role. She was the first Anne.”

The first Anne took an interest in the second Anne. “She went out of her way to talk to me, wanting to know what my plans were, always willing to lend me something, and help me,” said Gracie.

The next year, 1966, the show’s co-creator Don Harron, who also wrote the musical’s script, sought Gracie Finley out after seeing her in a small local play.

“Do you sing or dance?” he asked.

“No, why?”

“Because you look like an orphan,” he said. She was five foot two and 100 pounds.

He suggested she take singing and dancing lessons. She took lessons and took on something like the likeness of an orphan. Actors said of her, she’s more of a dancer. Dancers said, no, she’s more like a singer. Singers said, no, you’re both wrong, she’s really an actor.

Two years later, in 1968, by then a triple threat, she took over the spotlight, becoming the youngest singer dancer actor to ever play the role of Anne Shirley, and the first of only two native Islanders to do so.

“It was pretty terrifying, I can tell you,” said Gracie.

She stayed in straw hat and red pigtails for seven summers. The show toured nationally in the off-season. In 1970 it went to Japan. The cast and crew shared a chartered plane with men from the RCMP Musical Ride. The ride is a choreographed spectacle performed by a full troop of 32 Royal Canadian Mounted Police riders and their horses.

“Strong drinks were flowing freely,” said Gracie. “No one could get any sleep as the noise level got higher. When we arrived, I was deaf in one ear and I had to go to a doctor. He couldn’t speak English and I could only say hello goodbye and ice cream in Japanese.”

But the show had to go on. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book was translated into Japanese in 1952. “Akage no An” became a part of the country’s school curriculum and remains popular to this day. The show went on and was a hit.

Between seasons she got married. “I met Barry at a party in England. We’ve been married for 50 years.” She gave birth to her first child. After the 1974 season, when her husband, Barry Stickings, a chemist working for the German multi-national BASF, was offered an opportunity to work in Germany, Gracie Finley was ready to go.

Not go on the road, but go home.

“I thought, my first child is nearly two. I didn’t have that child so someone else would see him stand up and walk and speak for the first time.” Besides giving up a social life, sleep, and losing track of the space-time continuum, actors are often forced to sacrifice their families. ‘I can’t, I have rehearsal,’ is a common refrain.

“I’m ready,” said Gracie.

After several years in Germany, and after several more years in Montreal, where her husband was next transferred, Gracie Finley got a phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Alan Lund, the artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival from 1966 to 1986. He invited her back to reprise “Anne of Green Gables.”

“I was 30ish, married, and had two children.” She thought about it for a second-or-two, and then said yes. She was back in pigtails in 1984. In 1985, her second and final year back, she became and remains, at 33-years-of-age, the oldest actor to play Anne Shirley. She was the youngest and the oldest. But she wasn’t done setting records.

“I was going from one form of birth control to another. My doctor told me to watch myself, because it might take a while for the changeover. I said, la, la, la, nothing’s going to happen.”

Instead of exercising restraint she exercised her freedom. What happened was she got pregnant right away.

“I sat down in front of our producer, Jack McAndrew, who always called me Miss Gables. Jack, I said, I have something to tell you.”

He looked her in the face. “You’re having a baby.”

“How did you know?”

“We have three kids. I know the look,” he said. She became the first the last the only pregnant Anne Shirley, breaking new ground in the world of Avonlea.

“They said I could still pass for the petite orphan girl.” She was excused, however, from jumping off tables. An understudy played the matinees, as well. “Toward the end of the run, at seven months along, the costumes were getting tighter and tighter.”

In 1985 Gracie Finley hung up her straw hat and her career on stage. The Stickings family moved back to Germany and bought a house. “We went through all the rigamarole, lots of red tape. They have to put a stamp on everything.” As soon as they settled down her husband was transferred to New Jersey.

“We lived up in the hills, outside Morristown, where there are lots of horses. I love horses. My father always wanted me to be a ballerina. He would put on classical music and I’d spin around. But I was in love with Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey.” Rogers and Autrey were singing cowboys on the radio, in the movies, and on TV. “I told my father I wanted to be a cowboy.”

Daniel Boone, with whom the family has a kindred spirit, once advised the young, “All you need for happiness is a good wife, a good gun, and a good horse.”

In 1996 they moved to Great Britain. “When my husband got the opportunity we said, we have to, we just have to. I was thrilled. We love England.” They bought a house outside of Oxford with a large garden and stables. The house was nearly 400 years old and had originally been the Woodsman’s Inn.

“Our part of the country is where they first started turning chair legs.”

Her part of the country is what were once the forests of Shotover, Stowood, and Wychwood. Shotover Forest, nearest to where they live, supplied wood by royal decree for both fuel and building material from the time of Henry III. Turners shaped chair legs with chisels and gouges while spinning them on a lathe.

They lived in England, their children growing up, but often returned to Prince Edward Island. “We came summers, and after my mom died, and my aunts got too old for us to stay with them, we bought a year-round cottage in Stanley Bridge.”

Stanley Bridge is a small town just west of Cavendish on the north shore of the island. It is known for the Sterling Women’s Community Hall, the New London Bay, and the bridge on Route 6 over the Stanley River. When the weather is good, from the waterfront deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar, you can watch kids jump off the Stanley Bridge, the thirty thrill feet down into the cold water, avoiding eels as they swim back to the riprap.

The thrill is in the scariness.

“We’re right across the bay from Carr’s,” said Gracie. “There’s a small lagoon, a swampy place, which is great because we get all sorts of birds and wildlife.”

One day she got another phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Duncan McIntosh, director of the Charlottetown Festival and soon-to-be artistic director of the new Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, 12 minutes down on Route 6 from Stanley Bridge.

He invited her to dinner. She knew what was coming. He had been dropping hints.

“So, Gracie, I’ve been looking at doing Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard”, but set on PEI in the 1970s,” said Duncan. “What would you think of playing the lead?”

“I went home and thought, why not?” said Gracie.

“Aren’t you afraid to go back?” her friends asked her.

“I think it does you good to give yourself a healthy scare. I wasn’t frightened so much as I was excited. I fell in love with Russian literature when I was a teenager. It’s when you’re going through the terror you get right into it. I love Chekov. That’s how Duncan reeled me in.”

If ever stranded on a desert island, she has told friends, she would make sure to have an iPod that never died, an endless supply of food, and lots of Russian novels.

Twenty-eight years after leaving the stage Gracie Finley was back on the stage, not in just one play, but in two plays at the same time at the Watermark Theatre. One was “The Shore Field’” by Duncan McIntosh, inspired by Anton Chekhov, and the other one was “Alice in Wonderland.”

“It’s like riding a bicycle. You get up there and start pedaling,” she said.

“I played the Queen of Hearts. Off with your head! She is just so preposterous. But I had a dynamite costume.”

It was dynamite until she actually had to don the poofed panniered straight-jacket dress and move around in it. “It took two people to get me in and out of it. When I went up to the balcony to play the judge, there’s a narrow part of the staircase, where I really had to push to get up those stairs.”

It’s been said, never look back, you’ll fall down the stairs.

In the 1960s, when repertory theater was going strong, Gracie Finley specialized. In the age of specialization, when repertory is fading away, she jumped feet first into repertory. “It’s a big challenge finding two plays where you can cross cast people. You become close very quickly, become a family. It’s chemistry.”

The Homburg Theatre, home of “Anne of Green Gables,” seats more than a thousand on two levels. The Watermark Theatre, a member of the Professional Theatre Network of PEI, is small, seating a handful more than a hundred. “Doing live theater, in a small theater like this, is like no other experience. It’s a smaller version of the Stratford stage. The audience is inches away from us. We feel that energy.”

In 2017, her 4th season there, she played the jolly hockey sticks Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” and the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield in the memory play “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams.

“This is going to take a lot of energy,” she said while rehearsing in early June for the season starting in July. “And, I have to say, I am very tired at the moment, very tired. I have to take a nap.”

Many people get snappish if they’re not well rested. A short afternoon snooze means waking up fresh again. It also means you end up with two mornings in a day, although not necessarily a second plate of Mussels Benedict.

In 2018, returning to the Watermark for her 5th season, Gracie Finley played the wild-evening-of-romance Ethel Banks in Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” and the imperious Kitty Warren in George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.”

“The best part about being here is that I’ve gotten to play some of the best roles in theater for a woman my age.”

When actors who are women reach about 50-years-of age they discover auditions are suddenly looking for a younger version of you. Age and gender matter on stage. There is a trove of plays, starting with the male-heavy Shakespeare, featuring men over 50. There is a thin scattering of plays featuring women over 50.

“Let’s face it, the roles get fewer and fewer for older women,” said Gracie.

Nevertheless, the roles keep rolling up to her doorstep.

“There’s nothing like the first day of rehearsals,” she said. “We sit around a big table, the cast, production people, and the director. We see a model of the set and sketches of the wardrobes. We take a break, get a cup of coffee, and read through the script.”

If need be, they take a nap.

“The rehearsal period is always one step forward, two steps back, you have a good day, and then think I don’t know what I did today. You get going again, you get to the stage, where you think, I think we’re getting there. It’s about a group who start to gel. It’s about taking an author’s idea, voicing that idea, and making it a reality.”

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance,” George Bernard Shaw pointed out.

Gracie Finley raised her family off stage. Even still, they were the kind of family that didn’t look at her like she was crazy whenever she broke into song and dance. After she got back on stage, they were the kind of family that made her feel less crazed whenever her script director stagecraft wasn’t making sense.

The theater for many actors is a second family, which is what happens after twelve-hour rehearsals and sharing the fear of opening night. Remember your lines and don’t freeze up stiff as a board. You can’t choose your family, on or off stage, but you can choose to make magic with them.

“I feel very lucky to be back working again,” she said.

Returning to the Watermark Theatre in 2020 for her sixth season, Gracie will be playing Carrie Watts in “The Trip to Bountiful,” the same part played by Geraldine Page that won her the 1986 Academy Award for best actress. She will also play one of the suspects in Agatha Christe’s “The Mousetrap,” the world’s longest running play.

“Our little stage, it’s so immediate. It’s electric.”

When most people are getting home for dinner, or getting ready to go out to dinner and a show, Gracie Finley is making the scene punching in to work, lifting words off a printed page and by lights make-up wardrobe dialogue action making them into a show, an electric thrill running up and down the spine, the first time and time as long in hand until the curtain call.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

Searching for the Surfside

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By Ed Staskus

“Whenever we leave home, to Ontario or New Brunswick, I always say we are crossing into another world, into a strange world, into Canada,” said Marie Bachand. “I always ask Louie did you bring our passports?” She always asks in French because her partner Louie Painchaund doesn’t speak English.

It was a cumulus cloud high sky day when they went to Prince Edward Island. They didn’t have their passports. Who wants to look like their passport picture on a sunny summer day, anyway?

They live in Saint-Gregorie in Quebec, a community of the city of Becancour, on the south side of the St. Lawrence River. Their house dates to the 1780s, built by refugee Acadians after the French and Indian War. “They came down the St Lawrence River, four hundred families. It was a rough time. They stopped, said OK, looks good, and settled here.”

It is about six hundred miles to Prince Edward Island, up the St. Lawrence, down New Brunswick, and across the Confederation Bridge to PEI. The first time they went they were touring the Maritimes. The island was a spur of the moment runaround. They drove across the Northumberland Straights on the nine-mile-long bridge to the other side.

“We thought we could run over and visit PEI in one or two days,” Marie said. “It’s so small.”

Even though it is pint-sized, the smallest of the ten Canadian provinces at just a little more than two thousand square miles, compared to Quebec’s almost six hundred thousand square miles, it goes over big.

Ten years later, even after Andy’s Surfside Inn is no more, they still go to Prince Edward Island two weeks in the summer, staying at the Coastline Cottages up the hill across the street, riding their bikes all over the place, still finding substantial fresh things to rack up on the to-do list.

The inn was on the ocean side of North Rustico, near the entrance to the harbor, a white clapboard two-story house with a dozen windows, two dormers and three porches on the side facing the water. A broad lawn slopes down to the cliffs. It wasn’t always the Surfside Inn and isn’t the Surfside Inn anymore, having since taken up where it left off, back to being a home.

“The first house was bigger,” said Kelly Doyle.

Kelly’s grandparents, Mike and Loretta Doyle, were visiting and playing cards at a neighbor’s house one winter night in 1929. Their friends lived about a mile away. At the end of the evening, going home in their horse-drawn sled, they crested a frozen hill. A red glow lit up the sky and flared across the flat cove below them.

The house was being swallowed up by fire. The pitch-dark night was blazing. They had left seven children behind in the care of the eldest.

“It was a flue fire,” said Kelly. “It burnt down because of the stove.”

By the time the Doyle’s raced their sled down to the house, and finding all the children safe and sound outside, there wasn’t much they could do. There were no neighbors nearby to help and there was no fire department. Mike Doyle was able to drag some furniture from the first floor out the front door and saved as many fox furs as he could.

The house was rebuilt the next year and finished the following year.

“The foxes my grandfather saved built the new house.” Kelly’s grandfather was a fox farmer. What he sold the pelts for paid for the work of the itinerant immigrant tradesmen who built the house.

Furry garments are made of furry animal hides. Even though it has lately fallen on hard times, fur is one of the oldest forms of clothing. Once we started globe-trotting out of Africa, to where everywhere else was colder, we started wearing furs. Ever since, people have worn beaver racoon sable rabbit coyote wolf chinchilla opossum mink and foxes.

Mountain men wore the bears they shot and killed.

In the 1880s foxes were bred for the first time, accomplished on Prince Edward Island by locals Charlie Dalton and Robert Oulton. Theirs was the original fur farm in 1884. Within several years the rush was on. But the rush didn’t really and truly mushroom until after a pelt sale a few years later when their harvest of 25 skins brought them nearly $35 thousand dollars. It was a boat load of a barn door of money, bearing in mind that the average island farm worker those days made less than $30 dollars a month.

In 1926 nearly nine hundred live silver foxes were shipped from Summerside to the United States. It was the most valuable shipment in the history of Prince Edward Island up to that time and is still called the ‘Million Dollar Train’. Andy Doyle was born the same year, spunky and healthy, although nobody ever called him the ‘Million Dollar Baby’.

By the 1930s the fox farm industry was strong as a bull, raking in multi-millions of dollars. There were hundreds of thousands of foxes being farmed and skinned coast to coast throughout Canada and the United States.

“The furs my grandfather was able to rescue from the fire were worth five thousand. In the end the new house cost five thousand,” said Kelly.

“We stayed at a country inn, at the information center at the bridge they said it was nice, but it was a little room, yuk,” said Marie. She picked up the official PEI tourist book. Where to stay next? She thumbed through the book. She put her finger on Andy’s Surfside Inn. “I say to Louie, what’s that, the north shore? We had already decided to stay three or four more days. We went looking for it.”

Gavan Andrew “Andy” Doyle was 81 years old in 2007 when Marie and Louie went driving up and down the north shore looking for his eponymous inn. Andy had been born in the white house that was the inn. Years later, grown-up a young man, pushing off after World War Two, he landed in Montreal, married, brought up three stepchildren, and years later, when his wife Vivienne died, went back to Prince Edward Island.

His mother died shortly after and he inherited the house on Doyle’s Cove. “My aunt, his sister in Montreal, always had a soft spot for Gavan. She helped him get the place up and running. She bought a bunch of nice furniture for him,” said Kelly Doyle. It was the late 80s. Andy Doyle resurrected the Surfside Inn that had been his mother’s brainchild in the late 40’s.

“When my grandfather died in 1948, my grandmother wanted to make some money with the house and started taking in tourists,” said Kelly. “There was a white picket fence, she had ducks and geese and sheep in a big barnyard, and she kept a garden.” It was a large working garden. “She fed the bed and breakfasts herself.”

As her six girls and two boys grew up and left home, she converted their rooms to guest rooms.

“She filled those rooms all through the 50s and 60s,” said Kelly. “PEI wasn’t like the rest of the world back then. Tourists found the way of life interesting, honest and down-to-earth. There wasn’t much entertainment, but there was always lots to do. They just liked the place.”

When Marie telephoned the Surfside Inn, a Japanese woman answered the call.

“Andy always had Japanese girls, three girls, housekeepers for the season who were exchange students who wanted to learn English. They shared a small bedroom over the kitchen. She told us, yes, we have a room.”

Louie and Marie drove up and down Route 6 between Cavendish and North Rustico searching for the Surfside Inn. When they couldn’t find it, they finally stopped at a National Parks kiosk and got directions. It was in the park, although on private land, Doyle’s Land on Doyle’s Cove. They drove down the Gulf Shore Parkway, past Cape Turner and Orby Head, and down to the coastal inlet.

When they got there, there wasn’t a room. There were four rooms that shared a bath. They were all taken. What Marie and Louie didn’t know was that there was a fifth room on the ground floor, which was Andy’s bedroom with a private bath.

“When we are full, he gives you that room,” explained the young woman.

“We’ll take that,” said Marie. “Where does Andy go to sleep?”

“He sleeps in the boat.”

The Japanese girls did the heavy lifting in return for being able to learn English. “I don’t know where they learned it, but it wasn’t from Andy,” said Marie. “He never talked to them.” They came from away, 6500 miles away, and found their own way to talkfests.

Outside the house was a cast-off wood lobster boat. The hull and forward cabin were worthy enough, although it needed some planks and rib work. it looked like it still had some spirit to it, like it could still make a living at sea if it had to.

“It smelled bad, all old stuff papers tools junk a small bed,” said Marie. “It should have been burned long ago.”

The Surfside Inn had a kitchen with several refrigerators. “We thought it was just for breakfast, but we saw other people storing food and making supper.” They started shopping at Doiron’s Fish Market on the harbor road. One suppertime Andy saw them coming into the kitchen with lobsters.

“Let me fix those for you,” he said.

“Oh, my God,” said Marie, “he was good. Tack, tack, tack, all done.”

They started bringing their own wine from home, though.

“I don’t like PEI Liquor wines. We brought Italian and French whites and rose for the fish.”

Coming back from Doiron’s one day, putting away fresh cod wrapped in Kraft paper, Marie noticed small buckets of frozen milk in the freezer.

“There was a Muslim couple staying at Andy’s, the guy was always in the living room, but she was wrapped up, always going to the bedroom. She didn’t talk. At breakfast, no words. She looked at her iPad, that’s all.”

The mother was expressing her breast milk and storing it. She kept it in the back of the freezer, the coldest part of fridges. One day all the milk was gone.

“We never saw the baby, though, maybe it was somewhere else, with a grandma.”

“Tourists in the 50s and 60s weren’t from Monkton or Toronto,” said Kelly. “Some were from the States, but a lot of them were from Europe. We lived next door and ran around the yard, having fun, meeting people. In 1970 my grandmother got a little bit ill and couldn’t keep it going. She lived alone for seven years until my dad moved her into the senior citizen’s home in North Rustico.”

The white house was empty for about ten years, for most of the 80s. It came back to life as the rooms filled up. In summertime it was never vacant.

“You could see the sea right in front of you,” said Marie. “We sat on the porch every day. It was a special place. After a week we would say, let’s stay another day, then another day. Other people, too, were crazy about this place.”

One day Andy asked Louie to help him take an old heavy bicycle out of the lobster boat. “You’re a big guy, you can do it,” said Andy.

When the bike was on the ground Andy straddled it and pedaled to the downhill on the all-purpose path. “He was going down the hill, but Louie told me there were no brakes. Stop! Stop! I yelled but he yelled back, I’ve been riding this bike for thirty years!”

Whenever Andy pulled his four-door sedan out to run errands or go to the grocery, Marie and Louie kept their distance. “I don’t think there were any brakes on his car, either,” she said.

He seemed to own only three short-sleeve shirts. “I have three nice ones,” he said. “I got them for a dollar each at the Salvation Army.” One was yellow, one green and one blue. The blue shirt was his favorite. He dried all his laundry on an outside clothesline, in the sun and ocean breeze.

“All the guests, they were from Canada, the United States, Italy, England, all over. A Chinese couple had a four-year-old who had been born in Quebec, so they named him Denis. Whenever we saw a Chinese child after that we always called the child Denis Wong. There was a couple from Boston, they lived in the harbor on a boat there. He was 80 and she was in her 70s.”

“I didn’t come with my boat. I came with my girlfriend,” he said.

“There is no age,” said Marie. Until you find out your grade school class is running the town city province country.

Aging and its consequences usually happen step-by-step, sometimes without warning. One minute you’re only as old as you feel and the next minute you don’t feel good. It’s like going on a cruise. It can be smooth sailing or a shipwreck. Once you’re on board, though, there’s not much you can do about it.

“There were always many guests, but suddenly a few years ago Andy started getting mixed up. He forgot reservations, there were two Japanese girls instead of three, it wasn’t the same.” What it takes to make an inn work wasn’t getting done. By 2016 it was far more vacant than occupied and Marie and Louie were staying at Kelly Doyle’s Coastline Cottages up the hill across the street.

“Andy introduced us to him,” Marie said.

Like Dorothy said at the end of ‘The Marvelous Land of Oz’, “Everything has to come to an end, sometime.”

In 2018 Andy Doyle moved to the Garden Home in Charlottetown and his nephew Erik Brown took the house over, renovating it and transforming it into his home. In November Andy died. He was 92. It was the end of the Surfside Inn.

“On the ocean was wonderful,” said Marie. “Once we found it, Louie and I loved the Surfside.”

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

Born on the Barachois

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By Ed Staskus

“Everybody went to church back then,” said Connie Lott. “Especially in a small community like South Rustico. My goodness, we all went. I just walked up the road from home to the church and the school. It was the same way we walked to the beach and went swimming.”

Walking to the beach was easy. There is ocean to see and wade into on three sides of the school and church.

There were four classrooms to the school and eleven grades, overseen by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Many of the nuns came from the Magdalen Islands, an archipelago not far away in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “They were one hundred percent French,” said Robin Lott. “Connie’s French is fluid to this day.”

“He means fluent,” said Connie.

“My teachers were Mother Saint Alphonse, Mother Saint Theodore, and Mother Saint Cyril, who was sort of icky,” she said, almost seven decades later. “Kids came to our school from all over, from Hope River and Oyster Bed Bridge.”

South Rustico is on the north-central shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, where Route 6 and Church Road cross. The Lion’s Club, caty-corner to the church, hosts ceilidhs featuring local talent in the summer. There is a handsome beach on Luke’s Creek, which is a bay on the far shoreline, near the National Park.

“I went to mass once twice in twelve hours,” said Robin, Connie’s husband. “We were dating, I was on the island, and her mother insisted we go to church Saturday night before stepping out. So, OK, that’s it, we go. Sunday morning they wake me up and say it’s time to go to church again. I said, what? I thought, I must be desperate for a girlfriend!”

“You must have really liked me,” said Connie.

Built in 1838, the oldest Catholic Church on PEI, St. Augustine’s in South Rustico was already an old church when Cornelia ‘Connie’ Doucette and Robert ‘Robin’ Lott got married there in 1960.

“Our wedding party was in Connie’s yard,” said Robin “The barn was behind the house and they brewed homemade beer. We didn’t have five cents to rub together.”

Connie Doucette was born at home in 1938. “I lived in what is now the Barachois Inn on the Church Road,” she said. A barachois is like a bayou, what Atlantic Canadians call a coastal lagoon separated from the ocean by a sandbar. But the home she grew up in wasn’t where she was born, nor were her parents the parents she was born to.

“When my twin sister and I were born, our mother died,” she said.

Her father, Jovite Doucette, a farmer with eight children, owned a house behind the church and croplands between Anglo Rustico and the red sand shore. “Where the new school was built,” said Connie, “that was once part of his fields.” Suddenly a widower, he was unable to care for the newborns of the family.

Cornelia and her sister, Camilla, were placed with foster families. Her sister went to Mt. Carmel, on the southwest side of the island, while she became a permanent ward of the Doucette’s, a husband and wife in their 50s, who lived down the street, literally down the street, on the front side of the church.

“It wasn’t traumatic,” said Connie. “I saw my brothers and sisters, and my father, all the time, and my foster parents made sure I saw my twin sister now and then.”

The Doucette’s she went to live with were islanders who had long worked in Boston as domestics, saved their money, and returned to Prince Edward Island, buying a house and farm. They kept cows and some horses. The Doucette’s were childless, and despite the surname, no relation to Connie’s family.

“I was spoiled since I was their only child,” said Connie “They were older and well-to-do. We had a car, a Ford. I didn’t do too much, although I might have milked a cow once in awhile.”

Before mid-century most of the roads on Prince Edward Island were dirt or clay, muddy when it rained, dusty when it was dry. The first paved road, two miles of it, was University Avenue in Charlottetown, the capital, in 1930. “They eventually paved the road up to the church,” said Connie. “We used to say, ‘Meet me at the pave,’ which was where the pavement ended.”

“Our generation, their children have built modern homes on the island, it’s not as basic as it used to be,” said Robin.

“Everybody’s got washers and dryers now,” said Connie.

Her mother’s sister washed clothes by hand in a washtub and dried them on the line. “We visited them in the late 1960s,” said Robin. “Their house didn’t have running water or electricity. I went out to the well and pulled the bucket up. There was meat and butter in the bucket.”

“That was their refrigeration,” said Connie.

“They finally moved across the road to an old schoolhouse that had power,” said Robin.

“They had thirteen children,” said Connie.

Although he was born in Quebec in 1936, Robin grew up in Ontario.

“My father worked on the boats all the time, Montreal to Thorold, where the locks are, and we ultimately moved there,” he said. From Montreal the passage is down the St. Lawrence and across the length of Lake Ontario to Niagara. The Welland Canal at Thorold, sitting atop the Niagara Escarpment, is ‘Where the Ships Climb the Mountain.’ Standing on viewing platforms, you can watch enormous cargo ships pass slowly by at eye-level a few feet away from you.

When he came of age Robin Lott joined the Royal Canadian Navy.

In the Second World War the Canadian Navy was the fifth-largest in the world. During the Cold War of the 1950s and 60s it countered emerging Soviet Union naval threats in the Atlantic with its anti-submarine capabilities. “We were off the coast of Portugal when my mother telegraphed me that she and Connie had decided I was going to get married,” said Robin.

The executive order said to be ready in October.

Robin and Connie met when she went to nursing school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Robin was stationed with the fleet. “I was working a little job at the Charlottetown Hospital,” said Connie. “A friend of mine told me about the nursing course in Halifax. Right away I got the bug.” It was 1956. She and her friend enrolled and her friend’s father drove them to Nova Scotia.

After nursing school, as part of her scholarship agreement, she worked at the Sunnybrook Military Hospital in Toronto. “They gave you $70.00 a month to live on.” She and Robin dated long-distance style. “Whenever I got leave I would pick her up in Toronto and take her to visit with my parents in Thorold,” said Robin. “That’s how I introduced her to my family.”

At the same time, Connie was introducing Robin to Prince Edward Island

One afternoon, making his way from Halifax to Rustico, coming off the ferry in January and driving up Route 13 from Crapaud, he was stopped by a snowdrift in the road.

“The road went down a valley and there was literally six feet of snow piled up,” said Robin. He reversed his 1955 Pontiac back to where his rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road. “I hit the gas as hard as I could, went as fast as I could, hit the snow, everything disappeared, and I came out the other side. By the time I did the car was barely moving.”

Commuting between Nova Scotia and PEI, Robin rode the Abeigweit. Before the Confederation Bridge opened in 1997, the ferry was one of the busiest in Canada, the island’s lifeline to the mainland. Commissioned in 1947, ‘Abby’ was in its time the most powerful icebreaker in the world, capable of carrying almost a thousand passengers and sixty cars, or a train of 16 passenger cars. Its eight main engines drove propellers both bow and stern.

“I used to take the ferry across when we were dating,” said Robin. “You had to sleep in your car if you missed the last one. We would be lined up single file down the road, there were no parking areas back then, a hundred cars inching along trying to get on the first boat in the morning.”

In the dead of winter, crossing the Northumberland Straight from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Port Borden, Robin Lott stood bundled up against the cold wind hands stuck in mittens leaning over the bow watching ahead as the heavy boat broke through foot-thick ice.

“It would crunch gigantic pieces of ice and turn them over like ice cubes as it went across,” he said.

After they married the Lott’s didn’t stay on Prince Edward Island. “Both of the family farms were no longer farming,” said Robin. “I had an offer to partner in a fishing boat, but I didn’t take that up.” They moved to St. Catharine’s, the largest city in Canada’s Niagara Region, not far from Thorold. They rented an apartment and got busy.

By the time Connie was pregnant with the second of their four children they had bought a bungalow with a 185-foot deep backyard, near Brock University. “We had plans about moving, but we had a low mortgage on this house, so we never did,” said Robin.

They still live in the same house fifty-five years later.

“Those days we used to all climb in our station wagon on a Friday payday and go to the grocery store,” said Robin. There was a meat packing plant in the city and an adjacent store called Meatland. “They sold hot dogs in three-pound bulk bags.”

It’s been said you know you’re from St. Catharine’s if you know the difference between Welland and Wellandport, were in the Pied Piper Parade at some time in your childhood, ate fish and chips at the north corner of the Linwell Plaza, can drive through downtown without getting confused, pissed in the Lancaster Pool, hate Niagara Falls, and bought cold cuts at Meatland.

“When we went on holiday we took our four children and went camping,” said Connie. “We had a hard top tent. We went all over, as far south as the Teton Mountains near Yellowstone Park and as far north as Peace River.”

It is almost two thousand miles from St. Catharine’s to Peace River, and another forty miles to Girouxville. Towing their hard top trailer, their four children in tow, the family piled into their station wagon to visit Connie’s four uncles living there. Her natural father’s brothers had all long since moved from Prince Edward Island to Alberta.

The Peace River valley’s rich soil has produced abundant wheat crops since the 19th century. The town of Peace River, at the confluence of three rivers and a creek, is sometimes called ‘The Land of Twelve-Foot Davis.’ Henry Davis was a gold prospector who built a trading post in Peace River after he made a fortune on a tiny twelve-foot square land claim. After his death a 12-foot statue of him was erected at Riverfront Park.

“It was one of the highlights of our trip,” said Robin, about their excursion out west in 1976.

Girouxville is a small French-Canadian community surrounded by enormous farms. A hundred years ago the local Cree Indians called it ‘Frenchman’s Land.’ Every four years Chinook Days are celebrated. Besides farming, there are thousands of beehives, hunting for elk and moose, and good fishing on the Little Smoky River,

“Three of the brothers homesteaded, the three stronger ones,” said Robin. “In those years you could go up there, it was all bush, and if you cleared the land and farmed it, it was yours. They pulled out stumps and ended up with farms so big they weren’t described by acre, but by section.” Spring, durum, and winter wheat are grown on almost 7 million acres in Alberta. The average farm size is close to double the size of farms on PEI.

The fourth Doucette brother became a schoolteacher, opened and operated a store, married, and propagated a large family.

“We pulled into this little town with our trailer and kids,” said Robin. “Then it occurred to us we had no idea where they lived.” Spying the town’s tavern, they parked in front of it. Robin went into the tavern. He told the bartender he was looking for Emile Doucette. The bartender looked at Robin and bobbed his head at a table set along the back wall.

“Why don’t you ask his brother Leo over there,” he said.

“He was a single man, quite a drinker,” said Connie. “What else do you have to do after working all day on a farm? He eventually bought the tavern.”

That night Doucette’s gathered from far and wide for a reunion dinner. “Everybody came, everybody got together,” said Robin. “We talked long into the night and it was still light enough to see.” In northern Alberta in the summer the sun rises at five in the morning and doesn’t set until almost eleven at night.

The night before they left to go back to St. Catherine’s Uncle Leo invited them to his farm.

“We were having a beer when he said he wanted me to go into his bedroom and pull the suitcase out from under his bed,” said Robin.

“Open it up and count out some money for Connie and Camilla,” said Uncle Leo.

“It was full of cash, honest to God,” said Connie. “We just about died.”

“I was nervous, what if somehow or other he thought I had taken one dollar more than he told me to do,” said Robin. “But then on the mantle in his living room I saw checks for crops he had sold, thousands and thousands of dollars, none of them ever cashed.”

Robin and Connie have gone back often to Prince Edward Island, most recently the past summer when they traveled to the island for the marriage of a granddaughter. They enjoy eating the local seafood, especially oysters, mussels, and lobster. At one time they ate as much whitefish as they wanted.

“When we first started coming back here I would go out with friends who were fishermen and it was nothing to hand line 1500 pounds of codfish in the morning,” said Robin. “But that was all shut down thirty years ago.”

“We ate fish, potatoes, carrots, and turnips when I was a girl,” said Connie. “That was about it. Whenever we went to Charlottetown we ate at a Chinese restaurant, but that was as much as I ever knew. Before I came to St. Catharine’s I had never had Italian food. After I married, my cousin and a friend of hers said, we’re coming over to make dinner. We’re going to make spaghetti. I thought, yippee.”

In the years since, the Lott’s have discovered fare across Canada and the United States, in Spain, England, Austria, and Denmark. “I like to travel,” said Connie. “We’re going back to Mexico at the end of the year.”

“It all started when she came to St Catharine’s,” said Robin. “Our community has every nationality you can shake a stick at, Irish, Italians, Russians, because of the construction of the canal system. There are cabbage rolls and pierogies and souvlaki.”

When Connie’s daughter travels to Prince Edward Island on business, she has stayed at the Barachois Inn. “She told me my old house has changed a little bit, one of the rooms now has an en suite bathroom, but it’s still owned by the same people who bought it,” said Connie.

Not much is better than going from one home to another home to family and eating good food. When Robin and Connie Lott are on PEI they sometimes stop at Carr’s Oyster Bar in Stanley Bridge, zigzagging up the coast to the other side of the Rustico lands, and have lunch on the ocean.

“We love seafood,” said Robin. “It’s our heritage,” said Connie. They eat on the sunny open deck overlooking the dark blue water of the New London Bay. The dark water isn’t new. It’s been there a long time.

The being on the seaside, mind’s eye on the barachois, when it’s a living heritage, is like diving into the long-time ocean and being able to see how deep it is. Or it’s kicking back, digging deep right now into a plate of mussels lobsters white fish and raisin pie, watching kids jump off the Stanley Bay bridge into the briny water. It might be both things at once.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

 

Big Ass Bowl

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By Ed Staskus

There is plenty of good better best seafood chowder on Prince Edward Island, since there is plenty of seafood on all sides of the crescent-shaped province. There are cultured mussels and lean white halibut and wild-caught lobster. The chowder comes in cups and bowls. Some of the bowls are bigger than others and can be meals in themselves.

There is only one Big Ass Bowl, however.

“We had a large bowl of chowder last year, but I don’t see it on the menu anymore,” said Frank Glass to the young man who was putting glasses of water down on their table.

“We have a really good seafood chowder,” he said, pointing to the menu.

“Is it a big bowl?” asked Frank.

The young man sized up an imaginary bowl with his hands.

“No, the chowder we had was in a bowl about twice that size,” said Frank.

“Oh, you mean the big ass bowl.”

“The what bowl?” asked Vera Glass, sitting across from her husband. They were at a table at one of the windows overlooking the Clyde River. On the far bank the red roof of the PEI Preserve Company, where jams and jellies are made, glowed in the roll-up of dusk.

“That’s what we call it in the kitchen,” the young man said. “We don’t call it that on the menu, obviously. If you want it, I can ask, and I’m sure we can make it for you.”

“You’ll just clear the decks and whip it up, even though it’s not on the menu?” asked Vera.

“Sure,” said the young man.

“Sweet,” she said.

Vera and Frank Glass were at the Mill, a snug as a bug up-to-speed restaurant in New Glasgow on Prince Edward Island.

It is neither a small nor big roadhouse, seating maybe fifty diners, right on the road, on a zigzag of Route 13 as it runs south from coastal Cavendish through New Glasgow to Hunter River. There is a performance space on the second floor and a deli case just inside the front door full of pies and meat pies. The building is blue, two–story, and wide front-porched. It is kitty-corner to the bridge that crosses the snaky river. The Mill describes itself as “carefully sourcing seafood, steaks and entrees served in a rustic yet refined space with scenic views.”

That’s hitting the nail on the head.

It was the night before Hurricane Dorian slammed into PEI, even though it wasn’t a hurricane anymore when it did. It was a post-tropical storm, which is like saying you took it on the chin from a cruiserweight rather than a heavyweight boxer.

“Under the right conditions, post-tropical storms can produce hurricane-strength winds,” said CBC meteorologist Jay Scotland the day after the storm. “Dorian serves as a good example that the difference between a hurricane and a post-tropical storm is more about the storm’s structure and not its intensity.”

On Saturday morning, moving north, it sucked up energy from another weather system moving in from the west. The winds spreading over the island grew to hurricane strength during the day and the storm unrolled over a larger area than Hurricane Juan, the “storm of the century,” had done in 2003.

“Look who’s back,” said Vera, looking over Frank’s shoulder.

“Who?”

“Michelle.”

“Good, maybe she’ll be our waitress.”

“She looks better tonight, not so spaced.”

“Didn’t she have to go home the last time we were here?”

“I think so.”

“Hi, how are you?”

“Good,” said Michelle. “I see you two have made it back again.”

“This is our third time here in three weeks, although we’re leaving for home on Sunday,” said Vera.

“So, you’ll be here for the storm.”

“It looks like it.”

“Where’s home?”

“In Ohio, Lakewood, which is right on the lake, just west of Cleveland,” said Frank. “We get thunderstorms that come across Lake Erie from Canada, but nothing like what we’ve been hearing is going to blow up here in your neck of the woods.”

Hurricane Dorian hit home like a battle-ax.

“The result was much higher rainfall and more widespread destructive winds across PEI with Dorian compared to Juan,” said Jay Scotland, the weatherman.

On Monday Blair Campbell, the chief executive officer of PEI Mutual Insurance, said they logged the most claims ever on Sunday, the day after the storm. More than four hundred policy holders called in property damage.

“These are damage claims in the frequency and magnitude that we have not seen before,’’ he said.

Fishing boats from Stanley Bridge to Covehead were smashed submerged.

“Sobeys in Charlottetown this morning was worse than Christmas,” said Michelle. “You couldn’t get anywhere with your cart. Everybody was buying dry cereal, canned fruit, ready-to-eat, and cases of water.”

Frances MacLure was stocking up.

“So far I have just bought batteries,” she said.

“I have two radios and I’m just going to make sure one of them is going to work. It’s always nice to be able to keep in touch if the power is out for any length of time,” she said.

There were water and sandwich makings on her list, as well.

“Just for a quick bite if the power goes off.”

“Everybody was buying batteries,” said Michelle. “The last time a hurricane came to the island, power was out for more than a week.”

“We are very concerned, we’ve certainly spent the last three days in readiness, in going through all of our checklist and checking our equipment,” said Kim Griffin of Maritime Electric as the weekend approached.

“There is a lot of greenery and foliage on the trees, that is a concern to us. So, we are really asking our customers to make sure they are prepared and ready.”

“When was that?” asked Frank.

“About fifteen years ago,” said Michelle. “Summerside has its own power, but if it goes out in New Brunswick, this whole part of the island won’t have any power.”

“Do you still have that moonshine cocktail?” asked Vera.

“We do,” said Michelle.

Vera had an Island Shine and Frank had a pint of lager.

“Are you going to have the big chowder?” asked Vera.

“Yes,” said Frank.

“I’m going to have a small bowl of soup and the ribs,” said Vera. “What about going halves on the lamb and feta appetizer? It’s good with everything.”

“Sure,” said Frank, agreeably. “You can’t go wrong with the ribs, and the mac and cheese they come with. That cheese from Glasgow Glen, it’s good. I had it the last time we were here.”

“I hope Emily has the sweet potato curry soup tonight,” said Vera. “Curry is my number one favorite thing in the world.”

“What about me?”

“You’re close, maybe third or fourth.”

“That close, huh?”

“You don’t like curry, which is a problem. I think Emily is a curry person, like me. She probably does a great Fall Flavors menu.”

The Mill’s owner and chef Emily Wells was born in England and lived on the continent before coming to Prince Edward Island in 1974 when her parents bought Cold Comfort Farm. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Canada, committed to healthy local food and ethical food production. She has worked in restaurants in PEI and Ontario for more than three decades and is a key contributor to the River Clyde Pageant.

The pageant, four years running, is about the tidal river, and features great blue herons, trout puppets, schools of dressed-up jellyfish, bridge trolls and mermaids and fishermen.

“I love it when you put curry in things, but then all of a sudden you don’t taste anything else. I feel like you can taste everything else in her soups.”

“It’s like her chowder, it’s chock-full, but nothing’s drowned out, all the parts stand out,” said Frank. “It’s not too busy.”

“Everything here is always better than I expect, even though I always expect it to be good,” said Vera.

“My boyfriend is a chef at the Blue Mussel in North Rustico, and it’s hard for us to get a day off in the summer on the same day, so we hardly ever eat out,” said Michelle.

“After eating here and at the Mussel, we don’t always want to go, anyway, but we ate out in Charlottetown a few weeks ago, and the chowder we got was mostly a milky liquid, with so little fish in it. We poked around for whatever we could find but ended up asking for another loaf of bread. We got it to dunk into the chowder, because there were hardly any pieces of anything.”

From one end of PEI to the other pieces of preparation were coming together.

“We have been busy as a team,” said Randy MacDonald, chief of the Charlottetown Fire Department, the day before the storm. “Our team has been making preparations for tomorrow’s storm.”

He said chainsaws and generators were on hand. “We may see trees down, branches down, large branches taking down power lines, that sort of thing.” Rapid response cars, trucks, and ambulances were gassed full and staff was on the alert, ready to go.

While the tempest was rolling up the coast, Michelle didn’t just rush to Sobeys. She took matters into her own hands, in her own kitchen, in her own house.  “I live just down the road from here, next to the Gouda place. I send my son there for pizza, since he can walk over.”

The Gouda place makes artisan cheese.

“I’ve passed my name and my expertise on to Jeff McCourt and his new company Glasgow Glen Cheese,” said the former Cheese Lady, Martina ter Beek.

Glasgow Glen Farm slaps out skins from scratch, down the line doing the dough to sprinkling homegrown veggies and meats on the pie, featuring their own made from scratch gouda, working behind the front counter at two long tables just inside the door, wood firing the pizzas in a brick oven.

In the summer there are picnic tables alongside the gravel parking lot, a grassy field sloping away from a pile of cordwood.

“I made chowder,” said Michelle. “It was a fishy stew, like Mel does. I ended up using cod, clams, and scallops. I made everything else, clam juice, potatoes, carrots, onions, and tomatoes out of my garden. Once the potatoes were almost completely cooked, I took the pieces of cod and sat them on top. I put a lid on it and all the flavor, yeah, of the cod went into it.”

She didn’t need any bread to help her chowder out, either.

While Vera pulled gently at her baby back ribs, Frank started scooping out his large bowl of broth and seafood.

“How’s the sinkhole?“ asked Vera.

“So far so good,” said Frank. “It’s sort of like a Manhattan clam chowder, like the Portuguese make, and like a seafood goulash at the same time.”

“Like a cioppino.”

“Like a what?”

“That’s the official name of it,” said Vera.

“Anyway, I can taste bay leaves and thyme, and there might be some oregano in it. It’s loaded with stuff. She must have hit the motherload at the fish market. There are mussels, halibut, lobster, a chuck of salmon, and mini-shrimps.”

“Emily probably uses whatever she has on hand,” said Vera.

“On top there’s a red pepper rouille, almost like a pesto, which gives it a kick,” said Frank.

“Are you going to be able to finish it?”

“I’m going to give it my best shot.”

Halfway through their meal, when Vera spotted a plate of maple mousse walking by, she said to Frank, “That’s what I want to try for dessert tonight. It’s frozen mousse, like ice cream. I thought it might not be good for sharing, but that thing is more than big enough.”

“All right,” said Frank, “since that Anna kid is a wizard. First, we eat well, then we face tomorrow, no matter what happens.”

The Mill was almost vacated evacuated when they paid their bill of fare and left.

“You wouldn’t know a hurricane is blowing in,” Frank said to Vera as they lingered in the front lot after dinner, leaning against the back hatch of their Hyundai, watching the no traffic on the quiet road, the starry northern sky quiet above them.

When Saturday morning rolled around, it started getting dark, and by noon it started raining. It got windy and windier. The Coastline Cottages and the Doyle houses on the other side of the park road lost power in the late afternoon. Churchill Avenue in town was closed down. The Gulf Shore Parkway east from Brackley was closed down. Roads in all directions were closed down, as utility wires and branches blew away. Fences were flattened, roofs torn off, and hundred-year-old trees toppled.

The damage to the Cavendish Campground, seven-some miles away from where Frank and Vera were staying, was so bad it was closed for the rest of the year. An arc from Cavendish to Kensington to Summerside was walloped. Islanders tarped roofs, sawed up tree limbs, and hauled away debris for days afterwards. On Sunday morning all the trails administered by Parks Canada everywhere on PEI were shut down until they could be assessed.

After their cottage lost power, Frank and Vera packed for their drive home the next day and tidied up while there was still some light. “At least we know the mondo bridge is as sturdy as it gets,” said Vera. When it got dark, 19th century-style dark, they popped open the remains of a bottle of red wine and spent the rest of the night riding out the lashing all-out rain and gusting big ass wind.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

Jumping Stanley Bridge

Richard Moore, Emma MacIssac and Connor McVey

By Ed Staskus

“It was terrifying,” said Johanna Reid.

She was standing on the outside edge of the bridge in the town of Stanley Bridge, on the far side of the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, looking down into the New London Bay.

She was 12-years-old. Her father had already jumped from the bridge. The hard flat dark blue of the bay was more than twenty feet below her.

“He didn’t tell me much. I stood on the opposite side of the rail looking down at the water for probably an hour,” she said. “I just couldn’t do it. I finally closed my eyes and jumped feet first. It took a lot of effort. After I hit the water I thought, Oh, my gosh, why couldn’t I have done that before?”

Now 20-years-old she’s been jumping every summer ever since. The Stanley Bridge is a simply supported beam-style bridge on Route 6 where it crosses the Stanley River. Built in the 1960s to replace a worse for the wear wood overpass, it is made of steel with a concrete deck. There is a sidewalk on the jumping side.

“The first couple of times I jumped I screamed, but now I just get up there, crawl over the railing, and go.”

Prince Edward Islanders living on the north central shore have been jumping the Stanley Bridge for as long as anyone can remember. “I used to jump off the bridge in the 1950s,” said Harriet Meacher. “Fun fun.”

“We all jumped off the bridge,” said Phyllis Carr, whose Carr’s Oyster Bar, on the near shore of the bay, is a few hundred-or-so yards from the bridge. Anyone on any summer day can sit on the outdoor dining deck of the eatery with a pint and a plate of shellfish and watch jumpers all day long.

“My brother Leon was only 4-years-old when he first jumped. It’s a tradition.”

The bridge at Basin Head, one of PEI’s better-known beaches on the eastern end of the island, is the other launching pad popular with jumpers. The Basin Head Bridge spans a fast-flowing boat run that is capable of rushing jumpers out into the Northumberland Strait, another way to get swept off your feet. Although signs prohibit any and all jumping, it is honored more in the breach.

“It’s one of those time-honored traditions here on Prince Edward Island, and from when I was down there watching the activities, people were really enjoying their experience,” said Tourism Minister Rob Henderson.

“A lot of people do it,” said Johanna about jumping the Stanley Bridge, “especially from around here. My dad lived just up the road and used to jump all the time when he was younger.”

“I dived since I was little,” said Earl Reid.

“I remember seeing people jumping off of it ever since I was born,” said Johanna. “I told my dad, you forward dive, but I’ll jump feet first. I’m too chicken.”

Majoring in Kinesiology, which is the study of human body movement, at the University of New Brunswick, Johanna Reid has played hockey since she was four-years-old, through high school, and continues to play in a women’s conference. A fast fit trim young lady, she has played rugby since she was a teenager and competes in her college league.

“I like making tackles, pulling them down, even when they’re twice my size,” she said.

She may have been a chicken once on the Stanley Bridge, but she takes the chicken out of chicken noodle soup everywhere else.

Some people forward dive off the bridge, others back dive or back flip, but most leap feet first. They do it for good reason

“You can do a starfish, or a belly flop, but that hurts,” said Denver McCabe, Johanna Reid’s 9-year-old cousin, who first jumped Stanley Bridge when he was 8-years-old. “I pencil dive, like a pencil, feet straight in.”

Belly flops are the bane of jumpers. “You never want to belly flop,” said Johanna. It is always a stinging pancake slap of a bad time. The crack of a belly hitting the New London Bay at velocity is the Frankendive of Stanley Bridge.

“One day there were a bunch of tourists jumping, and a little boy, 7 or 8-years-old, was trying to jump with them,” recalled Johanna. “I was swimming back after a jump. He was going to dive, so I watched him, while I paddled around. Halfway down he decided he didn’t want to be diving anymore and started to pull back. He belly flopped. We had to help him out because he was freaking. But, it just hurt him at the time and he was fine in the end.”

“It’s not quite like falling on concrete, but it’s a similar sensation, ” said Dr. Sonu Ahluwalia, a surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “Most of the time, other than ego and the skin, nothing will happen.”

The plucky brave curious come to Stanley Bridge from around the island, from Victoria, North Rustico, and Kensington, as well as some summer tourists from the rest of Canada and the United States. They jump alone or with their friends.

“Nothing says bonding like jumping off the bridge at Stanley Bridge,” said Rika Kebedie of Burlington, Ontario, about jumping with friends.

“When I was 13-years-old a lady was biking by,” said Johanna. “She had just gotten a cottage down the road and we had a chat when she stopped on the bridge. She had her bathing suit on, so I said, you should jump off.”

The woman gave it a thought. “OK, I’ll jump,” she said, leaning her bicycle on the railing and going over the side.

“She jumped off the bridge and survived, and now she’s here every summer, and she said I was her first friend on PEI.”

Jumping the Stanley Bridge starts in mid-to-late May, once the water has warmed up. “Some people jump in early May. That’s too crazy for me. I usually start at the start of June,” said Johanna. “When it’s cold, it’s an instant shock, like someone dumping a bucket of ice water on you. You come up from under the water pretty fast.”

Since the harbor on the bay side of the bridge brims with working fishing boats, and pleasure craft go up and down on both rivers,  the Stanley and the Southwest, spotters keep an eye out for traffic. “I’ve heard someone once jumped and landed on the deck of a boat, but it could be a myth,” said Johanna.

Besides passing boats and belly flops, jellyfish are the scourge of jumpers swimming back to the breakwall or the shoreline dock ladder. “They just float along, their tentacles floating behind them, and they hit you going by. Some days there are huge ones, as big as a pie plate.”

Jellyfish are free-swimming marine animals and are called jellyfish because they are jelly-like. They have no brains and have been swimming the oceans from even before there were dinosaurs. Crabs sometimes hitch a ride on top of them so they don’t have to exert themselves swimming to where they want to go.

Jellyfish never give their crustacean freeloaders a second thought.

“Every so often you can see them from the bridge, so you wait until they go by,” said Johanna. “When they sting you it really stings, it can really hurt. What I do is take some mud off the ocean, rub it on the bite, and you’re good to go.”

The first step off the edge of a bridge into mid-air is a step into a second-or-two of complete freedom. It is where most people never thought they might be. “Once you step off nothing in the world matters,” said Marta Empinotte, a world-class Brazilian BASE jumper, about stepping into space.

In mid-air jumpers find out that they don’t know anything, only that they’re in the nothing of mid-air, even though there’s no such thing as nothing. Once you’re off firm ground there’s nothing you can do about it, anyway. It’s only when you hit the water that you become something again.

“Whenever you go out on the bridge it looks kind of scary when you look down,” said Denver McCabe. ”The water will be 30 feet, even 40 feet down. The last time I jumped, when I checked on my iPad, it was 26 feet.

“It felt like nuthin’.”

The bravery of small boys can sometimes be larger than life, or not.

“But, you don’t want to belly flop, that’s for sure,” he added.

You don’t want to jump into a mass of eels, either.

“We used to jump off Tommy’s,” said Carrie Thompson, whose family owned the aquarium next to the Oyster Bar. She worked summers at the marine exhibit.

“We weren’t allowed to jump off the bridge, so we jumped off the wharf. Maybe the current pushed the eels that way. It was gross.”

On hot days when there is a crew on the Stanley Bridge waiting their turns, motorists often honk their horns while driving by, yelling, “Jump, jump!” Sometimes friends encourage their friends to make the leap, usually by daring them. “I dare you, they’ll say,” said Johanna, “and then they do it, even when they’ve never jumped from the top of the railing or done a back flip.”

Sometimes the encouragement takes the form of a shove.

“I wouldn’t push anyone I didn’t know or who was younger than me” said Johanna, “but if they were my friend, and weren’t going, weren’t doing it, I would just push them right in. The way I do it, I attempt it a few times, freak them out, and when they’re about to jump, it’s get in there! I just push them.”

The fear of jumping can take an unlikely turn.

“One of my friends from Bermuda was scared to get into the water because in Bermuda you can see everything, the water is so clear, but here it’s dark water. He eventually jumped the bridge, but he would only do it back-flipping.”

Joanna Reid has jumped the bridge every summer with every one of her friends. “Pretty much everyone in my high school did it. You could say, want to go bridge jumping, and anybody would go.”

A native of Stanley Bridge, “Yup, born and raised,” she spends autumn winter spring at university in New Brunswick, but her summers at home, kayaking, hanging out with her friends, and waiting tables at Carr’s Oyster Bar, as well as jumping the bridge at Stanley Bridge.

“When it’s a nice day, but there’s no wind, and you’re really hot, I will jump ten times, more-or-less. It cools you off.”

She never loses her cool, either, flying feet first thrill downwards cooling off, off the Stanley Bridge into the sparkling bright easy-landing water of New London Bay.

A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist Magazine.

Photograph by Andre Forget.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.