Tag Archives: North Rustico PEI

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.

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Ed Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio. Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction.

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.”

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Ed Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio. Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction.

Gone Gros Morne

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By Ed Staskus

“The secret to acting is don’t act. Be you, with add-ons.” Michael Sheen

“I’m going to take off now,” said Leah Pritchard. “I’m going to go. I’m going to do what I want. I’m going to leave. That’s what’s going to happen.”

It was the tail end of her last year at Gros Morne Academy in Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland. Closing in on the end of theater studies with Sarah McDonald, the teacher pulled Leah aside. “Of all the students here, the one we think would be feasible as a professional actor is the one who’s always saying they don’t want to do it. You would be the one strong enough and talented enough to actually make it.”

Leah Pritchard had other plans. She was geared up and buckled down about joining the Mounties. She meant business.

When the class mounted their year-end play, everybody’s parents coming to see the show, Sarah McDonald rustled up Ross and Marion Fraser-Pritchard. She meant business, too.

“We’re going to put her in theater school at university, so that’s the plan,” she told Leah’s parents.

“My dad did not want me leave Newfoundland and he did not want me to be in the RCMP,” said Leah.

“Fine, great, we’ll keep her here,” said her father, despite himself and his wife both being Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

“I was still very angry about being in Newfoundland, about being moved around, leaving Nova Scotia.” She was 17-years-old. “I was a surly teenager, a willful child. I didn’t want to be here anymore.”

She turned 18 her first day three months later at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “She can’t get into the theater program right away, but we’re going to make sure she gets into it,” Sarah McDonald told Leah’s father. “She was my mentor,” said Leah.

In the meantime, she snuck into theater classes.

“I was hanging with my friends one day when I got locked in the class by accident when the professor came in. After I didn’t get called out for it, after a few weeks I started answering questions,” she said.

“Who are you?” Todd Hennessey, the teacher and Head of the Division of Fine Arts, finally asked her. “Do you take this class?”

“Um, no,” she answered.

“Don’t worry,” her friends told the teacher.. “You’ll meet her officially next year.”

In her last year at Memorial University she headlined Hard Ticket Theatre’s production of “Venus in Fur.”.Todd Hennessey directed the spooky two-person sex comedy. “It takes one heck of an actress to convincingly play a character who is regarded as being a fantastic actress, and Leah Prichard nails it,” wrote Rachael Joffred in her review.

The campus she attended was the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College at Corner Brook, where the bulk of the theater program was, and which is two hours from  Rocky Harbour. Wilfred Grenfell was an English doctor who opened hospitals, orphanages, and cooperatives one hundred years ago to serve the coastal inhabitants of Labrador and Newfoundland. He was an able-bodied doughty man. Once marooned on a slab of floating ice slob, he killed some of his dogs to make himself a fur coat in order to survive.

“They wanted to keep track of me, since I was just 18.” Two years later her mother was reassigned to RCMP Headquarters in Halifax. Her father took a post in the capital city, as well. Leah Pritchard stayed lived studied and worked in Newfoundland for the next nearly seven years.

Rocky Harbour is on the far western edge of Newfoundland. The town is home to Gros Morne National Park. There is a fjord lined with cliffs and waterfalls, formed by long-gone glaciers. There are caribou and moose, rainy moody fog-bound mountains, and the tablelands, where you can walk on the earth’s mantle. The landscape is ancient.

“If you ever see tourism commercials for Newfoundland,” said Leah, “there’s always this big fjord where somebody is standing with their arms outstretched saying, “Look at the world!’ That’s where I lived. You can spend a long time by yourself there. I ended up loving it.”

A native of Nova Scotia, Leah Pritchard grew up in Lower Sackville, a fast-growing suburb of Halifax. In the 1950s it was known for its drive-in theater, harness racing track, and WW2 bomber plane ice cream stand. It is today a family-oriented commuter community.

Her parents, now both retired, were RCMP policeman and policewoman. The Force, as it is known, is both a federal and national police force. It enforces the law on a contract basis in the territories and most of the provinces. In many rural areas it is the only police force. Its French acronym, GRC, is sometimes repurposed as Gravel Road Cops.

Despite its name, the Mounties is not an actual mounted police force anymore, although it still was in the 1930s when they brought the Mad Trapper of Rat River to justice.

Her grandfather was a RCMP officer. “It’s just a family thing,” she said. “It also makes you very popular in high school, let me tell you,” she added with a booming guffaw.

She is the youngest of five children. Her sister and two older brothers were adopted by her father when he was 21-years-old. “Their dad was a motorcycle cop and died on duty. My dad fell super in love with his widow and made a bold choice. The kids were 3, 2, and 1-years-old. The RCMP has always been a part of our lives. There’s a sense of honor and tradition.”

Growing up, the family moved whenever and wherever her parents were assigned. It was how they moved to Newfoundland, when her mother was made a detachment commander there. Leah spent most of her teen years in Yarmouth, on the Bay of Fundy in southwestern Nova Scotia. The seaside town is proximate to the world’s largest lobster fishing grounds.

“You get real accustomed to small town life real fast. There’s a lot of space in and around Yarmouth to get weird.”

No matter what efforts you summon to make sense of it, the world can still be a strange place. Small towns impart a sense of place, but often feelings of self-consciousness, too. It can mean the opportunity to create your own options out of the weird mix of things.

It is where Leah caught the acting bug.

“I was at a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” at our high school when two of the actors started laughing hysterically on stage about something and couldn’t control themselves. I thought that looks like fun.”

She took fine arts and acting classes in both French and English. In lieu of lunch the drama students staged short one-act plays at a nearby small theater, declaiming their dialogue and handing out sandwiches to show goers who needed a bite. “We were just harmless theater geeks, so the teachers let us go and do that. I started spending all my time in theaters.”

Once in the acting stream at Memorial University she discovered the program was the only one of its kind in Atlantic Canada. It combined practical and academic training with small class sizes and one-on-one attention to detail by actors directors production professionals doubling up as faculty and staff.

“It’s a fabulous program, especially learning to handle Shakespeare,” said Leah. “The Newfoundland accent is the least bastardized accent in North America, the closest to what it would be in Shakespeare’s time. It’s got that time’s rhythm and music to it.”

Many Newfoundlanders work in classic theater, especially at Canada’s Stratford Festival, the internationally known repertory theater festival that showcases William Shakespeare. “The music is in our DNA,” said St. John’s native Robin Hutton, who has performed at Stratford for close to a decade. ”We can’t have a party without a sing song.”

Natives of ‘The Rock,’ as the province is sometimes known, who have worked at Stratford include Brad Hotter, Jillian Keiley, and Deidre Gillard-Rowlings. “We’re storytellers in Newfoundland,” said Brad Hotter. “Theater is a craft handed down, where you learn from people who pass it down from generation to generation.”

Leah Pritchard’s last semester at Memorial University was spent in England, taking master classes with working professionals and seeing shows in the West End and Stratford-upon-Avon. “You see as many plays as you can, you write reviews, and you rehearse a play. When you come back you put it up. It’s the culmination of all the work you’ve done the past four years.”

One of the plays she saw in London was “The 39 Steps,” accompanied by her brother, Ian, a six-foot-six lanky young man with curly ginger hair who at the time was also in the theater program. The show is a comic treatment of the Alfred Hitchcock movie. It is played for laughs, so Leah and Ian laughed their heads off

“Most people would unanimously agree that I’m a very loud person,” said Leah. “If I’m being quiet, there’s something wrong. Ian has an even bigger laugh, a booming laugh, not subtle, at all. We were there laughing our heads off, Eastern Canadians watching a comedy. Everyone around us was quiet. Somebody said, ‘That’s not why we’re here.’ English audiences are reserved. Come on! I said. That’s exactly why we’re here. Join in the jokes, please.”

Sometimes being the loud enough voice for quiet thoughts is what works. Leah sang with the Xara Choral Theatre Ensemble on their debut CD “Here On These Branches” about northern cultures, communities, and landscapes. It was nominated for best classical recording of 2015 at the East Coast Music Awards.

It’s what she does getting ready to go on stage every night, too. She sings to herself, pop jazz show tunes by Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, and Julie Andrews.

Back in Newfoundland with a newly minted BFA in acting on her resume, she found work as a bartender, a nanny, and an usher. “I’d get up at 6 in the morning, nanny the three kids, drop them off at their family’s restaurant, jump into a shower, get into my uniform, and go usher at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival.”

She worked in a candy store to make ends meet.

“You eat a lot of candy,” she said.

She got a job at a dinner theater in Halifax.

“You gotta do it,” she said. “It’s like cutting your teeth.”

Madrigals in the Middle Ages were a kind of dinner theater. They made a comeback in the 1970s, featuring mysteries and musicals. Actors like Lana Turner and Van Johnson performed between appetizers and dessert. Burt Reynolds owned his own dinner theater.

“You’re a performer, but you’re a waiter, too,” said Leah. “You sing and dance and run off stage to pick up six plates on a tray, deliver them, and run back on stage. You get into wicked great shape doing it.”

The bane of dinner theaters is the hubbub. “You’re a waiter as well as a performer and you have to deal with eaters. But there isn’t a fourth wall. If someone starts talking on their phone, because they don’t really give a fuck about you, you can stop and say, do you mind?”

It’s best said with an upturned nose, mock haughtiness, and a snooty English accent. “It’s not like you’re in the middle of a soliloquy,” she said.

Breaking into the arts world is often a matter of catching a break.

”My first Equity gig was in the fall after I graduated, which is very lucky.”

In late 2013, another teacher from the university, Jerry Etienne, saw her in a remount of “Venus in Fur.” He has directed more than thirty productions as Artistic Director of Theatre Newfoundland Labrador and founded the Gros Morne Theatre Festival. When he signed on to direct “The Rainmaker” at the Watermark Theatre on Prince Edward Island the next summer he asked her if she would consider signing up at the same time.

“Yes, please,” she said.

She played the plain spinster in the drought-ridden story set in Depression-era America whose family worries center on her slim marriage prospects and their dying cattle. “Leah Pritchard tunes into the right emotional channel,” wrote The Buzz, Prince Edward Island’s arts and entertainment monthly tabloid.

Summer stock at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico on the north central coast of the island means finding a place to live and a place to eat. “The stage manager and I roomed together for four years.” She ate at Amanda’s that became Fresh Catch that became Pedro’s Island Eatery when it was taken over by a Portuguese couple. “This village has been crying out for Pedro’s,” she said. “They give you so much food, delicious, and a beer. I get passionate about their haddock.”

Meanwhile, she worked up and down the east coast. “I’m very much an eastern girl,” she said. “I’d go insane without the ocean.”

In the spring of 2016 Leah appeared in “The Drowning Girls” at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, a play about the real-life early 20th-century British wife killer George Joseph Smith, who married three women in succession and drowned all three in succession. “There was a lot of sitting in water for long periods of time. There was even a splash zone by the first row.“

Later that fall she played Balthazar in “The Spanish Tragedy” at The Villain’s Theatre in Halifax. All the actors were actresses in the new adaptation and the revenge story unfolded with a plentiful dose of black humor.

By the end of the summer season of 2017, after four seasons at the Watermark Theatre, she had appeared in productions of “Blithe Spirit” “The Rainmaker” “The Lion in Winter” “Romeo and Juliet” “An Ideal Husband” “The Glass Menagerie” and most recently “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and the perky newlywed in “Barefoot in the Park.”

“The Watermark has been very kind to me,” she said. “I’ve gotten the opportunity to do Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams.”

“Leah Pritchard and Jordan Campbell have genuine chemistry together, an innocent quality which is very watchable and perfectly suited to the play,” wrote Colm Magner in his review of “Barefoot in the Park” for The Guardian.

Some roles are more challenging than others.

“The Glass Menagerie was hard,” she said. “It was physically challenging, limping around, and I couldn’t figure Laura out, at first. She’s someone who lives inside herself, although as an actor on stage you can’t be too inside yourself. She’s a character who withdraws from the world, is quiet and reserved, and doesn’t want to be in confrontation. But on stage you need to be present, need to be seen, and need to be physically heard.

“It was weird.”

In the fall of 2017 Leah went on tour with Xara Choral Theatre’s adaptation of “Fatty Legs,” a children’s true story book about a plucky eight-year-old Inuit girl gone off to a residential school. “They called me Fatty Legs because a wicked nun forced me to wear a pair of red stockings that made my legs look enormous,” says the heroine. The larger theme is the cultural genocide of Canada’s defunct Indian boarding school system, which separated children from their traditional land, skills, language, and family.

Working with youngsters isn’t new for her. She has been a teaching assistant for Neptune Theatre’s youth theater workshops and led PEI Watermark Theatre’s youth theater acting conservatory for three summers.

Still a self-professed east coast girl, Leah Pritchard has recently moved to Toronto. The city boasts one of the liveliest theater scenes in the world, from major musicals at the Mirvish Theatres to Soulpepper, North America’s only year-round repertory company, to Buddies in Bad Times, the world’s largest and longest running queer theater.

“I want to be on the coast, but I understand the opportunities are in Ontario. I know what stages I want to be on and I’m going to keep working as hard as I can to get on those stages, by hook or by crook.”

Getting in the front door is easy to do if you’ve got a ticket. Getting in the stage door is hard to do if you’re an aspiring actor. Trying to make it in Toronto is a long uphill row to hoe.

“In Toronto no one needs to see you, no one needs to let you into the audition room, because there are thousands of you out there,” said Leah. “The way I approach my career is, there are thousands of good actors, but there aren’t thousands of me. There’s only one of me and they should be so lucky.”

Sometimes she tosses her head back when she laughs, like an actress from another time, a Myrna Loy or Angela Lansbury, who she bears a resemblance to. If she hasn’t laughed ten fifteen twenty times a day it hasn’t been a good day. “I get that I’m a young Angela Lansbury, a lot. I should be as lucky as that. I tell them I’m like a young old lady, not like how people are trying to be beautiful today.”

Looking ahead moving forward owning her career in the big city, she has several pokers in the fire, including Prince Edward Island. “It depends if there are roles for me in the plays they choose,” she said. “Five years in that theatre would be amazing. Even if they don’t, if I can manage a visit, the ocean, Pedro’s, it would be fabulous.”

She toured in the fall of 2018 with Xara Choral Theatre’s production of “Fatty Legs” reprising her work with the troupe.

This year she has found her way back to the Atlantic Ocean and Pedro’s Island Eatery and the Watermark Theatre for her fifth season, appearing in both summer shows, “Boeing Boeing” and “Crimes of the Heart.”

“She is very. very funny in ‘Boeing Boeing,'” said Robert Tsonos, Artistic Director at the Watermark.

“I’m always working to better myself as an actor,” she said. “I’m an independent artist, so I’m not desperate to be liked. I’m older, a little wiser, although maybe not very wise. I’m still only 28. How wise can a 28-year-old be?”

It”s not about to be or not to be.

It’s about the sharp-eyed actor on the way to doing what she wants who understands the first word line page in the manuscript of horse sense keenness awareness is about being unfailing about being you, adding-on but no second-handing and no pretending about what you’re doing to make yourself happen.

Photograph by Matthew Downey

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Ed Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio. Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction.

 

 

Dressed to Kill

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By Ed Staskus

“Just let the wardrobe do the acting.”  Jack Nicholson

“This is my first time doing an internship like this, and it’s inspiring to be working in the field and getting the experience in an actual theater,” said Rachel Farmer.

It was last May last year and Rachel was starting as the new kid on the block at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico on the north-central coast of Prince Edward Island. A local girl – “I was born and raised on PEI” – she participated in musical theater with dance umbrella throughout high school, and two years further on was studying costume design at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Watermark was her first young foot in the door.

“I did most of the smaller tasks,” she recalled six weeks later as the summer season at the playhouse got underway with “Dial M for Murder.”

“I tried to do some of the dirty work, but it is a rite of passage,” explained Julia Hodgson-Surich, Rachel’s supervisor and mentor, about the labors of internship.

Interns used to be apprentices, although it amounts to the same thing, working at an occupation or trade for little or no pay in order to gain experience. Getting involved, not necessarily cracking the books, is often the best way to get the hang of things. The professional is an amateur who didn’t quit.

“It is an intern’s job to go for coffee for anyone who asks, delivering it hot and cupped in your bare hands,” Kurt Braunohler, the host of podcasts on the Nerdist Network, said about learning the ropes.

There are several imperatives interns have to follow. When uncertain, always ask, be a team player, keep a notebook, and be early, not just on time. You don’t have to be the last to leave, but don’t be the last to get there, either.

Pay attention to everything the big cheese says. Don’t complain, ever. Just don’t.

“I was Julia’s right hand,” said Rachel. “She tackled the main important stunning pieces. I worked on the suspender buttons.”

“I did manage to get her to sew all of the suspender buttons on the pants,” admitted Julia. “I’ve done that thousands of times myself. It’s how she’s going to learn to do it perfectly.”

“The handsome costumes do much to recall the postwar boom years,” wrote The Guardian in its review of “Dial M for Murder,” which sold out for most of its run.

When actors are getting into character, they are often soaking in what they are turned out in. They become what they are wearing. If you are wearing a banana suit, you become a very funny barnstormer on stage. There is no getting around it.

“She didn’t just shove me into the deep end,” said Rachel. “She helped me through everything.”

“I’m not as evil as some designers,” explained Julia. “I went easy on her for the first fitting. It was only after that that I expected perfection.”

Even though internships are often a chunk of paycheck short of real jobs, interns have to show their commitment and go the extra mile, doing everything to a T. It’s the small things that make up perfection, and perfection is no small thing.

“She assisted me,” said Julia. “When I needed a stage pin, she had it. When I said, these pants need to come in three inches, she wrote it down and got it done. We made sure everything fit immaculately.”

“The costumes by Julia Hodgson-Surich were classic and functional, with smooth lines and fabrics audience members will want to touch,” wrote Jane Ledwell in her review in The Buzz.

“We did fittings with each actor for each costume,” said Julia.

Seamstresses and costumers work with everyone from the actors to the director. The show has got to look real. Otherwise, it won’t feel real. Theater might be make-believe, but it’s got be in the flesh to make believers of the audience.

Would Superman even be Superman without his cape and costume? Would anyone believe him if he said he was Superman? No, he would just be Clark Kent, just another Joe behind a pair of glasses.

The costume department at all theaters is responsible for the purchase, design manufacture, fitting, continuity, and care of all the costumes. They create the look and mood of much of what is seen on stage. They need to be able to draw their designs, know how to translate creative vision into something more than the king’s new clothes, and know their fabrics and how to render and integrate them into the visual style of the play.

“Dial M, 1950s, everything was tailored, and some were handmade, some vintage pieces,” said Julia. “We had to order hats from England. Rachel did the alterations on the blue dress that’s at the top of the show. We made it fit like a glove. The actor could still breathe, but barely.”

At the Watermark Theatre they swap with other regional theater warehouses, since they don’t have the time or budget to make everything from scratch, and period pieces in the first and last place are hard to find.

“We go to thrift stores, looking, all the time,” said Julia.

“Seeing an actor’s face light up when we show them what they are going to wear is great,” said Rachel. “It’s the thing that makes them feel confident and in character and ties everything together, the props and set and story.”

This year’s Costume Designer at the Watermark Theatre, Julia was last year’s Head of Wardrobe. She is a designer, seamstress, and textile artist based in Toronto. “I use a lot of what I’ve learned in weaving and knitting, dying fabrics, and textile art,” she said.

She collaborates with the Cactus Sewing Studio and designs her own line of handmade clothing.

The theater runs in her family.

“I started as an intern, when I was 14-years-old, working in wardrobe at a theater my mother was a production manager at,” said Julia.

It was the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario.

Although her father, Bill, was born on Prince Edward Island, she grew up in southwestern Ontario. Her mother, Andrea, has long worked in live theater. Her father fabricated sets for theaters across Canada before becoming a metal sculptor. His installation ‘Trees of the Carolinian Forest’ is in downtown London. A display of his Christmas sculptures is set up every year in Victoria Park in the center of town.

“I started as a sewer, and when I was done with high school, at 18, I started working as a professional. I was promoted to cutter.” She’s been working ever since. “My journey has not been with school. It has been entirely apprenticeships.”

Julia Hodgson-Surich’s contract last year expired as the season at the Watermark Theatre was starting. She was making ready to be on her way. “I don’t have anything on the horizon, but if it comes up, OK, let’s do it.”

Theater professionals are always on the move, looking for their next opportunity. What makes them professionals is knowing how to cope with not knowing where their next paycheck will be coming from. In the meantime, they keep their noses to the wind, staying in touch with what productions are going on and where.

She had been working on the new season’s shows at the Watermark since March. “We talk on Skype, have production meetings in Toronto, so that we’re all on the same page. I did sketches, collected things, came to PEI, met Rachel, and basically, ‘Let’s go!’”

When she took leave of the theater, she left Rachel in charge of the costumes and the dirty work for the next eight weeks.

“She’ll do the repairs, because after every show something is broken. She’ll do the laundry. She’ll be the dresser, making sure the actors look the way they’re supposed to look every single night. It’s a lot of work. I appreciate that I don’t have to do it.”

“I came into it thinking I was a fish out of water,” said Rachel.

She had been a fish out of water not long beforehand, but she was a quick study.

“I was originally planning on going into acting,” she said. “But I realized watching movies and plays, what I loved were what costumes were being worn, and I should probably just go into costumes, so I did.  When I got to Dalhousie, though, it was intimidating, because I had six month’s experience on one outfit, and all my classmates had been sewing since they were 4-years-old.”

If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called learning. There wouldn’t be internships. There wouldn’t be mentors.

At the Watermark Theatre the costumers work in the basement. “It’s a tiny little room at the end of a hallway,” said Julia. “We have a window, but it looks out underneath the deck.”

“I love making things,” she said. “We get to sew, work with our hands. I wanted to do it since I was small. I grew up in a theater family. Babysitting was me sitting in a lightbox watching a show. I didn’t understand it, although I just loved costumes.”

The small room in the basement is where most of the mentoring goes on.

“Mentoring cuts into my work,” said Julia, “but it’s worth it. It’s rewarding. I prefer someone I can talk to, tell them what I’m up to, because then I’m talking it through. Sometimes I find out that I’m actually not doing the right thing.”

Talking things through, getting another’s perspective, often helps you to see issues more clearly, and gets your own thoughts off the same old track.

“I don’t want anyone to suffer, either. If I sense someone is having trouble with a hem, or a machine isn’t working and they’re rethreading it over and over, I will help. I won’t just let them flounder.”

“I’ve gotten so much out of it, and the Watermark is a wonderful theatre,” said Rachel.

”Everybody feels like they are a close-knit family here. You feel like everything you do has significance, like you’re not being swallowed up by the whole production, and you matter in the great cog scheme of things.”

This summer’s shows at the Watermark Theatre are the classic farce “Boeing Boeing” and the Pulitzer Prize winning play “Crimes of the Heart.” Even though “Crimes of the Heart” is premised on a murder, it has been described as “an evening of antic laughter.” The wardrobe department may not be getting the actors dressed to kill like they were in “Dial M for Murder,” a spine-tingler rather than a laughfest, but they will still look their part in their new parts.

In the middle of the fun on stage this summer they will be dressed to kill.

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Ed Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio. Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction.

 

 

Walking the Plank

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By Ed Staskus

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip.” Gilligan’s Island

“I’ve sailed my whole life,” said Michelle Boyce.

A native of London, Ontario, where she grew up, where her father worked for the Board of Education, Michelle raised her own children in Aylmer, a half hour down from London and less than a half hour from the north shore of Lake Erie. There is plenty of sailing from Port Dover to Long Point to the Port Stanley Sailing Squadron. It is Ontario’s south shore.

It isn’t Margaritaville, but it’s laid back. In Port Stanley, on the shoreline, making yourself at home with lemonade or a cold beer on GT’s Beach patio, making time is watching the town’s drawbridge go up and down. Lift bridges can get stuck up, but that’s the only thing stuck up in town.

“At one time we owned five sailboats,” she said.

“The kids and I used to sail across the lake to Cedar Point every summer. My daughter and I are roller coaster fanatics. We would spend a week in the harbor at Cedar Point and then sail back home.”

During the day cannons can be heard when pirates attack riverboats at the amusement park.

Although she still calls her neck of the woods home, where she spends half the year, the other half of the year she now spends on Prince Edward Island. The country’s smallest province, PEI is almost a thousand miles east of Canada’s seed corn hinterland.

“Sailing to PEI, it got really bad before it got really good.”

It started when Michelle, her kids, and her partner, Monika Chesnut, went to Prince Edward Island in 2008.  They went for a wedding. They liked what they saw.

“We fell in love with the island. We felt at home there, so on the way home we tossed around ideas about how we could spend more time on PEI. We’re an entrepreneurial family. We dreamt up the sailing business.”

The sailing business is Atlantic Sailing PEI, weighing anchor out of North Rustico on the north-central coast of the island. The three-hour cruises start at the dock, boarding the only sailboat in the harbor, turning out to sea, looking for dolphins and whales. The sunset sails are on the romantic side.

It’s OK to bring a bottle of champagne and get cloud nine.

Two years after first setting foot on PEI, Michelle and her daughter Jessica took the first step toward turning their dream into reality. “We knew nothing about the marine industry on PEI, but we went ahead,” said Michelle. The person with a vision is often more single-minded and hale than somebody with all the facts.

The facts can be helpful, though, sooner or later.

“We went on a sailing trip, from Lake Erie, across Lake Ontario, and up to Montreal. We spent a couple of weeks there and went up the river to Ottawa. Near there we stopped at a marina and found a 38-foot boat we fell in love with.”

The name of the boat was Folie. It was going to be the boat Atlantic Sailing PEI would sail the starry-eyed to idyllic sunsets on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It wasn’t meant to be, however, maybe because folie is a French word meaning, more-or-less, delusional.

“It can also mean crazy mad person,” said Michelle. “The gentleman we bought it from was 90-years-old. He had sailed it to the Caribbean and back. He had pictures. I don’t know how he did it without dying.”

Folie is a 1960s-era strong as an ox medium-sized cruising yacht capable of offshore passage. It is a serious no-nonsense boat. The first fiberglass sailboat, the Chinook 34, was built in 1956. “Who built the Folie had no idea how thick they had to make the fiberglass,” said Michelle. “They decided they had to make it as thick as wood. The thing was built like a tank.” Since indestructible is what they ended up needing, indestructible ended up standing them in good stead.

Michelle Boyce knows her ragtops, from stem to stern. She knows what makes them go, and she knows the free enterprise end of them, too. “When Detroit was going down, I used to buy sailboats there, sell them, and sail them all over the Great Lakes to the people who bought them.”

The first thing she did to the Folie was replace its engine. “Everything on that boat was end of life.” The engine was a Universal Atomic 4, last manufactured in the early 1980s. The Atomic 4 used to be the Utility Four, used extensively during WW2 to power lifeboats.

“I found a brand new one in a barn in northern Ontario, still in its shipping crate from the factory,” said Michelle.

After the new motor was installed, she and her daughter set off for Prince Edward Island. They planned on the trip taking two weeks, sailing to and around the Gaspe Peninsula, down the New Brunswick coast, and landing on PEI at Northport. They began accepting on-line reservations for summer cruises.

They got to Northport seven weeks later.

Halfway down the channel out of their first harbor their new Atomic 4 started to overheat. “She was red-lining on the temperature gauge. There was nothing we could do. I couldn’t stop in the middle of the channel.” They raced the boat out to the St. Lawrence Seaway, shut off the engine, and threw out the anchor.

“We spent the next five days in the middle of the seaway fixing the boat.”

The engine was undamaged, but the hoses carrying the coolant to the engine had melted. “The gentleman I bought the boat from had used crappy transparent hosing that you use for fish tanks. Fortunately, I’m anal about repairs, and I had another boat on the boat.”

One rule of thumb on the high seas is, whatever it is, if you can’t repair it, it probably shouldn’t be on board in the first place. The other rule is always have spare parts.

No sooner, however, did they make it through the Iroquois Canal lock, when the boat floundered again. This time the impeller melted. “The old gentleman was also anal, and he had left spare parts scattered all around the boat, so every time we broke down, it was a scavenger hunt. We knew he had one on board, but where?”

They found it, because they had to. In the event, ‘Regulations Governing Minimum Equipment & Accomodations Standards’ state that the owner, or owner’s representative, the captain, “must ensure that all equipment is properly maintained and stowed and that the crew know where it is kept and how it is to be used.”

After replacing the water pump, they sailed down the seaway, staying on the cruising side of the buoys, cruising the wide river. They kept the engine quiet, not dousing their sails, keeping them set to the way they were going.

It was a windy day, the waves like rippled potato chips, leaving the last lock outside of Montreal, when their steering went. “The boat would only turn right. It wouldn’t turn left. We were heading for a sandbar. One of the locals in his boat beside me was screaming, ‘Turn, turn, turn, you’re going to hit ground.’ We hit ground and came to a stop.”

“Only two sailors, in my experience, never ran aground,” observes Dan Bamford, a veteran sailor. “One never left port and the other one was an atrocious liar.”

“A cable fastener broke,” said Michelle, “which was a minor happening of all the happenings. We plugged a hand tiller on, but we were still stuck on the sandbar.”

She took a low-tech approach to the problem. Michelle had lowered the sails, but now got them back up, and when the wind blew into them it threw the boat over. “The wind in the sails took the boat off the shallow water,” she said.

“The goal is not to sail the boat, but rather to help the boat sail herself,” John Rousmaniere, one time editor at Yachting magazine, has pointed out.

They pulled into a marina, filled their tank, and got started, except they couldn’t get going. “They filled our tank with dirty gas. I got it running off a jerry can, running a hose directly from the carburetor to the can, bypassing the tank on the boat. But then, we weren’t twenty minutes out of the harbor when we picked up a rope on our prop.”

She was done with problems for the day. “The wind was going in the right direction, so I just threw up the sails and we sailed from Montreal to Quebec City.”

They ended up floating in one spot off Quebec City for five days. “The wind died and we had no propulsion,” she said. “Our cooler went warm and we were eating dry reserves. We didn’t have any idea the tides were going to be 24 feet. There was either a 10-knot current going this way or a 10-knot current going that way. The current was so crazy there was no rowing our dinghy to shore. We couldn’t dive under the boat to get the rope off our prop, either, too much current.”

When the wind finally picked up slightly they slowly hove into a marina on sail power.

“My daughter chickened out, and so even though my holding my breath under water days are long past, I dove in and got the rope off the prop.”

At the next marina they followed a friendly local in. He had a sailboat similar to theirs. He waved to them. “We’re fine following you,” she shouted across to him. “You’ll be safe,” he shouted back.

He got stuck.

Then they got stuck.

“Fortunately we were stuck in mud and stayed afloat,” said Michelle. “He ended up on dry land. “

The next day, having gotten unstuck, back on the St. Lawrence, they fought a following sea all day. “The waves behind you throw your boat this way and that. It’s hard to steer. At the end of the day I was exhausted.”

It might be why she misread her charts.

“I thought I was in 25 feet of water at low tide. Actually, I was in 25 feet of water at high tide. The water all disappeared in the middle of the night. My daughter and I were sound asleep when, all of a sudden, BANG! We were sideways.”

Waking up with a start, she saw their cats, Cali and Pablo, jump from the bed to the wall, which was now the floor. “They were totally confused.”

Keeping her wits about her, she remembered a story the man they bought the boat from had told them, about the same thing happening to him in the Caribbean. “He just went to sleep when it happened, the water came back, and it was fine. So, that’s what we did. We made a bed on the wall and went to sleep.”

In the morning the tide came in and the Folie floated up and away. “It is a tough, tough boat,” said Michelle. ”It was fine. We had pretty much worked out the bugs by then.”

At least, she thought so. “A tale of a fateful trip, aboard this tiny ship, the mate was a mighty sailin’ lad, the skipper brave and sure.” Assumptions, on the other hand, are like termites.

They picked up Monika, her partner, at Riviere-du-Loup, a city near where boats turn towards Atlantic Canada. One of the best places for whale watching in the world is at the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park offshore from Riviere-du-Loup. Beyond the small town are scattered even smaller towns hugging the coastline, and lots of forest.

“Every so often you’ll see a town and a church steeple. There were almost no other boats around, just the three of us on the Folie, when a superfast black Zodiac came on our horizon. He circled me until he got behind me, and started coming up my wash.”

There were no markings on the Zodiac. There were four men, clad in black, on the boat. Michelle got on her radio.

“Vessel approaching, please identify yourself.”

There was no response.

She tried again. There was no response. She tried the Coast Guard. “I have a vessel of unknown origin approaching me, unknown intent, mayday, mayday.” There was no response. She grabbed her flare gun.

“He was coming up my tail. Pirates are a real thing,” she said. “Since we’re a floater, our decks were lined with water and gasoline cans. I had a pirate plan, which was open a gas can, throw it at them, and shoot the flare gun, lighting them on fire.”

It was when they came within range, the flare gun cocked, that the blue lights on the boat blinked on. It was the police.

“Slow down,” one of the policemen shouted.

“Whatever,” Michelle muttered.

“Where are you going?”

“Prince Edward Island.”

“Where are you putting into next?”

“There,” she said.

“Where’s the man on board?”

“Pardon me?” The man on board was news to her.

“You guys are by yourselves?”

Michelle. Monika, and Jessica looked from one end of the boat to the other. “The cops finally left us alone.” The Zodiac sped away and the Folie got back on track. Time was their enemy.

“The whole time we had all these bookings in North Rustico. We were booked solid. Every single day I wasn’t on the island I was hitting the refund button.”

They hadn’t got much farther when their alternator blew, stuff started to seize, belts got red hot, and smoke filled the boat, which ended up sideways to the waves. “We instantly got into our deal with it mode.” Jessica ran the jib up, Michelle stabilized the boat, the smoke cleared, and they found a spare alternator, although they were starting to run out of the other boat on the boat.

By the time the Folie flooded a few days later she was already starting to wonder what the difference is between an ordeal and an adventure.

They had dropped Monika off near Dalhousie, New Brunswick, so she could pick up her car and rendezvous later on PEI, when they noticed with a jolt that the boat was half full of water.

“It still wasn’t over!” said Michelle. “One of the grease fittings, a cap at the prop shaft, had popped, and water was shooting into the boat. The bilge pump was pumping like crazy, but it couldn’t keep up.”

It was sink or swim.

She grabbed a length of rubber hose, some clamps, and a broom handle. She stuffed the handle into the rubber and stuffed the works into the hole. “I clamped it tight so water would stop coming into the boat.” They pumped the seawater out, but by then it had gotten into the engine oil. “It turned it into chocolate mllk. It was like a chocolate milkshake.” They sailed to open water, threw the anchor out, and the next day replaced the oil.

They could see the oxidized red of Prince Edward Island in the far distance.

Taking it easy in a bay one morning, having coffee, they watched baby belugas approach the boat. They are sometimes called sea canaries because of their high-pitched twitter. Big whales were blowing in deeper water. A herd of seals slipped in close to the sailboat.

“The cats were running around the boat,” said Michelle. “The seals were lined up beside the boat, their noses stuck up, and the cats were on top of the boat with their noses stuck down, trying to figure each other out. It was like first contact.”

When they once and for all pulled into Northport on the west end of Prince Edward Island, they were beyond a shadow of a doubt on the island.

“I’m not a quitter,” said Michelle.

That is when they found out the harbors they were going to sail in and out of were too shallow for the Folie’s keel. They also found out there wasn’t a crane-lift big enough to lift their sailboat out of the water. It couldn’t stay where it was. Boats on PEI get winterized in the fall and summerized in the spring. Setting and forgetting your pride and joy from January to April in the water is leaving your boat on the frozen hot seat.

The first thing Michelle did was to channel the Professor, one of those marooned on Gilligan’s Island. A science teacher, he could build anything, hammocks and houses, so the castaways could live comfortably. He rigged up washing machines, supplied water, and generated electric power, using nothing but indigenous coconuts and bamboo, although he was never able to repair the Minnow.

“The hole on that boat defies all of my advanced knowledge,” said the Professor.

Michelle built her own 10-ton hydraulic trailer with which to back up, get under the Folie, pick it up, and carry it away.

“There must have been thirty guys standing around there watching being brutal.”

“Do you know what you’re doing?”

“That’s not going to work.”

“You’re going to kill yourself.”

“Are you sure that’s going to work?” asked Monika, who had joined them, getting butterflies.

When she had the boat on the trailer and the trailer hooked up to her pick-up, and was driving the boat away, to be stored away safe and sound and out of sight in Summerside for the unforeseeable future, none of the bystanders were there anymore.

“They scattered like flies,” she said. “Not one of them was there for I told you so.”

The second thing she did was drive home to Ontario, pick up her 29-foot sailboat, the Calypso, and haul it back to land’s end, across the Confederation Bridge, and to North Rustico.  To this day the Calypso is Atlantic Sail PEI’s bread and butter, three cruises a day, private charters, and special events.

“Awesome experience,” said Donna Burgoyne.

“Monika and Michelle were fabulous hosts, very knowledgeable,” said Andre Pelletier.

“Elle nous fait decouvrir la faune marine et les magnifiques paysages de PEI,” said Sabrina Bottega. “Avec Michelle, c’est super capitaine.”

“The Folie drained us, in more ways than one,” said Michelle. “It almost bankrupted us. We had to refund tens of thousands of dollars, although we ended up doing some tours at the end of the season.”

Before landing at Northport, they spent the day anchored off West Point. “It’s where all the windmills are,” said Michelle. It’s where ship yards built sailboats long ago. It’s where sightings of a sea serpent still happen. It is where buried treasure is reportedly buried, still a secret.

Michelle made herself at home on her back in the sun on the deck while Jessica lolled at the stern.

“There is nothing like lying flat on your back on the deck, alone except for the helmsman aft at the wheel, silence except for the lapping of the sea against the side of the ship,” Errol Flynn once said.

The three-bladed wind turbines on West Point go around and around. There are 55 of them, rock steady as long as the epoxy sails stay full, at the West Cape Wind Farm. Tilting at windmills is quixotic, like running in circles. But if you can stay the course, and square the circle, making your energy making it a go, you might end up where you wanted to be all along.

When Michelle Boyce stepped off the plank she landed on the sure-footed red sandstone of Prince Edward Island.

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Ed Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio. Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction.

 

 

 

From the Lighthouse

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By Ed Staskus

“If you are a lighthouse, you cannot hide yourself. If you hide yourself, you cannot be a lighthouse.”  Mehmet Murat ildan

When Mary Smith picks up a fiddle, she’s got about 20 years of life with it behind her. When she picks up a guitar, she’s got about 70 years behind her. When she plays the mandolin, organ, or piano, it’s anybody’s guess.

“We always had music at home,” she said. “My dad played mouth organ and step danced. When I was growing up there was no TV, so the thing to do was have house parties.”

Home was the North Rustico lighthouse on the north-central shore of Prince Edward Island, and later a house her father, George Pineau, built up the road on Harbourview Drive. George and his wife Ruby rolled up the oilcloth on weekends. The kids were sent to bed.

“They would have three or four couples come over, cook up a big feed of salt fish and potatoes, and play music,” said Mary. Her father would jig for dancing and play ‘George’s Tune’ on his harmonica.

“We used to sneak down the stairs. I always wanted to be a part of it. I thought, if I can get a guitar, and learn to play it, I could stay up and play for them. My dad wanted me to play a fiddle, but I wouldn’t bother with it. I kept asking for a guitar, and eventually he ordered one.”

It came from Sears, Roebuck & Co. It was a Gene Autry Round-up guitar. Gene Autry was a rodeo performer and crooner. He was “The Singing Cowboy” in the movies. His name was inscribed on the guitar. A cowboy riding herd swinging a lariat above his head was stencil-painted on the front. She still has it, although it’s not part of her gear on the road nowadays.

“I learned how to play a few chords.”

Square dancing was popular in her neck of the woods, and even so there were several good fiddlers, there were no guitar players. As she became more accomplished on her Round-up, she began accompanying fiddlers at local dances.

The North Rustico lighthouse was her home when she was a child. Although not many children are born at home, it was where she was born. She didn’t go far that first day, was tired by the move, and slept the rest of the day.

Only about 1% of babies today are delivered outside of a hospital. Until the 20th century most women gave birth at home. When someone was ready to go, her friends and relatives and a midwife would help. As late as 1900 about half of all babies were still brought into the world by midwives. By the 1930s, however, after the advent of anesthesia, only one of ten were delivered by them.

Not many were delivered by a neighbor, either.

“There was nobody else around,” said Mary Smith. “If you stayed home to have a baby, somebody had to help out.”

The lighthouse was built in 1876 on the North Rustico beach, a pyramidal white wooden tower and attached living space. Eight years later it was moved to the entrance of the harbor. George Pineau was the keeper of the lighthouse from 1925 until 1960, when the beam was automated.

“My grandfather was lighthouse keeper for many years, and my father was the keeper for 34 years. I lived in the lighthouse until I was 8-years-old.”

Mary grew up on the harbor road, where she has moved back to and lives to this day, as a kid running the mile-or-so up and down the street from one end to the other with her kid brother and sister. Fish factories canned lobster and salt fish, shipping it to the United States and West Indies. Fish peddlers loaded horse-drawn wagons and small trucks, selling cod, herring, and mackerel door-to-door.

A three-story hotel stood on the rise across the street from the present-day Blue Mussel Café.

“My Aunt Angie bought it, tore it down, and built a house with the lumber. My dad was laid back, but his twin sister was a fiery person.” Her father was a fisherman, working hard, but enough of a go-with-the-flow man to be able to live to 103 before he was laid to rest.

In the summer Mary fished for smelt and sold them for a penny a dozen to tourists. When she had a pocketful of pennies she ran to the grocery store on Route 6.

“You could buy a lot of candy for three or four cents.”

There were two schools serving the community, one Protestant and one Catholic. “In them days the Protestant and Catholic relationship wasn’t great,” she said. When the Stella Maris school in North Rustico burned down in the early 50s, classes were organized in the church until the school was rebuilt.

“I was in grade 10 when I quit,” said Mary. “You can’t quit now, but we went to work early back then.”

Many secondary students dropped out of school. There were plenty of entry-level jobs in agriculture and the fisheries. As late as 1990 the dropout rate on Prince Edward Island was 20%. Today, it is 6%.

She moved to Ontario, worked, came back to PEI, met her husband-to-be, Al Smith, a Nova Scotian who was seasonal fishing out of the town harbor, and they got married when she was 18-years-old.

When they had a son and made their home, at the far end of the harbor mouth, it was in North Rustico. “We had a deep-sea fishing business.” Fishing, along with farming and tourism, drive the economy on the island. Shellfish like mussels and lobsters are the mainstay. Mary kept house, raised their son, and lent a hand with the gear. She mended nets, repaired pots, crafted trap muzzles. She mixed their own cement runners for weights to sink the pots.

“The twine in the traps, what we called the hedge, we used to knit all those by hand. Nowadays they buy all the stuff.”

She stayed on shore more often than not. She was prone to seasickness, a disturbance of the inner ear. It especially wreaks havoc with balance. Christopher Columbus and Lord Nelson both suffered from it.

One day, just as that year’s fishing season was about to start, Al Smith’s hired man told him he was moving west in search of better prospects. He would have to look for another helpmate right away. “Well, Mary would never go because she gets seasick,” said one of their neighbors. That evening she told her husband, “I guess I’m going fishing in the spring.”

“Oh, God, it’ll be too hard for you,” said Al.

“There’s no women fishing in Rustico, and they say I can’t do it, so I’m going to go,” said Mary. She shortly became the fishing fleet’s first girl Friday.

There are several ways of battling motion sickness. Cast off well-rested, well-nourished, and sober. Insert an ear plug in one ear. Keep your eyes on the horizon. Riding it out is sometimes, unfortunately, the only remedy.

Al and Mary Smith fished together for four years. They fished for lobster, mackerel, cod, and tuna. “It took me four years to get over being seasick,” she said. A sure cure is sitting down under your own roof on dry land four years later.

“I couldn’t physically lift the traps, they were too heavy, but I could slide them,” she said. “My husband would haul them up and push the trap to me. I would take the lobster out and rebait the trap, slide it down the washboard to the back with the movement of the boat, and kick it off. There was rope all over, so you had to watch where your feet were, because there’s fathoms of rope and it’s going over fast.

“On a nice morning, going out to work, the sun coming up, we would look back and see the green and red of Prince Edward Island. It was beautiful. It was good work.”

When the work was done, she cast about for another kind of work.

“I always loved to draw,” she said. “So, when I wasn’t fishing anymore, and our son was grown up, I talked to my husband about it.”

“Why don’t you take a course?” said Al.

“Someday I’ll do that,” said Mary.

Someday came sooner than later and she enrolled in a two-year commercial design course at Holland College in Charlottetown, the provincial capital. The community college is named after British Army surveyor Captain Samuel Holland, offers more than 150 degree pathways, and more than 90% of its graduates find employment.

Two years later, art degree in hand, she decided she wanted to teach art. She thought, I’ll go to the University of Prince Edward Island and get a teacher’s license. She went to see the Dean of Education at UPEI.

“What education do you have?” asked Roy Campbell, the dean.

“I only have grade 10,” she said.

“Well,” he said.

She had brought a long list of courses she was interested in taking. He looked at the list. “Well,” he said, “you should be realistic. I suggest you not take more than three courses at any one time.

“That was kind of insulting,” said Mary.

She thought, he thinks I probably can’t even do three. I’ll show him. I’ll take six.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “That was a mistake. It was a hectic time.”

It got more hectic her second year, when she entered the world of 400 level courses.

“I took a course on Dante, which was really crazy,” she said. “I’m never going to make it through this. I thought about it for a while and thought the only way I’m going to be able to pass this course is if I draw it. So that’s what I did.”

She put her all into drawing the Circles of Hell. Her professor had never gotten a paper like that. “He was thrilled with it.” She got an A in the course.

“I got my teacher’s license. I proved that I could do it.”

She taught at a private art school in Summerside and lent a hand aprt-time at Rainbow Valley in nearby Cavendish during the summer season until, in 1990, her husband of 34 years unexpectedly and suddenly died.

“He was great guy,” she said.

“I decided to do a 3-dimensional sculpture of Al as he was, as a fisherman.”

At first, her plan was to make the commemorative sculpture in cement. “But then I thought, we had just gotten a new fiberglass boat, so I could do it in fiberglass.” It was an idea that would remake reinvent regenerate her from then until now.

The boat was a Provincial, built by Provincial Boat and Marine Limited in Kensington, less than 20 miles west on the north coast. “Earl Davison had a fiberglass plant in Kensington and was producing great fiberglass boats.” They are known for their speed and durability. They are sometimes called “lifetime boats.”

Mary went to Kensington to see Earl, who also owned and operated Rainbow Valley.

“I went to see him, and I said, I’ve got something that I’d like to do in fiberglass, so he said, I’ll come down to look at it. He came down to the house this one day and looked at my plan. I got a call a few days later. He offered me a full-time job instead.”

“I need an artist,” said Earl.

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” she said.

The sculpture of Al Smith got made and Mary went to work full-time at Rainbow Valley in Cavendish, a hop skip jump away from her home.

She never left. She worked 7 days a week May through September until the water safari adventure amusement park was purchased by Parks Canada in 2005. It has since been christened Cavendish Grove and become conserved land with a network of walking trails.

Rainbow Valley, named after Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1919 book “Rainbow Valley,” was 36 years of waterslides, animatronics, swan boats, a sea monster, a monorail, roller coaster, and a paratrooper, castles and suspension bridges, and a flying saucer gift shop. “We tried to add something new every year,” said Earl. “That was a rule.” The other rule-of-thumb was families with smiles plastered all over their faces.

“The most important thing you could do for somebody was to have them all together as a family and help make memories,” said John Davison, Earl’s son who grew up running around the park and as a grown man worked there. “Some of the memories you hear are from people whose parents aren’t with them anymore. But they remember their visits to Rainbow Valley with their parents and those experiences last a lifetime.”

Earl Davison had envisioned the park in 1965, buying and clearing an abandoned apple orchard and filling in a swamp, turning it into ponds. “We borrowed $7,500.00,” he said. “It seemed like an awful lot of money at the time.” When they opened in 1969 admission was 50 cents. Children under 5 got in free. In 1979 he bought his partners out and eventually expanded the park to 16 hectares. Most of the attractions were designed and fabricated by him and his crew.

“Rainbow Valley was a unique place to work, because Earl was so creative,” said Mary.

“Mary had a talent,” said Earl. “She could see things, create things, draw, and she seemed to always be able to draw what I told her about.”

He told her about rum running on the island, when there had been a total ban on alcohol from 1901 until 1948. Smugglers laid low off Cavendish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, avoiding Coast Guard cutters, hiding kegs of hard liquor in the sand dunes and woods at night. When the kegs were empty fishermen often used them to salt mackerel in, the smells of rum and salt fish mixing it up.

She sketched out what became an animated simulated dark ride about booze and bootleggers.

“Mary designed it,” said Earl. “She did all the faces for the characters and helped dress them, too.”

At the end, an animatronic man coming home with a keg of rum in a handcart tells his protesting wife it’s molasses. “Don’t you lie to me,” she says. He takes a step between his wife and his handcart. “I would never lie to you, my smuckins, and if this here’s rum, may lightning strike me right here where I stand.”

Every day, morning noon and night, a thunderous crack of lightning struck him where he stood.

In the early 90s Mary approached Earl about mounting a music show. It became Fiddlers and Followers, which became the North Rustico Country Music Festival, which is still going strong. The music festival, staged over the course of a weekend every August at the town’s North Star Arena, concerts as well as workshops and jam sessions, brings together some of Atlantic Canada’s best-known down-home old-time country bluegrass island-fiddling folk-inspired music makers.

“We’ve never missed a year. We’re getting older, but I still get really pumped up about it,” said Mary.

Earl and the Rainbow Valley construction crew built a barn and a stage for Fiddlers and Followers, local talent was secured, and they fabricated a 24-foot fiddle to be a beacon at the front of the building.

“Earl provided the opportunity for it to start. I designed the big fiddle,” said Mary.

“It was a giant fiddle,” said Earl. In the event, it might have been even more gigantic, given the chance. “We coulda gone higher. It was Mary’s fault. She drew it to be 24 feet, so that’s what we did.”

In 2017 the giant fiddle was moved to the New Brunswick front lawn of fiddle champions Ivan and Vivian Hicks.

“Burns MacDonald and I did shows every day,” said Mary.

When she began playing with Burns MacDonald it was the first time in more than thirty years she played anywhere outside of home or at a house party.

He was the piano player. “I would be in the shop painting, doing artwork, and somebody would say, you’ve got to go for the show.” She would drop everything, grab a guitar, and run to the stage. “I never got tired.” Pete Doiron was their fiddler at the evening shows. “He was one of the best on PEI.” They played together three times a day for twenty-minute stretches.

The first time she heard Burns playing the piano she was working with her boss one floor down.

“I have to go see who that is,” she told Earl.

“I run upstairs, and it was this Burns MacDonald. I went over, stood by him and we started talking. He never stopped playing while he was talking.”

When she went back downstairs, she said to Earl, “You’ve got to hear this guy. He’s unreal.”

Burns MacDonald got hired on the spot and started playing during intermission of the Roaring 20s show then on stage. The next year he came from his home in Nova Scotia for the whole season, living in a trailer in the park. “He was there 14 years steady,” said Mary. “Everybody was just blown away by him.”

Shortly before his death Al Smith had gotten his wife a fiddle.

“We were at a show in Charlottetown and the entertainer was a fiddler. I thought, gee. someday I’m going to learn how to play a fiddle.” Her husband thought it was a good idea and bought her one. But when her husband passed away, Mary put the fiddle back in its case and put it away.

She took it out of its case after a bus tour she had organized to Cape Breton. Burns was the entertainer on the tour. “I said something about fiddles, and he said, you’ll never learn how to play the fiddle.” He might as well have thrown down the gauntlet as made a passing remark.

“That wasn’t the thing to say to me,” said Mary.

Since dusting off the fiddle she had quietly put away in the closet, and learning how to play it, she’s done well enough to receive the Tera Lynne Touesnard Memorial Award at the 2017 Maritime Fiddle Contest. “It was a humbling experience and one I really don’t deserve,” she said. “It’s a great honor, however, and one I’ll always cherish.”

She has also been made a lifetime member of the PEI Fiddle Association.

Mary came to the piano by misadventure.

She had agreed to be a co-host during an on-air fundraiser for Make-A-Wish. After finishing her stint at the station, she went home, but kept track of the auction. She noticed a keyboard valued at more than a thousand dollars wasn’t attracting many bids. She decided to prime the pump.

“I started bidding, figuring when it’s high enough, I’ll stop.” However, she got carried away. “I kept bidding. I thought, I can’t let them outbid me. Just as I put my last bid in, time ran out, and I ended up with the keyboard.”

It cost her $800.00.

“I couldn’t afford it, but it was a for a good cause,” she said. “When I got it home, I took my guitar, and since I knew the chords on it, I just figured them out on the piano. I have my own style.”

Being self-made means doing things your own way, no matter how much teamwork is involved.

When Mary Smith takes the stage at the North Star Arena, whether as one of the key organizers of the North Rustico Music Festival, or with guitar fiddle keyboards in hand, she is within sight of the lighthouse she was born in. There are 63 lighthouses on Prince Edward Island. About 35 of them are still active. The North Rustico harbor light is one of the operational ones, sending out five seconds of light every ten seconds.

Lighthouses, like music makers, aren’t narrow-minded about who sees their light. “When you play, never mind who listens to you,” said the pianist Robert Schumann. They shine for all to see. Without a guidepost, steaming into a dark harbor would be a mistake. Without music to brighten the day, getting up in the morning might be a mistake.

Music is in Mary’s bones. She plays with several groups, including Mary Smith and Friends, Touch of Country, and the Country Gentlemen. The North Rustico Choral Group, which performs for seniors, was her brainchild ten years ago.

“Music has been a big part of my life,” she said. “I’ve met so many great people, some really great friendships.” She plays in living rooms, at outdoor venues, and on motor coach day tours. She often plays at community centers.

“I see Mary’s performances at Sunday Night Shenanigans,” said Simona Neufeld, a local music buff and fun fan.

“Life would be pretty dull if you just sat at home and watched TV,” said Mary.

“I guess being born in a lighthouse, I have to be brighter. You have to keep going.”

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Ed Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio. Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction.

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Lobsterman

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By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ed Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio. Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction.