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.