A Maritime fall

We’d been in Nova Scotia less than an hour before we were introduced, at close quarters, to a sample of the local fauna.

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We’d been in Nova Scotia less than an hour before we were introduced, at close quarters, to a sample of the local fauna.

Minutes earlier the polite young woman at the Budget airport rental car desk, Miss Marybeth MacKinnon — originally from Windsor, N.S., where her grandmother still grew prized pumpkins — had offered a friendly Maritime greeting with her dark hair and blue eyes when she told us to “enjoy the caar” and “youse drive safely now.”

I didn’t take her driving suggestion seriously (despite our five-hour flight and three-hour time change from Alberta) when I drove in utter darkness onto the busy highway for the half-hour drive into Halifax.

We’d travelled roughly four kilometres when a critter emerged from the ditch and scampered directly in front of us in heavy traffic.

I had no room to swerve for PETA’s sake. For a few milliseconds the varmint looked at us with a vaguely puzzled look. My daughter Nathalie had only time to shriek, “Oh gawd, dad,” before there was an awful whomp.

The clearance on a 2010 Dodge Charger is approximately 15 cm. The clearance on a 15-kg raccoon is about 35 cm.

The difference meant the raccoon faired poorly from the encounter. The Charger’s fate was only marginally better. I limped the car back to Budget’s Marybeth. She greeted me with the same cheery pumpkin-pie-fed expression. “Were yis not happy with the caar, Mr. Freeman?”

While Nathalie sat in the Charger’s remains bemoaning the loss of a large local omnivore, my wife and I debated the financial issues with the fair young maiden from the Bay of Fundy.

“You’ve waived our insurance and deductible so that means you are liable for the full cost of repair, towing and rental down-time. Plus administration charge,” she smiled happily.

I had paid with my Visa gold card. Visa promises to pick up the tab for this kind of stuff (we’ll see how that pans out) so off we drove in a new Grand Caravan — with 40 cm of clearance — while Marybeth again entreated us to, “drive the caar safe, Mr. Freiberg.”

A Maritimes fall is magical. Maple, elm and aspen trees shed their leaves in colourful splendor. Red, orange and yellow fill the rocky landscape. Our September trip to Nova Scotia was a family visit. Nathalie’s older sister Colette, pursuing her master’s degree in marine biology, attends the University of Dalhousie in downtown Halifax.

She studies the epipelagic region of the sea. I haven’t a clue what that means. When she first told me about her specialty — that it involves sea urchins and kelp — I assumed she was planning a career as a sushi chef. I was proud of that girl until I realized she spent her time scuba diving to save urchin colonies.

Colette lined up accommodation for us on the recommendation of a kelp-bed loving acquaintance. We rented the “Glass House” in Duncan’s Cove, an easy 25-minute commute from Halifax’s beautiful waterfront. Tom and Bev Grove own seven small houses on this quaint little bay.

Each home features a wall of glass directly fronting the Atlantic. Tom built them all with his own hands. Not bad for a guy who emigrated from Pennsylvania in the 1950s to take up a position as bassoonist in the Halifax symphony orchestra. Bev played violin with the symphony before they retired a few years back.

“Do you play the bassoon?” Tom asked as he displayed the interior of his home, carefully reconstructed from the beams of a 19th century fisherman’s lodging. He and Bev live next door to the Glass House.

“No,” I admitted.

“The oboe?” Tom inquired. “Nope,” I said.

“What do you play?” he asked, as if it went without saying that anyone visiting Duncan’s Cove and staying in one of his lovingly crafted cabins must be musically gifted.

“Well, I do occasionally play guitar … and can tinkle the ivories a little,” I said hoping to overcome his dismay at my failure in the woodwind section of life. Tom was delighted and insisted I come inside to play his heirloom Bechstein Grand piano.

As we meandered through a warren of rooms I noticed that there were knick-knacks and paraphernalia tucked into every small crevice. The boot room was jammed to the rafters with junk, from bedsprings to broomsticks.

There was even an old toilet sitting forlornly in a corner. I was tempted to suggest that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t stow thrones but thought better of it when Tom produced his contra bassoon. The contra is heavy enough to beat an amateur punster from Alberta to death. Tom noted that this instrument — the only one of its kind east of Quebec City — would be five metres long if its kinks were uncoiled. I permanently stowed the throne joke.

I told Tom we hoped to enjoy some lobster while in the Maritimes. He gave me directions to the nearby Sambro Fisheries Plant. Ten minutes and two swervy kilometres down the road, I watched mouth agape as the rubber-boot-cladded foreman of the Sambro plant snatched five live lobsters from a holding tank, topped them with seawater-wetted paper and instructed that I keep them out of the sun until dinner.

I looked up at the saturated Maritime sky and nodded assent. He tossed in a pound of Fundy Bay scallops and some P.E.I. blue mussels then wished us a good day. When we returned to the Glass House, a huge pot and Tom’s friendly instructions on the proper steaming of Atlantic lobster awaited us. We feasted like Romans that night.

At sea container vessels and cruise ships traded booming, echoing foghorns through the wet night. At 3 a.m., the rain began in earnest. The Glass House leaks. Wind howls through its window pores. But for $600 a week, we could hardly complain. In the morning, I asked Tom how he and Bev fight the elements in Duncan’s Cove. He smiled the smile of a seaside bassoonist, “We don’t fight Mother Nature; we work with her.”

Hiking Duncan’s Cove is an idyllic pastime shared by knowledgeable locals and a few lucky visitors. The rusted remains of Second World War concrete bunkers, silent sentinels awaiting a German invasion that never occurred, guard this rugged coast south of Halifax. Some have been converted to multimillion-dollar homes, sporting a direct view toward Ireland, 3,000 km away across the cold North Atlantic.

We scrambled this rocky coastline from Chebucto Head to Ketch Harbour while the remnants of September’s tropical hurricane Earl tossed blustery swells ashore. Where the coast was inaccessible, we traversed through wet bogs past scrubby spruce trees — reminiscent of Rocky Mountain alpine meadows — bay after bay. The rugged spectacle of Nova Scotia’s shoreline cannot be exaggerated.

Thousands of drowned fisherman attest to its violent beauty.

We didn’t spend our whole Maritime week in Duncan’s Cove. We performed the requisite tour of Halifax’s Citadel, a remarkable military installation that in its 300-year history has suffered only one major attack. But a diarrhea outbreak in the 19th century probably shouldn’t count. We also managed an afternoon trip to blustery, desolate Peggy’s Cove.

Another day, we drove north to the Bay of Fundy, stopping at Howard Dill’s farm, source of the world’s largest pumpkins, some of which weigh in at an astounding 360 kg. That’s a lot of Thanksgiving pie.

Nearby is Grand Pre, from whence the French Acadians were expelled in the shameful years (1765-72), their lands, equipment and cattle expropriated to the British. Many ‘Cajuns’ immigrated to Louisiana, where their descendants today eat crawfish and play the fiddle, Cape Breton style. If not for the cruel British overlords, these people of “le grand derangement” might still be in Nova Scotia picking potatoes rather than high steppin’ it in New Orleans. Maybe things didn’t turn out so bad for the Cajuns after all.

For lunch we stopped in the village of Hall’s Harbour where the local fishing fleet lay stranded at low tide on the bare seabed of the marina, awaiting the twice-daily return of the world’s greatest tide. In six hours, the returning waters would lift the fleet nine metres, enabling them to float back to duty.

In the afternoon, we drove south through the lovely Annapolis Valley —- renowned for its apples (we poached a couple en route) — before crossing back to the Atlantic side, checking out touristy Lunenburg and scenic Mahone Bay before our late return to our glass house haven.

We could have spent more time in the oft-traveled parts of Nova Scotia but once we discovered Duncan’s Cove, it seemed pointless to venture far beyond this idyllic Maritime cove. We could not see the promised land from the Glass House but it must surely be damn nearby.

Gerry Feehan is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer.

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