Growing up on Bug Lighthouse

Screen Shot 2019-08-21 at 9.46.06 PMWild waves, daily climb on 25-foot ladder and 2-and-half-mile trek to school some of Robert Cottreau’s experiences

YARMOUTH, N.S. — Close to 90 years ago, the rise and fall of the tide were an important factor for six young children who lived in Bug Light, at the end of Bunkers Island, Yarmouth County.

Robert Cottreau, 91, is the sole remaining member of the family that called the lighthouse home for 29 years.

School days

Robert’s earliest memories of Bug Light were of going to school around the age of seven. At low tide, the youngsters had to descend a 25-foot ladder, then pick their way through jagged, slippery, seaweed-draped rocks to level ground. Depending on when low tide was, that sometimes meant getting up at 4 a.m. and making the journey across by lantern-light. In the winter there were ice-cakes that made the going even tougher.

The children would stay in a shanty onshore until daylight, then finish the trek to the Sand Beach school, two-and-a-half miles away. The older children walked to Yarmouth Academy, five miles away.

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The approach to Bug Light. The Cottreau children had to traverse these rocks twice daily during their walk to and from Sand Beach school, two-and-a-half miles away.

The house on Bug Light

Robert’s parents, Ida and Jules Cottreau, moved to Bug Light with their family in 1930. The beacon had been in use since 1874 and continues to supplement the Cape Forchu lightstation at the mouth of the harbour.

Most people who hear there once was a house on Bug Light are amazed to learn this.

In a story published by the Atlantic Advocate in May 1965, the living quarters are described as consisting of a basement inside the metal base, a 22 x 22-foot kitchen and three bedrooms upstairs. Heat was scantily provided by a stove in the kitchen and another upstairs.

Robert’s sister Jean would often go to bed with an umbrella because the roof leaked so badly. She told the Advocate, “it was nothing for us to wear a raincoat to bed.”

The lighthouse bell had a 1,500-pound weight on it and had to be wound up every six hours by hand. The lightkeepers dory was pulled up at night and hung on davits.

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Up and down the ladder

As one might imagine, the metal ladder sometimes proved a challenge. Albert, the fourth son, fell from the top when he was 14. He injured his head and arm, missed a week of school and had to wear eye glasses from then on as a result of the accident.

Another incident involved a broken rung that jabbed their mother. She was laid up for eight months.

The vertical climb wasn’t a problem for their dog Teddy, who supplemented the bell with his barking when ships approached. Robert says Teddy could go up the ladder faster than they could climb but for descents he relied on a volunteer.

“He was quite a dog. When he wanted to come down, he’d get up there by the ladder and wag his tail. We’d get on the ladder, lean in and he’d put his front paws on our shoulders and his hind paws above a belt and we could carry him down. When he got on his rocks he was on his own. He could climb the ladder better than we could.”

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Childhood highlights

When harbour dredging took place, the kids had a front-seat view. Robert says the workers would drill all afternoon and then tow the dredge across the harbour when they were ready to blast the seafloor.

“The deep-sea divers would wear these big helmets and put the charges in and then they’d blow them. We used to love to watch that. They were right alongside us, we could have hit them with a rock.”

From the top of the light the children could also see the old Bluenose ferry leave the harbour.

“You’d see that thing go down in the sea and it would be gone (in a wave trough), next thing you’d see it come up and the water would be pouring off it. I always said, I’d never want to work on that thing. I ended up spending 32 years on it.”

Robert worked as a deckhand on the Bluenose as a young man, then became a bosun.

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December 4, 1959. Lighthouse upgrade. A modern superstructure of reinforced concrete was erected to replace the wooden part of the old Bunker Island lighthouse off the southwest end of Bunker Island, at the entrance to Yarmouth Harbour. Herald Photo. #vintagephotos

Shore frightening

Robert and his oldest brother, Freddie, made a hike to town one evening. Robert wanted to watch a show and Freddie was supposed to pick him up afterwards around 11:30 p.m.

“I went and saw the Mummy’s Tomb. Nobody should go see a story like that, eh?” said Robert.

Freddie didn’t show up at the appointed time and Robert waited until Capital Theatre closed at 12:30 a.m., then set off for home.

This was during the wartime and Robert says stories about bodies floating around out at sea were all the gossip.

As he was walking along the beach in the dark he stepped into something that squashed up around his shoes as far as his ankles.

“I took off and got home. Next morning, I was pretty scared but there was no getting away from it. I thought about it and had to go see what it was.”

He set off to find the spot and found his footprint in the middle of a “big long watermelon.”

“I didn’t tell anybody about that for a long time,” he laughed.

He added that he had passed by a little cemetery that night near the location.

“That didn’t help any, but they couldn’t catch me that night!”

The ocean’s power

The sea used to come right up over the top of the lighthouse at times. Robert says the children couldn’t even get outdoors to play.

One Sunday afternoon their cousin George Cottreau came for dinner. Afterwards the youngsters went to the south side of the house. Looking up the harbour, they saw three giant waves heading their way. When they got to the light, they were as high as the second floor.

“They took all the windows out and everything in the kitchen. I got a cut and George did as well. He never came back again.”

Warning of inclement weather was rudimentary at best. There were no Environment Canada warnings those days.

In the Town of Yarmouth people relied on what they referred to as a stormdrum, a big post as high as a telephone pole with an arm on it.

If there was a gale, a white light would be hoisted for northerly winds. The southwesterly winds, which resulted in the worst conditions for Bug Light, were indicated by two lights. The Cottreau family never had a phone at Bug Light until the late 1940s, early ‘50s, when electricity was finally available to them.

Hurricane Edna

On Sept. 11, 1954, hurricane Edna blew into Yarmouth, packing winds of 90-100 miles per hour.

“Oh that was bad,” said Robert.

“We were in the shanty, it was in the afternoon and we were fixing traps. It was raining and blowing. My dad was in the lighthouse and came across and said ‘what do you think fellas? If we’re going ashore, we’ve got to go, because the sea’s coming right over the rocks.  We haven’t got much chance to get off after.’” They left the dog in the shanty and walked down to their old home in Kelly’s Cove and next morning one of the boys got up early and went down to the light. He ran back and told the other family members to come help dig the dog out of the shanty. The storm had pushed large rocks all the way around the building. The dog was safe inside.

“That’s the first and last time I ever remember that happening – rocks piled up around a building from the sea. You’d never believe the sea could do that, eh?” said Robert.

When they climbed up to the house, all the shutters and windows were gone. The door was smashed and everything was in shambles where the sea had broken through. The waves had shoved most of the contents over to the north side. A new washer that had only been used six times had been pummelled. They found the cover to it 200 feet away in the harbour.

“I’m glad we left, because if we had of stayed we would have been out trying to work on the shutters and we wouldn’t be here today,” said Robert.

The lighthouse was repaired and the windows were replaced and work went on as usual.

Leaving the lighthouse

Robert was around 26 when he left his childhood home. He stayed until then for the convenience the location provided him as a lobsterman. All he had to do was lower the boat down from the front of the lighthouse, row over to his lobster boat at the wharf and sail off to the fishing grounds.

In 1959, when the Cottreau family learned that the super-structure of Bug Light was to be replaced with an unmanned light, Jean Cottreau sat down on the shore and cried like a baby.

“It was awful to see it being torn down. It was as though it was part of me,” she told the Advocate.

The government provided the family with a new home and modern conveniences on Bunkers Island.

Robert becomes animated when recalling his childhood memories of living on Bug Light.

“It was a good life, except when it stormed. We were all together there.”

The Lost to the Sea Memorial


If you get a chance, stop for a visit at The Lost to the Sea memorial on Water Street. This site is a beautiful yet sobering testament to the heavy toll the sea has taken from our fisherfolk over the decades.


The memorial lists over 2400 names of individuals connected to Yarmouth County who lost their lives to the sea. It was officially unveiled in June 2013. The bright red wax begonias in some areas of the garden are planted every spring by elementary school students.

The website associated with the memorial features fascinating and heart-rending accounts of shipwrecks in the area. Here’s an excerpt from the story of the steamer Monticello, lost to the sea in 1900.

Within five minutes of our putting off from the Monticello she turned completely over and disappeared beneath the waves. Our only safety depended upon our keeping our boat, before the sea, and how faithfully poor Murphy attended to this difficult task. It appeared as if his hands would collapse from the strain with which he grasped the tiller. When a short distance from the shore we tried to run the boat into a small beach between the rocks. I saw a tremendous comber coining after us and I shouted to all to hold on for their lives. I grasped both arms around the forward thwart with both hands locked by the fingers and waited for the result. In an instant the boat was lifted like an eggshell to the angle of 45 degrees, my grasp on the boat was broken, and I found myself thrown violently to the earth and grass on the beach….


The Eider Ducks


While sitting on the front deck, chances are pretty good that you’ll notice a few unusually marked ducks bobbing around the big rocks. These are eider ducks. The males are especially showy with black and white plumage and a green nape. The females are less flashy with brown feathers.

Eider ducks are renowned for their down. As a protected species, only naturally shed down from brooding females is harvested. When nesting, egg-sitting females molt the ultra-fluffy sub-layer of down from their soft underbellies so the heat of their bodies can be transferred directly to their incubating eggs. Once the hatchlings have left the nest, the down is collected and cleaned.

In Norway, eider down harvesting is a living cultural tradition that has continued for centuries. Over 60 nests will be harvested to gather enough down for just one duvet, whose down content will average a little over two pounds. The annual yield of eider down worldwide is a precious 5000-pounds — by contrast, tens of thousands of tons of goose down is produced each year.

Periwinkle treats (for the curious)

Periwinkles can be found in abundance

Have you ever heard of periwinkles as something to eat? Truthfully, it’s a dish I’ve never tried, but then again,  oysters aren’t my favourite either. Fans of these tiny morsels say they  pack more flavour and texture than the more familiar clams, oysters and even abalone.

And, let’s remember, these snails are cousins to the elegant land snails – escargots.

Periwinkles, known scientifically as Littorina littorea, are very abundant along our coastline. These small intertidal snails have shells that range from tiny to about three-quarters of an inch wide. Pluck one off the rocks at the beach and the animal immediately retracts its body and closes itself within its shell.

If you’re interested in collecting some of these and trying them, here’s a handy article.

Watch this video too and you’ll be able to eat them like a pro.

The Leeway Striker

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This article first appeared on the Yarmouth Vanguard’s website Aug.28, 2018

One of the benefits of the Cape Cottage’s location is the vantage point it provides for vessels departing and arriving in Yarmouth Harbour. With its distinctive camouflage paint job and sleek profile, a  74-foot patrol boat generated lots of conversation when it arrived for fuel and to clear customs on Aug. 26.

The Leeway Striker cost close to $10 million to build. Captain Jamie Sangster, CEO of Leeway Marine in Halifax, wouldn’t disclose how much he paid for the vessel, one they worked nearly a year to acquire.“It’s an interesting boat,”he said.

“There was no expense spared in the development of this boat at all.

Leeway Marine operates in a number of different sectors, but mostly hydrographic survey. Sangster and his team aspire to enter into a few other sectors in the market with the new vessel – ocean technology-related and defence-related.

The mid-shore surveillance and patrol vessel was built by RiverHawk Fast Sea Frames for a military application in a military competition several years ago. The prototype vessel never went into use because competitors won the bid.

“It worked out well for us,” said Sangster. “We were the lucky Nova Scotians that were digging hard to find an appropriate, unique vessel and we’ve certainly found it in this one.”

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Crew: Mark Decker, Grant Heddon and captain Jamie Sangster.

The unique camouflage exterior is difficult to see, especially in colder ocean waters as it tends to blend in with the waves.

There are also very few 90-degree angles on the vessel so the radar cross-section is a lot smaller.

“For a defence application, having a small radar cross-section certainly makes you much more difficult to detect. So that’s a nice advantage for some of the clients we hope to attract,” said Sangster.

The interior features shock absorbing seats, small galley and six bunks.

Sangster says it took a little while to learn the technical components of the vessel during the trip as it didn’t come with a user manual.

“We’re new to the boat and there are so many things you have to learn. It’s all monitored remotely through the computers,” he said.

“It feels good to almost have it home. It’s been kind of a long journey since last June, when we started working on the process to get this vessel. The team left Tampa in mid-August and stopped in a few places on the way up to work out the kinks.”

The vessel docked at the COVE – the Centre for Ocean Ventures & Entrepreneurship – in Halifax when it arrived. In Spring 2019, Leeway Marine signed a partnership with Newfoundland’s Kraken Sonar Systems. The Striker will be deployed as a mine hunting and hydrographic patrol vessel to survey areas in littoral and offshore waters.

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Control panel of Leeway Striker.

More on the Leeway Striker

Length: 74 feet with 6.5 feet beam

Speed: 58.5 knots

Range: 510 NM

Engines: Three x V12MAN diesels; 2 Kamewa 45 S3 w/1 x Kamewa 45 B3 Booster waterjet

Other features: removable shock-mitigating seating for crew and mission personnel, stern ramp to accommodate a five-metre interceptor or unmanned scout boat.

Lobster band blues


This article was first published in the Tri-County Vanguard, Feb.26, 2018

Where do those rubber bands on shore come from?

YARMOUTH, N.S. – A walk along your nearest beach could very well be marred by the sight of thousands of multi-coloured lobster bands strewn along the high-water mark during the winter.

Where did they come from?

When lobsters are removed from traps, a rubber band must be placed on their snapping claws to prevent them from damaging each other during storage. The job is a tough assignment at the best of times. Combine a feisty lobster, cumbersome gloves and a swaying boat, and a pretty good percentage of those rubber bands end up on the deck. They’re small and a nuisance to pick up so they’re often just swept or hosed off the boat into the ocean. Other times, like an elastic, they snap off and fly into the water as fishermen are fastening them to a lobster’s claw.

The multitude that end up on shorelines isn’t pretty and some who have seen them ask a common question.

Why don’t lobster fishermen go back to the old-fashioned, environmentally friendly solution of using wooden pegs for the same purpose?

Over 80 million plugs were made and sold in 1978 to markets from New York to Newfoundland.

Vernon D’Eon, former owner of Vernon D’Eon Lobster Plugs Ltd., says there are several reasons why the switch was made.

The wooden lobster pegs were inserted under the lobster’s claw hinge joint to prevent claws from opening.

“It was a short-term fix but not a long-term one for holding lobsters,“ he said.

If the peg penetrated the tail section of the lobster and caused a hole, it could be subject to disease.

The blood disease could wipe out thousands and thousands of pounds of lobster in no time.

The lobsters were sometimes stored in tidal ponds, as these were the days before climate-controlled pounds and they’d cram together in corners, “like ants.”

The marking of the meat in the claw area also caused a dark grey mark on the meat.

Industry buyers asked fishermen to switch to rubber bands.

D’Eon does have good news about the lobster bands littering the shore.

“They rot,” he said.

“The bands that float are as pure as rubber as can be. Rubber doesn’t like air or light and they’ll just disappear over time.”


Is it just local marine refuse we see?

A lobster band from Gaspésie, Que.,  found on False Harbour Beach, Cape Forchu, N.S.,  begs the question – how far away can lobster bands float from? It’s hard to tell.

Vernon D’Eon says a local lobster buyer may have brought in crates of lobsters from the Gaspésie area and the band could have floated off when the crate was open.

David Brickman, a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, says it’s possible the band could have floated here from Gaspésie on the Nova Scotia current. The current runs parallel to the province’s coastline from Sydney, Cape Breton, past Yarmouth. It circles the Bay of Fundy and then becomes the Gulf of Maine coastal current flowing down to Cape Cod. Marine debris, particularly that which is drifting on surface currents, has a lot of variability in direction due to winds.

“The Nova Scotia current flows something like 10-20 centimetres per second.  That’s about 15 kilometres per day or 250-500 kilometres per month,” said Brickman.

Thankfully, False Harbour Beach and John’s Cove Beach have volunteers who do their best to remove any garbage they see. Beach cleanups around the world are an ongoing job however until all mankind realizes and respects the immense value of the biodiversity in our oceans.


Spring Storm


Clumps of Snowdrops were the first flowers to be transplanted to the Cape Cottage property.  In this region of Nova Scotia these nodding white beauties signal the end of winter and often appear in late March.

Of course, snowfall at that time is still quite common and can smother the Snowdrops. But these bloomers are tough.

BBC Earth describes how their leaves have specially hardened tips to help them break through frozen soil. Their sap contains a form of antifreeze to prevent ice crystals forming. On very cold mornings, clumps will flop down as the water is ‘frozen’ inside the cells, but soon perk up again once temperatures rise and the sap can flow again.

The weather report for today called for 15-20 cm of snow. It’s discouraging for those who are impatient for Spring. Warmer weather is just around the corner though.

I know it because the Snowdrops told me so.