Seagull watching. It’s an easy pastime at the cottage. They greet each incoming wave as if it’s a carnival ride designed just for them. A little fleet of feathered bobbers, up and over the crest and sliding into the trough. Then something sets them aloft. They rise and wheel and settle back on the water to ride the waves again.
What’s really mesmerizing is to watch the windriders, the gulls that hang motionless in the air. Their windspeed matches that of oncoming breezes and they navigate the changes with skill.
Here’s some fascinating trivia I found about seagulls online.
Gulls have been observed preying on live whales, landing on the whale as it surfaces to peck out pieces of flesh. (BBC News)
Seagulls can survive drinking salt water because of a special pair of glands just above the eyes that flush the salt from their system out through their nostrils (Audubon)
Clad in a snug layer of neoprene, surfer Jody Lays paddles hard, duck-diving through smashing breakers to calmer water.
“After you go through about eight of them you have ice cream headache and your face is freezing,” he said.
“You’re just hoping that when you get through this one, it’s the last one and there isn’t another one because your head’s so cold.”
Although his face might sting from the frigid water, the rest of Lays’ body is relatively warm thanks to his exertions. He’ll surf up to three or four hours with brief warmups every hour.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, you just want to run right back out, like a kid,” he said.
He learned to surf on boards he made himself, out of eps foam and epoxy resin. The materials have changed over the years, as has the length. Typically, learners start off on a big, long board and work their way down.
“I was on a big slab at Port Maitland one day and I found I couldn’t turn really good. So I started going on smaller boards,” he said. He now rides a five-foot, seven-inch board. The more experience you have, the shorter board you can surf on.
From where he lives in South Ohio, Lays can access several beaches, his favourites being Mavillette and False Harbour.
This is his fifth season surfing, something he’s wanted to do ever since he was a child. “The attitude in Nova Scotia at that time was you can’t surf in Nova Scotia, there are no waves here,” he said.
He says fishermen know about the waves. “They understand because they’re out there and they see what’s going on. People don’t even realize how many waves (surf sites) are between here and Lockeport.”
He adds that the Hawk on Cape Sable Island is a good place to go, with “double overhead tubes” there. Translated, that means a wave that is twice the height of a person, curling over to form a tube. Lays has even heard of a 20-foot wave in Shelburne several winters ago.
Weymouth resident Brian Carey says surfing potential in the region is one of the reasons he came to this area.
Carey owns Aeon Surfboards and has been surfing since 2011 – first on the Great Lakes, then Gloucester, Mass. and Costa Rica in 2013.
He likes Mavillette Beach for its southwest exposure. Storm systems that move up along the U.S. eastern seaboard swing around the southwest corner of Nova Scotia, pushing big swells.
“They can get nine to 10 feet, which can be pretty terrifying – especially if you paddle out into them,” he said.
It’s also a good “beginner” beach, where he’s introduced newbies to the sport in one-foot waves.
Like Lays, he’s drawn to the exhilaration of winter surfing, when the largest waves of the year happen.
“If you want to take advantage of the best waves, you have to bundle up and get out there in the cold,” he said.
He wears a 6-5-4 wetsuit, which translates to six mm thick for body, five mm for extremities and four mm for flex points. The variety of coverage helps to keep the core warm in North Atlantic waters that range from three degrees Celsius in March to 15 in August, while allowing unrestricted movement. He also wears at least five or seven-mm gloves, boots and a hood.
“When you come out, that’s when it really gets you. You have to be ready with towels and a warm place where you can change out of your wetsuit quickly,” he said.
Carey says if surfers in New England knew about the uncrowded beaches here they’d head north.
He plans on expanding his board-building business into a rental shop at Mavillette Beach this year.
Randall McQuade owns a cottage in Round Bay, Shelburne County, where he sometimes surfs. He started at the age of 45 and says he’s completely hooked on the sport.
He’s registered a business called Roll Tide and plans on setting up a surf/SUP (stand-up paddleboard) school and rental business in Round Bay, if not this summer then next.
He says the sport is very new to the area judging by the many times he’s been completely alone on a south shore surf break or with friends.
McQuade wants people also to be aware of safety in surfing and to learn proper surfing etiquette.
“This is an area of untapped potential for growth. My vision is to get new people into the sport and preferably younger people,” he said.
He added that surfers are generally very protective of their favourite spots, but he believes there are plenty to go around.
“The water is colder than most places but the waves are world class and you don’t have to worry about crowds, frustrated angry locals, or sharks.
“You and whoever is with you that day can enjoy a beautiful beach or point break all to yourselves and tourists can truly experience an area that is natural, remote and untapped.”
Several surfers provided helpful information on learning how to surf.
Iaian Archibald from Halifax says there are some great surf schools in the province.
“They’re always the best entry point for people looking to try the sport.”
He added that they also teach surfing etiquette, which is important.
Mike Zwaagstra cautions that newcomers should not winter surf unless they can both swim and surf well.
“Do not surf a point if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said.
Ton Kanisur, also from Halifax, says in terms of getting into it, finding friends to go with helps.
“Surfing fitness helps and most importantly, a day in the ocean, whatever time of year, is never wasted time.”
Sean Towner says surfing is for all ages.
“I started when I was 50 and now I’m hooked. I was out last week with some other ‘older’ guys. It’s our ocean therapy. I wish I had started when I was younger, but it’s never too late. My wife just learned at age 48 and we just did our first surf trip. There’s nothing like being in the ocean and riding a wave.”
This year, a long-overlooked community close to Cape Forchu received some well-deserved publicity.
Prior to 1873 the Yarmouth Bar, which connects the mainland to Cape Forchu, did not exist. Early maps depict the Yarmouth Bar as a stony beach and an 1871 map indicates that boats could pass through the area at high water.
Mike Cunningham, chairman of the Yarmouth County Historical Society’s Historic Sites committee, says newspapers from 1873 reported that work completing the breakwater at the Bar was progressing.
Doris Watkins, who grew up in nearby Lower Overton, showed an 1885 photo from her collection to Cunningham. The picture shows the wharfs and structures built at the Bar by the Parker-Eakins company, known locally as The Firm, in 1880.
It also shows a series of cribwork retaining walls along the eastern side of the bar. The western side had a wall built of vertical timbers and between the two sides hundreds of loads of beach rocks taken from the area to the north of the bar were hauled in to the site to fill it in. This work was done by hand, employing many residents of Stanwood’s beach, located between Fish Point and Yarmouth Bar. Oxen hauling carts were used to transport the beach stone fill to the site.
Cunningham says local fishermen who have done construction and excavation in different areas of the Bar have confirmed that despite how deep you dig all you find are beach rocks.
Watkins is pleased to see efforts are underway to bring the history of Fish Point, Stanwood’s Beach and Yarmouth Bar to light.
“I think it’s fabulous that they’re bringing to life a place that was a whole community full of people – children and older people, all ages, living their life. Now it’s just a strip of land and the younger generation drive by and say, ‘look at all the boats.’”
Stanwood’s Beach was once lined with homes built right on the rocks. A dozen houses on each side. There were also two stores, a church and an inn (the only site with a freshwater well).
Watkins remembers the residents being very poor.
“There was no insulation and it was very cold in the winter. Most of the residents didn’t have any education as far as high school goes. Mom used to do all their government papers for pensions and things like that. They were a hardy bunch and they managed,” she said.
She adds with a chuckle, “One resident, Benny Penney, sold half his house. He sold it to Jim Dugas because he couldn’t afford a whole one.”
In 1954, Hurricane Edna took out many of the houses. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, says Cunningham. The community shrank to a shadow of its former self.
A three-phase project by the Historic Sites committee saw interpretive panels installed this year at Fish Point, along with elevation of the Lost to the Sea monument ‘s parking area with fill and gravel to prevent flooding problems experienced in the past. Now the committee is pursuing historical site designation for Fish Point and to have the road from there to the Cape Forchu Lighthouse declared an historical route for phase 3.
Wild 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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….
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.
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.