||"Nova Scotias Far East"
"Forest Fire Causes Evacuation by Sea"
by an advancing fire, and losing the battle, residents of the small village
of Main-a-Dieu in Nova Scotia, had to be rescued by sea." It was late June,
1976, and I was in Europe studying and travelling - fortunately, not having
to earn a living in those days. News from home was sparse. Local newspapers,
even those in English, had little to report, a sobering sign to us expatriate
Canadians of our relative importance in world events. However, on that particular
day, tucked down at the bottom of the international page I encountered this obscure
report. Having no idea of where this newsworthy spot was, I checked my map of
home and followed the coastline until it led me to the eastern tip of Cape Breton Island, and a large, irregular shaped island pointing
its crooked finger into the Atlantic Ocean: and out to Scatarie Island.
This remote island with the strange name tugged at my imagination for a long
time. I came close to visiting it a few years later, during my circumnavigation
of the province in a canoe but on that particular day it was
draped in fog and buffeted by wind - and we didnt dare land. Only years
later did I finally set foot on this forgotten and forlorn outpost.
Scatarie Island juts into the North Atlantic off the eastern point of the province.
Only a narrow channel, the "tickle" separates it from the village
of Main-a-Dieu, where the rocky hills still carry the scarred reminders of the
previous inferno, but the currents can be treacherous. This is one of our largest
offshore islands (over 10 kilometres in length) but perhaps the least known.
No causeway leads here, as with Cape Sable Island, nor even a ferry, as with
Brier and Tancook on the mainland. It is a raw world, and not a very pleasant
landfall to many of the early visitors from across the sea. An ancient bedrock
outcrop fringed by an irregular pattern of shoals, or " sunkers" as
they were known in local parlance, guard its shores. Errant wooden ships split
like fine tinder, spilling out goods and souls into the pitiless fray if they
ventured too close. Only Sable Island and St. Paul's Island have claimed as
many sailors in the Atlantic provinces. Sheltered harbours on Scatarie are non-existent,
vegetation impoverished and the cold Atlantic fog and winds ever present, especially
in winter and spring.
||No one lives on Scatarie and it is hard to believe that anyone could have ever
set roots on this inhospitable terrain.
|But, at one time, they did. The earliest
visitor was undoubtedly the native North American. Basque and Portuguese fishermen
certainly passed this way (perhaps even before the voyage of John Cabot in 1497).
They could not have avoided it on their fishing forays along the shore of this
continent. The name, Scatarie, is thought to have originated with the Portuguese.
It was possibly a whaling station. Perhaps they even made it a seasonal post,
salting and drying their catch before returning to Europe in the fall. We do
know is the French settled Scatarie in the early 18th century when Louisbourg
(only 15 kilometres away) was a bastion of French power in North America. The
cod fishery was particularly blessed off its shores and the fortress garrison
provided a ready market. A census in 1716 noted over 400 inhabitants. Three
quarters of them were temporary summer workers, but over a hundred were men,
women and children eking out a year round existence.
With the the fall of Louisbourg in 1756, the inhabitants of Scatarie were deported
and any permanent dwellings destroyed. The island remained deserted for 80 years
until a life saving station was established in 1836, followed by a lighthouse
in 1839. Shortly thereafter, several families from Newfoundland arrived and
resumed the fishing lifestyle of the earlier Acadians. In fact the term "sunker",
although not in use elsewhere in Nova Scotia, is in common parlance on "the
Life would have been difficult in those years. In spring and summer the fog
and storms could render fishing hazardous in the shoal infested waters; in the
winter the drift ice made it impossible. They had to drag their boats far up
onto the shore to prevent them from being crushed. Add to this their isolation
from the mainland communities. Nearly everything (including building wood) had
to be brought over by boat. In spite of these difficulties there were over a
dozen families by the early part of the 20th century, with their homesteads,
a church, and a school. They supplemented fishing with small gardens (potatoes,
cabbage and turnips would grow well) and some livestock. Many had a cow and
probably all some sheep. However, with the advent of refrigeration and consumer
demand for a fresher product, the islanders could no longer compete with the
fishermen on the mainland, who had direct access to the processing plants. The
demand for salted codfish gradually dwindled and, with it, their sole reason
for clinging to this rock - and they left. In a tale repeated often elsewhere,
only the light keepers remained but, they too, had left by the time I first
visited in 1991. Our only companion then was to be Bob, Hurricane Bob.
We arrived at Northwest Cove by kayak on a mid August afternoon, under an ominous
sky reflected by a perverse calm. We decided to forgo testing our new tent and
secured the door and boarded up the windows of the lone boat house. We then
braced for the anticipated onslaught. However, Bob reserved his full brunt for
our friends in southwestern New Brunswick and our humble hovel remained intact and we rose to a morning sky of sparkling clarity. Crisp, northwest winds
had swept away the monotonous greys replacing them with intense greens and blues
that contrasted with the white crests dancing and swirling onto the horizon
of ocean. We were storm bound and set out to explore the island on foot.
Scatarie (roughly 3 km by 6 km) has a number of trails leading through an interior
tangle of spruce and fir. Other than the alders, reclaiming the roadway which
leads from the boathouse to the light station, there is scarcely a deciduous
tree on the island. Spring and fall would look much the same. The colourful
tapestry that cloaks the Cape Breton hills later in the season, is absent here.
The road to the light station passes by a wooden church (now just a jumble of
prostrate, shingled walls) and the remains of some of the early homesteads.
Only one building was still standing, it too, soon to go the way of the others.
In a clearing of golden grass, bending to the salty gusts we poked around for
treasure, turning up a cast iron stove grill, a rusting kettle transformed into
a colander from a burst of buckshot (a frustrated or bored hunter, no doubt)
and an intact staircase leading form nowhere to nowhere. A human past was still
At the tip of the island any pretence of forest dispersed totally, yielding
barren rock and heath - and the spectacular sight of breakers thrashing shoal
and shore, throwing up a haze of salt spray. A few lonely, rotting poles, as
straight as the rest of the island forest was crooked, marked a winding route
over the fields to the station, probably supporting the power lines of an earlier
A light station dominated the most easterly extremity of the province (if
you exclude Sable Island) since 1839. Its white tower is 74 ft above the water and its
warning beacon, still visible in the bright sunlight, reaches out over 20 miles.
The keepers houses were are boarded up but were still in good condition when
I visited in 1991.
An open basement door, conveniently kicked in by a previous passer-by, led into
a concrete basement with several wooden partitions. It was empty, except for
an assortment of liquor bottles (unfortunately empty) neatly arranged on shelves.
I have sipped more than the occasional rum on my visits to other lights in past.
That wont happen again. All the lights in the maritime provinces are now
Next to the tower is was a small grave, bordered with a miniature picket fence. Here is the final rest of one of the keepers children. Remarkably, the house hadnt been vandalised and its solid walls and hardwood floors would
have needed little to prepare them for moving in. They had been leased by the
College of Cape Breton as a field trip station, but budgetary constraints have
ended that. Eventually the buildings will deteriorate until they are ultimately
destroyed by the Department of Transport (or vandals), and with them the last
symbol of settlement on the island. When I visited again in 2011the houses were still standing but in an advanced stage of deterioration. They were open completely to the elements and rummanging through the interior over rotting floor boards was not for the faint at heart. However, the tiny graveyard was still intact.
||Coastal islands have a raw hold on the senses that help us break through our
predictable view of the world.
|Scatarie Island is special. The perimeter is
open land. Miles of undulating crowberry mats, sand and cobble beach, trail
and barren allow a freedom of movement that has so often been denied me by streams,
lakes and dense wood elsewhere. It reminds me of the English moorland or the
Scottish hills where the only barrier is ones own endurance.
It is possible to hike around the entire island. Rock outcrops above the bakeapple
barrens overlook the south coast and the mainland beyond. On the north shore,
dry crowberry mats, which from a distance appear as a grassy meadow, provide
a springy bed. Up close it is fragrant and soft. The interior tangle of coniferous
wood can be avoided or traversed by trails. A particularly lengthy one, appropriately
named "Long Lane" winds through a moss and lichen draped hobbit wood
from one side of the island too the other. There are only a few small ponds
on the island and no major streams. An all terrain trail links some hunting
Washed by the sea, the exposed siltstones and sandstones display the colour
and textures of an ancient geology. Even away from the incessant battering of
angry seas you dont have to probe far under the surface to strike bedrock.
It has been moulded and fractured by water, ice and crustal movement over millennia
and is among the oldest in the province. "Pristine" is how Sandra
Barr describes it. Dr. Barr, a geologist from Acadia University, has studied
this coast of Cape Breton for the Geological Survey of Canada. She means that
the rock has been altered little since its deposition. The original layering
is still very much apparent. The geology also borders a pivotal time in evolution,
the Cambrian/Precambrian boundary, which outcrops as a conglomerate at the head
of Southeast Harbour. It was during this era that a burst of multicellular diversity
transformed life on the planet and, with it, created the beginning of our fossil
record. However, no fossils have yet been uncovered here.
Few large mammals make their home on Scatarie. The rugged terrain is scarcely
more hospitable to them then it was to humans. There are signs of deer, but
none of the red fox which were reportedly once numerous. Over two decades ago,
arctic hare and ptarmigan were introduced from Newfoundland but the foxes, great
horned owl and poachers put an end to that experiment. None have been spotted
since 1986. Eiders and gulls nest in quantity on Hay Island (in Southeast Harbour), petrels on the main island, and this is a stopping place for many migrants,
most notably the Wimbrel which is relatively uncommon elsewhere in the province.
The major mammal in the area is marine - the Grey seal. In Eastern Harbour,
we encountered well over a hundred, the largest congregation I had ever seen.
They were unperturbed by the swells that made me leery of navigating these waters
and much less skittish that the seals that I have closer to home. Maybe they
were aware that this was their domain. The island is still a wildlife management
area and the Dept. of Natural Resources staff make frequent visits. It has recently
been designated one of the provinces 31 protected wilderness areas.
Eventually the storm winds abated on that initial visit and we were able to
continue our journey around the island, poking about the ragged shoreline which bares the marks of
its incessant confrontation with the sea. Few visit this outpost anymore. It
is far from the more travelled shores of the province. Aside from the occasional
kayaker exploring the fringe, maybe a geologist will visit, probing for clues
of our ancient history, or picnickers over for a day outing. Just offshore,
divers continue to seek treasure from the wrecks that are scattered among the
shoals (the Feversham, sunk in 1711 with a treasure of Spanish, Dutch and early
American colonial coins, was located nearby).
The native vegetation will continue its inexorable march to obliterate the remaining
traces of settlement. Trails and cabins will eventually succumb, as will the
lightkeepers houses. Scatarie awaits quietly for another era while across the
tickle, on the mainland, the scars of that earlier forest fire also fade - gradually blending into
the rich greens of new vegetation.
After a lull of many years I returned to Scatarie with my kayak (several times, in fact) and with a newfound interest in weaving in and out of the myriad shoals, ledges, and outcrops that fringe the rocky coastline. These times I view the challenging island perimeter from an entirely different perspective - one that offers some of the most exciting "rock hopping" in the province.
In 2011, an additional attraction landed on the island when a huge Great Lakes freighter washed up on the northeast shore during a storm. It was being towed to Turkey to be disassembled for scrap when the towline snaped. Initial attempts to pull it off were unsuccessful since the jagged bedrock piereced the bottom of the hull, imobilizing it. It is an impressive sight, especially when viewed from the perspective of a tiny sea kayak. The government has promised to have it removed but the challenges and cost of such an operation render that unlikely. Our limited funds can certainly be better spent elsewhere. It will probably remain where it is and gradually subcomb to the incessant onslaught of ocean, as have many another shipwreck around our coastline - including the Fury along the Eastern Shore.