Also published in the Athenaeum, issue 75.1, September 11, 2012
Our first glimpse of Bon Portage Island was that of a rocky shore and the vague outline of jagged trees, emerging from the thick fog that hung like a blanket over Shag Harbour. The boat pulled up beside the wharf and we unloaded our belongings, set foot on the small piece of land that would be our home for the next two weeks. Eight students, one island and nothing but the vastness of the ocean beyond.
One of the first things on our agenda was exploring. Our cabin was near the wharf, a 15-minute walk from the south end of the island, where the lighthouse, cookhouse and lab classroom were located. The shoreline was covered in lobster traps, pieces of driftwood, bones and skulls, an old boiler from a shipwreck, pieces of toys, gloves, clothing… shards of everyday life brought over from the mainland. Gulls circled overhead, endlessly screaming, wailing. A seal appeared amongst the restless waves, peering at us curiously before diving under again. The trees facing the open ocean were stunted, twisted by the wind and the salt spray. They grew gradually taller the further inland we walked, but we never got away from the sound of the waves crashing against the shore, a constant reminder that the ocean surrounded us from all sides. At the north tip, the forest gave way to a fen, offering a view across to the other side of the island and sometimes of the mainland.
This is Bon Portage Island, located off the south shore of Nova Scotia. Once the residence of Evelyn and Morrill Richardson, who were lighthouse keepers for 35 years, the island now belongs to Acadia University. It is maintained by the Biology Department, which offers a natural history field course for university students, which I and seven other students had the chance to experience this year. During our two-week stay on Bon Portage, we learnt about Ichtyology (fishes) with Dr. Katherine Jones from Cape Breton University, Entomology with Dr Kirk Hillier (Acadia), Intertidal Zones with Dr Trevor Avery (Acadia), and with adventurer-in-chief Dr Dave Shutler, we explored Botany (Plants) and Ornithology (Birds). What made this course different from the others, along with the spectacular setting, was the chance to be fully immersed in a different environment.
On Bon Portage, the animals outnumber the humans, who tread carefully amongst Storm-Petrel Burrows and gull colonies. The mainland is sometimes just a glimpse in the distance, and hardly seems real. The only source of power is the generator on the south end of the island, but reading by flashlight and having few opportunities to shower becomes normal.
As a student, spending time on BP was a tremendous opportunity to learn first-hand about the organisms who call this island home. Where else would you get to “grub” petrel chicks from their burrows and listen to their small hearts beating like drums, meet a Northern Gannet face-to-face, get a close look at the butterflies feeding on the thistles that cover the island, watch a deer bound across the meadow or observe the gliding grace of a harrier on the hunt for mice or meadow voles? This, in my opinion, is biology at its best.
The BP field course runs during the last 2 weeks of August. For more information, visit the website
This gallery contains 8 photos.
Standing under a radiant sun, facing Blomidon, watching shorebirds travel back and forth and forage in the mud. The grass is soft and warm under bare toes, and the dikes that form the barriers against the tides fade into the distance, like long grassy snakes made of earth and rocks. Rusty mud is everywhere, dominating the landscape, rivaled only by the strikingly blue sky above it. Inukshuks stand guard, like sentinels, watching the comings and goings, bearing witness to the dramas and tragedies of their small corner of the world.
Human voices mutter and whisper, feet trample the grass and curious eyes watch the horizon. As the sun sinks, impatience grows and unrest ripples through the landscape.
With a breath of wind, the water in the distance seems to stir, and the tide comes flooding in. A full, heavy moon is rising above the horizon. It seems distorted, too big and almost throbbing. The water comes in slowly at first, but then it rushes in, faster and faster, and it rises and rises. The Inukshuks are the first to fall, the first victims of this placid blueness turned rampant; this all-engulfing force. Its voice is like a roar; it rises like the voices of the masses and drowns out everything else.
And that day the tide, the tide never stops rising.
Debout sous un soleil radiant, faisant face à Blomidon, observant les oiseaux de rivage qui creusent dans la boue. L’herbe est douce et chaude sous les pieds nus. Les digues, ces barrières faites de terre et de roches, s’effacent dans l’horizon. La boue couleur de rouille est partout, dominant le paysage, surpassée seulement par le bleu vif du ciel au-dessus de la baie. Les inukshuks montent la garde, telles des sentinelles, observant les évènements du jour, servant de témoins aux drames et aux tragédies de leur petit coin du monde.
Des voix humaines murmurent et chuchotent, des yeux curieux sont fixés sur l’horizon. Lorsque le soleil se couche, l’impatience grandit et une vague d’inquiétude, invisible mais palpable, s’abat sur le paysage. Avec un bruissement, un souffle de vent, l’eau dans le lointain semble s’agiter, la marée commence à monter. Une lune, pleine et lourde, presque trop grande, apparaît dans le ciel. L’eau monte, calmement, puis, de plus en plus vite et soudain avec violence. Les inukshuks sont les premiers à tomber, les premières victimes de cette eau placide devenue force meurtrière. Sa voix est comme un rugissement, un grondement, une clameur. Sa voix, c’est la voix du peuple, qui s’élève et avale tout.
Et cette journée-là, la marée, la marée ne cesse jamais de monter.
A few days ago, Wolfville experienced exceptionally high tides, an event which will only happen again in 2014. The water was lapping up against the dykes, somewhat menacingly if you consider that without these barriers of rock and soil, the town would be very much underwater.
The tides swallowed the expanse of marshy grasses that usually characterize the landscape as you look out into the Minas Basin. What was left was a vast body of water, uninterrupted all the way from Waterfront Park to the Blomidon cliffs.
The high tides also seemed to bring in many ducks and shorebirds.
Saturday I went to Cape Jourimain Nature Centre to participate in the EcoArts festival. I spent the day on the beach, creating stuff out of seaweed, shells, sand, sticks and rocks, talking to few (but very nice) tourists. The sandy beach with the rusty colored rocks, PEI in the distance just across the Northumberland straight… My first endeavor reflected on the most imposing presence in the landscape: the Confederation Bridge that links the island to the mainland.
Some tourists said it looked like a big, long dinosaur. In retrospect, maybe that’s what I should’ve made.
The bridge took most of the morning and a lot of scavenging for shells and rocks and bits and pieces of whatever was on the beach.
Then I was bored. So I made these, which were considerable more fun to make than the dinosaur-bridge.
The crab, admittedly adds a strange element to the otherwise pleasant arrangement…
But I liked having him there. It brought life to the scene… although he was dead.
At the end of the day, the tide came sweeping in. As I watched it rise, I took some neat pictures.