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When you’re in Yarmouth, N.S., with nothing special to do, you might attend a meeting of the 130-year-old Kritosophian Literary Society. There, a member may tell you about a local fellow, an average bloke, who made his fortune in Concord, Massachusetts, because he didn’t believe an international border was any deterrent.

Later, you might wander over to tiny Quinan and talk to Tim Doucette who, when the weather’s fine, operates an observatory for stargazers. He might say, “I just had a group here from China; come back tomorrow for the Chileans. We’re going to take a look at Andromeda Galaxy.”

After all that, if you still find yourself at loose ends, you might head up to Port Maitland, where migratory birds flock before they set out for points south. There, local photographer Bill Curry may point out a tundra bean goose preening in the sea foam. “It’s supposed to be in Russia,” he may laugh.

Book clubs, stargazing, birdwatching; three things anyone can do just about anywhere — from the Cape Breton Highlands to Baie des Chaleurs — in the sweetly short season that is summer in the Maritimes. But there is something special about doing them here, in Yarmouth and the Acadian Shores (population: 25,000). Here, somehow, the mundane becomes marvellous. And, here — “on the edge of everywhere,” where it takes longer to get to Halifax by car than it does to the United States by ferry — that’s the way they like it.

Yarmouth Councillor Belle Hatfield, a lifelong resident of the town who once ran the local newspaper, says: “This is a community that you can just walk into, maybe because it’s in between New England and Halifax and we don’t have to be anything in particular to anyone in particular. There’s a concert band, orchestra, and choral group. There’s a weaver’s group and a rug-hooking group. If you want to do lapidary work (gemstone polishing and jewellery making) there’s a guy down the street with rock machines and he’s happy to bring you into his basement and show you how.”

Belle’s own resumé includes volunteer positions on the Tri-County Local Food Network, the Sara Corning Society, the Yarmouth Music Society and the Yarmouth Facade Society. She’s also co-founder of Hear! Here! Society, a presenters group that produces classical and jazz events. She says, “We aren’t on the (Trans-Canada), and our isolation breeds a kind of creativity and freedom to explore everything; we have to make life rich for ourselves.”

Fair enough, but isolated? Perhaps “exotically connected” better describes a community that, Belle says, “constantly reinvents who we are” to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary as effortlessly as, well, strolling across the smallest drawbridge in the world (Sandford Wharf, about
11 kilometres due north from Yarmouth, is a mere 12 metres from heel to toe). Maybe history provides a clue.

“Although the Vikings may have visited the shores near Yarmouth around 1000 AD, the first positive evidence of a European presence in the area was Champlain’s arrival in 1604 when he named Cape Forchu and explored the harbour,” writes Eric Ruff, Curator Emeritus of the Yarmouth County Museum, where he served as Director between 1974 and 2005.

According to his Maritime Museum of the Atlantic bio, the former Royal Canadian Navy officer was born in a pub in England in 1945 and is a member of the “internationally renowned ensemble,” the Yarmouth Shantymen. He’s also a helluva good historian.

Ruff notes that following their expulsion of the Acadians in 1758, the British government offered the newly vacant land to their colonists in Massachusetts, who settled the inlets and bays from Chebogue in the south to Port Maitland in the north to Yarmouth — formally founded in 1761 — in between.

Mostly fishermen and shipbuilders when they arrived, they also became proficient traders with their mercantile contacts in New England and with the emerging “North Atlantic Triangle” of commerce between the West Indies, eastern North America, and Great Britain. 

The constant flow of people, goods, and services between the “Boston States” and southwestern Nova Scotia in the 19th and early 20th centuries almost casually produced a critical mass of civic and cultural projects in the Yarmouth area, which persists to this day.

On the other hand, the virtuous tendency here to discover the exceptional in the everyday also works in reverse.


Tourism Nova Scotia

This coastline seems utterly accustomed, for example, to the fact that it hosts one of this country’s largest cohort of descendants of the original pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. “More than half the 2,000 people in one local cemetery are Mayflower descendants,” says Bill Curry, who is also governor of the Canadian Mayflower Society and can trace his line back to 13 of the 26 families on that boat.

Nor are people who have been here for a while especially surprised that recent waves of immigrants from all over the world — not just New England — have arrived without the local backlash, or boosterism, that all-too-often accompanies them elsewhere. “It’s totally normal,” says Ralph Surette, a well-known Nova Scotian journalist who hails from Belleville and now lives there year-round. “The Dairy Queen is run by people from India. And there are some Vietnamese, and Mexicans, and Filipinos, too.”

What’s more, locals say, it’s terrific that The CAT ferry connecting Yarmouth to Bar Harbor, Maine, is back (after five years in dock due to politics between the countries pertaining to funding, and then COVID). For decades, they point out, the Nova Scotia government’s tendency to view the service as a costly luxury, benefitting only this part of province, has been flat wrong; it’s a tourism connector as much for Halifax and Cape Breton as for Yarmouth. “The ferry is not a frill,” Belle notes. “It’s part of the traditional transportation link.”

In fact, she says, “It is our life. We are connected to New England. And that connection is in real time, not just history … When I was a young mother and developed a chronic illness, I went to the Lahey Clinic.” Although she didn’t go by ferry to get there, her point is: “It was easier to get to Boston than Halifax.”

All of which may only prove that in Yarmouth and the Acadian Shores, perspective is everything. Take the lobster fishery which, apart from tourism, funds the rolling mandates of all who want to “reinvent” themselves here as they see fit?

“We’ve seen highs and lows,” says Calvin d’Entremont, the councillor for Lower West Pubnico in the Municipality of Argyle, and who is, himself, a lobsterman. “I don’t like using the words ‘fishing crisis.’ That sounds like you’re in a war zone. We’ve had challenges, but that’s the nature of business. If you can ride out the hard times, you can thrive in the high times. We’ve really got it made in the shade.”

Certainly, people come from all over the world to wait for shade at Tim Doucette’s Deep Sky Eye Observatory. He estimates that more than 2,000 fee-paying “astrotourists” have passed through his modest digs — which lie within only one of two UNESCO dark sky territories in North America — since he opened in 2016. He says people never again take the astonishing beauty of the night sky for granted when they’ve seen it from Yarmouth’s pitch-black woods. “I’ve created the Starlight Development Society with a group from the municipalities of Yarmouth, Argyle and Clare. All kinds of cools stuff is happening to make this a stargazing destination.”

Showing people what they’re missing right in front of their faces also drives Nancy Lakusta, outdoor guide and owner of East Coast Paddle Company near Tusket, not far from Tim.  She used to work out west escorting tourists around the Rocky Mountains. Now, she’s delighted to be back home exposing weekend adventurers to the astonishing beauty of a terrain that’s been here, largely hidden and untouched since the last ice age. “I’ve recently transitioned to guiding in the Great Barren and Quinan Lakes area, where my family history is, with all the glacial erratic and old growth forests,” she says. “I’m always out exploring new places …. Everyone here is super supportive, especially when it comes to outdoor activities. We’ll always try something once.”

But for sheer quietude, nothing beats Seal Island. A four-kilometre-long dollop, 43 kilometres south of Yarmouth — as the Cape Islander lobster boat travels — treacherous shoals and tricky currents surround it. Formally settled in 1823 by two families from the Barrington area, people still live there, and you can get to them if you hire a boat. But Chris Mills, for one, prefers that you don’t — or, at least, don’t make a habit of it. “Before the lighthouse there was destaffed in 1990, I was one of the last keepers for about a year…. We’ve fought very hard to maintain the island and to preserve a little bit of what’s there.”

Whenever they can, Mills and the few others lucky enough to have “a little bit of what’s there” quietly practice the high art of living with no particular thing to do and no particular place to be. “Seal Island demonstrates something very important to me; the care and compassion that went into building the structures there,” he says. “These symbolize life, safety, warmth, and hope. When that light shines and I hear that foghorn, all of those things come to my mind.”

You know, the marvellous, mundane things.

Lynn Surette, Ralph’s wife, is looking forward to reporting to her fellow Kritosophians on that guy from the area who once, long ago, took small-town Massachusetts by storm. Actually, she says, he was an Acadian and, in fact, he wasn’t the only one. “Yeah, there were a couple of them,” she says. “They did big things in finance and arts and culture. I’m making a presentation. Kritosophians aren’t your average book club. We don’t do discussions first.”

Uh-huh … Kritosophians?

“Oh that,” she laughs. “Well, in 1893, three young, local ladies started it because they wanted to know more about what was going on in the world. They were all about making opportunities for themselves to learn about all kinds of things. It was a very Victorian thing. It kind of grew from there, but it has survived through the years. I don’t know where the name comes from. It’s kind of weird; there isn’t another one anywhere else that I’m aware of. It’s only 25 of us. We don’t need any more members. In fact, I think one of us has to die before we get a new one. Ask Belle. She’s our president.”

Of course, she is. Why is that utterly, delightfully unsurprising? 

 


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