Rhonda Herrington Bulmer
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August 25th, 2014
Come from away
by Rhonda Herrington Bulmer

lighthouse sign

One of my professors once told me that our environment becomes invisible to us. That’s why we daydream in the car on a familiar road and later don’t remember the trip home—or why we never try out the touristy activities in our own communities. Our routines keep us locked in a pattern.

For instance, I’ve lived in New Brunswick all my life and have never been to Grand Manan Island. So this August, while on holiday, our family decided to remedy this.

We all enjoyed the one-and-a-half hour ferry boat ride from Black’s Harbour, although we learned upon arriving at the terminal that we should have made a reservation first. If you haven’t guessed it, we’re rather a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants kind of family. But since it was a mid-week trip, late in the summer season, the ferry wasn’t full.

Our kids enjoyed the windy upper deck and kept their eyes peeled for seals and porpoises. They were not disappointed. Sorry, no pictures, at least not decent ones: those water creatures move awfully fast.

Grand Manan is closer to Maine than it is to New Brunswick, but the Western side, with its 200-foot cliffs, is uninhabited. The village and its network of roads rest solely on the lower banks of the east side, facing New Brunswick, and seem to be composed of people who appreciate a quiet life.


We arrived on the island just as the village was mourning the loss of a pilot and medic in a plane crash the week before, but there had been a few other recent deaths as well, including the suicide of a teenager. With a close-knit population of less than 2500, Grand Manan is a place where every loss is keenly felt. Shops and services were closed for funerals and a sombre quality hung in the air, heightening the sense of isolation.

We remained respectfully cheerful, however and on our first morning, we walked to the popular Swallowtail Lightstation. A local carpenter was working on a new display, laid out on one of the flat, rocky areas just below the lighthouse. I asked him what he was doing and he motioned me closer. The Swallowtail Keepers Society, he explained, had located the original wrought iron railing used on the gallery around the lantern of the original 1860 lighthouse, and he was busy creating a reproduction of that gallery, incorporating the old railing. I presumed it would be ready for next year’s crop of tourists.

lighthouse 4

He asked me where I was from and I told him: a born-and-raised New Brunswicker who had never visited Grand Manan. He grinned.

“I’ve been to Moncton,” he teased, eyes glinting, his white, curly hair blowing gently in the wind from beneath his cap.

“You must enjoy living here,” I said, feeling mildly chastised for not visiting sooner. Okay, so it’s only taken me 46 years.

He nodded somewhat, adjusting his cap. “I don’t appreciate it, I take it for granted. When I hear whales in the harbour, I don’t even turn around to look at them anymore.”

All that was fine and dandy in the summer, I thought, but what about when it turned cold?

“It’s very beautiful here,” I said, “but isn’t this a cruel place to live in the winter?”

A tolerant smile appeared under his bushy, silver moustache. “It’s actually pretty moderate—but it’s windy.”

As an example, he pointed with his hammer to the fresh wood staircase wending upwards to the lighthouse. “If you don’t anchor everything down into the rock, you’ll lose it. That walkway was completely upended this spring.”


I marvelled appropriately and thanked him for the chat. We had reserved space on a whale-watching tour in one hour and I had to get going. But a few minutes later, one of our children (well-acquainted with foot injuries) slipped on the rocks above the lighthouse. We were worried she might have broken her ankle. We drove to the Grand Manan hospital, which was not far away, since there’s only one main road. I prepared to miss the tour.

Not so. The emergency room took her right away. “This is a lot different than an eight-hour wait at the Moncton City Hospital,” I joked to the nurse who was taking my daughter’s blood pressure.

She offered me a wry smile and a raised eyebrow. “All the Come-From-Awayers say that.”

Happily, it turned out to be just a sprain and after taping my daughter’s foot up, we still arrived at the boat tour with ten minutes to spare. It seems that Grand Mananer’s, including the medical staff, aim to please.

Once again, since we are not the type of family to plan much in advance, we were lucky to arrange a tour when we called that morning. Many of these activities are booked a year in advance. Our tour boat operator, Stephen Robinson of Top of the Island boat tours (http://www.gmboattours.ca/), offered us a choice: we could go out in search of whales or have a more leisurely tour of the island and its fishing industry—mostly lobster and farmed salmon. He warned us that since the fish seem to be farther away this year, the whales were too and were currently loitering about 20 miles offshore. He was willing to take us out, but warned that the moderate swells inshore would be much higher farther out and the boat would take some water.

In other words, we would get very wet.

We considered the offer, looking at our recently-injured daughter and another child who tends toward motion sickness. The other passengers left it up to us, so we chose the latter. We were not disappointed. On our travels around the east side of the island we saw a few seals, a puffin, several cavorting porpoises and we waited patiently at a herring weir, where a 35-foot basking shark was rumoured to be lurking—unfortunately, he wouldn’t surface to pose for a picture, so I can’t prove his existence. We took a look at some of the rock formations, including the famous Hole in the Wall, which can be sailed through when the tide is high.


Seeing a herring weir close up.


A salmon farm


The famous hole in the wall

The famous hole in the wall

We thoroughly enjoyed the sunny day and the sense of freedom out on the water.For a brief, foolish moment my husband and I thought a boating lifestyle would be a great empty-nester goal, but by the time we got home, we came to our senses. We figured shelling out a couple hundred bucks for a boat tour every summer would satisfy the impulse.

Before I leave off, I must tell you that the beaches are harsh, yet beautiful. The sand, particularly at Deep Cove Beach on the north end, is soft and silky on bare feet and there is plenty of interesting flotsam. On a sunny, hot day, the water looks delicious, too.

But don’t let it fool you. It’s icy-cold. It grabs your ankles with its teeth and bites.

If you ever see New Brunswick advertising which boasts about “the warmest water north of the Carolinas,” they mean the beaches flanking the Northumberland Strait between New Brunswick and PEI—not the mouth of the Bay of Fundy.

The seals made the water look irresistible, but I don’t know how they stand the temperature. Maybe it’s all that fat and hair and shiny, thick skin. OF course, I have all that, too, but it didn’t seem to make a difference for me.

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