Canada

So near, yet so far

It’s not only the ocean that sets the place apart

SHERRI AIKENHEAD August 27 2001
Canada

So near, yet so far

It’s not only the ocean that sets the place apart

SHERRI AIKENHEAD August 27 2001

So near, yet so far

Letter from Big Tancook Island

It’s not only the ocean that sets the place apart

SHERRI AIKENHEAD

For $5, the 45-minute ferry ride from the Nova Scotia mainland to Big Tancook Island offers an inexpensive way to see what it feels like to step back in time. Barely 10 km out in the Atlantic Ocean, the island is determinedly disconnected from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. There’s a tworoom schoolhouse for the island’s nine children in the elementary grades. The same postmaster has manned the post office for more than two decades. There are no paved roads or streets—and few vehicles besides the unregistered clunkers some fishermen with special, island-only licences drive. “It’s a different world here,” says Martha Farrar, who owns the islands only general store. “The only reason I leave is to go to the mainland every Monday to do my banking and buy stuff for the store. I can’t wait to come home.”

Farrar is one of just 150 frill-time residents on Big Tancook. She and her husband, David, arrived 23 years ago after escaping the rat race in Boston. David was commuting for two hours each day to work on a project for NASA; she was at home raising their two young children. But then an advertisement in Yankee Magazine

selling the store prompted some soulsearching. “We decided this isn’t the way we want to live our lives,” she recalls. “My husband came up and bought the store the next day.” When the family moved to Tancook—Mi’kmaq for “facing the open sea”—residents greeted them with their own version of the Welcome Wagon. “Everybody who had a pickup truck showed up at the wharf and brought our furniture to this lawn,” Farrar says, looking out from the veranda of the family’s century-old home. “It was so close-knit, everyone met for a fuddle—that’s food and talk.”

Despite its leisurely pace, life is far from easy on Big Tancook. The islands—there’s also a Little Tancook nearby—were settled in 1829 by 30 families of German colonists and French Huguenots attracted by British land grants. Many farmed (todays residents still export threeand 16-kg buckets of sauerkraut, an island staple, each fall). But over the decades, most earned a living fishing. When that industry hit hard times, young people started moving away and Big Tancook’s population shrank from its high of 1,100 in the early 1900s to todays count. Little Tancook has just 35 year-round residents.

Those dwindling numbers make it difficult for those who have stayed on to support

themselves. Carolyn Cross, who was born on the island, has struggled to make a go of selling scallop burgers and handmade goods like hooked rugs and Christmas ornaments at Carolyns Cafe and Crafts. One solution, she says, would be to try to increase the numbers of tourists who venture off the beaten track and visit Big Tancook. “We need the people,” she adds. “There just isn’t as many as there should be.” Farrar’s General Store, too, has seen its business slide. In the early 1980s, inventory peaked at $70,000; today there’s just $20,000 worth of groceries, hardware, automotive parts, fishing equipment and bug spray. Still, Farrar’s opposed to one proposed solution that’s gaining popularity: replacing the passengers-only ferry with a car ferry. “Anyone who wants to could come over, and there goes the peace of the island,” she says. “At least this way, we know everyone.”

In the meantime, life on the island carries on in its usual quirky fashion. Julia Stick drives around with a defibrillator in the front of her pickup truck. In the absence of a doctor, she and several others form a rudimentary team responding to 911 calls. (The seriously ill are taken to the mainland, by helicopter in good weather, by ferry otherwise.) Stick, who was born in Glasgow and has lived in Singapore and Australia, moved to the island six years ago when her husband, Malcolm, began working on the ferry. She’s well aware of the frustrations of life in an inaccessible locale. “When you think of it, our groceries change hands five times between the store on the mainland and when they’re put in the cupboard,” she points out. Still, whatever Big Tancook lacks in modern amenities, it more than makes up for in other ways. “Our yard runs down to the ocean and I can step right into the water,” says Stick. “When we had to make the decision about whether to stay, it was an easy one.” E3