Jay Willar straightens stiffly, knuckles kneading his backbone, and surveys the hard-won efforts of a morning’s labor: a 10-foot-wide swath of ground-laid netting festooned with tangled ribbons of pink-brown dulse. The noonday sun is already working its magic, baking it to a deep reddish-purple. Jay’s easy smile invites small talk. He’s putting in a third summer on Grand Manan Island, off the south coast of New Brunswick, harvesting dulse. While he admits that ‘dulsing’ isn’t easy, I’m flabbergasted when he tells me that four months’ picking is worth a whopping $7,000. Hard work notwithstanding, he’s put himself through three years of university harvesting seaweed.
Owner of the drying ground and ‘King of the Dulse to other Grand Mananers’, Leroy Flagg strolls over to look at Jay’s work. Now 75 years old and more or less retired, Leroy says he’s probably picked more dulse than anybody else on the island. “Started when I was 10,” he recollects. “Back then, dulse was worth about five cents a pound. Picked 325 pounds in one tide some years back–nobody else ever came near it!”
Leroy appraises Jay’s purple blanket of dulse. “Spread too thick in some spots,” he notes. “But it’ll probably dry out to about 600 pounds.” “Which is worth what?” I ask. “Oh,” drawls Leroy, “somewhere’s around $3.50 to $4 a pound.” I whistle appreciatively. “Gee, that’s not too shabby for a few hours’ work. Maybe I should give this a try myself.” Leroy looks me up and down a couple of times and guffaws. “You got any muscle in them skinny arms?” “No sweat,” I boast, flexing my biceps and flashing him my best drop-dead classic smile. He throws back his head and roars. “OK girlie, you fetch yerself back here at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning and I’ll send you out with them two fellers over there.”
“Them two fellers” turn out to be Bruce Linton and his brother, Fulton. We pile into a black half-ton truck and bounce down a dirt road towards Dark Harbour, on the west side of the island.
Die-hard dulse enthusiasts and dedicated pickers will tell you that the best dulse in the world comes from here. Massive, deeply shadowed cliffs buttress the western shore. Sunlight is rare, only a few hours a day and none before late morning. Great lumpy beach rocks, topped with curls of dulse exposed at early morning low tide, stay cool, shaded and moist–ideal conditions for this tender plant. Historical records indicate Grand Mananers have been harvesting dulse commercially since 1868. More than 150,000 pounds of it are marketed yearly across North America. Small quantities are occasionally shipped to Ireland, Africa, Hawaii and Australia. Referred to as “salad of the sea,” dulse is a variety of red algae common to cooler coastal waters from New Jersey to Greenland. Powdered dulse flavors stews, soups and salads. Dried fronds are eaten as a snack–an acquired taste. Dulse is rich in potassium, sodium, chlorine and vitamins.
We top the rise overlooking the harbor. The view below is spectacular–a 120-metre-wide seawall cradling a near-perfect circle of placid blue water. Salmon cages and a painter’s palette of fishing boats dot the harbor.
Fulton brakes the truck to a jolting halt on the beach, and we hop out and start unloading our gear. Dulsing requires rubber aprons, plastic garbage buckets, waterproof pants and burlap sacks–all of which we pile into a mustard-colored dory. Bruce pushes off, Fulton yanks the motor into a roar accompanied by a few puffs of oily blue smoke, and we zip across the bay. The tide is out and the bottle-necked gut isn’t navigable. We’ll have to haul the boat over the seawall.
“Everybody out!” Fulton hollers, as the dory grinds to a sloshing halt. Bruce hooks the boat to 15 metres of steel cable attached to a rusty winch perched atop the seawall, and waves an okay to his brother. I leap smartly out of range as the winch coughs, sputters and wheezes into action and hauls the dory at breakneck speed to the top. “Isn’t all of this kind of hard on the bottom of your boat?” I pant, as we drag the dory down the other side. “Nah,” says Fulton, “it’s coated with (non-stick material).” “What did they use in the old days?” Fulton grins. “French fry grease from the local restaurants.”
We shove off again. It’s a flawless morning. The dory trails a sparkling wake through the calm water of the Bay of Fundy. A mauve smudge along the horizon is all we can see of the State of Maine.
We travel about two kilometres south before Fulton slows the boat and begins scanning the shoreline. “Today we’re looking for a rock with a hole in it,” he explains. “We got some good picking near it yesterday.” Although most of the rocks look pretty much the same to me, Fulton spots his marker and guides us into shore. The dory shoulders aside huge, chestnut-brown fronds of kelp floating up from the murky gloom below. Getting out of the boat is tricky. The large, tide-rounded rocks are slick with green algae. I can’t do anything except hang onto the side of the dory. “Here,” encourages Bruce, handing me a lime-green garbage pail. “Use this to prop yourself up with while you pick.” Easier said than done. I inch along cautiously–it’s like walking uphill on a greasy cheese grater.
There is dulse everywhere. Clutching the bucket with one hand I bend, comb my fingers through a purple-red mass, and pull. Surprisingly, the dulse isn’t slimy. Cool, velvety, moist and slightly rubbery, it pulls away from the rock with a crisp popping sound–like ripped lettuce. A good picker can take 200-300 pounds of wet dulse on one low tide. There are two low tides daily. It takes me the better part of an hour to fill my bucket–by which time Bruce and Fulton are two pails ahead of me. I realize, somewhat belatedly, that I have moved a fair distance down the beach and that getting a full load of dulse back to the boat is going to involve a great deal of heaving and straining, and possibly some serious bodily injury. But being a guest has its advantages: I am rescued.
We motor back to Dark Harbour and renegotiate the sea wall. The boys agree to drop me off at one of the large cages used for the rearing of salmon. I’m in luck; some of the salmon are about to be sorted for size. The man in charge is Earl Carpenter, who explains that farm salmon are ready for market when they reach an average of nine pounds. Getting them up to size requires a diet of fish meal, feather and bone meal, wheat, canola, and corn meal. Earl says fish at this particular farm swallow a ton or more of food per day, and that salmon at larger sites will consume two to three tons daily.
A huge fabric scoop affixed to a crane is lowered into one of the cages and lifted out, thudding and pulsating with fish. Amid much manoeuvring and splashing, the scoop is positioned over a Y-shaped wooden trough. Each arm of the ‘Y’ is fitted to a length of plastic pipe, the ends of which hover over the water inside two nearby cages. The drawstring at the bottom of the scoop is loosened to release a torrent of molten silver. Two men, dressed head to toe in fluorescent slickers, sort wriggling salmon as they flip-flop down the trough and through the pipes into their new pens.
A launch from the salmon farm takes me back to shore, and I set off in search of Roland Flagg and his ‘winkling’ operation. ‘Winkling’ is island talk for harvesting the tiny edible snails called “periwinkles.” I’m not surprised to discover that Roland and Leroy Flagg are brothers, and that Roland also buys and markets dulse. But he’s more than happy to talk about winkling. “I used to pick ‘winkles m’self,” he says, “but I’ve been buying ‘em from people for 26 years now. I can have more than 65 people come on one day!” Winkling, it seems, is as lucrative as dulsing. At 80 cents per pound, a largebucket of periwinkles can fetch $120. Two buckets a day is considered a good haul–about two hours’ work for an experienced winkler. Roland opens up a small, refrigerated building next to the dulsing shed. It’s packed, floor to ceiling, with wet sacks of periwinkles–pungent with the tangy odors of salt and seaweed. “They’re real good cooked and dipped in vinegar or butter,” he explains. “People love ‘em. Some of these’ll be in New York by Sunday. I usually ship out 6,000 to 7,000 pounds a week, mostly to Montreal, Toronto and New York.”
All this talk about food, not to mention my early-morning adventure, has my stomach growling. The North Head Bakery looks promising. I push open a newly painted screen door that nudges a tinkling bell. Nothing beats the smell of freshly baked bread! Shop owner Richard Rice, who greets me wearing spotless, starched white linens, says he makes 200 different kinds of bread. It’s almost impossible to choose. There’s a miche campagnarde–a round bread also known as the countryman’s cob, and couronne–a traditional and festive French bread shaped like a crown. This is a bakery with panache. Richard apprenticed at Au Bon Croissant in Montreal before opening this shop in 1990. He takes justifiable pride in his handiwork, and in the historic origins of some of his more esoteric creations. Confidently tearing open a crusty loaf, he offers me a sample. The aroma, texture and flavor are perfect.
A wedge of Danish blue cheese and two pears from the local grocery store are popped into my hamper, along with a still-warm baguette. This feast is wolfed down atop Swallowtail cliffs, a stone’s throw from North Head lighthouse. Below me, a thread of squealing gulls stitches through the salt breeze in the wake of the Grand Manan ferry as she rounds the point bearing mail, tourists, tradesmen and transport trucks. Trim and sleekly white, she’s a far cry from her steam-driven predecessors.
Records indicate that a packet service once operated weekly between St. Andrews, N.B., and Grand Manan. It was authorized in 1839. Today there are two crossings daily between North Head and Blacks Harbour. The 35-kilometre trip, one of surpassing beauty along rocky shores and wooded islands, takes 1 1/2 hours.
Perched like a footnote below New Brunswick in the Bay of Fundy, Grand Manan lies 12.5 kilometres due east of Quoddy Head, the easternmost point of the United States. Twenty-four kilometres long and 10 wide, it is the largest of an archipelago of 20 islands. The Passamaquoddy Indians called the island “Mun-A-Nook,” meaning “Island Place.” Inscribed as “Menan” on circa-1600 charts, Grand Manan has known both French and English ownership. A small group of Loyalists who stepped ashore May 6, 1784, were the island’s first settlers. The moderating effects of the waters of the Bay of Fundy blessed them with warm summers and short, bearable winters.
Descendants of those hardy folk established an economy that is still nourished today by the bay’s abundant waters. Nearly everybody, it seems, is a jack of all trades–and the trades change with seasonal and tidal offerings. Dulse pickers dot the shorelines from spring through mid-autumn. Lobster traps are set out after the second Tuesday in November, and must be out of the water by June 30. Heart-shaped herring weirs–traps–with fanciful names like Gale, Gamble, Struggler and Dream are tended from summer to early winter. Haddock, cod and pollock are fished between May and October. Gill-nets and trawl strings snare halibut in summer and early fall. Sea urchins are processed for their roe, November through April. Clams are harvested from September to April.
Fish dragging during summer months nets cod, redfish, haddock, hake and pollock. Scallop dragging takes place year-round. But new federal quota and monitoring regulations are putting intense pressure on small boat owners–people like Ivan Green, who started fishing with his father in 1949. “You were a free man back then,” he says wistfully. “Now it’s like being a slave on the end of a string. Fishing was the best possible life that a man could have until the government got into it.” With more than a little resentment creeping into his voice, Ivan explains that “two years ago a scallop license cost $30. Last year the price went up to $6,800. The big company boats can afford it, but the little guys can’t. I stopped ground-fishing too. My quota went down to 14,000 pounds–what I got for that wouldn’t buy grease for the motor. I cut my net up today. I agree that we have to have quotas; with today’s technology there’s no way fish can escape you. But the way it’s being done now is ousting the little guy. I figure this interference will last till they break us.”
Despite ever-increasing troubles in their fishing industry, Grand Mananers don’t count themselves as hard done by. They are a gritty lot, hard-working, steadfast and dedicated to lifestyles governed by Fundy’s tides. One of the island’s truisms runs something along these lines: “When all else fails, you can always go clamming.” This surely is rooted in their partnership with the sea, and their unshakeable belief in the benevolence of the Almighty. Their faith is reflected in 14 churches of various denominations, serving some 2,500 souls. Between 1977 and 1984, the teetotalling Ministerial Association staged a seven-year protest against the island’s first drinking establishment, the Marathon Inn. The local Legion–Grand Manan Branch, established by charter on Dec. 7, 1945–has never served up anything other than tea, coffee and soda pop.
Island legend says the Almighty Himself lent islanders a righteous hand against the evils of drink. In 1864 a young man from a local settlement of the time called Sinclairville, one John Green, went to a liquor store in Grand Harbour and then drank himself silly. So silly, in fact, that his friends expressed grave concerns: “John, you’ll die before you get home.” He blithely replied, “I defy God Almighty to kill me!”
God, it seems, took young John up on his dare. His body was found the next day, a Sunday, by the road. Not surprisingly, this unnerving event precipitated the immediate baptism of some 27 souls and the establishment of a branch of the North Head church. As if determined to keep imprudent souls from straying, Green’s ghost is said to make occasional appearances at the Cedar Street Bridge.
I have my own appointments to keep–notably, the next ferry to the mainland. I watch from the upper deck as Grand Manan fades into the morning mist. The ferry is late getting in. I have fewer than 50 minutes to make the one-hour trip to Saint John to catch another ferry to Digby, N.S. Other passengers hope to make the same connection, so our captain calls ahead. Four cars race from Blacks Harbour to the Saint John ferry terminal. Although we arrive 15 minutes late, the ferry is still at dockside, engines thrumming. We are greeted with a warm smile. “From Grand Manan?” “Yes!” “Drive right on.”
“Only in the Maritimes,” I laugh. “Only in the Maritimes.”