8. Louisbourg… and other directions


Some things have changed since last you read… Next week I’ll resume regular posts. Read then about our trip to St. Pierre and further.


Wednesday, 02 AUGUST 2017

We motor into Louisbourg’s harbor a bit after 5AM. Louisbourg sits on the top eastern edge of Cape Bretton. Its bay has a distinct figure of two almond-shaped twin pools joined at their tips. While the pools look somewhat alike on the map, they are, we will come to find out, dissimilar in all other ways. We enter the harbor through the center opening and immediately move toward the right lobe. The left, southwest lobe of water, our guide tells us, is forbidden for anchoring because there are a number of 18th century shipwrecks being archeologically preserved. This makes sense as this is the side that contains the Louisbourg Fort, a spread out stone assembly located strategically closer to the Atlantic. Apart from the fort though, there is nothing else there. Conversely, on the right northeastern and more protected lobe, there is a town. We drive the boat far into that side and anchor in front of lobstermen’s homes for a few hours of sleep.

After a pancake breakfast, we move the boat to the public dock. As I wash the dishes below I overhear a conversation between Glenn and a local guy who is fishing on the dock. It’s the general kind of small talk. Where did we come from, where do we live, etc. etc. Then Glenn asks what he’s catching. “Mackerel,” responds the guy. “Do you like mackerel?” Not waiting for Glenn’s yes, the guy adds, “because not many people do. It has a very strong flavor. It’s the poor man’s fish, you know.” Nope, he didn’t know that, says Glenn. “Yea. That’s what they call it. ‘The poor man’s fish.’ Hey,” the guy sort of changes the subject, “how is it that you can afford to be away from your work for six months?”

It’s not the abruptness of the question, but the fact that he asks it at all that catches my attention. In Canada so far, people haven’t been so, uhm, direct. “I’m a professor and I’m taking a sabbatical,” Glenn responds. This is met with silence, so he continues, “I’ve worked for twenty years and planned this trip for ten in order to do this.” Nothing.

After some time passes, I hear the fisherguy ask Glenn if he likes Trump. Uh oh. Where’s this going? Glenn dodges and simply says, “He’s an embarrassment,” not wanting to get into it, I can tell.

“I like Trump,” says fisherguy, “anyway, he’s better than the last guy, right?”


“I mean, he’s no worse than the last guy anyway. And no worse than his opponent was, right?”

“He’s an embarrassment,” is all Glenn would say.

Okay. Hmm. Okay. I stop mid-suds. I am surprised, I admit. I have made some assumptions about Nova Scotia, and Canada in general, that it is a more sympathetic, liberal, and tolerant place. (I have never, for example, seen a town more proud of their pride than Halifax.) But, as the results of the last U.S. election conveyed, large, heterogeneous democracies require nuanced examinations, not blanket assumptions. In fact, what changed drastically for me last November were my assumptions, not my realities. Overnight, I had to reread and reorder my world into a “new” one.

Louisbourg, we will soon find out, is an economically depressed town that at one time used to thrive on fishing. The downturn in the cod supply that happened in the last half of the twentieth century, has robbed the town of its livelihood and its residents of their futures. And the people left here, the ones we meet on the dock who are both young and old, are palpably angry and unfriendly. They speak openly about the failure of the government to provide the safety net for a better life or even a transition to a better life. My first reaction is to be angry back. How could they destroy their own resource? I rail to Glenn. Industries that deal in natural resource extraction always rise up against regulations that expand the life span of the resource (or the life of the planet) because it limits their ability to blindly profit. They have no right to be angry, I think. They had a renewable resource that wasn’t properly tended and now it’s gone. It’s their own fault because they were greedy. In a very general way, without considering the many difficulties and pressures of the industry cod fishing industry, I do think this is basically what happened. The problem, however, is that the people of towns like Louisbourg – the ones who suffered the frozen Atlantic and hauled in the fish for generations – are the ones now left to bear the heavy burden of the mismanagement, while the captains of their industries retire wealthy. What I can’t figure out is why fisherguy thinks the answer is to look backward to the system the impoverished him in the first place.




Siri tells us that google says it will take one hour and six minutes to reach the fort on foot. About half way there we find the waterfront cemetery we saw from the water when we were first arriving. It’s not as old or as populated as we imagined, but it has an interesting (and symbolic) position situated midway between the town and the fort and where the two bays join together or split apart, depending on how you look at it. We take it in for a moment reading names on headstones (mostly Irish!) and then carry on walking along a waterfront gravel trail surrounded by high grasses, wild flowers, and working bees.

Louisbourg Fort is a reconstruction of the fortification buildings and walls that defended France’s position in this part of the New World throughout the eighteenth century. The fort was defeated twice by the British and then stood in ruins for over two hundred years before the Canadian government decided to make a “living” heritage museum by rebuilding a substantial portion (20%) of it. When we step across the moat and bridge we are encouraged to imagine the life of settlers three hundred years ago. There are the buildings and landscapes faithfully reproduced from old drawings; there are reenactments of military rituals (cannons shooting!); and there are “residents” dressed in old timey clothing who embody particular characters, to fill in the stories and answer our questions. I LOVE it. Especially the people part. I love the intensity of the acting (one actress playing a noblewoman good-humoredly “yells” at the harpsichord player when he misses a note in his music!) I love the costumes (a hybrid of high French and puritanical). And most of all, I love the mood of interest and joy that the workers seem to have. This is what makes this side of Louisbourg so different from the other. People smile and appreciate our curiosity. We feel welcomed on this side. (Okay, it is their job to do that, but still!)

The stories that the actors tell here are not scripted. They are asked to convey the historical record through description, but to tell it in the first person. And this is where things get interesting because the actors have to step back and forth through time in order to explain objectively and simultaneously converse subjectively. One “soldier,” for example, tells us all about “his” experiences as a low ranking troop in the early 1700’s. He tells us that he grows up poor in Paris and that he is recruited at age fourteen with false promises of good pay, plentiful women, and good climate. He says that once he arrives in Nova Scotia he is awakened to the realities of very hard work and few outside prospects. Nevertheless, he says, he stays because at least here, attached to the fort, he can survive. The actor’s descriptions are so detailed and vivid that we get a sense of how grueling it all must have been. I am rapt. And then, as if to fully manifest the ways in which personal histories get (con)fused into communal ones, the French Canadian actor breaks character and asks us to indulge in a bit of his own family’s history. He says, “You know folks, there is a great bit of irony in my work here at the fort. My ancestors came to Louisbourg three hundred years ago to build this fort. At the time it was said that the waters of the North Atlantic were so teeming with cod that you could barely get a boat through. It was said the cod would never run out, could never run out. It was said that we should protect our interests here with a fort, to at least always have food. Then my family before me, and eventually me, we all became cod fishermen, as many others did. One day though, the cod did run out and I could no longer survive by fishing. Just then the fort was instated as a museum and I found work again here. So, the fort that provided the stability to come in the first place, led to the destruction of the resource upon which it was founded, and has now come full circle to provide me stability again in order to once again survive.” It was a touching story that felt free of cynicism or bitterness. Maybe that’s because he’s told the story so many times or maybe it’s the fort that really did anchor his change of direction.




Sometime in the later hours of yesterday when stopping at Louisbourg is not yet a thought, Glenn wants to talk to me about a nagging feeling he has concerning the autopilot. It is working well so far, he replaced the motor in Port Washington, but he’s worried because all of the other parts are old, worn, and without spares. Our autopilot is a very strong hydraulic piston that is around fifteen years old. (That’s one hundred and fifty in human years!) Last year in the Caribbean when it stopped working all we could do was adjust (re. shave down) the small part that was giving us problems since no replacement exists anymore. This worked well but not before we had to hand steer for five days. (That’s five days of twenty-four hours-a-day steering.) We managed this between the two of us, but it was sometimes in grueling two-hour shifts when we were tired. And we were in easier trade winds weather then. Glenn is nervous about our ability to do a much longer, much rougher passage if the autopilot fails. On top of it this afternoon we couldn’t get Lena Dunham (our sassy wind vane) to hold a course. I want to chalk this up to high seas at a bad angle, but Glenn is skeptical. He says he feels like he doesn’t have a reliable back-up. He says he wants to buy a rudder tiller (correction: tiller pilot, sorry, Glenn). Okay, I say, but I can sense no relief from him.

I don’t know who said it first, “maybe we shouldn’t cross,” but it was the conclusion we were both reaching; Glenn, because of his understanding of the scope and scale of the journey, and me, because of my faith in his doubt. And so, in the span of a fifteen-minute conversation, we changed direction. We are going to stay on this side of the Atlantic. I would have thought this would be a harder pill to swallow, but somehow it wasn’t. It was like being told I would have to drink red wine with this meal instead of white. I had prepared for one flavor but would now have to enjoure another.[1] Immediately, I started thinking of the many facets of red wine I liked better with this particular meal anyway. For one thing, we can now slow down, linger longer. Also, we can go to further afield to stranger and more remote places. And, we can have a few of Ava’s friends join us for visits, letting her reconnect and share more directly. I will not lie, there will be moments in the next days when I have pangs of regret that we didn’t stick it out, but they are small and when I have them I start to look at the map to study another potential glaciated whale-filled fjord in which to anchor. That, or I point the finger squarely at Glenn and blame him. (JK, I would never do that!)


At 10pm we turn left and head for Lousibourg.


[1] Enjoure is the portmanteau of the words endure and enjoy.




3 thoughts on “8. Louisbourg… and other directions

  1. Well ahoy again! Although I am sad that your adventure has changed a bit … I am equally relieved that you aren’t crossing the big pond! But the adventure will continue and be just as wonderful! I know what you mean about the living history fort! I had the opportunity to go to fort Ticonderoga at the northern end of Lake George this summer and it was so awesome! The costumes ( men just look yummy in 18th century togs) were all made on site, saw a cannon fired, the guides were so informed! Loved it!
    I would love to send you some pictures! Recent history has turned my eyes and heart to our past when wiser men crafted the brilliant constitution that the “embarrassment” ignores and defiles daily. My god! Has it only been 7 months? Every week is a lifetime and nightmare. Sigh!!! Miss you.


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