GUEST POST BY JOSEPH BRADBURY
For Photos and Fog
On Friday, July 15, a group of us visiting from the University of Arizona awoke before dawn to a muzzle of fog settling over Grand Manan. We headed for Seal Cove, to a boat, Island Bound, where Russell Ingalls and Mark Morse would steam a small group out the Kent Island. Aboard, there was a group from the Bowdoin College Scientific Research Station, a couple of tourists, islanders Liam Watkins and Delaney Ingersoll, Peter Cunningham, his partner Ara Fitzgerald, and their friend Paul Kaiser from away. Some of those on the boat had clear interests in Kent Island—research, birds, flora—but for others on the boat, interest in the island dates back almost a century, through the tendrils of a bloodline rooted deep in the heart of that small, cloudy island.
When Peter Cunningham arrived at the dock he propped his hand out to everyone he didn’t know, introduced himself, and then said hi to his already familiar acquaintances. He’s magnanimous and kind, playful in his conversations, and manages to elicit a thoughtful response from anyone who engages. He’s observant and curious, and these are perhaps his most useful traits as a career photographer. On the boat he shows me a new belt holster he got for his camera that he explains makes it much easier for him to tag along the device without the discomfort a neck strap causes. It might seem strange that Peter chose photography as an art and occupation, given that his father, Bob Cunningham, was a long time cloud physicist and meteorologist who performed a fog and atmospheric study on Kent Island for 70 years.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Bob, but I have heard some of his stories. On Kent, there is a small 8’x6’ shack, aptly named Fog Heaven, that was built specifically for Bob so that he could stop propping his instruments in the field under a thin tarp draped over drift wood, and sealed at the seams with tar. His curiosity was immense, like his son’s, and Bob couldn’t hide it behind the toothy grin he bares in every photo I’ve seen. In one he’s atop a thin aluminum pole secured to a roof with thin wire, fixing an anemometer, his grin intact, flying one hand at the camera in the undoubtedly chilled air, a ball cap draped on his head. In another, he’s above the cockpit on an old World War II plane securing instruments. He worked all over the world, with numerous companies and organizations, after graduating from MIT, that he might understand the most basic entity of survival: Air.
Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution until mid-century, the United States was free to burn coal and wood at factories, send plumes of smoke and steam into the atmosphere with impunity. This was a much different time, I don’t have to tell you, when we didn’t understand that everything in this world is one organism exchanging particles and particulates with other single entities. We didn’t understand global warming, and only had a vague idea about weather patterns and the dissemination of harmful chemicals on winds. I imagine some scientists, and the average citizen gazed into the clear, blue sky and didn’t put stock in what exactly they couldn’t see. This, however, was not Bob Cunningham’s position.
Bob was prophetic in his vision as he was inspired in his claims. After his years at MIT, Bob worked for Air Force Cambridge Research Labs to study the effects of flying through rough weather. He and his crew lit out nose first into hail and thunderstorms. Bob mounted probes on their plane to attract lightning. Their weather-hardened C-130 and its crew earned the nickname, “Cunningham’s Roughriders” and the insignia was painted on the side of the plane. After the AFCRL, Bob directed scientists from all over the world for the UN’s World Meteorological Organization. He traveled the world extensively and studied cloud physics, cloud seeding and precipitation enhancement in every type of climate. All the while he maintained collecting fog and weather samples from Kent Island.
So Bob studied fog on Kent Island. For seventy years. Structures were built on Kent to perform the studies. Where once Bob and his colleagues used large steel drums to capture fog, later there were nets that drain the saturated air into graduated containers. And still atop the radio shack, near where Bob’s cabin stands, an anemometer spins in the gusts and gales.
To say that Bob’s studies on Kent Island were impressive would be an understatement. His work there may be the single longest, continuous scientific study by one person working in one place. Ever. This alone is worthy of tribute. But for Bob, that study and his work out there meant something. And while recording information is useful, its interpretation is key. Bob saw something in the air that you and I can’t. It was clear it was there because over on Grand Manan trees were stripped of leaves and ground vegetation couldn’t thrive. What Bob discovered was that factories in the Mid-west were dumping particulates in the air that were catching a ride on the jet stream and dumping acid rain on the northeast. This discovery, as would be later noted by President Lyndon B. Johnson, was absolutely integral to passing the Clean Air Act of 1963. Not only did this new law force regulations on the factories in the Mid-west, this began a long history of citizens fighting for environmental rights, air quality, and higher emission standards that are still applicable, and improved upon today. From that boggy little island just a few miles southeast of Grand Manan, Bob Cunningham veritably changed the world, forever.
Bob fascinates me because Bob is fascinating. Peter intrigues me because he’s kind and talented and goads conversations with innocuous, playful tactics. I can see his charm in every one of his father’s photos, in that smile. But this is not the only time when photography and cloud physics overlap. A photograph records a moment in time on the infinite spectrum of before and after. In that small segment of recorded data, reproduced as an image, there is a multitude of stories, and my guess is that Peter knows the stories behind every one of his photos. He points and snaps, shutters a bit of light to record and memory. And then that experience is opened up to endless translation and human understanding. In this way photography is a language as universal as mathematics and as applicable as any science. While all those years, in front of all those instruments, Bob was there recording other moments of time, noting the numbers, calculating their relevance, and translating their patterns into a language the rest of us might understand: love and human preservation.
It obvious to assume that interest is the foundation of love. Thus, Bob’s interest was in documenting the sky and this can be interpreted into a love for humanity. That is a kind of generosity and pureness of spirit I can only imagine, and one, on the daily, I try to assume. It’s no wonder that Peter is a Buddhist who finds such genuine pleasure in observing and interacting with the people and landscape of this place, that his favorite walk on earth is on Kent Island, through a field of thigh-high grass and wind-stripped conifers to the south shore where the breakers roar on the tempestuous tide. It’s no wonder that he chose to record data, much like his father, and it’s no wonder that his quiet and modest expression holds all the love and spirit of his father.
Last Friday, Peter took his favorite walk with his partner Ara. As he returned he stopped to see his father who still remains on the island, even after his death in 2008. Before catching the boat home, Peter opened the door to the Fog Heaven where his father slept and studied, where Bob’s ashes still remain. Peter took the hat he was wearing off his head and exchanged it for one resting on the box and said, “Thanks for the hat, Dad.” He turned around, smiling, and walked out the door toward the dock.
GUEST POST BY DANIELLE GELLER
To collect, preserve, and make accessible: If you read enough archival mission statements, you’ll see these words again and again. As a former almost-archivist—one who received her degree but left the profession before earning the full-fledged title—I’ve read quite a few, and I knew before I even arrived on Grand Manan that I wanted to visit their archives. With rain and cold weather on the forecast, there was no better time.
The archives are housed within the Grand Manan Museum, in an addition that was built in 1997—the same year Ava Sturgeon assumed the title of Archivist. Though not formally trained in archives management, Ava learned all she could from Gleneta Hettrick, the former archivist, who also worked as a librarian and history school teacher on the island. The position itself is only a part-time position, funded largely through donations (by individuals and local organizations like the Rotary Club) and matching provincial grants.
Ava Sturgeon stands in the “vault,” the archives’ storage space. Plastic sheets are draped over the shelves because the Museum’s roof is leaking, and they are trying to raise the funds to repair it.
As is true for almost all archives, funding is always a high concern. It’s never certain how much funding the archives will receive, or when, but Ava has learned to be resourceful. When they needed shelving for their new storage area—which could have run thousands of dollars—Ava asked around town. A boat-building company had just replaced the shelving in their warehouse and left the old sitting outside in the elements, but Ava hauled the shelves to the archives, sanded off the rust, and repainted them herself.
To process the archives’ collections, Ava relies heavily on volunteers—often, retired members of the community who are invested in preserving the history of the island. When we arrived on Monday morning, two women from the genealogical society were seated in front of a computer, transcribing names from New Brunswick’s census. As is also true of many archives, genealogical research is one of the most popular areas of study. But skimming through the available finding aids—located in a three-ring binder and complete with collection descriptions, scope and content notes, and container lists (even down to the folder!)—offered research opportunities ranging from the history of churches and local businesses on Grand Manan to scientific research conducted on the neighboring islands.
I wanted to read about birds.
The Grand Manan Museum houses Allen Moses’ Bird Collection: eighteen cases holding over three hundred species of bird found on the island. In addition to being a prolific taxidermist, Allen Moses was instrumental in the preservation of the Common Eider, whose nests were plundered for eggs and down, leaving the eiders close to extinction in the Bay of Fundy. The Grand Manan Archives is in possession of many of Moses’ papers and correspondence, and there are additional collections that include reports of bird sightings and populations on Grand Manan, Kent Island, Machias Seal Island, and others across the bay.
Joseph and Peyton spent the morning digging through the archives, too. Joseph rifled through a box of black and white photographs and tintypes from the 1860’s and 1890’s. Peyton looked through the collection of books that lined the shelves—and even found a book of recipes (for birds!) that we’ve yet to try.
One of our best finds, though, was a poem about a puffin, shaped like a muffin, who hadn’t anybody to play with at all. I won’t spoil the ending for you.
GUEST POST BY PEYTON PRATER STARK
sea to steamers to soup
Among my many goals for our time on Grand Manan Island, catching, cooking, and eating seafood was at the top. Growing up in Denver, with a rising interest in eating locally and a budget that rarely included lobster and shellfish, I always loved ocean cuisine, but rarely took part. So, when Michael Brown offered to take us clamming, I was immediately in. Michael Brown is somewhat a legend on Grand Manan. I heard about him from last year’s U of A Field Studies participants, who were offered a similar lesson in clamming. When we arrived on the island, I heard rumors about this eighteen-year-old fisherman, a recent graduate of Grand Manan Community School, who spends his time balancing successful business ventures in the dulsing, lobster, and clamming industries.
When we pull up to the shore in Grand Harbour to meet with Michael, he is slinging bright blue lobster traps from one giant stack to an even taller stack. He waves hello, and explains his recent discovery that he can stack the traps – each weighing around seventy pounds, each heavier than I’d like to carry – seven high. I believe him because he proves it, all while describing to us how lobster traps have developed over the past ten years. After this brief lesson, he grabs the clam hacks and we make our way to the beach.
I am giddy and hardly trying to hide it. Michael explains the art of clamming as though anyone can do it. Step one: look for holes in the sand. Step two: dig the hack – a tool similar to a garden hand rake, only infinitely cooler than the hand rake that we brought along – into the sand, then leverage it to pull up as much as possible. Step three: look for clams and put them in the bucket.
Easier said than done. I struggle with step one, finally realizing that if I can’t see any holes in the sand, I just have to pick a spot and start digging. Which I do, and it works! Behold: the first clams I ever dug.
Michael has a clamming license, which is necessary for him to sell his wares. Otherwise, he explains, one can dig 100 clams a day for personal use. Together, Danielle, Joseph, Alison and I dig up maybe 50 clams, well below our collective limit of 400, but enough for a nice meal, and enough to make my hands start to hurt.
Pictured left: Master clammer Michael Brown, showing us how it’s done. Right: me with a clam hack.
As we head back to the car, Michael talks us through the current market for sea products on the island, intel that I aim to commit to memory as I begin to imagine my post-grad school life as a full-time clammer. Michael explains that he used to make all his money clamming. Now, he spends part of his time collecting dulse, nori, and sea lettuce, depending on the price, in addition to his lucrative job lobster fishing.
I wave goodbye and head with our team, and our clams, back to Alison’s house to begin what I view as an equally crucial part of the clamming experience: cooking. My seafood culinary skills are fairly limited, as in: I can grill salmon. I have never cooked with clams, so I hover around Alison as she demonstrates the process.
Her method is fairly simple. First, we soak the clams in a bucket of fresh water. Apparently, if you do this for a while, the clams clean themselves out. We are slightly impatient, and hungry, so we skimp a bit on this step. We boil a bit of water in a huge stock pot (a true kitchen staple on this island) and dump the clams in to steam. Then we melt a whole lot of butter.
That is about it. When the clams open up about five minutes later, we strain them onto a tray, which we plant in the middle of the table. We saved some of the clam broth so that we can give them a good bath (an easy fix if you just don’t have time to soak them) before dousing them in butter.
No more than a half hour after we leave Michael Brown, I find myself sitting around the table eating the freshest seafood I have ever enjoyed. This is the definition of eating locally, knowing where your food comes from. As our bellies fill – as we shift from eating the clams, to simply talking about how much we adore the clams – Alison makes another one of my dreams come true.
“If we have clams left over,” she says, “you can take them home and make chowder.”
Since arriving on the island, I have been sneaking away to read recipes from the Grand Manan Cookbook, a collaborative publication compiled by the Grand Manan Hospital Auxiliary. Alison has two editions – one from 1979, and a newer edition published a few years back. Just earlier than day, I scored a reprint of the 1952 edition from the Grand Manan Museum. Among delicious recipes for lobster stew, lobster curry, baked fish of all varieties – and two delightful recipes for cod tongues, which I have yet to track down on the island, is a recipe for clam chowder.
So, I decide to do it. I am going to follow a Grand Manan recipe. I am going to make chowder with Grand Manan clams. The recipe was contributed by Maud Harvey, and reads as follows:
1 pint potatoes sliced; 1 onion sliced; 1 teaspoon salt.
Cover with water and cook till potatoes are tender.
Add 1 pint shelled clams; 1 can evaporated milk; 1 large teaspoon butter; little pepper and a little more salt if desired. Add milk last and do not let boil.
I resist the urge to add the dulse flakes that were given to us the day before. I resist the urge to chop up the garlic scapes I bought at the farmer’s market. I trust Maud and I do what she tells me. I read the recipe twenty times and obsess over in which order, exactly, to add the milk and clams. And then, twenty minutes later, I pour a steaming bowl of chowder and marvel at the consistency. I wander out to the porch and savor the salty essence of ocean’s clams, how it mellows with the richness of milk and butter.
I thank Maud for her simple, yet inarguably crucial contribution to the Grand Manan Cookbook. I thank Michael Brown for his detailed lesson in clamming. I am currently busy planning my future. As Michael diversifies his products, maybe, I think, I could dig for clams, make chowder, sell chowder. I want desperately to belong in a food system such as this – where one digs the food from the earth, combines it with as little as possible, follows recipes integral to a community, and shares it with friends.
I have no illusions that I could step into the tradition of clamming and sustain a reasonable business right away. But I can learn! I can study! Perhaps Michael will take an apprentice? I realize that, first off, my plan requires a few simple life changes.
Step one: buy a clam hack.
Step two: move to Grand Manan.
Danielle Geller, Peyton Prayter Stark and Joseph Bradbury on board the Grand Manan V heading for the island for a two-week visit.
These three writers from the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona kick off our second year of this project, supported by the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice. The students will work on research and writing projects during their visit, as well as mentoring Grand Manan high students on their projects, whether that might be a poem, essay, photo-essay, video or oral history. Together we are working to create a portrait of this unique place, its history as a fishing community and its shifting economy with herring and ground fish on the decline and lobsters on the rise. What forces in nature and culture have shaped this place and what forces will shape its future? How do writing and other art forms help us to understand this time of change on the island and the ways that climate change is likely to shape its future? Our Arizona students arrive with eyes and notebooks open to learn all they can during their visit, and we welcome Grand Manan students to help be their guides to understanding what it feels like to be coming of age in this remarkable place of beauty, hard work, stories and self-determination.
Stay tuned for posts here on our new website www.fieldstudiesgrandmanan.com as the adventure unfolds.
GUEST POST AND VISUALS BY FRANCISCO CANTÚ, MFA Candidate in Creative Writing, University of Arizona
LOBSTERING IN THE GREY ZONE
The day we spent lobster fishing in the “Grey Zone” south of Grand Manan was, without question, the longest day of our trip, and it also the required the earliest start. We set our alarms at 4AM and while Page and Jan ate a quick breakfast of PB&J, I cooked up a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese (known as “Kraft Dinner” in Canada) in order to “carbo load” for the Grand Manan Half Marathon, which I would foolhardily run later that day.
We arrived at the Seal Cove wharf at 4:45, before the first light had begun to glow on the Eastern horizon. Several days ago Jan had interviewed one of Grand Manan’s most respected fisherman, Laurence Cook, and through charm and good fortune managed to arrange for the three of us to tag along with him for a day of lobster fishing. “Be prepared for a long day,” he advised.
At the docks, a man approached us and asked if we were the students from Arizona. He introduced himself as a member of Laurence’s crew, and we began to pepper him with a slow onslaught of questions. “This is a good boat to be on,” he told us. “Laurence is a smart man. If anyone’s gonna catch ’em, it’s him.”
When Laurence showed up, at 5 o’clock on the dot, his two crew members jumped into action, unmooring the boat and packing bait pouches with rotting herring. “The smellier it is, the more they like it,” one of the men told us, grinning. But even lobsters have standards, we soon found out. One of the herring boxes, left in the sun a few days too many, was writhing with maggots, and to our relief was summarily dumped overboard.
As we sailed out of Seal Cove toward the open sea, we were treated to a remarkable sunrise–our only one of the trip, due to many late nights fueled by long conversations with our island hosts. Laurence explained the particulars of fishing in the “Grey Zone” to us as we sailed south in the early morning light. In Canada, the lobster season runs from November until the end of June, with a strict moratorium on laying traps during the off months. In the US, however, fisherman are allowed to catch lobster year-round.
Because of a still-unresolved jurisdictional dispute over international fishing rights between Canada and the US, a “Grey Zone” has existed along the border between New Brunswick and Maine, where vessels from both countries are allowed to fish the same waters. Canadian boats are allowed to fish lobster within the Grey Zone outside the regular season, as long as they submit to the installation of black box devices that ping their location every 15 minutes via satellite to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, ensuring that they don’t venture into sovereign American waters.
Laurence, despite having taken advantage of the extra months of lobstering since the opening of the Grey Zone to Canadian fishermen 2002, told us that he’d prefer an “equitable, rational plan” to the hazy status quo of the present. Fishing in crowded and disputed waters ratchets up tensions between competing Canadian and American fisherman–and sometimes even among countrymen. Traps are frequently cut, leaving a multitude of ropes, anchors and countless lobster traps unrecoverable on the bottom of the sea floor at great cost to fisherman. Guns have been pulled. Pursuits through fog and bad weather have ensued. Canadian vessels have been boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard, at risk of causing an “international incident.” “The younger guys come out here and get excited,” Laurence explains, but it is clear that he prefers to operate with a bit more calm and reserve. “I don’t wanna start a war,” he tells us.
As we arrived in the Grey Zone, Laurence pointed out the microwave towers on the coastline of nearby Cutler, Maine. Rising up in the water was the pale lighthouse of Machias Seal Island, where Canada staffs one of the only non-automated lighthouses in the country in order to maintain a claim on the island based on “continual use.”
As we approached the first line of traps (known as a trawl), Laurence told us that he expected the worst haul of the year today. “The lobsters are about to shed,” he said, leaving us to wonder if that somehow tempered their appetite for rotting herring. Laurence then positioned his boat beside one of his distinctively-painted balloons and his crew began a process that would be repeated again and again throughout the day–the hauling up of the trawls that had been left sitting on the ocean floor unchecked since the previous week. Since I’d need at least another three paragraphs to describe this process, I’ll let the following videos do some the explaining:
It’s safe to say that Jan, Page, and I spent the better part of the ensuing hours marveling at the strength, efficiency, and hard-working focus of Laurence’s crew as they engaged in the bewildering multi-tasking necessary to safely complete this process time after time. Adrift as we were on flat, sunny waters, we were further baffled by the fact that these men were required to do the same back-breaking work at this pace through all manner of inclement weather–in the freezing cold and during roiling storms. We had all heard that commercial fishing was the most dangerous occupation in the world, and now we understood why: whizzing pullies, the constant looping and unfurling of rope, the fast sinking of anchors and traps–all of it threatening to meet even the most temporary lapse in attention with a quick snap, whip, pull, or drag into the frigid waters of the Bay of Fundy.
After nearly 14 hours aboard the boat, we were in awe of Laurence’s sharp presence of mind and the hardworking perseverance of his crew. Laurence and his men were frustrated with the day’s haul–they suspected that several of their trawls had already been hauled up and picked through by rival fishing vessels during the week. Indeed, there was a palpable air of lawlessness in the Grey Zone, the same lingering threat of disorder and unpredictability that so often pervades along unguarded frontiers. It was obvious that Laurence does his best to stay above it, to temper himself during tense situations as much as possible. Many of Laurence’s trawls had been laid on top of that day, and we watched him painstakingly cut and and knot his ropes to re-make his trawl lines. “I don’t cut other people’s traps and they don’t cut mine,” he told us.
After all, he’s not trying to start a war.
P.S. from Alison:
Paco did run in the half marathon, a benefit for the Grand Manan Boys and Girls Club, at the end of a nearly fourteen-hour lobstering day. He won third place. Talk about stamina. Though there were only three men in the race. Still a mighty day.
GUEST POST AND PHOTOS BY JAN BINDAS-TENNEY, MFA Candidate In Creative Writing, University of Arizona
SQUID, CLAMS AND A FRIENDLY ALPACA
We’ve been fortunate to work with six Grand Manan high school students during our stay on the island: Lawron Ingersoll, Liam Watkins, Michael Brown, Mackenzie Russell, Madison McLaughlin, and Harley Cary.
They’ve all been instrumental in providing a lens for our visit by bringing us on backwoods trails, introducing us to their grandmothers, teaching us how to jig for squid, dig clams, and have kept us laughing the whole time. They are each working on a creative project to document Grand Manan stories and histories. I want to dedicate this post to all six of our students and take this opportunity to share several extraordinary moments we shared with them.
And here’s a photo of Mackenzie with an alpaca just for fun.
Our first weekend on the island, Mackenzie and Liam took Page, Paco and me squid jigging. If you’ve never jigged for squid, it’s best done at night when the squid come out to feed, with a rod and brightly colored plastic lure, two rows of curved metal hooks at the bottom. Jig is the term for the lure and also the jerking motion used to attract the squid.
We walked to the North Head Wharf at 10 p.m. at half-tide. Part of the intricate weave of the wooden wharf covered in algae and kelp was visible below us as the dark of night finally set in about an hour after sunset. We walked past the lobster boats, some long, wide and shiny; others weathered with “for sale” signs. Liam had been out there with his fishing pole and guitar (he’s a talented self-taught musician) since 5 p.m. and hadn’t caught a thing. Mackenzie hung out on the wharf snap-chatting and laughing. A family from Newfoundland a.k.a “Newfies” had a multi-generational squid jigging operation with buckets full of their catch at the top of the wharf. A swarm of smaller children from “Whale Camp” (a summer program attended mostly by young American kids) got a squid jigging lesson from a camp counselor. Several other Grand Manan high school students jigged next to Liam.
I looked down to see the swirling rise and fall of a school of brown squid. They swarmed just below the surface in a group of several hundred, moving up, down, back and forth as if tied together on an invisible dancing net. Soon after we arrived, a seal rushed close to the wharf, scattering the squid. The floodlight above gave everyone’s faces a yellow hue and cast light at the perfect angle to illuminate the strange tentacled creatures underwater. A high school student named Vaughn quickly caught eight squid in about ten minutes. I asked Vaughn to give us some tips: cast out far and low; drag the jig in giving it slight jerks (or “jigs”) so the squid think your lure is a shiny fish. To my and Page’s dismay, Paco quickly caught two squid. As he brought one up to our bucket, he inadvertently squirted dark ink all over himself and his hipster jacket. Paco repeated, “I got inked. I got inked!” excitedly in his falsetto I’m-totally-surprised voice. Liam handled the squid as we all stared at its large googly eyes, its translucent speckled brown body, and squirmy tentacles at its end. Liam explained that we had to remove the ink in the process of cleaning it. As he showed us, he squirted stinky ink all over his hands and shirt, more on Paco’s jacket. The Whale Camp kids squealed.
Mackenzie said he likes to catch the squid with his bare hands when they are particularly thick around the wharf, refusing a rod or jig. He clambered to lie belly-down on a lobster car (a wooden raft for storing live lobsters in underwater compartments before transfer to market or tank house storage facilities). With his arms in the water up to his elbows, Mackenzie tried to grab the squid by the body when a group swarmed by. He didn’t catch a single one.
Before we knew it, it was nearly 1 a.m.; the elusive squid teased us, evading our lures right in front of our eyes. Only having caught two, we gave our bounty to the Newfie family. The father showed us how to clean the squid with several quick swipes of a small sharp knife.
Another afternoon, Michael Brown invited me to go clamming on Ingalls Head down Fisherman’s Haven Lane. I arrived and Michael handed me a clam hack (like a bent pitchfork) to dig for clams in the sand. With two of Michael’s friends, we headed down to the ebb tide flats where the surface of the sand bubbled with clam air holes. Bent down, I raked back the sand about a foot below the surface. As clams tumbled out, they shot salt water in the air, what Michael called “clam pee.”
Here’s a short video clip of Michael digging for clams, a bit shy in front of the video camera.
Michael lives with the ebb and flow of the tide by digging clams, picking dulse (edible seaweed), and working on his grandfather’s lobster boat. He buzzes around in a skiff he calls “The Little Tipsy.” Michael speaks in abrupt truths that often strike me with their vulnerability and sharp social and emotional analysis.
That afternoon after digging clams for about an hour, several others joined us on the flats: two older gentlemen, Gordy and Walter, and a family “digging for a feed.” Michael told me Gordy is the best clam digger on Grand Manan. Gordy is short and sturdy, wears a bandana with two eyes on his forehead, makes his living off digging clams by working two low tides per day. Once he digs a critical mass, he takes the ferry to the mainland where he sells the clams to market. When I asked what he likes about digging clams, Gordy told me, “The only boss I have is the tide. She’s the only boss I got. When Mother Nature says its time to go home, I go home.”
Michael dug about $100 worth of clams that day. I helped a little. As we dug, Gordy and Michael gossiped back and forth, talked about Michael’s family, the recent passing of his grandmother and guardian Rilla Greene who was described in her obituary as “never afraid of hard days work.” Someone I wish I could have met, Rilla worked in the fishing industry boning herring, in the sardine factory, and most recently as a dockside monitor for local fishing companies. Michael explained that she drove herself to the hospital in the final days of her life. I had the sense that Gordy keeps an eye on Michael. Although Michael feigned a competitive tone when Gordy first arrived, it became clear the longer we dug, how much the two respected each other.
I feel enormous gratitude for the generosity of these students and all the other Grand Mananers who invited us into their homes, onto their boats, who fed us delicious seafood chowder, and let us take notes while they lobster fished. I will remember these two weeks on the island for the rest of my life.
GUEST POST AND PHOTOS FROM PAGE BUONO, MFA Candidate, University of Arizona Creative Writing Program
Leading up to our Grand Manan visit we read of weirs and tried to understand their complicated structure and function, their ingenious design. They’re difficult to comprehend, so when we got the opportunity to witness a weir being seined, we were thrilled.
The day before we went to fish the weir I visited one being repaired from damage done last winter. A pile driver was used to replace stakes – the towering hardwood poles that make up the skeleton of the weir shape and structure. The stakes were tied together in a floating raft and dragged out to the site by a skiff. The pile driver, installed on a dock-like platform, was hauled out by a larger boat. Once inside the weir, the men boarded the driver and set to work pounding the stakes into the ocean floor.
Over the murmur I heard the men discussing, in brief sentences and nods and a language I’m not privy to, the prospects of herring this season. The overall outlook is grim, but there was mention of one weir soon to be seined.
I asked who was planning on seining? Could we see it from the sea wall at Dark Harbour? Before the day was up, the man I asked told me to be at Dark Harbor by 1:45 p.m., and that Captain Stacy Brown would take us on his boat so we could see them seine the herring from inside the weir. These opportunities are made possible often and only by the generosity of people we have met here.
Stacy, his wife Annise and his son Dawson, along with the rest of the crew, invited us aboard. They’d been out early that morning “feeling” for herring. In a skiff they motored out, dropped a lead weight attached to a copper wire until it hovered just above the floor and drove circles around the weir. Based on the number of taps on the wire and the force of them, Stacy guessed how many fish were below, using his estimates to predict the size of carrier ship needed to haul the harvest to processing plants off the island. Stacy guessed the weir contained 22-hogshead (1 hogshead = 1250 lbs) of herring roughly 7” long.
Observing the seining of the weir brought into focus a process I before understood hazily at best. It’s a process I am still struggling to explain, though I have no doubt that if I manage to describe it adequately in future writing, I can do so only because I had the opportunity to witness it: to witness the setting of the net, the way it circles around the herring already captured in the weir; the way the process responds and waits and rushes depending on the tide; the role of the diver who swims beneath, ensuring the fish are secured within the net, the purse. And then to watch as the net is hauled up until the herring spiral just beneath the surface. And then up another couple of inches until they are flopping about, vacuumed up by a giant tube dangling off the carrier on the outside of the weir, deposited into a giant storage tank on board. Their scales drift away in the process, leaving first just glitter in the water surrounding the seine, then frothing into thick white foam. The men above the carrier measure the fish: 22 hogshead of herring approximately 6.5 inches long.
The crew is pleased; the catch puts them on the book. Though it is nothing like the heyday of years past, it is better than last year when they seined only four times throughout the entire season and didn’t even recover the money spent on repairs from the winter before. Stacy’s wife, Annise, was instrumental in engaging Paco and me in the process. Without her explanations we would have been lost—excited and engaged, but confused. The crew answered our incessant questions graciously, made sure we understood what was happening, and offered us front row seats.
A quick post here to add a link to a gorgeous album of photos taken by Peter Cunningham on our Kent Island trip. Please enjoy and share!
Days 4, 5, 6
There is nothing to do on Grand Manan. No mall, movie theater, no pub. Still we have been busier than bees in a clover field for the past few days exploring the place and getting to know people. Squid jigging at midnight at the fisherman’s wharf, hiking to Hay Point with the Monday Morning Hikers, sitting around a beach fire watching fireworks pop from several spots along the shore including our own, riding out with the pile driver to observe repairs on the Intruder weir and to Dark Harbour to watch the seining of that weir have all been part of the orientation for our visitors to island life.
We are so grateful for the great generosity of islanders who’ve been sharing their stories and educating us about the state of the fishery and concerns about its future.
Page and I took a walk at the Anchorage Park and into the Bog Trail where we found orchids and pitcher plants blooming, and tassels of wild cotton topping their stalks. We were up to our ankles in wet peat, but that was no price to pay for the strange beauty of the plants adapted to this habitat.
The Grand Manan students have been great ambassadors for the island, as they work on projects about the places that mean something to them and the stories that come out of those places: Dark Harbour, Cheney’s Passage, Stanley’s Beach, Eel Lake, Seal Cove, out on the water and more.
Today we all made a field trip to the Bowdoin College Scientific Station on Kent Island, thanks to Russell Ingalls who ran us over from Seal Cove through thick fog.
Damon Gannon, Director of the station, told us about research being done on the 40 -50,000 Leach’s Storm Petrels, oceanic birds that nest in forest burrows on this small island. Here’s the link to the Bowdoin College Kent Island Scientific Station:
Peter Cunningham took us to Fog Heaven where we learned about the work his father Robert Cunningham did here for 60 years or so studying fog. “A pure scientist,” Peter calls him, just as Peter is “a pure photographer,” both of them moved by a genuine curiosity to know. The weather station is gearing up to begin again sending out data, so this site will continue to make a contribution to understandings about climate change, building on decades of data already gathered.
Stay tuned for guest posts here from Jan, Page and Paco, along with some of their photographs from their travels. Harley Cary and Page Buono have also posted very poetic photos on their Facebook pages. Check them out!