The Buoy Shop owner tilts his flat cap ever so slightly as he considers my question.
“Well now, you must be a come from away – not from these parts – if you’s asking that. Different buoys you know, have different purposes.”
Roger is seemingly drowning in buoys. They dangle in nets and perch in the crooks of his aged bait shop – shades of blues, turquoises, oranges and faded reds.
“See this small one here, it’s carved from Portuguese cork. Those net floats there, they help catch the fin fish.” Roger’s sliver mustache curls into a smile when I ask how long he’s been a fisherman.
“I’m fifth generation, my children are six. These days, it’s more lobster fishing, but it was once more cod and haddock.”
Once I’ve browsed and chosen a handcrafted wooden buoy, Roger offers some advice. Shoving his large, calloused hands into the pockets of his checked flannel jacket, he cautions me. “You’ve come on a nice day, but yous be sure to stay off those black rocks. They get slippery and we don’t want to be fishing you out of the sea.’’
Roger and his Buoy Shop are an institution in Peggy’s Cove. Now, gazing out over the steamship-sized inlet, one gets a sense of time standing still, of maritime heritage preserved and presented to perfection.
Crab and lobster traps nestle against weathered bait shacks. Snakes of rope coil on wooden docks. Small schooners, dories and Cape Islander’s anchor in the late October sun.
To get a true snapshot of Peggy’s Cove, I amble across from the docks, along the narrow path of Lobster Lane. A stranded buoy, bobs in the shallows and seaweed smothers the rocks at waters’ edge. Clusters of buoys arrayed in bouquets of colours and sea-green Adirondack chairs poise out to sea from the deck of the lonely Wharfside Cottage. The end of the season is already upon many parts of the Maritimes as the come from aways return to other parts of the province, country, or the world. The more permanent homes perch on a gentle cliff above, no strangers to the volatile maritime weather. Theirs is a spectacular, albeit often wind-whipped vista.
The gentle sibilant breeze is suddenly interrupted by the engine of a Cape Islander. The Harbour Mist,a lobster-fishing vessel, glides past slowly. Its cherry-red bow gracefully parting the deep-blue waters as it returns to the safety of Peggy’s Cove.
I soon hear an, “Ay, welcome back,” as the crew is greeted back home. The welcome, and the relief, of a seafarer’s return has been playing out here since 1811 when six families were issued a land grant of 800 acres. Fishing was their mainstay, but cattle also grazed the fertile soil that surrounds the coastal village. By the early 1900’s, a lobster cannery, a church, the General Store, and a schoolhouse supported a population of some three-hundred locals. Today, only thirty-five permanent residents call it home.
Wandering onwards, I chance upon much more charming names than ‘General Store.’ These days it’s The Foggy Rock, Hags on the Hill and the Sou’ Wester. The once settlers’ cottages serve as quaint gift shops, restaurants and even the old schoolhouse has been converted into a charming homestead.
I hear the scraping of a wire-bristled brush even before I chance upon it. Eliza is five-steps up a ladder, tilted against the old school house. She is brushing away layers of paint… patinas of history. I peek through the window, admiring its transformation from schoolhouse to cozy cottage.
“It was built about 1858,” Eliza tells me, gingerly backing down the rungs to welcome me. “I married the son of a local fisherman, about forty years ago.” Yet our conversation soon meanders not to the personal, but to the local economy, now greatly influenced by the multitude of bus tours making their way from Halifax.
“The number of cruise-ship tourists grows each year,” Eliza laments. “We’re becoming overwhelmed.” Eliza and other locals agree that surely there is a limit as to how many buses these narrow roads, limited parking, and the environment can sustain.
She mentions Roger, back at the Buoy Shop. “He’s one of the residents speaking out. As am I, but some older people are leaving well enough alone.”
Of course, the star attraction of Peggy’s Cove is its iconic lighthouse. One of the most photographed images in Canada, it beckons to millions of tourists a year. The eight-sided concrete tower rises 50 feet from the grey-white granite outcrops; ancient rocks polished by glaciers and the ocean’s unrelenting tide. Guiding vessels into St. Margaret’s Bay since 1914, this lighthouse replaced the first structure of 1868– a mere beacon on the roof of a lighthouse keepers wooden home. Up until automation in 1958, the keepers ensured the kerosene oil lamp perpetually shone – first red, then white, then green – finally settling on red to conform to world navigation standards.
I watch visitors clamber over those evocative, timeless outcrops; thankfully none are venturing down to the perilous black rocks where rogue waves have swept some out to sea. I gaze back towards the land… vegetation ablaze with the burnt reds of autumn and the church spire rising above the paint-box hues of bait shacks, cottages, and anchored boats.
A fighter-jet suddenly pierces the sky, roaring low over the cove and I turn again to the silvery-blues of the ocean. Just beyond, is a sacred place. It’s impossible to not think of those who perished here in the tragic aviation crash of September 2, 1998. The memorial, two imposing oval granite monuments at nearby Whale’s Back, lie in direct alignment with the crash site. “In memory of the 229 men, women and children aboard the Swissair Flight 111 who perished off these shores. They have been joined to the sea and sky. May they rest in Peace.”
As I take my leave, the strains of a bagpiper punctuate the scene. His kilt fluttering gently in the breeze, the piper stands alone. The melody drifts over the rocks and across the sea.
The plaintive tune harkens to the many Scots who sailed to this new land. It evokes the ferocity and the serenity of this rugged landscape. It honours the tragedies, and the vibrance of life at the cove. It is one of the most beautiful, soulful and unique places I have visited.
With it all, this appreciative come from away, feels very much at home here…