Pictou Island – A place from another time, not far away . . .
Nestled in between Nova Scotia’s ‘Sunrise Trail’ and the eastern end of Prince Edward Island, Pictou Island is a short ferry ride to a place from another time. Inhabited by a few dozen hardy souls, this island community has attracted an eccentric cast of characters who have come to this place for a variety of reasons – and for those who have made a life of it, has cultivated a loyalty to place that is disappearing elsewhere in Canada.
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Four of us, with a combined tenure of over 200 years of friendship, piled into my Toyota for a four-province road trip to the island. The plan was to visit our mutual friend Lorne Matheson – originally from Quebec, schooled at Acadia, successful entrepreneur in Toronto until his early forties; Lorne gave it all up to assume stewardship of some family land on Pictou Island. Like many of the inhabitants of this out of the way place, Lorne has managed to make enough of a living to spend the better part of the year on the island. Only about two dozen locals tough it out through the winter – overcoming some considerable obstacles to maintain their independence on the island.
A trip to the island begins at the ferry dock in Caribou, Nova Scotia. Most people associate this place with the ferry service to Prince Edward Island, and rightly so. It is also where one connects with the passenger-only ferry service to Pictou Island – a 45-minute trip on a retired whale watching boat. Currently owned by Ryan Fleury, the Pictou Island Charter operates from May to November – three days a week during the peak season. For some reason I never fully understood – there is no fare to be paid and if you luck out on the weather like we did it, is a very pleasant trip to the one and only harbour on the island. It is a great first chance to meet and engage with some of the locals who call the island home.
Though the harbour is relatively small, it was recently reworked and is an impressive shelter for the ferry and lobster boats that use it on a regular basis. The arrival and departure of the ferry is an important ritual on the island – everyone pitches in to load and unload the pile of coolers, luggage, food and assorted belongings one must bring to stay on the island. Other than Lorne’s modest store – opened only in peak season and with a weird collection of food, automobile parts and other off grid essentials –
If you don’t bring it, you will not have it.
A strange collection of ‘rigs’ piles onto the wharf to shuttle people and goods to their various destinations, and it all happens in a chaotic, but good spirited way.
There is essentially one road running the span of the island – used by a variety of cars, trucks and ATVs that all become labelled ‘rigs’ once they arrive by barge. These rigs are in various states of repair – all seem to be held together with some ingenious home remedies on how to keep decrepit vehicles ‘operational’. As there is no police service on the island, all rigs drive without license plates, and, I suspect, without insurance. When a rig finally dies, the tradition used to be to push it into the bush and let the forest claim them. Fortunately, that is no longer permitted as the community agreed that if one brings a ‘new’ rig on the island, they must ship one old one off the island so the forest no longer becomes an automobile grave yard.
That one gravel road – ‘maintained’ by the Nova Scotia government, serves a dual purpose as a good chunk of it is also the landing strip for the twice weekly arrival of the Canada Post plane. This fly-in mail delivery is usually associated with isolated Arctic communities – but it is key to the operation of the island – especially for the two dozen locals who choose to stay during the winter, when the ferry cannot operate due to ice. This is how the winter folk get their groceries and other essentials, and if need be, they pay an extra amount to fly out to attend to onshore appointments.
There is no connection to the mainland electrical grid – so everyone resorts to a variety of solar panels, passive solar heating, small scale wind turbines and firewood to meet their electricity and heating needs. A seasonal barge service permits residents to ship propane tanks and other bulky items in, and to dispose of the rubbish they have collected. Independence and resiliency are key to those who choose to reside here, as is the understanding that everyone will help one another when required. We spent three hours one afternoon jump-starting no fewer than seven rigs.
There is a small, fledgling tourism sector emerging on the island. Lorne operates a campground full of ‘wooden tents’ – with a communal open kitchen. This camp has become extremely popular ever since it started offering yoga retreats – where one can spend the weekend hanging out with friends and doing yoga on one of the many beaches, or in the vineyard on the island. An indoor yoga studio is currently being constructed to help with days when the weather does not cooperate. Not interested in camping? There is also the ‘Vineyard Loft’ where up to four people can get away from it all in Lorne’s vineyard – enjoying the peace and quiet while sampling some of his wine.
Another place to consider staying is Pictou Island Yurts at the Kirribilli Eco Retreat. Situated on a sizable, unique plot of land this collection of yurts and beautifully designed communal spaces is an ideal spot for families or for groups looking to get away from it all. There are a number of ‘retreats’ held during the season, and they can accommodate groups looking to hold their own program on this quiet space.
If camping or yurts are not your thing, then ‘Pictou Island Escape’ has two cottages for rent. These spacious, private residences are very well suited to a slightly longer stay with a family or friends. Another option – one that includes meals is the ‘Inned of the Rainbow’ bed and breakfast. Operated by long time residents Nancy and Al MacDonald, this is a great alternative for those looking to get a full-service tourist experience at a self-sufficient accommodation.
Most visitors to the island will have to bring in their own food and beverages, but if you time things right you can supplement your fare with the freshest lobster going. Fishers have no problem selling lobsters at the wharf. We had a fantastic feed of lobster that were plodding along the ocean bottom mere hours before we ate them. A wretched fate for them, a feast for us. Meeting some of the characters who catch this delicacy was as colourful an experience as eating the critters they caught.
Community amenities are few, but they are quite well maintained by a variety of volunteer organizations. Sutherland Memorial church is known for its textured ceiling and plaques dedicated to both world wars. Built in 1910, the church was purchased from the diminishing congregation of St. Andrews church and is now undergoing efforts to restore and revitalize this important part of the community. One of only two horse drawn hearses in all of Nova Scotia can be found exhibited ‘behind glass’ at the Pictou Island Community Centre property, along with an iconic ‘ice boat’ that pioneers used to use to connect to the mainland in the winter. This 160-year-old relic of the horse era is remarkably well preserved thanks to the work of the local Heritage Society.
An equally well preserved, but modest building is the local Dance Hall. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to picture the parties that have, and continue to occur in this building that is situated in the middle of the island. There is even a local ‘pool hall’ – which is essentially a renovated shed owned by Wendy who is kind enough to open the doors on a regular basis to give locals a chance to socialize and play pool.
If you are looking for a destination that is off the beaten track, but not really all that far away (if you are already touring the Maritimes), then consider a weekend or a longer stay at Pictou Island. Part of the charm of the island is the lack of intensive tourism infrastructure – there are no flashy restaurants, glitzy bistros or crazy night life here. But if you want to take a trip to meet some funny, engaging people, stroll some remote beaches, visit an all but abandoned fishing village, see a heron roost, drink some local wine or do some yoga – then consider a stop at the island that time forgot.