Category Archives: Maritimes

Born on the Barachois

Barachois

“Everybody went to church back then,” said Connie Lott. “Especially in a small community like South Rustico. My goodness, we all went. I just walked up the road from home to the church and the school. It was the same way we walked to the beach and went swimming.”

Walking to the beach was easy. There is ocean to see and wade into on three sides of the school and church.

There were four classrooms to the school and eleven grades, overseen by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Many of the nuns came from the Magdalen Islands, an archipelago not far away in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “They were one hundred percent French,” said Robin Lott. “Connie’s French is fluid to this day.”

“He means fluent,” said Connie.

“My teachers were Mother Saint Alphonse, Mother Saint Theodore, and Mother Saint Cyril, who was sort of icky,” she said, almost seven decades later. “Kids came to our school from all over, from Hope River and Oyster Bed Bridge.”

South Rustico is on the north-central shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, where Route 6 and Church Road cross. The Lion’s Club, caty-corner to the church, hosts ceilidhs featuring local talent in the summer. There is a handsome beach on Luke’s Creek, which is a bay on the far shoreline, near the National Park.

“I went to mass once twice in twelve hours,” said Robin, Connie’s husband. “We were dating, I was on the island, and her mother insisted we go to church Saturday night before stepping out. So, OK, that’s it, we go. Sunday morning they wake me up and say it’s time to go to church again. I said, what? I thought, I must be desperate for a girlfriend!”

“You must have really liked me,” said Connie.

Built in 1838, the oldest Catholic Church on PEI, St. Augustine’s in South Rustico was already an old church when Cornelia ‘Connie’ Doucette and Robert ‘Robin’ Lott got married there in 1960.

“Our wedding party was in Connie’s yard,” said Robin “The barn was behind the house and they brewed homemade beer. We didn’t have five cents to rub together.”

Connie Doucette was born at home in 1938. “I lived in what is now the Barachois Inn on the Church Road,” she said. A barachois is like a bayou, what Atlantic Canadians call a coastal lagoon separated from the ocean by a sandbar. But the home she grew up in wasn’t where she was born, nor were her parents the parents she was born to.

“When my twin sister and I were born, our mother died,” she said.

Her father, Jovite Doucette, a farmer with eight children, owned a house behind the church and croplands between Anglo Rustico and the red sand shore. “Where the new school was built,” said Connie, “that was once part of his fields.” Suddenly a widower, he was unable to care for the newborns of the family.

Cornelia and her sister, Camilla, were placed with foster families. Her sister went to Mt. Carmel, on the southwest side of the island, while she became a permanent ward of the Doucette’s, a husband and wife in their 50s, who lived down the street, literally down the street, on the front side of the church.

“It wasn’t traumatic,” said Connie. “I saw my brothers and sisters, and my father, all the time, and my foster parents made sure I saw my twin sister now and then.”

The Doucette’s she went to live with were islanders who had long worked in Boston as domestics, saved their money, and returned to Prince Edward Island, buying a house and farm. They kept cows and some horses. The Doucette’s were childless, and despite the surname, no relation to Connie’s family.

“I was spoiled since I was their only child,” said Connie “They were older and well-to-do. We had a car, a Ford. I didn’t do too much, although I might have milked a cow once in awhile.”

Before mid-century most of the roads on Prince Edward Island were dirt or clay, muddy when it rained, dusty when it was dry. The first paved road, two miles of it, was University Avenue in Charlottetown, the capital, in 1930. “They eventually paved the road up to the church,” said Connie. “We used to say, ‘Meet me at the pave,’ which was where the pavement ended.”

“Our generation, their children have built modern homes on the island, it’s not as basic as it used to be,” said Robin.

“Everybody’s got washers and dryers now,” said Connie.

Her mother’s sister washed clothes by hand in a washtub and dried them on the line. “We visited them in the late 1960s,” said Robin. “Their house didn’t have running water or electricity. I went out to the well and pulled the bucket up. There was meat and butter in the bucket.”

“That was their refrigeration,” said Connie.

“They finally moved across the road to an old schoolhouse that had power,” said Robin.

“They had thirteen children,” said Connie.

Although he was born in Quebec in 1936, Robin grew up in Ontario.

“My father worked on the boats all the time, Montreal to Thorold, where the locks are, and we ultimately moved there,” he said. From Montreal the passage is down the St. Lawrence and across the length of Lake Ontario to Niagara. The Welland Canal at Thorold, sitting atop the Niagara Escarpment, is ‘Where the Ships Climb the Mountain.’ Standing on viewing platforms, you can watch enormous cargo ships pass slowly by at eye-level a few feet away from you.

When he came of age Robin Lott joined the Royal Canadian Navy.

In the Second World War the Canadian Navy was the fifth-largest in the world. During the Cold War of the 1950s and 60s it countered emerging Soviet Union naval threats in the Atlantic with its anti-submarine capabilities. “We were off the coast of Portugal when my mother telegraphed me that she and Connie had decided I was going to get married,” said Robin.

The executive order said to be ready in October.

Robin and Connie met when she went to nursing school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Robin was stationed with the fleet. “I was working a little job at the Charlottetown Hospital,” said Connie. “A friend of mine told me about the nursing course in Halifax. Right away I got the bug.” It was 1956. She and her friend enrolled and her friend’s father drove them to Nova Scotia.

After nursing school, as part of her scholarship agreement, she worked at the Sunnybrook Military Hospital in Toronto. “They gave you $70.00 a month to live on.” She and Robin dated long-distance style. “Whenever I got leave I would pick her up in Toronto and take her to visit with my parents in Thorold,” said Robin. “That’s how I introduced her to my family.”

At the same time, Connie was introducing Robin to Prince Edward Island

One afternoon, making his way from Halifax to Rustico, coming off the ferry in January and driving up Route 13 from Crapaud, he was stopped by a snowdrift in the road.

“The road went down a valley and there was literally six feet of snow piled up,” said Robin. He reversed his 1955 Pontiac back to where his rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road. “I hit the gas as hard as I could, went as fast as I could, hit the snow, everything disappeared, and I came out the other side. By the time I did the car was barely moving.”

Commuting between Nova Scotia and PEI, Robin rode the Abeigweit. Before the Confederation Bridge opened in 1997, the ferry was one of the busiest in Canada, the island’s lifeline to the mainland. Commissioned in 1947, ‘Abby’ was in its time the most powerful icebreaker in the world, capable of carrying almost a thousand passengers and sixty cars, or a train of 16 passenger cars. Its eight main engines drove propellers both bow and stern.

“I used to take the ferry across when we were dating,” said Robin. “You had to sleep in your car if you missed the last one. We would be lined up single file down the road, there were no parking areas back then, a hundred cars inching along trying to get on the first boat in the morning.”

In the dead of winter, crossing the Northumberland Straight from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Port Borden, Robin Lott stood bundled up against the cold wind hands stuck in mittens leaning over the bow watching ahead as the heavy boat broke through foot-thick ice.

“It would crunch gigantic pieces of ice and turn them over like ice cubes as it went across,” he said.

After they married the Lott’s didn’t stay on Prince Edward Island. “Both of the family farms were no longer farming,” said Robin. “I had an offer to partner in a fishing boat, but I didn’t take that up.” They moved to St. Catharine’s, the largest city in Canada’s Niagara Region, not far from Thorold. They rented an apartment and got busy.

By the time Connie was pregnant with the second of their four children they had bought a bungalow with a 185-foot deep backyard, near Brock University. “We had plans about moving, but we had a low mortgage on this house, so we never did,” said Robin.

They still live in the same house fifty-five years later.

“Those days we used to all climb in our station wagon on a Friday payday and go to the grocery store,” said Robin. There was a meat packing plant in the city and an adjacent store called Meatland. “They sold hot dogs in three-pound bulk bags.”

It’s been said you know you’re from St. Catharine’s if you know the difference between Welland and Wellandport, were in the Pied Piper Parade at some time in your childhood, ate fish and chips at the north corner of the Linwell Plaza, can drive through downtown without getting confused, pissed in the Lancaster Pool, hate Niagara Falls, and bought cold cuts at Meatland.

“When we went on holiday we took our four children and went camping,” said Connie. “We had a hard top tent. We went all over, as far south as the Teton Mountains near Yellowstone Park and as far north as Peace River.”

It is almost two thousand miles from St. Catharine’s to Peace River, and another forty miles to Girouxville. Towing their hard top trailer, their four children in tow, the family piled into their station wagon to visit Connie’s four uncles living there. Her natural father’s brothers had all long since moved from Prince Edward Island to Alberta.

The Peace River valley’s rich soil has produced abundant wheat crops since the 19th century. The town of Peace River, at the confluence of three rivers and a creek, is sometimes called ‘The Land of Twelve-Foot Davis.’ Henry Davis was a gold prospector who built a trading post in Peace River after he made a fortune on a tiny twelve-foot square land claim. After his death a 12-foot statue of him was erected at Riverfront Park.

“It was one of the highlights of our trip,” said Robin, about their excursion out west in 1976.

Girouxville is a small French-Canadian community surrounded by enormous farms. A hundred years ago the local Cree Indians called it ‘Frenchman’s Land.’ Every four years Chinook Days are celebrated. Besides farming, there are thousands of beehives, hunting for elk and moose, and good fishing on the Little Smoky River,

“Three of the brothers homesteaded, the three stronger ones,” said Robin. “In those years you could go up there, it was all bush, and if you cleared the land and farmed it, it was yours. They pulled out stumps and ended up with farms so big they weren’t described by acre, but by section.” Spring, durum, and winter wheat are grown on almost 7 million acres in Alberta. The average farm size is close to double the size of farms on PEI.

The fourth Doucette brother became a schoolteacher, opened and operated a store, married, and propagated a large family.

“We pulled into this little town with our trailer and kids,” said Robin. “Then it occurred to us we had no idea where they lived.” Spying the town’s tavern, they parked in front of it. Robin went into the tavern. He told the bartender he was looking for Emile Doucette. The bartender looked at Robin and bobbed his head at a table set along the back wall.

“Why don’t you ask his brother Leo over there,” he said.

“He was a single man, quite a drinker,” said Connie. “What else do you have to do after working all day on a farm? He eventually bought the tavern.”

That night Doucette’s gathered from far and wide for a reunion dinner. “Everybody came, everybody got together,” said Robin. “We talked long into the night and it was still light enough to see.” In northern Alberta in the summer the sun rises at five in the morning and doesn’t set until almost eleven at night.

The night before they left to go back to St. Catherine’s Uncle Leo invited them to his farm.

“We were having a beer when he said he wanted me to go into his bedroom and pull the suitcase out from under his bed,” said Robin.

“Open it up and count out some money for Connie and Camilla,” said Uncle Leo.

“It was full of cash, honest to God,” said Connie. “We just about died.”

“I was nervous, what if somehow or other he thought I had taken one dollar more than he told me to do,” said Robin. “But then on the mantle in his living room I saw checks for crops he had sold, thousands and thousands of dollars, none of them ever cashed.”

Robin and Connie have gone back often to Prince Edward Island, most recently the past summer when they traveled to the island for the marriage of a granddaughter. They enjoy eating the local seafood, especially oysters, mussels, and lobster. At one time they ate as much whitefish as they wanted.

“When we first started coming back here I would go out with friends who were fishermen and it was nothing to hand line 1500 pounds of codfish in the morning,” said Robin. “But that was all shut down thirty years ago.”

“We ate fish, potatoes, carrots, and turnips when I was a girl,” said Connie. “That was about it. Whenever we went to Charlottetown we ate at a Chinese restaurant, but that was as much as I ever knew. Before I came to St. Catharine’s I had never had Italian food. After I married, my cousin and a friend of hers said, we’re coming over to make dinner. We’re going to make spaghetti. I thought, yippee.”

In the years since, the Lott’s have discovered fare across Canada and the United States, in Spain, England, Austria, and Denmark. “I like to travel,” said Connie. “We’re going back to Mexico at the end of the year.”

“It all started when she came to St Catharine’s,” said Robin. “Our community has every nationality you can shake a stick at, Irish, Italians, Russians, because of the construction of the canal system. There are cabbage rolls and pierogies and souvlaki.”

When Connie’s daughter travels to Prince Edward Island on business, she has stayed at the Barachois Inn. “She told me my old house has changed a little bit, one of the rooms now has an en suite bathroom, but it’s still owned by the same people who bought it,” said Connie.

Not much is better than going from one home to another home to family and eating good food. When Robin and Connie Lott are on PEI they sometimes stop at Carr’s Oyster Bar in Stanley Bridge, zigzagging up the coast to the other side of the Rustico lands, and have lunch on the ocean.

“We love seafood,” said Robin. “It’s our heritage,” said Connie. They eat on the sunny open deck overlooking the dark blue water of the New London Bay. The dark water isn’t new. It’s been there a long time.

The being on the seaside, mind’s eye on the barachois, when it’s a living heritage, is like slipping into the ocean and being able to see how deep it is.

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From Bogota to Bittergirl

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When “Bittergirl: The Musical” came back to the cabaret-style Mack Theatre in downtown Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island, it came back because it had played to laugh-out-loud crowds during its world premiere there in 2015, and everyone knew the home-grown Canadian merry-go-round about breaking up was worth seeing, or seeing again in 2017.

Based on a 1999 play lived died and written by Annabel Fitzsimmons, Alison Lawrence, and Mary Francis Moore, one of them divorced, one dropped like a hot potato, and one in the whirlpool of being dumped, and their later-on best-selling book, “BITTERGIRL: Getting Over Getting Dumped”, the musical is the best of the play and the book and 60s doo-wop mixed with 70s mega-hits.

“When he danced he held me tight, and when he walked me home that night, all the stars were shining bright, and then he kissed me.”

The show is a mash up of a live band song dance high emotion low comedy trenchant wisecracking and rip-roaring showcase performances. It’s about the one sure-fire way of hurting somebody’s feelings, which is to break up with them.

“Baby, baby, where did our love go? Ooh, don’t you want me, don’t you want me no more?”

Hooking up and heartbreak are as girl group as it gets. Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ was still fifty years in the making when Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and Motown were going strong. The Shirelles were the first to hit number one on the HOT 100 in 1961 with ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’.

When the musical comedy wrapped up its second sold-out run at the end of August, and the last of more than 20,000 theatergoers had left the 200-seat Mack Theatre, the young woman putting away bottles of vodka and rinsing out cocktail glasses behind the bar on the far side of the stage was the one person who had seen the show more times than anyone else, save the cast, crew, and front of the house.

“I love the show,” said Natalia Agon, the Mack’s bar manager. “Sometimes on my nights off I go see it with my mom or my husband or my friends. It’s so fun and I’m so proud of it.” Since starting work at the theatre earlier in the summer she has seen “Bittergirl” close to 40 times.

The 25-year-old traced an improbable path to her first sighting of the show. She almost didn’t make it. A native of Bogota, Colombia, it took a death threat to shove her off Colombian soil and land her on the red dirt of Prince Edward Island. The threat to her family came from terrorists, in the mail, on embossed stationary, declaring them a military target.

“Bogota was good,” she said. “I grew up there. My dad worked hard, and my mom worked hard, to give us what we needed. Starting over from zero was definitely hard.”

Bogota is a 500-year-old city in the middle of Colombia, the capital city and largest city in the country. It sprawls across a high plateau in the Andes. More than 10 million people live in the metro area, the economic, political, and cultural center of northwestern South America. “Most Noble and Most Loyal City” is Bogota’s motto.

Natalia’s parents met in Panama City, Panama. “They were poor when they got together. They would buy clothes or cigarettes in Panama, where they didn’t have taxes, and bring it back to Colombia, and sell it,” she said. “They did every job on the planet.”

By the time she started school her parents had scrimped and saved and purchased and owned and operated a 1,000-acre beef and dairy farm four hours away from Bogota, while still living in the city. “We went there every weekend, my two brothers and me, whether you liked it or not.”

At the same time, “bittergirl” the stage play took off, playing from bliss to breakup and back to full houses in Toronto, traveling to London, England, and laughing its way to off-Broadway in NYC. It was the trifecta, the original recipe, extra crispy, and the Colonel’s special.

“I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see, for every kiss you give me I’ll give you three, oh, since the day I saw you, I have been waiting for you.”

It was a long way from the little Toronto café where the three writers dreamed up the loving and hurting story, based on themselves and everyone they knew. “We’ve had some adventures together!” said Mary Francis Moore.

“Every night our audiences were waiting for us as we came offstage with their very own stories,” the co-authors have said.

‘I got dumped in the hospital ten minutes after giving birth…’

‘He left me for my little sister and now he sits across from me at Christmas dinner…’

‘My husband worked for CSIS and said ‘You’ll never be able to find me’ and I never have…’

“Swear to God. All true.” Truth is stranger than it used to be. The snag about some hook-ups is that they’re not worth the break-up.

“My parents had a big problem with FARC,” said Natalia Agon. “It was because of the farm, about paying the vaccine.” Besides the coca trade, in other words, cocaine, which sustained the leftist group during Latin America’s longest running war, extortion ran a close second in the financial affairs of the rebels. The money payments were known as vacuna, or the vaccine.

Scottish Border Reivers ran a racket called black mal five hundred years ago, the Sicilian Mafia has always understood the protection trade, and there is little confusion about what the Russian Mafia means when they say krysha up.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was formed in 1964, a peasant army that grew to number almost 20,000 militants controlling close to 40 percent of the country. The 50-year civil war, recently ended, displaced 7 million people from their homes and resulted in 220,000 deaths, among them 11,000 people killed by land mines.

“My dad paid the vaccine for a long time,” said Natalia. “But, once they saw they could use you for other purposes, whether storing drugs or storing guns, it was a yes or no answer, no matter whether you wanted to do it or not.”

Pedro and Maria Agon said no to cocaine and guns.

Soon afterwards, just before Christmas 2007, they got a letter in the mail. “It was on thick white paper, official looking, super fancy, with their FARC logo on it. We just left, our house, the farm, all my friends I had known all my life. One day my mom said, pack a bag, you’re not going to school on Monday.”

She packed pictures and letters from her friends and the blanket she was swaddled in when she was brought home from the hospital when she was born. “You can’t do that, my mom said. You have to leave everything.”

They left almost everything.

“We got out of there fast.”

The Agon’s were able to transfer property to sisters brothers aunts uncles, as well as convert some assets to cash. They were uncertain about relocating anywhere else in South America. They considered the United States a safe haven, but Natalia’s mother nixed moving there.

“She just didn’t like it, even though she had traveled to the States many times. She never felt welcome. She always felt a racial discrimination, even though she was going there to spend money. So we looked at a map and there was Canada. There was no thought process behind it, we just went.”

“Bittergirl: The Musical” took the Charlottetown Festival by storm when it opened in 2015, a crowd-pleaser bringing the howls and selling out all summer. Bitterness never felt better, nor misery in the hands of singers and dancers belting it out and mansplaining how he’s lost his magic and you’ve got to go.

“He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be any good, he’s a rebel ‘cause he never ever does what he should, but just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does, that’s no reason why I can’t give him all my love.”

It went on to become a north of the border success story, having since been produced coast to coast, Edmonton, Manitoba, Vancouver.

Nine months after landing in Toronto, the Agon’s got their Permanent Resident cards. “It was a hard process,” said Natalia. “There was a lot of scrutiny, but it was never the you don’t deserve to be here kind of scrutiny.” The family rented an apartment and Natalia graduated from high school in 2010. She attended Centennial College, majoring in Food and Nutrition Management, and worked part-time in a nursing home.

In 2014 she and her husband-to-be, Miguel Cervantes, moved to Prince Edward Island. “I knew I needed a school that was going to give me a lot of interaction with professors and where there were internships to become a registered dietician.” She has an internship on tap at Humber River Hospital in Toronto when she graduates next year.

Natalia Agon enrolled at UPEI in Charlottetown. Her husband worked his way up to become the executive chef at Mavor’s, a contemporary eatery part of the Confederation Centre of the Arts. The menu ranges from the Moona Lisa burger, featuring homegrown PEI beef, to four-course dinners paired with Scottish whiskies.

Last year, looking for work, she applied at the Mack Theatre. She got the job. “I run the day-to-day operations and I’m the head bartender,” she said. She trains and schedules the other bartenders, keeps a firm hand on the inventory and cash register, and trims the sails on show days. Above all, all summer long she mixed Cowards, Mounties, and Magic Men.

“Those are the names of the three ex’s of the show, and they’re our three feature cocktails. The definite crowd favorite is the Mountie. I always tell everyone, I think you’re going to like it even more once the show starts.” At the break, however, the strains of ‘Be My Baby’ dying away, most order the drink they can relate to the most. Magic Men and Cowards give the vodka-heavy Mountie a run for his money among the crowd pressing at the bar, no matter that Mounties are renowned for saving damsels in distress.

“Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from getting to you, babe.”

“Things have changed a lot in Colombia since we left,” said Natalia.

She has since returned several times for visits. Nevertheless, when her father went back to South America, the farm he bought was on the Ecuador border with Colombia. “He’s in love with the land. He can’t get enough of it.” One of her older brothers, a doctor, lives in Mexico and the other older brother lives in Spain. Her mother spends divergent parts of her year with her husband and far-flung children.

The Agon’s are a family of expatriates by necessity, not by choice. “My husband is from Guatemala, but he came to Canada when he was a one-year-old and never went back,” said Natalia. “His Spanish is broken. But I was born in Colombia, raised in Colombia, and most of my values are from being raised there. I loved it. Leaving was an emotional struggle.”

Although it’s true that loss is the same as change, and the world is always going to keep changing, surviving and coping with loss is difficult, especially when a chunk of your childhood goes missing. It leaves a hole in the world. It’s the price everyone pays for everything they’ve ever had, or will have.

“Weren’t you the one who tried to break me with goodbye, did you think I’d crumble, did you think I’d lay down and die, oh no not I, I will survive.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s a boyfriend or your birthplace. It doesn’t matter whether it’s played for laughs on stage or it plays out in real life. There’s a thin line between humor and hurt.

“I never get tired of the show,” said Natalia. “The ex and the girls do a great job portraying everyone, our emotions, all we’ve been through. It’s happened to me, when you’re dumped for no reason, or it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve definitely heard that one before, and I’ve totally said it, too.”

Behind the bar she hears what everyone has to say about “Bittergirl”. When a case of nerves orders a cocktail she mixes up a Coward. “The moms, maybe when they’ve had one too many, remember ordering pizza, eating their feelings. It’s just heartbreak.”

One day can be sweet as can be and the next day bitter as all get out. “You don’t know if you should laugh or cry,” said Natalia. Everyone has their share of heartbreak. If you’re singing about it, you’ve lived it. Natalia Agon has lived it and sung along with songs about it, but isn’t recording a full album of it.

Whenever bitterness tries to get in on the act, she offers it a Magic Man. “That’s my favorite,” she said. The Magic Man is a south of the border blend of Kahlua, Pepsi, milk, and crème de cacoa.

Sometimes when husbands and boyfriends are at the bar at the Mack at intermission getting drinks for wives and girlfriends, but can’t remember what they want, she suggests they “go check with the boss.”

She’s not a bitter girl.

 

Selfie by Natalia Agon

Down the Bay Boys

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“I’m going up the country, babe, don’t you wanna go…”  Canned Heat

“We’re always around here,” said Denver McCabe, casting a glance over the chairs and tables on the deck on the sparkling dark water.

Carr’s Oyster Bar is on the New London Bay, in Stanley Bridge, on Prince Edward Island, the Atlantic Canada province where Canada happened about 150 years ago. Opened in 1999, from the deck, kicking back with a pint on a summer day, you can see the wharf across the bay where oysters are landed.

They’re shucked when you order them, served with a fresh lemon slice, or you can order clams, mussels, quahogs. Last year the restaurant won the Restaurants Canada Shellfish Excellence Award. “I’m happy to showcase the best shellfish in the world,” said Phyllis Carr.

When she slides a sharp knife into an oyster and pries it apart at the hinge it’s “hoping that it’s the best one ever.”

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” said Jonathan Swift. Life is too short to not have oysters. But, they are best eaten with friends family anybody somebody else. Although oysters keep themselves to themselves, they’re a weird thing to eat by yourself.

Native North Americans harvested them for thousands of years. In the 19th century New York City was filled with oyster saloons. Today no oysters anywhere taste as good as those found on the north shore of PEI.

Denver McCabe and Brenden Carr are ten-year-old boys born and bred on Prince Edward Island. Until recently both lived in Stanley Bridge, a small town of fewer than 300 on the north central coast of the island on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “He swarms me when I come home from Edmonton,” said Denver. “I go to his house every day.”

They have spent all of their summers on the New London Bay, along the Stanley River, and making the scene daily on the deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar. ”We grew up together,” said Brenden. “He’s my best friend.”

You can’t make anybody be your best friend. Denver and Brenden have known each other since they were tykes. What do you do with your best friend when you’re both ten-years-old? A good time doing a whole lot of nothing, eyeing and gabbing about everything, cruising doing me, making fish faces, making mischief, making your summer jump, and jumping rocks.

“Most of the time we go on the rocks,” said Denver. “That’s how I get my energy up.”

The riverbank and along the shoreline are protected by piled rocks, riprap revetments.

“We go to my house and play on the trampoline, too,” said Brenden.

“I do flips,” said Denver. “I know how.”

“On the rocks we do hard core technical stuff. We jump rock to rock. He challenges me,” said Brenden.

“Sometimes I jump from one rock to the third one,” said Denver.

“So do I. I never fall down.”

“Me neither,” said Denver. “The other day I fell. Did I fall?”

“Unless you were faking me,” said Brenden.

Even though they are not yet preteens, they talk like old friends, which is the same as thinking out loud. Sometimes their thoughts are like toppings that can’t always be fathomed into a pizza.

“I fell once or twice, probably. It was because I jumped from one rock to a far, far one. I just got back up.”

Many people do all their playing when they’re children, all their working when they’re grown up, and all their retiring and regretting when they reach old age. When you play, no matter how old you are, you can be a kid as long as you want. Just watch out for the rocks.

“He jumps off the bridge,” said Brenden.

The Route 6 main street bridge crosses the Stanley River at the New London Bay. On one side of the bridge is Carr’s Oyster Bar and on the other side of the bridge is the Race Trac gas station and Sterling Women’s Institute community hall. Jumping off the bridge thirty feet into the bay is summertime chill in Stanley Bridge.

“We go to the bridge and tell them to jump, hurry up, don’t be scared,” said Denver. “I did it when I was eight. They’re teenagers, but they’re scared.”

“They never jump when we tell them,” said Brenden.

“I jump with my crush, Jess,” said Denver. “She’s a waitress here at Carr’s.”

“She’s my crush, too.”

“I got engaged to her,” said Denver.

“Me, too,” said Brenden.

“Whenever we tap our cheeks she has to come over and give us a kiss on the cheek.”

They tapped with their index fingers, the both of them. Jessica Gillis, twice their age and more than a foot taller than the boys, walked over to where they were warming seats at a table on the deck on the bay eating nachos and sipping from childproof Shirley Temples.

They looked up. “Oh, my God, now what?” said Jessica, looking down at them. It was like The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

They tapped their cheeks again.

“No,” she said.

Even though both boys are in love with Jess, they don’t actually hang out with her. It’s not complicated. Most boys don’t like girls hanging around when they’re doing their own boy things.

“I never jump the bridge,” said Brenden. “I can’t swim.”

“I learned when I was four,” said Denver.

“I took lessons for a year,” said Brenden. “But, I don’t like people bossing me around.”

“It’s kind of weird because he lives right beside the water,” said Denver.

“I almost floated away,” said Brenden.

“It was a windy day and it blew his splash meter away,” said Denver. “He was trying to get it, but the wind blew him away, too.”

“I went to where it was just to my cheeks.”

“He needed my help, but I couldn’t swim fast because there were oyster traps everywhere.”

“My brother and dad were there, but then they went on their boat,” said Brenden.

“He stayed in the water and it became fine,” said Denver.

Brenden’s father David Carr is an oysterman. “He has his own boat. He catches eels, too. When he goes eel fishing he goes with his brother Stan.”

Eels are nocturnal, hiding during the day. Fishermen hunt them at night. Few fish put up the fight that a good-sized eel does. An eel held by the tail is not necessarily caught, yet. They can swim backwards as well as forwards.

“We went to the sand and I got a bad, bad sunburn,” said Brenden.

“Same with me, on the same day.”

“Yeah, but mine was worse.”

“That’s why you didn’t catch Jacob.”

“He’s sketchy,” said Brenden, making a face.

“He said my friends run away because of my ugly face. That pissed me off. I ran after him and pushed him. He ran to the park where there was a booth set up for Canada Day and got under it. I couldn’t bend down because my back was burnt from the sunburn. I would have given him a big one.”

After his sunburn got better Brenden had a tattoo of a barcode airbrushed across his chest during the Canada Day parade festivities concert fireworks. “It’s because I’m funny talented a good actor good singer good dancer and handsome and beautiful.”

Denver had a red maple leaf airbrush tattooed on his cheek. “I’m hot,” he said, looking out from under the brim of his bright orange Bass Pro Shop baseball cap.

“When I walk into a sauna I make it even hotter.”

“Dreams, Denver, dreams,” said Brenden.

Trying to tag along with the stream of consciousness of ten-year-olds can be like trying to play putt putt during an earthquake.

Lucy Maud Montgomery, who grew up on PEI and wrote Anne of Green Gables a hundred-or-so years ago, wrote that Stanley Bridge “used to seem quite a town to my childish eyes. It was the hub of the universe then – or of our solar system at the very least.”

“Brenden and I are cousins,” said Denver.

“My great-uncle, Granny Phyllis’s husband, is his grandfather,” said Brenden.

“Phyllis was my cousin before she married, so I’m related to Denver both ways.”

“My grandpa is a Carr and Granny Gallant was a Doiron before she changed to Gallant,” said Denver. “Everybody in Granny’s family was a Gallant. My grandfather was Tommy Gallant. He found the Marco Polo. He’s famous on the island. He’s famous in heaven now.”

“He’s my great-uncle,” said Brenden, “I took dancing from him.”

Given enough time and left to their own genealogical devices they would likely conjure everyone on the island a cousin in the 9th degree and discover a common ancestor in steerage on the St. Jehan, one of the first passenger ships sailing to the New World in the 1630s.

“We’re from here,” said Suzanne McCabe, Denver’s mother. “Cory, my husband, is from Rustico. We moved to Edmonton for the work. My grandmother and Brenden’s grandmother are sisters and my dad and his grandfather are brothers.”

The first to land on PEI were the French, who called it Isle St. Jean. They fished for cod and traded for furs. The first settlers were Acadians. After the Seven Years War it was re-named Prince Edward Island. Scots, English, and Irish emigrants sailed to the British colony and built their own close-knit communities. Doirin and Gallant are Acadian surnames. McCabe and Carr are English Irish Scottish surnames.

Some Acadians speak English with a French accent, even though, for one reason or another, they no longer speak French.

“When I wake up I go on my phone, track what time it is, eat breakfast, and brush my teeth,” said Denver.

“I don’t have a phone. Sometimes I have your phone in my pocket,” said Brenden.

“It’s dead,” said Denver.

“I was cranky this morning. My brother woke me up early. I usually get up at six, but there’s no school anymore,” said Brenden.

Denver and Brenden help out at Carr’s Oyster Bar peeling potatoes and washing windows.

“I do everything,” said Denver.

“I help my father get fish,” said Brenden.

“Me and Brenden used to go to the sand dunes and collect hermit crabs,” said Denver. “But, he hasn’t come to his job, the last time was a year ago.”

“Me?”

The most freedom most people ever have is when they misspend most of their free time as children.

“More than a year ago, actually.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Brenden.

“You’ve never come since you handed out menus and got no money.”

“I got paid five dollars and I got another five dollars when you won the 50/50.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Denver. “My aunt is religious and prayed to win the 50/50. When she did she gave me some of it and I gave some to him.”

“Do you remember when I peeled the carrots in the shed?” asked Brenden.

“Look at my muscles,” said Denver, flexing a bicep.

“You don’t have any.”

“I definitely feel something on my arm. What do you think this is?” said Denver, pointing.

“Is that like a pimple?” asked Brenden.

Denver McCabe is an aspiring hockey player in Edmonton, Alberta, playing for the Mellwood Icebreakers. “I might go to Double A soon,” he said. “It depends on how good I am. My team wasn’t good. They wouldn’t pass the puck, so I was the one who had to pass the most.”

Brendan Carr has studied judo and plays ball hockey. “On my own time, not with a team,” he said. “I played soccer, too, once.” The kicking heading game is beyond the pale. If God had wanted boys to play soccer he wouldn’t have made them with arms.

Brenden is a step dancer, like soccer got done sans hands. Step dance is a dance style in which footwork is by far the most important part of the performance. At ceilidhs in community halls across Prince Edward Island it is accompanied by toe-tapping fiddle tunes.

“Tommy Gallant taught me,” he said.

“But, I mostly taught myself. I was in a class for a year and then I watched and followed Robbie, who’s my uncle. I dance at all of my Uncle Leon’s music shows at the hall. I don’t dance at every one of his concerts, just every one when I’m there. I’ve never been to one since I was four-years-old that I haven’t danced up on stage.”

“I never get called up on stage,” said Denver.

“That’s because you never ask,” said Brenden.

“I asked Leon once, he said yes, but he didn’t even call me up.”

When they’re not jumping rocks, step dancing, or trying to cadge kisses from waitresses, they spend some of the summer at summer camps. Denver goes to a Bible camp in Malpeque and Brenden goes to a rock-n-roll camp in Charlottetown.

“My first son slept in a surplus Canadian Army tent,” said Suzanne McCabe. “He never went back to camp ever again.”

“Denver doesn’t like rock,” said Brenden.

“We were all at the beach, everybody had matching towels, somebody went under a dock, and there they saw a rock, it wasn’t a rock, it was a rock lobster, rock lobster, rock lobster…”

“I only like pop and country,” said Denver.

“Ain’t much an old country boy like me can’t hack, it’s early to rise, early in the sack, thank God I’m a country boy…”

Brenden probably wouldn’t mind being the lead guitarist in a wildly successful rock-n-roll band. He has a guitar. But, he doesn’t play it. He sings. “I do like to sing,” he said. “I only get nervous when I have to sing in front of my friends.”

“KISS is the worst band ever,” said Denver.

“I listen to KISS a lot,” said Brenden.

When Canada Day finally got dark on July 1st and they craned their necks to watch fireworks exploding over the harbor in nearby North Rustico, Denver and Brenden had two more months of summer to spend in Stanley Bridge before going back to school.

It’s only when you’re still a kid and the long summer is still stretching out in front of you that doing practically nothing all day becomes respectable.

“Are you going to the barbeque?” Brenden asked the next day.

“I’ll probably go with you,” said Denver. “Where is it?”

“It’s right here. Stanley Bridge is a wonderful place. I can see trees and the church from our kitchen window,” said Brenden.

The hub of the universe, re-mixed.

“I like the water. I like walking in it. Everyone should come to Carr’s Oyster Bar, where we are, sometimes, when we’re around here, if you live close,” said Denver. “It’s beside the main road.”

Water is always trying to get back to where it came from.

“Have fun and love life,” said Brenden, with a chuck of the head over his sleeveless t-shirted shoulder, as he and Denver ran off jumping rocks keeping their energy up for the rest of the summer.

 

Photograph by April Carr

Breathing Room

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If you can breathe, then it’s working.” Lemony Snicket

Many actors swear by yoga, from Matthew McConaughey to Naomi Watts to Robert Downey, Jr., because acting is largely a movement art and yoga on the mat is mostly about body awareness. Unless the role is Frankenstein or you’re Vin Diesel, more wooden than a talking tree isn’t usually in the script.

When Russell Brand dedicated himself to Kundalini Yoga he said, “these things are right good for the old spirit.” Gwyneth Paltrow wakes up every morning at 4:30 to practice, according to People Magazine. “It kind of prepares you for everything, honestly,” said Jennifer Aniston.

God knows, Iron Man could use all the yoga he can get.

Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame superstar dancer singers plug in to the practice, too. Madonna has unrolled her mat down the aisle of jumbo jets. The spectacle of the Queen of Pop in down dog pose is worth the plane fare, given that the average ticket price to one of her shows is upwards of $400.00.

Even though yoga is great for mobility stability control, it doesn’t always work out according to plan. When the singer Rod Stewart was trying a beginner’s balancing pose at home, he lost his balance and fell into a fireplace. “Surely, if God had meant us to do yoga,” he said afterwards, ”he’d have put our heads behind our knees.”

Not many yoga teachers swear by acting. They usually swear about you not being your authentic self, pretending to be somebody else. One of the eight limbs of the practice is all about self-observation. In some respects all of the practice is designed to be an expression of your true self.

Bryde MacLean, a native of Prince Edward Island, an Atlantic Canada province, is an actor and a Moksha Yoga teacher. Two Canadian teachers founded the practice in 2004, focusing on strength, therapeutic flexibility, and calming the mind. It is in the vein of hot yoga, although not as hot as Bikram Yoga, nor as rigid in its sequencing.

“It’s built with the long-term health of your spine in mind,” said Bryde.

Moksha Yoga, which means freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth, is environmentally active, one of its pillars of purpose being ‘Live Green’, and active in its communities, as well. There are more than 70 studios, most of them in Canada. They offer weekly karma classes with all the profits, currently more than $3 million, going to groups supporting human rights and holistic health.

“I was 21-years-old, working in a bar, hanging with my friends, having a lot of anxiety”, said Bryde. “Ryerson University had turned down my application. My sister recommended yoga. I had never taken a class in my life. Tara was dating Ted Grand, and he recommended it, too.” Ted Grand, her future brother-in-law, was at the time creating what became Moksha Yoga.

Bryde MacLean took her first class in the basement of a church in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. “It was myself and a bunch of women who were much older than me, in a definitely not heated space. We did lots of slow breathing and long stretches. It was a powerful experience. I decided I could get behind that.”

When Ted Grand offered her the opportunity to join his team and go to Thailand for yoga teacher training, she made sure she didn’t miss the team bus. “I wanted to travel and I wanted a skill I could travel with. I jumped right into the hot room. I loved it.”

She taught full-time in Toronto for a year before moving to Montreal, where she also taught, as well as attending Concordia University. “I had a full course load, but I wanted to study what I’m passionate about, so I applied to Ryerson again, and got in.”

Ryerson is a public university in Toronto, its downtown urban campus straddled by the Discovery District and Moss Park, focusing on career-oriented education. Bryde Maclean enrolled in the 4-year Performance Acting program. Long before she wanted to be a yoga teacher she had wanted to be an actor. She was scripting performing directing shows from the time she was six.

“We’d haul out Halloween costumes and my parent’s old clothes and dress up. We’d write fantastical stories and use construction paper to build our sets.” She and her friends play acted in garages, attics, and basements. Her parents encouraged her.

“They inspired me.”

Her parents were Sharlene MacLean and Bill McFadden. Her mother was pregnant with Bryde the summer of 1984 at the same time she was stage-managing ‘Blythe Spirit’ at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown. As an actor Sharlene MacLean has played the maniacal Lady MacBeth in ‘Macbeth’ and the prattling Minnie Pye in ‘Anne of Green Gables’, working on stage and on film, working around the births of her four children.

Her father worked and performed long and often at the Victoria Playhouse. Victoria is a seacoast village on the south shore of Prince Edward Island. “I spent a lot of time in that theater as a little person,” said Bryde “My dad and I lived in the building down the street that is now the Chocolate Factory.”

Her parents played the aging couple in ‘On Golden Pond’ in 2012 at the Victoria Playhouse. They had both starred in ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ during the theater’s first season in 1982, thirty years earlier. “I had never seen them on stage together, not as an adult,” said Bryde.

By the time she graduated from Ryerson University in 2011 she was teaching other people how to be yoga teachers. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I started, other than enough about teaching classes myself and being a good listener,” said Bryde. She became Manager of Yoga Teacher Trainings for Moksha International for 3 years.

“I dove into that. There’s a big community vibe. It pushed me to learn how to do things I didn’t consider myself capable of.”

2011 was a big year in more ways that one. She graduated with a BFA, got a full-time job, and got married, too. Jeremie Saunders, her boyfriend fiancée husband-to-be, was in the same class in the same program in the same university as her. One thing led to another. After graduation he trained to become a Moksha Yoga teacher.

“So, there we are, we do all the same things,” said Bryde.

They do all the same things, but with a difference. Yoko Ono once said the most important thing in life was, “Just breathe.” When Bryde wakes up in the morning she breathes free and easy. When her husband wakes up in the morning it’s with the thought, at least I’m still breathing.

Born with cystic fibrosis, Jeremie Saunders is in a lifelong fight with the inherited life-threatening disease. It is a genetic disorder that mostly affects the lungs. Infections and inflammation lead to a host of problems. 70 years ago, if you were born with it, you were likely to die within the year.

Even today, while cystic fibrosis has been made livable, there is no cure. No matter exercise regimens treatments antibiotics, median survival is less than 50 years. “I’m living with this terminal illness,” said Jeremie. “I know that my life expectancy is significantly shorter than most people.”

Two years ago he ran an idea for a new podcast by two of his friends. A month later they recorded their first episode of ‘Sickboy’. The podcast is about the day-to- day of living with an illness. Four months later it officially launched and three months after that it was included on iTune’s Best of 2015 list.

Although it is the essence of innovation to fail most of the time, when time is of the essence it’s better to succeed as soon as possible.

“It’s a comedy podcast,” said Bryde. “It’s laughing about the absurdities that happen when you’re sick, all the embarrassing and difficult things people usually don’t talk about.”

“I’ve always been a fan of honesty,” said Jeremie. All good comedy comes from a place of honesty. He doesn’t try to keep the beach ball underwater. “Every time I would talk to someone about being sick, this fog of awkwardness would fall over the conversation. It’s empowering to drop that, let it go, and not feel confined or chained down by your circumstance.”

Living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, teaching Moksha Yoga, co-starring in short films by Tiny Town Media, in early 2015 Bryde spied a last minute casting call for a summer show in Charlottetown. “I was lucky to see that.” She landed the role of the mom in ‘Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad’ in the Studio 1 Theatre at the Confederation Centre. She and the show were a hit. “Sets, characters, director score a hat trick,” wrote The Guardian in its review.

“Bryde MacLean says much with her guarded, often wordless reactions, like a smile tucked into her shoulder.” It was her first professional appearance on stage.

When actors unroll their mats it’s to learn to control movement. It helps them be more aware of where their physical bodies are in space and the dynamics of change in that space. “Yoga helps me get very present with my body and what’s going on with it,” said Jennie Olson Six, who is, like Bryde MacLean, an actor and yoga teacher.

It also helps develop command over one’s breath. But, that kind of command can be a double-edged sword.

“Yoga helps, definitely, as an actor But, I think in some ways, because I did my yoga training before my actor training, it has hindered me.”

Actors practice breath control so that they can manipulate the range, volume, and speed of their speaking. They might breathe in to the count of four, just like in yoga classes, but when they exhale they do it through their teeth with an sssssss sound. When they come back to four they cut the exhale crisply. It’s a way of practicing ending speech on an exact syllable, making it toe the mark.

When it doesn’t, sometimes actors will flap their lips, making a brrrrrrr sound.

“When you breathe in yoga it’s to create a steady, measured breath, focusing on it, calming your nervous system,” said Bryde. “You don’t want that when you’re acting. You want your breath connected to your voice. When you breathe to speak you want your breath to come from a place that’s connected to your impulse. Yoga is about observing your impulses, but not reacting. Acting is reacting.”

In Shakespeare’s day acting was called a performance of deeds. It’s the same today. “Acting is reacting in my book,” said Morgan Freeman. Where actors want to go in their work, even though they’ve walked through it a hundred times, is to express feeling by following an instinct, not by controlling it. Magic on film and stage is created, not by staying in the rehearsal hall, but by being in the moment.

“You need to have a cool head, however, not get caught up in whatever you’re working on, and go off into another dimension and never return,” said Bryde.

“Yoga has been good for me in terms of focus, my ability to concentrate, and be able to handle my anxiety. It keeps my feet on the ground. It rebalances my body, too, which is the only thing I have to work with.”

While at Ryerson University she played King Richard the 2nd in a student production. “He’s a hunchback, crooked. After two hours of him every day I had to balance out that side of me. Maintaining a healthy body is a super important thing for a performer. Otherwise, you end up with injuries.”

She went back to her roots in 2016, appearing in ‘Blythe Spirit’ at the Watermark Theatre on Prince Edward Island. It was her second professional appearance on stage. It was the same show her mother managed on the same island thirty-two years earlier when she was carrying her daughter-to-be. If anyone was ever born to play one of the leads in the Noel Coward play it was Bryde MacLean.

That same summer her husband starred in the comedy ‘The Melville Boys’ at the Victoria Theatre, the theater she had roamed explored left no stone unturned as a tyke. The Watermark Theatre seats about a hundred people. The Victoria Playhouse seats about fifty more than that.

Spectacle sells, splashy musicals, casts driven by stars. But, small gatherings at indie theaters can have a big impact. Little theaters, summer stock, some in your own backyard, often have big talent. “Bryde MacLean has probably the most difficult role to play – the straight woman – and she carries it like a pro,” wrote theater critic Colm Magner. “She has great fun combusting before our eyes later in the play.”

“I love small, intimate performances,” said Bryde. “I like to be right in there with the audience.” It works for her because she often works in film. “I tend to be a little smaller in my performance size. You can do the subtlest things, so subtle, but so real.”

She kept up her practice all summer at a Moksha studio in Charlottetown, taking bar classes, a mixture of ballet, pilates, and yoga. “I love it, but it kicks my butt.”

There are many reasons people take up yoga, among them stress relief, flexibility, and physical fitness. “They come to yoga to get a cute butt, but you can’t escape all the other benefits of it,” said Bryde. “They stay because they get more mindful, awake, in touch a little bit more.” If they stick with it, the reasons for doing yoga change. The focus shifts from the physical body to the subtle body. Almost 70% of people and 85% of teachers say they have a change of heart over time, changing their focus to self-actualization and spirituality.

“Their buns still get really tight,” she added with a teacher’s keen eye.

After ‘Blythe Spirit’ closed Bryde worked on a 5-week shoot of a horror film called ‘But What Are You Really Afraid Of’. She wasn’t an actor in a trailer waiting to be called for her next scene. She was one of the workers who serviced the trailer. “A craft services job takes care of all the food on the set, the crew that does the dirty work,” she said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Although she continues to teach Moksha Yoga in Halifax, and continues acting, on stage and film, she is writing a screenplay for a feature film, producing a play she hopes to get on the road in 2018, and has launched another new podcast with her husband.

‘Turn Me On’ is a show based on sharing the couple’s sex life with others through interviews, candid conversations, and discussions about sexual orientation. “I don’t need crazy shock value to be interested,” said Bryde. In any case, guests on the podcast are free to talk about their sex lives “whether they’re whacky or not.”

“We are definitely having conversations that feel taboo,” said Jeremie Saunders.

Franklin Veaux, an author and sex educator, believes that what Bryde and Jeremie are doing is doing their audience a good service. “Sexual shame undermines people’s happiness and self-esteem, prevents them from being able to understand what they need and advocate for it and hinders intimacy,” he said.

Although ‘Turn Me On’ is not necessarily about heavy breathing, sex has always been a bestseller. It is often more exciting on stage and screen than it is between the sheets, but it is still emotion in motion, and a big part of nature and human nature. “I couldn’t have imagined we’d have over 12,000 listeners so quickly. It’s very cathartic for me.”

If it is about anything, yoga is about slowing down, slowing down your breath, your body, and your brain. It’s been said once you slow down you will connect with your heart. As many irons that Bryde MacLean has in the fire is enough to take your breath away.

“I wrestle with attachment and detachment,” she said.

Although detachment is a linchpin of yoga, nobody ever sincerely does it without a strong feeling of attachment to doing it. Almost everything we do is invented, so that detachment can be a kind of freedom. But, getting on the mat or breathwork or meditation is about involvement. Pattabhi Jois, who created Ashtanga Yoga a generation ago, on which most of today’s yoga is based, once said it is 99% practice and 1% theory. ,

“Lazy people can’t practice yoga,” he pointed out.

The way to get started is to get going get doing, opening doors, working hard at work worth doing. “I’m casting a net out for a bunch of potential opportunities. What matters is doing what you’re passionate about,” said Bryde MacLean.

Not much is ever accomplished without energy and passion, but to get anywhere you have to act it out.

“When you are inspired by some extraordinary project all your thoughts break their bounds and you discover yourself to be a greater person than you ever dreamed yourself to be,” said Pattabhi Jois. “Just do and all is coming.”

Catching your breath will take care of itself.

The Second Anne Shirley

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“Many people think I was the first Anne, but I wasn’t,” said Gracie Finley.

Every summer for the past fifty-two years the musical ‘Anne of Green Gables’ has played on the main stage of the Homburg Theatre at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. The show is based on the 1908 best-selling book written by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

No show on London’s West End or on Broadway has been on the same stage for more seasons. It is not only Canada’s longest running smash hit, it’s the longest continuously running musical theater production in the world. Eighteen actors have played Anne Shirley since 1965.

“I was the second Anne, not the first. It’s an urban myth that I was the first, probably because I’m a local girl.”

Although Gracie Finley is a local girl, it is in the way that Anne Shirley, the red-haired orphan from Nova Scotia, hero of the story, is a local girl on Prince Edward Island.

“I’m an Islander,” said Gracie. “But, I was actually born, hold on to your hat, in Sheffield, Alabama.”

Her father was an American serviceman from Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, where there is a statue of James Finley, one of his forebears. The woodsman Daniel Boone came clean when he said, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” James Finley was one of the scouts who helped guide Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap in the 1790s.

Her mother was in the Canadian Armed Forces. They met in London, backstage at the Royal Albert Hall, during World War Two, at a fund-raising joint services concert. Fund-raising led to raising the roof and they married not long after.

In the 1940s Walnut Ridge was a farming community of fewer than three thousand. Croplands of grain, oilseeds, and dry peas were its chief commodities. Alberton, on the northwestern shore of Prince Edward Island, her mother’s hometown, in the 1940s was a silver fox farming community of fewer than a thousand.

“Alberton, those are my roots,” said Gracie.

After the war the newlyweds moved to the United States, to Walnut Ridge, to hot muggy summers and wet chilly winters. The closest ocean was nearly 500 miles away.

“My mom had a big problem moving to the south. She was a young girl from PEI. It was awful after the war. She just couldn’t stand what was going on there.”

Jim Crow had ruled in Arkansas since 1868 with the passage of laws segregating schools. By the turn of the century white primary law had been institutionalized, effectively disenfranchising the black vote. In 1957, after a Supreme Court ruling struck down so-called separate but equal education, the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division had to be mobilized to enforce the federal ruling in the state. The Ku Klux Klan to this day maintains its national office in Arkansas.

“It upset my dad, too. The decision was finally made. We were high-tailing it out of there.”

Gracie and her mother, although living in the south, had been spending their summers on Prince Edward Island through the 1950s. “She had to get away. We stayed at my grandparent’s farmhouse up in Alberton.” After pulling up stakes, moving nearly two thousand miles northeast, the family settled down to spring summer fall and Gulf of St. Lawrence winters on the island, winter being waiting for the next spring.

By 1965, when the newly-minted ‘Anne of Green Gables’ headlined the Charlottetown Festival for the first time, Gracie Finley had several years of small fry ballet classes under her belt, was experienced in grade school theatrics, but hadn’t yet founded the drama club at her high school-to-be. That summer she performed with the Circus Tent Theatre at the Confederation Centre.

“We did children’s productions in the afternoon. We didn’t get paid, but we could have jobs as ushers in the main theater at night.” She was thirteen-years-old. Chutzpah is something you either have or you don’t. “I saw the show from the first season. I snuck into rehearsals. I met Jamie Ray, a Texan who originated the role. She was the first Anne.”

The first Anne took an interest in the second Anne. “She went out of her way to talk to me, wanting to know what my plans were, always willing to lend me something, help me,” said Gracie.

The next year, 1966, the show’s co-creator Don Harron, who also wrote the musical’s script, sought Gracie Finley out after seeing her in a small local play.

“Do you sing or dance?” he asked.

“No, why?”

“Because you look like an orphan,” he said. She was five foot two and 100 pounds.

He suggested taking singing and dancing lessons. She took lessons and took on something like the likeness of an orphan. Actors said, she’s more of a dancer. Dancers said, no, she’s more like a singer. Singers said, no, you’re both wrong, she’s really an actor.

Two years later, in 1968, by then a triple threat, she took over the spotlight, becoming the youngest singer dancer actor to ever play the role of Anne Shirley, and the first of only two native Islanders to do so.

“It was pretty terrifying, I can tell you,” said Gracie.

She stayed in straw hat and red pigtails for seven summers. The show toured nationally in the off-season. In 1970 it went to Japan. The cast and crew shared a chartered plane with men from the RCMP Musical Ride. The ride is a choreographed spectacle performed by a full troop of 32 Royal Canadian Mounted Police riders and their horses.

“Strong drinks were flowing freely,” said Gracie. “No one could get any sleep as the noise level got higher. When we arrived I was deaf in one ear. I had to go to a doctor. He couldn’t speak English and I could only say hello goodbye and ice cream in Japanese.”

But, the show had to go on. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book was translated into Japanese in 1952, ‘Akage no An’ became a part of the country’s school curriculum, and remains improbably popular to this day. The show went on and was a hit.

Between seasons she got married. “I met Barry at a party in England. We’ve been married 47 years.” She gave birth to her first child. After the 1974 season, when her husband, Barry Stickings, a chemist working for the German multi-national BASF, was offered an opportunity to work in Germany, Gracie Finley Stickings was ready to go.

“I thought, my first child is nearly two. I didn’t have that child so someone else would see him stand up and walk and speak for the first time.” Besides giving up a social life, sleep, and losing track of the space-time continuum, actors often are forced to sacrifice their families. ‘I can’t, I have rehearsal,’ is a common refrain.

“I’m ready,” said Gracie.

After several years in Germany, and after several more years in Montreal, where Barry Stickings was next transferred, Gracie Finley got a phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Alan Lund, the artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival from 1966 to 1986. He invited her back to reprise ‘Anne of Green Gables’.

“I was 30ish, married, and had two children.” She thought about it for a second-or-two, and then said yes. She was back in pigtails in 1984. In 1985, her second and final year back, she became and remains, at 33-years-of-age, the oldest actor to play Anne Shirley. She was the youngest and the oldest. But, she wasn’t done setting records.

“I was going from one form of birth control to another. My doctor told me to watch myself, because it might take awhile for the changeover. I said, la, la, la, nothing’s going to happen.”

Instead of exercising restraint she exercised. What happened was she got pregnant right away.

“I sat down in front of our producer, Jack McAndrew, who always called me Miss Gables. Jack, I said, I have something to tell you.”

He looked her in the face. “You’re having a baby.”

“How did you know?”

“We have three kids. I know the look.” She became the first the last the only pregnant Anne Shirley, breaking new ground in the world of Avonlea.

“They said I could still pass for the petite orphan girl.” She was excused, however, from jumping off tables. An understudy played the matinees. “Toward the end of the run, at seven months along, the costumes were getting tighter and tighter.”

In 1985 Gracie Finley hung up her straw hat and her career on stage. The Stickings moved back to Germany and bought a house. “We went through all the rigamarole, lots of red tape. They have to put a stamp on everything.” As soon as they settled down Barry Stickings was transferred to New Jersey.

“We lived up in the hills, outside Morristown, where there are lots of horses. I love horses. My father wanted me to be a ballerina. He would put on classical music and I’d spin around. But, I was in love with Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey.” Rogers and Autrey were singing cowboys on the radio, in the movies, and on TV. “I told my father I wanted to be a cowboy.”

Daniel Boone, with whom the family has a kindred spirit, once offered the counsel, “All you need for happiness is a good wife, a good gun, and a good horse.”

In 1996 they moved to the UK. “When my husband got the opportunity we said, we have to, we just have to. I was thrilled. We love England.” They bought a house outside of Oxford with a large garden and stables. The house was nearly 400 years old, originally the Woodsman’s Inn.

“Our part of the country is where they first started turning chair legs.” Her part of the country is what were once the forests of Shotover, Stowood, and Wychwood. Shotover Forest, nearest to where they live, supplied wood by royal decree for both fuel and building from the time of Henry III. Turners shaped legs with chisels and gouges while spinning them on a lathe.

They lived in England, their children growing up, but often returned to Prince Edward Island. “We came summers, and after my mom died, and my aunts got too old for us to stay with them, we bought a year-round cottage in Stanley Bridge.”

Stanley Bridge is a small town west of Cavendish on the north shore. It is known for the Sterling Women’s Community Hall, the New London Bay, and the bridge on Route 6 over the Stanley River. When the weather is good, sitting on the waterfront deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar, you can watch kids jump off the Stanley Bridge the thirty thrill feet down into the bay.

The thrill is in the scariness.

“We’re right across the bay from Carr’s,” said Gracie. “There’s a small lagoon, a swampy place, which is great because we get all sorts of birds and wildlife.”

One day she got another phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Duncan McIntosh, director of the Charlottetown Festival and soon-to-be artistic director of the new Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, 12 minutes on Route 6 from Stanley Bridge.

He invited her to dinner. She knew what was coming. He had been dropping hints.

“So Gracie, I’ve been looking at doing Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’, but set on PEI in the 1970s,” said Duncan. “What would you think of playing the lead?”

“I went home and thought, why not?” said Gracie.

“Aren’t you afraid to come back?” her friends asked her.

“I think it does you good to give yourself a healthy scare. I wasn’t frightened so much as I was excited. I fell in love with Russian literature when I was a teenager. It’s when you’re going through the terror you get right into it. I love Chekov. That’s how Duncan reeled me in.”

If ever stranded on a desert island, she said, she would make sure to have an iPod that never died, an endless supply of food, and lots of Russian novels.

Twenty-eight years after leaving the stage Gracie Finley was back on the stage, not in just one play, but in two plays at the same time at the Watermark Theatre. One was ‘The Shore Field’ by Duncan McIntosh, inspired by Anton Chekhov, and the other one was ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

“It’s like riding a bicycle. You get up there and start pedaling,” she said.

“I played the Queen of Hearts. Off with your head! She is just so preposterous. But, I had a dynamite costume.”

It was dynamite until she actually had to don the poofed panniered straightjacket dress and move around in it. “It took two people to get me in and out of it. When I went up to the balcony to play the judge, there’s a narrow part of the staircase, where I really had to push to get up those stairs.”

It’s been said, never look backward, you’ll fall down the stairs.

In the 1960s, when repertory theater was going strong, Gracie Finley specialized. In the age of specialization, when repertory is fading away, she jumped feet first into repertory. “It’s a big challenge finding two plays where you can cross cast people. You become close very quickly, become a family. It’s chemistry.”

The Homburg Theatre, home of ‘Anne of Green Gables’, seats more than a thousand on two levels. The Watermark Theatre, a member of the Professional Theatre Network of PEI, is small, seating a handful more than a hundred. “Doing live theater, in a small theater like this, is like no other experience. It’s a smaller version of the Stratford stage. The audience is inches away from us. We feel that energy.”

Last year, her 4th season there, she played the jolly hockeysticks Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ and the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield in the memory play ‘The Glass Menagerie’ by Tennessee Williams.

“This is going to take a lot of energy,” she said while rehearsing in early June. “And, I have to say, I am very tired at the moment, very tired. I have to take a nap.”

Many people get snappish if they’re not well rested. A short afternoon snooze means waking up fresh again. It also means you end up with two mornings in a day, although not necessarily a second plate of Mussels Benedict.

This year, returning to the Watermark for her 5th season, Gracie Finley is playing the wild-evening-of-romance Ethel Banks in Neil Simon’s ‘Barefoot in the Park’ and the imperious Kitty Warren in George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’.

“The best part about being here is that I’ve gotten to play some of the best roles in theater for a woman my age.”

When women actors reach about 50-years-of age they discover auditions are suddenly looking for a younger version of you. Age and gender matter on stage. There is a trove of plays, starting with the male-heavy Shakespeare, featuring men over 50. There is a scattering of plays featuring women over 50.

“Let’s face it, the roles get fewer and fewer for older women,” said Gracie.

Nevertheless, the roles keep rolling up to her doorstep.

“There’s nothing like the first day of rehearsals,” she said. “We sit around a big table, the cast, production people, and the director. We see a model of the set and sketches of the wardrobes. We take a break, get a cup of coffee, and read through the script.

“The rehearsal period is always one step forward, two steps back, you have a good day, and then think I don’t know what I did today. You get going again, you get to the stage, where you think, I think we’re getting there. It’s about a group who start to gel. It’s about taking an author’s idea, voicing that idea, and making it a reality.”

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance,” said George Bernard Shaw.

Gracie Finley raised her family off stage. Even still, they were the kind of family that didn’t look at her like she was crazy whenever she broke into song and dance. After she got back on stage they were the kind of family that made her feel less crazed whenever her script director stagecraft weren’t making sense.

The theater for many actors is a second family, which is what happens after twelve-hour rehearsals and sharing the fear of opening night. Remember your lines and don’t freeze up stiff as a board. You can’t choose your family, on or off stage, but you can choose to make magic with them.

“I feel very lucky to be back working again,” she said.

“Our little stage, it’s so immediate. It’s electric.”

When most people are getting home for dinner, or getting ready to go out to dinner and a show, Gracie Finley is making the scene punching in to work, lifting words off a printed page and by lights make-up wardrobe dialogue action making them into a show, an electric thrill up and down the spine, the first time and time in hand until the curtain call.

 

Photograph by Andrea Surich

Near and Far

Sauve Photo

Prince Edward Island, the smallest Canadian province, is off the Atlantic Canada coast in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, east of New Brunswick and north of Nova Scotia. Its land mass is less than 2200 square miles. Victoria, a village on the southern edge of the island on the Northumberland Straight, isn’t measured in square miles. It is measured in square feet.

Six months of the year, from about the middle of spring to the about the middle of autumn, Olivier Sauve, who was born and bred and lives and works in Victoria, spends almost all of his time inside those square feet.

“I don’t go far,” he said. “I might go to the liquor store once a week, do a pick-up, and if Doug and Rachel need a day off, I’ll do the food run.” Rachel is his sister and Doug is her boyfriend. The pick-ups and runs for food and drink are for the family business.

“I’m working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. I go from the house to the restaurant and from there back to the house. Sometimes I go to the post office.”

Olivier’s parents, Julia, a Manhattanite, and Eugene, a Quebecois, met and married on PEI, opening the Landmark Café catty-corner to the Victoria Theatre 28 years ago, when he was six.

“I grew up in Victoria, played ball hockey, jumped off the wharf, ate dirt all summer. We’ve got everything here, friends, neighbors, home.”

The other six months of the year Olivier goes globetrotting. The earth is 197 million square miles, which is too many square feet to try counting. Over the past 15 years the 34-year-old Olivier Sauve has bussed boated walked the length and breadth of 52 countries. “I know because I can name them all,“ he said.

“I’m a good counter, too.”

In 2015 he hiked from southern to northern Spain and then pivoted west to Portugal. He walked almost a thousand miles in 40 days, averaging close to the equivalent of a marathon every day.

“I’m into walking, hiking, being outside,” he said. “I’ve hiked the Andes, the Himalayas, Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka.”

He stopped in San Lorenzo in central Spain for the hot springs and dinner.

“The thermal spring baths in the middle of the town have been flowing out of a mountain for 2000 years,” he said. ”There was a pizzeria around the corner from my hostel. After walking 20, 25 miles, there’s nothing like a big pizza.”

“It’s the way you ride the trail that counts,” said the singing cowgirl Dale Evans.

Although at home Olivier’s days and nights are framed by village life and work, travel is in his blood. “We moved to Montreal when I was two, but then my parents bought a house here when I was three. Every winter we would visit mom’s family in New York City and dad’s family in Vancouver.”

The family went Canadian winters to Florida or Jamaica, too. “I made sure we went somewhere,” said Eugene Sauve.

“We’re not like some PEI families that have a thousand cousins in a 10 mile radius, said Olivier. “It’s just us, no cousins, aunts, or uncles on the island.”

Traveling is getting past what’s in plain sight, becoming alert to the secret strange out-of-the-way parade of the rest of the world. It’s going somewhere else that you find out that nearsightedness isn’t the great again agenda it’s cracked up to be.

“There’s one thing about traveling,” said Olivier. ”You don’t want to give people too much advice. Everybody’s got to make their own trip, their own experiences. You don’t want to go on somebody else’s trip.”

One traditional way of traveling is to make sure you see what you have gone to see. The other way is to see whatever it is you are seeing. The sightseers who circle around journey’s end often see the most because they’re always on the way. It’s not necessarily about stockpiling souvenirs, but about keeping watch, sea to shining sea.

“My parents continually traveled. My father has been all over the world. I remember laying around in Costa Rica when I was ten-years-old, saying to myself, I can’t wait until I turn 18 and can get that little book that says Canada Passport.”

After his parents separated Olivier’s mother moved to New Hampshire with the children. He went to five different schools in five years. “You don’t get to know people well, but you get to know yourself well,” he said. When they moved back to Prince Edward Island they moved back to Victoria. He started working at the Landmark Café no sooner than reaching thirteen.

“He’d get a bench, get up to the sink, and wash dishes,” said Eugene Sauve. “He wanted to do it.”

Like father, like son.

Eugene Sauve left home when he was 16, moving from Montreal to Vancouver “My first job was at a Greek restaurant, washing dishes. The owner was a macho man, always wore a brown jumpsuit and a Santa Claus belt, wife in a fur coat, dripping with jewelry.”

“Washing dishes should be a perquisite for life,” said Olivier. “If you were in a sweaty dish pit, everybody screaming and throwing greasy pans, that would suck. But, here, we have music playing, JR’s hair is blue this week, and everybody helps out.”

It isn’t possible for anyone to help everyone. At the Landmark Café everyone helps someone. The homegrown menu, meat pies, pasta, salad, down to the salad dressing, has long been recommended by ‘Where to Eat in Canada’.

“The restaurant business is awesome. It’s high-paced, fun, frustrating. It isn’t for everyone, not if you can’t multi-task, aren’t sociable, and don’t appreciate food. Food can be anything. If you’re going to make a cheeseburger, get some awesome meat, throw in some salt and pepper, and make an awesome cheeseburger.”

When he turned 19 Olivier Sauve flew overseas by himself for the first time.

“I took off for six months. Eugene met me in Bangkok, We went down to Vietnam and Cambodia together for a few weeks.” After they separated Eugene Sauve planned on going to Africa. But, a week later, Olivier was crossing a street in Ho Chi Minh City when a man crossing in his direction called out.

“Ollie!” he said.

“Dad!” said Olivier.

“After that dad went to Africa and I spent the next five months running around Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.”

The next winter, back on Prince Edward Island, Olivier enrolled at UPEI. “I was in for a couple of weeks, but I said, no, I don’t want to do this.” He and a friend began planning a trip to the far end of South America. Itinerant, rambling, backpacking, over the course of six months they traversed North and Central America.

While crossing the forest and swampland of the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia on foot an army patrol stopped them and sent them both back to Panama. They boarded an old boat. “It took us 18 days to make 150 kilometers.” Back on dry land on foot again they were picked up by an army patrol again, who this time escorted them over a mountain range into Colombia, warning them about rebel FARC forces.

“We had no problem,” said Olivier. “We don’t know if we saw any FARC. We don’t think we did, but if we did, they were the people giving us crackers and coconuts while we walked.” They made it as far as Ecuador.

Four years later Olivier flew back to Ecuador, to the same spot where he had stopped four years earlier, and bussed and backpacked to Tierra de Fuego. “When you take off like that,” he said, “every single day is brand new. I used to run away when I was a kid, for fun, knowing I’d be coming back, just to get lost.”

It’s an unfailing good idea to see more than you can remember.

Setting foot outside your house, even going to the grocery, is always at the crossroads of promise and peril. Anything can happen. You might find something yummy. You might stub your toe on the stairs. Going halfway around the world, suspecting what might and often does happen, some people go right back home.

Other people don’t worry about the potholes in the road. They cut the string on the tin can telephone, kicking the can down the street.

“For me, it’s a mosh pit. I’m going to jump,” said Olivier.

“I’ve been close to being robbed, been in accidents, been in an earthquake. I was taking pictures in Morocco when an old man made a fuss, got all his friends involved, and it turned into a big ordeal. The cops came, threw me into a no window unmarked van and took me to a no window concrete building.”

The police went through his camera. “They asked me my story ten times and finally just laughed it off. They let me go. I didn’t know where I was, so when I asked, they dropped me off at the beach. I’m good with orientation whenever I’m in a city on the water.”

When he started taking pictures he wasn’t a good photographer. “I’m still not the best photographer,” he said. What he is, camera-in-hand, is a good street photographer. Street photographers shoot unmediated encounters in public places. Olivier Sauve’s pictures are clean clear straightforward. He specializes in on-the-spot portraits.

“I get right up in there, so I can get the right shot, no holds barred, from prostitutes on a shitty side of town to someone’s face after they’ve just burnt the body of their husband and now want to jump in the fire with him.”

After photographing a festival in Kathmandu, Nepal, back on Prince Edward Island he had large-scale reproductions printed on canvas and installed a show at Victoria’s Lobster Barn. “It’s a big open room and they had all the wall space. It became a gallery. We sold some pictures.”

Many of his photographs have been assembled in a self-published book. “So many people I’ve known for years, they stop at the Landmark to eat, and ask me about my winter, where I went.” But, in the meantime, he has six or seven tables he is waiting, letting everyone know what the specials are, making sure the soup stays hot, mixing Mohito cocktails and tossing Caesar salads.

On top of that something might need to be suddenly washed, JR is doing something else, and the show at the Victoria Theatre across the street starts in an hour. “The book helps. Here’s where I did this, take a look through it.”

Flipping through his pictures of the Kumbh Mela, India’s festival of faith, where he mixed for a week with tens of millions of pilgrims, for whom a colossal temporary city of tents roads hospitals toilets police stations is constructed, diners soon find their drinks and seafood specials delivered and their questions answered.

One of Olivier’s favorite countries in the world is Spain. One of his favorite areas in Spain is northwestern Spain. His favorite aspect of northwestern Spain is the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, the pilgrimage routes that lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. He has hiked the Caminos a half-dozen times over the course of a half-dozen years.

“It’s religious, although some people do it for exercise, to just prove they can do it, or because they’re at a crossroads. It’s a beautiful walk. I make sure to pack light, but I’m still packing smarter than my last time.”

Two years ago a teacher from PEI’s Holland College, where Olivier graduated in 2008, contacted him about the Camino de Santiago. “We’re going on a study tour to Spain. I’d like to pick your brain,” he said. In the end Olivier became the group’s guide translator chaperone. He booked the busses, the hotels, and planned the route. Four teachers and he led a group of thirty students for two weeks from Madrid to Barcelona to Pamplona, and finally on to the Camino.

“No one got into trouble and no one got sick,” he said.

Olivier Sauve has made himself into an expert on the trails, hostels, and eateries of Spain. “I know where to find a chunk of bread, fish, dessert, a bottle of wine, and where to get to sleep by 9 o’clock.” He speaks the language and his two cents are worth their weight in Euros.

He has since started making plans to lead other groups on the Camino, but groups on a smaller scale, four five six people. One of his game plans is corporate team-building, bird-dogging businesspeople on an adventure travel trek. Another is path-finding youth-at-risk. “Kids who are screwed up, getting expelled from school, whose parents are done,” he said. “I would take them for a month and bring them back different, better.”

No matter where he has gone global-wide he has come back to Victoria. “I travel all over the world, where no one knows me, but I live in a tight-knit community where everybody knows me. This is home, our own little bubble.”

Olivier Sauve isn’t somebody who sits at home, but home is where everybody feels most at home.

He bought a lot in town last year and plans on building his own house in the next couple of years. “I’m a Victoria villager, finally, after thirty years.” After being by-passed by the Tran-Canada Highway in the 1980s, and slowly but surely downsizing, the community is again growing. “All my friends live here, they’re all having kids, young families.” Although his plans also include starting a family, he admits he has an inherent underlying literal problem.

“I don’t have a girlfriend, not yet, not right now,” he said. “I’m looking, sending out surveys, and it’s going to happen.

“You never know what’s going to walk into your life.”

Photograph by Olivier Sauve, Allahabad, India, 2013.

The Face in the Bunker Gear

Bunker Gear.jpg

Bunker gear is what a firefighter wears, boots pants jacket, and more modern apparatus, like masks and breathing cylinders, to stay safe and be effective when responding to an emergency. It is also called turnout gear, which is what firefighters do, turning out when there’s an alarm. The protective clothing is triple-layered and fire resistant. It is sometimes stowed beside or under a firefighter’s bunk at the station.

It all weighs more than 50 pounds, and that’s before picking up an ax or an extinguisher. Two hundred-some years ago headgear was a felt cap meant to keep water out of your eyes. Today’s helmet, high-peaked with a long rear brim, was first introduced in the 1830s. The New York City luggage maker who designed it was also a volunteer fireman.

Fighting fires means a lot of stepping up and down bending crawling, as well as working with your arms both in front of and over your head. When a firefighter bends at the knee or waist they need added length in their pants and jacket to accommodate their movements. Although bunker gear isn’t necessarily oversized, it’s oversized for mobility’s sake.

When a firefighter is in full bunker gear it’s hard to tell if the reflective-striped all-suited-up hulk pulling hose off a truck is a man or a woman. If it’s the fire chief of North Rustico in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island doing the work, it’s a woman.

It is Alison Larkin. A member of the town’s fire department since she was 18-years-old, she is in charge of the 30-man-and-woman volunteer company.

Before being appointed fire chief in the spring of 2016, the 28-year-old Ms. Larkin was and remains a full-time paramedic with Island EMS, where she has worked for seven years. But, before becoming a professional lifesaver, after graduating from high school, she had to first apply to the paramedic program at PEI’s Holland College.

She didn’t get in.

“My high school marks were terrible,” she said. “I loved school, all my friends, but I did just enough to pass.”

Regrouping, she took Adult Education classes, upgrading her math, science, and English scores. “I had no problem working on my own,” she said. “Healthcare was something I wanted to do and my best friends weren’t around to influence me about going or not going to class.” In the meantime, she filled out an application and was accepted as a member of the North Rustico Fire Department.

There are more than 125,000 volunteer firefighters across Canada, most of them serving in countryside that can’t afford to staff a full-time career department. Volunteer firefighters date to the year 6 in the city of Rome.

North Rustico is a small town of fewer than 600 year-round residents on the central north shore of the province, on a natural harbor along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The National Park shoreline is a short walk from the harbor.

Although her family lives in the town of Rusticoville, her hometown is within a few miles driving on rising and falling rural roads of Rustico, Anglo Rustico, and South Rustico, as well as North Rustico. “I pretty much knew everyone in the department from being around here.” She spent her first year learning the ropes.

Alison’s plan was to bring her new marks and newfound experience in the fire department to bear in petitioning for admission to Holland College. “They save some seats in each course for people who have upgraded their marks,” she said. The next year she applied to the paramedic program again.

She didn’t get in.

She went to work at Lorne’s Snack Bar in North Rustico. “I waited tables, cooked, cleaned, everything. They had the best poutine and gravy in town.” Lorne’s was a stone’s throw from the Irving service station owned by her parents. “My dad does all the mechanics at the back and mom manages the front. You see a pretty lady walking around, that’s my mom.”

One day the following year her mother walked over to Lorne’s from the service station and dropped off a letter addressed to her. She slid the poutine she was making to the side. She opened the letter.

“I remember freaking out behind the counter,” she said. Alison Larkin had finally gotten into Holland College.

It’s when first and second chances haven’t played out that the third time’s a charm.

”I’m happy it took that long,” said Alison. “It can be a crazy job, seeing all the stuff you see. I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. How do you help people when you have no life experience?”

When first responders get to where they’re going there’s no waiting. They’re always stepping into something that’s gone wrong. When stepping into the middle of some emergencies they hear see smell things that most people never do, and don’t want to. Their job is to help people, sometimes people whose lives are hanging in the balance.

“It’s stressful, very stressful” said Alison. “I don’t carry a lot of the calls with me. If you hold on to it, get personal with it, you’re never going to last. My brain just lets me do the call and let it go.”

It was after Alison Larkin prevailed and became a paramedic and found work that she was able to stay in the Land of Rustico, stay on the North Rustico Fire Department, and stay on Prince Edward Island. “It’s a beautiful place, a great place to be, but it’s hard to make a living.”

Recent data released by Statistics Canada suggests that PEI natives have been moving to other provinces in search of work at a rate not seen in 30 years. “Five thousand people in Prince Edward Island declare Prince Edward Island as their home, but work in Alberta,” said Workforce and Advanced Learning Minister Richard Brown.

“There‘s not a lot of work here, you can’t make any money,” said Alison “It’s hard to buy farms and lobster gear, it’s so expensive, so finding a good well-paying job was the biggest thing, definitely.”

In the meantime she became more involved with her town’s fire department. “I fell in love with the firefighting side of things, almost changed my career to it.” She trained at the PEI Firefighters School “I loved it, got right into it. I loved hanging around with the guys.” She trained in fire and search simulators, climbed real ladders, and hauled high-pressure hoses. She aced the question and answer test at the end.

The men and women sitting in a fire truck speeding to the scene of a calamity do one of the most physically demanding of all jobs. No emergency call they go on is ever the same, from chain sawing holes in a steep roof ventilating it to dragging someone out of something smoky hot dark on fire to safety.

The first fire Alison Larkin fought was her helping handle a hose cooling off a propane tank that was next to a burning building. “It was a total adrenaline rush. It’s not boring. Every day is different.” It takes steady nerves. Half-hour bottles of air can empty fast if you lose your composure.

“Not every woman can do it, but not every man can do it, either,” said Alison. “There are definitely people who are built for it, man or woman. It’s hard, but I can do it. I’ve only ever been pushed further by the guys.”

The first female firefighter, a young slave from New York City, was Molly Williams, described in 1815 “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.” When Emma Vernell’s husband died in the line of duty in the 1920s, she took his place on Westside Hose Company #1, becoming the first firewoman officially recognized by New Jersey.

The first female career firefighter was hired by the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia in 1973. By the middle of the 1980s about 1% of all firefighters were women. Today more than 3% of them are women. On Prince Edward Island 65 of the approximately 1,000 firefighters are female, twice the national average. In 2016 Toronto Fire Services, the largest Canadian municipal fire department, made history when its top three graduates were women.

Alison Larkin made history when she was appointed fire chief.

“The job came up, so I put my name in,” she said. The chief who was stepping down recommended the stepping-stone of standing for deputy chief. “Why don’t you go for chief,” some of the members suggested. “If you’re going to help me, if I have your support, I will do it,” she said. The members voted her in and at a Committee of Council Meeting the town confirmed her appointment.

“The opportunity came up and I just took it.”

She is the first woman on Prince Edward Island to hold the post and one of only three women in the Maritimes who are fire chiefs. Making history is being who you are, not being your past history, not letting anything in your past keep you from doing something in the present.

“A woman fire chief fifty years ago? No, definitely not, but there are now,” said Alison. “I don’t know what changed. Maybe women decided, yeah, we can do it, and men decided, yeah, women can do it. Back then it would have been crazy. I think the culture has changed.”

Jane Ledwell of PEI’s Advisory Council on the Status of Women agrees, adding that Alsion Larkin is a “terrific role model. We are so thrilled to see she has been named PEI’s first female fire chief.”

After finishing her paramedic courses and finding work with Island EMS, Alison went back to PEI Firefighters School for more training. She is the first woman in the province to gain Level II accreditation and the next year was sought out to become a part-time instructor. “They really built up my confidence. I never thought I’d be teaching there.”

The North Rustico Fire Department is an all-volunteer force. Nobody gets paid, “I know a lot of people can’t understand that, but what we do we do for this community,” said Alison. Not everything that counts is just counting what’s in your wallet.

“We get calls to people’s homes on their worst day. That’s what we’re there for, to turn a bad situation into something manageable, try to make them feel a little bit better. The most rewarding part of the job is when someone thanks us, says we turned their crisis into not a crisis.”

The new fire chief has put a new emphasis on training. ”It’s a big thing. We’re always working on that.” The department meets every Tuesday night. One Tuesday is maintenance night on the rescue vehicle, the tanker truck, and the two fire trucks. Two of the Tuesday nights are devoted to training.

“It was more known as a boy’s club long ago, you come and hang out, when really now it’s more geared toward training, and doing a lot of work and making sure everyone knows what’s going on and what they’re doing.”

Safety is the cornerstone of firefighting. Although firefighters die at a rate barely greater than the rate for cashiers, when trouble comes it’s not a dollar bill paper cut, it’s a chain saw gone haywire. At the end of the day training is what keeps you from putting your life on the line. “You never want to put people into situations you feel they’re not trained for,” said Alison.

Just like cauliflower is just cabbage with a higher education, firefighters are just men and women who put their bunker pants on one leg at a time, except that before they’re even in their gear they know what to do next. Practice may not make perfect, but it makes getting it wrong less likely.

At the North Rustico fire station the department’s emphasis on training has gone the extra mile, extending to family pets. Atlantic Vet College recently schooled the members on animal first aid and rescue, reviewing facets from cardiac arrest to breathing distress.

One of the firefighters volunteered his unsuspecting dog as a guinea pig. “We found out how much oxygen we needed to turn the masks on to, what flow rate for what animal,” said Alison “They gave us pointers in how to go up to a scared dog or cat and get them to come to us.”

Besides getting everyone’s training up to speed, getting to where they have to go in a timely fashion is another goal she has set. “Our old trucks are just old. It’s time for new ones. After 25 years you need to upgrade your equipment.” Like roads and bridges, trucks don’t upgrade themselves. It takes someone to make it happen.

Although firefighters are faceless in their bunker suits and breathing masks, when Allison Larkin is off the truck and back at the North Rustico station after an emergency call, stripping off her gear, helmet pants jacket boots, there‘s no mistaking who she is.

She’s the firefighter with her toenails painted purple.