Monday, 14 December 2015

Canso and Hazel Hill

Canso and Hazel Hill
By W. Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, July 1916. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, Dec. 2015

IT was not the most favourable conditions under which to make the acquaintance of any town—a tumbling boat of ninety small tons beneath me, seemingly ill-fitted to cope with the swell and roar of the stormy waters of the straits; a drizzling mist that developed into a heavy rain and blotted out everything but the crude, blank, staring things of nature; the waning light of a day that had started before 4 a.m., and had, in the fourteen hours afterwards, included a forty-two-mile coach drive, a two hours’ wait at an uninteresting station, and five hours of train and boat. Naples might languish under such a burden. Certainly Canso did.
A low gray loom through the misty rain, and then a bare gray tumble of rocky coast, surf-lined, and nothing more at first. A tall white steeple, bayoneting the sky, crept round a point, high-placed on a bare hill-top. Lower down a lighthouse came dully over the rocks and pushed its feeble gleam into the drab fog. Farther westward a lonely mast shot up above an island, tilted a little, telling the victory of wind and wave that had driven it upon the shore. Through a narrow passage between the sullen out-lying islands we slowly drifted, and within the harbour made two right-angle turns before reaching the wharf. Canso was in no hurry to disembark us.
From the water it was a very long town, and very narrow, as if each house begrudged another a place beside the water that gave them their living. In architecture they did not struggle with one another—drab, plain and unpretentious, content that they were part of Canso, the cod-fishing centre of “the Eastern”. Only here and there a larger structure told of public affairs independent of Canso and its cod—a school, a church or two, the post-office. And down beside the water the one big industry of the town, placing Canso outside the list of mere fishing villages, the warehouses of a government-fed institution. with a cold-storage plant, which carries “fresh” fish across the continent. The rest was but a mass of drab, with indefinite lines of windows and flat roofs, through the fog. But there was no drabness down the “tiddle.” the narrow harbour wherein lie the life and commerce of Canso. There row after row of fishing-boats tied up to the wharves faded into the distance as an indistinct blur of upright points.
But fog and rain did not dull Canso’s nightly entertainment. The wharf was crowded. The R. G. Cann was Canso’s little touch of outside world, its daily dissipation, its purveyor of mails and visitors and floating bits of gossip denied the mails. Every morning, in the early light, the boat draws out for Mulgrave, thirty-five miles away to the north, to pick up connection with the outside. Fishermen lounged about the wharf in yellow slickers fresh from the sea, and the townspeople wore waterproofs—or stood calmly in the rain. Umbrellas are for places where water does not enter so seriously into the life of the citizens. To a gentle, white-bearded man I delivered my baggage and wandered up the pavementless streets to the hotel.
At the best of times Canso is not pretty. The builders of it cared for nothing but the fish; their descendants are worthy of followers of the same idea. To make Canso beautiful would be to translate it to another region, and to deprive it thereby of the things that count for much more than beauty. Rock is everywhere, cropping out through the thin soil in all sorts of inconvenient places. Streets stumble and clatter over rock that will never wear out—that will never permit waterworks or sewers. A telegraph company was inaugurating its service by incessant blasting of rock to give foothold to the poles. It is a town without water or light or sewerage—lights were about to be installed—and yet a town of a couple of thousand people, whose forefathers had lived on these rocks a half century before an invisible line was cut through North America. Old rusted lampposts still stand awry about the corners, the remains of a lighting system this generation does not know. Streets wander without regard, but to the path of least resistance. Shops are splattered in disconnected locations without favouritism to any street. There is no business centre, no residential suburb, no slum. It is all Canso, a unit that looks anxiously out to sea to catch the first glimpse of the returning fishing-boats.
But whatever its location may deprive it of is made up for by its honourable, steadfast history. For almost two centuries there has been a Canso—away back in 1720 they locate its natal day—and it has been a life of struggle and danger and sorrow. The French kicked it about persistently within the first century of its career, and during the war of 1812-1814 the United States found it an easy mark on which to vent their spleen. It never seemed worth protecting, and the British left it to filibustering foreigners.
It is different now. Canada’s first move in recognition of possible war was to despatch a detachment of regulars from Halifax to those rocky shores. And within three days of the declaration of war a large boatload of militia and guns drew warily into the tortuous channel and unloaded its bristling freight to back up the regulars already there. For Canso stands high with the authorities to-day.
Through its two cable stations Canada touches hands with Europe. Through Canso runs the thrill of big transactions, of world-stirring news. Canso has entered the council of nations. Two miles westward a model town tells of conditions manufactured to overcome local inconveniences. Hazel Hill, with its eighty telegraphers and their families and the other requirements of what is said to be the largest receiving cable station in the world, is definitely placed to be the antithesis of Canso—uniform architecture of some ambition, scenic surroundings suitable to residence, green grass and trees, entertainment, and everything to make the life of the operators pleasant. Hazel Hill is Canso modernized—without the qualifications that brought Canso into being long before cables were even dreams.
Its age brings to Canso more than memories. Even to-day it is content. Hundreds of its people have never been outside its limits—old men and women whose ancestors ran to cover many a time at sight of a French frigate or an American privateer. Hazel Hill is foreign travel to some of them. They are content to die without hearing the rumble of a train. Into the career of a woman of sixty has come one big event—a visit to a neighbouring fishing village, five miles along the coast, in honour of the opening of a new church; and she talks about it yet. One of the top-notch families first sailed into Canso harbour a little more than a hundred years ago, while on the way to Labrador. It stopped there. To-day a descendant is the local squire and landed proprietor, owner of the largest wharf and largest store, a man who condescends to receive the visitor who is sufficiently recommended.
Communication with the outside world is uncertain, with the unreliability of water connection. At times the straits are full of ice, or a southeaster rages up the Atlantic. Then the only way out is by a long, dreary route up the shores of Chedabucto Bay, a terrible trail in winter, where strong men numb in the heavy gales and ruthless, unimpeded snow.
There is a reckless tang in the life of the cod-fisherman that makes Canso the centre of stories of daring evasion of the law. Nowhere east of Halifax is there license to sell liquor—but the French island of Miquelon is only a few days away on the coast of Newfoundland. It is not too far for the venturesome fisherman, and the excitement of liquor-running repays the risk. They tell of the skipper who long made profit of his daring runs across the south coast of Cape Breton. But the authorities interfered. They awaited his return one day, and laid heavy, gleeful hands on him as he entered the harbour—only to find an empty hold. They were still cursing as his brother sailed in a couple of hours later with deep-sunk hull—filled with the load transferred ten miles out at sea. And many times thereafter it was transferred before official wits got working.
They narrate with many a laugh the adventures of an illicit, distiller whose plant on a neighbouring island was surrounded one night by revenue officers. The moonshiner managed to escape by a flying leap through the window. The officers, sure of their quarry, took their time loading the outfit into the man’s own boat, and then set out to beat the island. But their prey escaped through their lines to the laden boat and calmly pulled away with both boats, leaving them marooned and helpless, watching him from the shore.
It is along the wharves you hear these stories. For there you find the life of Canso. The village itself is but a sleeping-place for this living that throbs along the water’s edge. There they work and play and live their social life. I passed among them for days, with the freedom a stranger nowhere else feels. They are eager to talk, to answer questions, to offer trips to the fishing-grounds. They also wanted to be photographed. One easy group of three, lounging on the deck of an isolated boat, sprang below at the first sight of the camera, to return in a minute with—hats, one a very pale pearl, and another a stiff black. And yet, uninteresting as they now were, they had to be taken. A fisherman sculled me across the tiddle that I might take his boat, the largest in the harbour, in full swordfishing attire, one member of the crew in the cross-trees, one in the “chair,” another with the float ready to cast. Still another skipper begged me to wait until be had daubed a few bare places with fresh paint. On that Saturday afternoon they were industriously shining up, for their affection for their boats is undying.
Up against the Corporation wharf lay an ugly gray steamer, an English trawler, its 134,000 pounds of haddock running over in heaps on the deck, a dirty, slimy mass hauled up perhaps a week before from the ocean bed by huge nets and rushed at the limit of time to the cold-storage plant to be turned into the market as fresh fish. The fishermen eyed it askance, the stale fish an eyesore in their sight. And they told me angrily how that load of three thousand dollars, caught any time within the week, brought the catchers a higher rate than did their daily-trawled fish, given straight from the sea into the hands of the merchants. The clumsy English trawler-men, working to the point of exhaustion under the goal of a percentage and swift-moving machinery, sent basket after basket ashore all day long, and left at the end for another sweeping of the depths away up through the straits in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Now and then a schooner or a “vessel” drifted into harbour, and along the wharves the fishermen stopped work to guess the business and name of the newcomer. One was an American swordfishing boat, and a deputation left immediately to learn the luck, and the whereabouts of the swordfish. But most of the lazy boats that blundered in, and wheeled about anchor in mid-harbour to the flapping of sails and the creaking of anchor chains, were Lunenberg fishermen, doomed by shortage of bait to await a new supply. Some of them lay there a week, a dead loss to the owners, and still no herring to sell them.
Out on the tiddle in boats, and along the wharves, boys frolicked and fought and raced. Three little fellows, scarce able to toddle, launched a big dory undisturbed, to give chase to a toy sailboat carried into the tiddle by the wind. From a snubbing-post a current of naked youngsters plunged into the dirty water, some stopping before each dive to cross their foreheads with hurried hand. A tottering old fellow tried to explain to me the characteristics of a “pinkie” that lay near, an old boat that had just been brought from “the Western” and a younger fisherman dared to maintain that it was a shallop. I left them arguing the relative merits of the sharp stern and the blunt, each adhering stubbornly to the things of his age. And all about was the overpowering odour of fish.
It was the life of Canso down there, Canso concentrated, packed into the narrow border of a narrow harbour.
At night it rained: rainy nights are not unusual in Canso. The rain falls with a persistence that defies defiance from the inexperienced. Through the open windows of my room I could hear but the murmur of a few muffled voices from the street. From somewhere downstairs a metallic piano—the first I had heard for weeks—drummed out the good old tunes that have stirred the throng for many a year. The window-blind flapped drearily in the wind, and a boat whistled suddenly from the harbour and pulled to rest beside some dark, deserted wharf. And after the piano became silent and the voices had long since ceased, I sat by the window and listened to Canso’s own heartbeat—a foghorn from a distant lighthouse, thickened by the blank gray fog, and dreary bell-buoy that gloomily wafted its warning on the varying wind, always low, always menacing; and over it all that dull boom of dashing surf on the islands outside. Canso was asleep at last to its own lullaby.

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