Tuesday, 26 August 2014

A Sense of Place--Halifax, Nova Scotia

My father was born and raised in Nova Scotia. He attended Acadia University before decamping to the United States to get his Ph.D. in English from Ohio State. He loved to tell stories about trading furs with the Mi'kmaq Indians when he was a teenager. His father, my grandfather, was a fur trapper and then trader his whole life, finally retiring in the late 1960s at the age of 93. He was recognized as the oldest fur trader in Canada with an award at the annual Traders and Trappers convention in Montreal.

As a result of this history, I've had a lifelong love of Nova Scotia, the home of my ancestors and of a summer home on the Eastern shore where I have vacationed my entire life. That home is just an hour and a half from Halifax, a fascinating city I have visited nearly every summer since I was a boy. My earliest memories of the city have to do with visiting a pair of elderly aunts who lived together in a row house that I recall mainly because they had a pair of huge parrots who yelled at everyone.

Halifax was much more provincial in those days, a small, quiet city but one with a vibrant history. At the center, atop Citadel Hill, is an old fort that still dominates the city today with magnificent views of its spectacular harbor. The historic fort boasts changing of the guard ceremonies to rival those of London's Buckingham Palace. Many of the recovered bodies from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 are buried in a cemetery in the city, and there is a museum commemorating the great Halifax Explosion of 1917. A French cargo ship fully loaded with wartime explosives collided with a Norwegian vessel. A fire quickly ignited the explosives causing a cataclysmic blast that was the greatest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons. More than 2000 people were killed and another 9000 were injured. Virtually all structures within a half-mile radius, including the entire community of Richmond, were completely obliterated. Parts of the exploding ship were found miles inland. Almost no windows in the entire city remained unbroken, and hundreds who had been watching the fire in the harbor through their windows were blinded by the explosion. A tsunami created by the blast wiped out the community of Mi'kmaq First Nations people that had lived in the Tuft's Cove area for generations. 

Halifax boasts one of the deepest ice-free natural harbors in the world. The city became the focus of World War ll convoys leaving for England. Nazi submarines patrolled the approaches to the city sinking many cargo ships, and at least one U-boat slipped through the submarine nets protecting the harbor. Recently, a U-boat was discovered on the bottom of the Churchill River in Labrador, almost sixty miles inland.

Today, Halifax is a thriving metropolitan center with vibrant green parks, a bustling waterfront filled with historic ships moored as museums, home of the famous clipper ship, Blue Nose ll and early Arctic exploration vessels. There are fashionable stores, restaurants and pubs, ferries to carry tourists around the beautiful harbor and much, much more. But if Halifax is the center of the Maritimes, the rest of the region is blissfully free of exploitation and tourism.

I have pondered for years why more attention is not paid to northeastern Canada. Perhaps it is too close for us to feel we have truly got out into the bush. After all, much of this wilderness is little more than a three-hour flight from at least a hundred million people. Northern Quebec, Labrador, and Newfoundland offer a wide variety of wilderness experience, not to mention a fascinating history extending back a thousand years to the first Vikings who landed at L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland.

It is also a place that has not been done to death by writers. Although there is an extensive literature of exploration, in recent times only Farley Mowat leaps to mind as a writer whose work truly encompasses the region. Mowat's books range north to the Arctic, but he has clearly chosen the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the surrounding maritime provinces and islands as one part of the world he values highly. In Sea of Slaughter, he encyclopedically documents how man has been systematically destroying the wildlife of the region ever since the first whalers made landfall off the coasts of Greenland and Labrador around the year 1500.

When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, Alaska was the place to go. I remember high school friends whose parents packed them up and moved to the remotest parts of the big state never to be heard from again--at least by me. It sometimes seemed everyone I knew, at one time or another, made a hegira to Alaska. I cannot tell you how many slide shows I sat through of old 1950s Buicks and Oldsmobiles, roofs disappearing under loads of army surplus tenting, as they huffed their way up the Alaska highway. But the rocky coastlines of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador offer thousands of miles (over four thousand miles in Nova Scotia alone) of fascinating and historically vital shores, of countless offshore islands, of fiords with thousand-foot cliffs, of seals, seabirds, moose, caribou, and whales.

It's all there for the taking or--more aptly--for the experiencing. And I guarantee you that for every individual you come across who will be able to say to your tales, "Oh, I've been there," there will be ten such if you go to Alaska.

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