The small island of Isle Madame is connected by a low-lying causeway to the hulking mass of Cape Breton, at the easternmost tip of Nova Scotia. Isle Madame has its own orbiting bodies: Petit-de-Grat, Janvrin, and Crichton islands are all connected to it by manmade land bridges that span shallow, still bays. Each new cove seems to have its own history—you can walk half a mile and find yourself in a new hamlet, whose name seems to be shared by a good number of the local residents. The majority of the names are French, or more accurately, Acadian, but there are Irish and German strongholds, too. There’s a bay just across the street from the house we’re staying in, a narrow channel that leads into an expansive cove and seems to be in a perennial state of rapid depletion or repletion. On our first night, we eat a simple spaghetti dinner and watch the red moon rise. It’s cool and still and there’s a lone loon calling out mournfully, somewhere on the dark bay.
We’re still recovering from our day-long drive from Maine, so we take it easy today. We walk out into the bay with Mike’s young cousins, looking for mussels. Through the gleaming water, we can see clusters of mussels carpeting the ground, bound together with coarse byssal threads, their tips just poking out of the earth. We spend the afternoon filling a bucket with them at our leisure. The smaller bivalves, just an inch and a half long, are as black and featureless as stones and proliferate in chains all about our feet. The larger specimens occupy the deeper, softer mud, so for much of the afternoon we’re almost thigh-deep in the water, sunk into the mud almost to our knees. It occurs to me every so often that this is a perilous position to be in.
After we’ve picked our fill (and discovered the Methuselah of oysters, about 7 inches long), we walk across the emptied-out bay to Gull Island, which is just an uninhabited strip of land. The surfline is strewn with bladderwrack and sea kelp, the upper reaches of the shore littered with the mazey, sculptural wrecks of driftwood. Mike walks among the tidal pools throwing large rocks down on the sand. The clams in the soil spit out plumes of sea water and begin to burrow deeper into the ground, but not before Mike digs them up with a scallop shell. It’s a lot more work than gathering mussels, so we content ourselves with two large handfuls and head home.
The lobster tank at Premium Seafoods in Arichat, on the southern side of the island, has three exhibition specimens mixed in among the usual residents: one orange lobster (alive: I checked), one blue, and one speckled. Are these the white elephants of lobsters? Who buys the freak lobsters, I have to wonder. The waitress seems surprised that we’ve come from the other side of the island for breakfast. Though it’s less than 6 miles across, the locals on one side of the island view those on the other as if they lived an ocean away. Residents on one side describe the location of those on the other simply as “over there,” with a sweep of the arm for effect.
We spend the afternoon in Antigonish, an hour and a half away, though it’s a pleasant drive, along mostly empty highways lined with waving colonies of purple, pink, and white lupines. Our first stop is the farmers’ market. It’s the first truly nice day of the summer, so the whole town seems to be out. The market fills a large 4-H barn behind the Antigonish arena. There’s still little in the way of produce—just some bitter greens, lettuces, and rhubarb, but the stands are fully stocked with local crafts, baked goods, and even gin made with haskap, a local berry that’s related to honeysuckle and has a pleasantly bitter taste.
In one corner I see a young Pakistani couple frying samosas to order. Their sign promises “No Spicy Food,” in extra-large type. I talk to the owner, who seems as curious as I am to find a South Asian in this remote part of Canada. He gives me a taste of chicken biryani, which is delicious and, I’m glad to note, actually packs a punch. I buy two beef samosas for the car ride home. The samosas are unusually flat compared to the ones I grew up with, which were fat little cones, but the crust is flaky and tender and the delicately spiced filling is still steaming hot when I bite into one.
Back on the island, we pick even more mussels and get ready for dinner—spaghetti with mussels seems like a no-brainer. The mussels produce a monumental amount of briny, flavourful liquor. We end up using only a small portion of it for the pasta and saving the rest for a chowder the next day. We react with mixed feelings when we discover that the smaller, much-easier-harvested mussels are sweeter and more tender than the behemoths extracted through great pains from the quicksand depths of the bay.
Sundays are almost reverentially lazy on the island—we spend the day reading, walking, and biking. Late in the afternoon I head with Mike and his two young cousins to the nearby dock to try our hand at fishing. Two young local boys are already on the pier, casting away and making serious small talk about the local fishing. The older of the two is named Dion and the younger, Lachlan. The names here all seem to be from a continent away. The boys talk sagely and exuberantly about their luck catching bass, perch, and mackerel—the last of which are running today. Every so often a storm of minnows passes by in the water below. It’s uncanny to suddenly catch the flash of a mica eye in the massing vortex of tiny fish. Minutes later there is a tumult of slapping in the water as the mackerel begin to manically feed on the small bait fish. The boys cast quickly and repeatedly, pulling one shining, spasming mackerel out of the water after the other. Solicitously, patiently, they give me a lesson in how to gut and fillet the fish on the wooden planking of the dock. There’s an inescapable cruelty to the practice, but I can’t help but feel moved by the beauty of these sleek tiger-striped fish, even in their last throes. When we occasionally toss one back to the ocean, it barely penetrates the water before its body snaps into alignment and it has darted away like a bolt of silver. Lachlan advises us to eat them with just a little salt—“and ketchup,” he adds, “which gives it a really good flavour.” I wash the fish out in the bay and we head home with a bag full of the next day’s breakfast.
We can’t find any ketchup in the house the next morning. But even simply salted and fried in oil and butter, the mackerel make a noble breakfast. There’s something refined about eating something so incomparably fresh and simple. We eat them with scrambled eggs on cardboard-like toast made from supermarket white bread and they are none the worse for it.
There is a stiff wind blowing off the ocean today. Mike and I take two kayaks out to explore the inland lake enclosed by the islands. The bay runs quickly from deep to shallow, so that we’re first enmeshed in a forest of trailing weeds and then floating in deep, black water. Colonies of terns fly in alarmed circled about their island roosts as we paddle past them. We beach our kayaks on the far shore of the lake—a manmade-looking pebble beach connecting two small islands. We walk around to the windward side of the island, which is blasted and eroded. Blocks of clay encrusted with shards of granite lie on the shore where they’ve broken off from the cliff above. We have an unobstructed view of the dark North Atlantic, crazed by the wind into a furrowed field. We take a quick dip in the shelter of the bay, but the inky, cold water makes me shudder. I can’t escape the feeling of being at land’s end, that here must monsters be.
At night, Mike’s aunt makes a big batch of chowder for dinner, which is a delicious excuse to gather a large group of family friends together. I talk to a woman (Myra) who seems to be in her very spry seventies, who moved away from the island at an early age and lives in Manitoba now. She makes the train, bus, and car journey back to Isle Madame every summer. She is a wealth of information about the island. She tells me about her father, who owned a dairy and poultry farm on the island and was a formidable cook, who made the whole family breakfast every morning and cooked Sunday supper every week. She reminisces about the vegetables her father used to grow, and the friend who would let her and her brothers pick oysters from his oyster bed in the choppy waters of Rocky Bay on the southern side of the island. The talk around the table, meanwhile, veers from Newfoundland-style“boiled dinners,” to the way that they crack lobsters in Glace Bay (“They take a lobster, and with their hand—whacko! Right in two. Breaks the tail, the claws. They do it on the beach—just put in a rock and give it a whack.”) I am offered tips on how to properly eat a lobster (“Don’t forget the back—many people ignore the back, but there’s nice little chunks of sweet meat in there!” says Myra) and given a recipe for the classic Acadian dish of fricot—a light stew of fresh garden vegetables seasoned with a sprinkle of summer savory, a favoured herb in these parts. It’s clear that food (and especially lobster) are hot topics in these parts—the talk continues long into the night, even after we’ve cleared the table and have moved on to brownies and Mike’s uncle’s infamous Kahlua mixed drinks.
We spend the day driving the Cabot Trail, the road that circles the main body of Cape Breton, offering mesmerizing views of steep cliffs and the vast ocean. We stop at the Keltic Lodge, a grand old hotel near the northern tip of the island that sits on a cliff presiding over Ingonish Bay. The shoreline is liberally cordoned off with buoys, like antennae from the lobster and crab traps on the ocean floor. Lunch is a simple chowder and an extraordinary side of kettle chips. The chips are brittle and flaky, like stacks of pommes soufflées that have been compressed into a chip. They’re incredibly rich, so I eat half and bag the rest to go, feeling a little ridiculous asking if I can get my plate of chips packed up for me.
We stop in Neil’s Harbor, a small sheltered fishing village at the northeastern corner of the Cabot Trail. The historic lighthouse at the point still functions, though its lower level has been given over to an ice cream shop. The young owner, who can’t be more than 25, welcomes us effusively, and as soon as he hears we’re from the United States, congratulates us on the US Supreme Court’s recent decision to make same-sex marriage legal across the country. He walks us through the flavours, which include the standards, as well as something called Moon Mist which, he explains, is a swirl of watermelon, grape, and bubblegum ice creams. He promises that it tastes a lot better than it sounds. I try it, and find it almost painfully sweet. I may be in the minority, though. A crowd of small children come in just as we’re leaving with our cones. They’re pushing and shoving to get to the counter, screaming for their different flavours. One of them is hollering “I want blue, I want blue!” Another just keeps shouting “Moon Mist! Moon Mist! Moon Mist!”
We spend the rest of the day touring the northern reaches of the trail, taking in the spectacular views and keeping an eye out for whales (we see none, sadly). By the time we get back to Isle Madame it’s dark and quiet. Compared to the expansive views from Cape Breton’s highlands, the slick moonlit bays by the house seem small, welcoming and homey, ringed with cabins and small stands of evergreens.
It is our last day on the island so we decide to make a big family dinner. We spend the whole day slowly tending to dinner. The calming work of slowly rinsing and towel-drying salad greens and kale; patting together a butter crust for a rhubarb-strawberry pie, with crumbled pieces of the local oat cakes folded in with the flour and butter; putting the pork shoulder into the oven to slowly braise. When we’re ready to eat, we quickly grill the pork chops, dress our beautiful local salad and sit down to a feast of the best of the island. We have a long way to drive the next day, but we stay up late, going for seconds and thirds of pie, whiling away the dark hours in the welcome shelter of food and company.