While the times are changing on Grand Manan, a fishing community in the Bay of Fundy, its isolation and the traditions carried on by the small population that lives there have slowed the process. Reminders of the past are everywhere, from the smokehouses on the wharves and weirs off the coast that were part of a booming herring industry to the lighthouses once operated by lighthouse keepers who lived there with their families. Grand Manan Lobstermen were still bending saplings into wooden traps as late as the 1970s, when wire traps had long been standard along the Maine coast.
When I visited the Swallowtail Lighthouse on the north end of the island, it was undergoing repair and looked closed from the outside. I was fortunate enough to catch a tour with Ken, the friendly lighthouse warden, who took us up three floors to the very top. He told us that Swallowtail began operating in 1860, after the famous wreck of the Lord Ashburton in 1857 (one of the 300 recorded wrecks in the area since 1720) created demand for more lighthouses for navigation around ports. The Bay of Fundy is notoriously treacherous, due to the combination of large tides, strong currents, and cliff-ringed islands, and it also has one of the highest densities of lighthouses in the world.
The lighthouse was de-staffed in 1985 and was de-commissioned by the Coast Guard, falling quickly into disrepair, the unfortunate fate of many historic lighthouses in the Maritimes. The Village of Grand Manan took ownership of Swallowtail, and the Coast Guard re-commissioned it, installing an automatic light, after the community decided it was an important part of their history and formed the Swallowtail Keepers Society to preserve it. Swallowtail is named after its unique construction: it is eight-sided and tapers towards the top, designed to break the heavy winds that blow through the cliffs. Lighthouses require constant maintenance because of their exposure to the corrosive ocean and to powerful gales, and the current restoration project has involved installing a fiberglass platform on the top, which also happens to have the best panoramic view of the island.
Grand Manan is extremely geologically interesting, because its formation is split down the middle. The East side of the island is composed of old sedimentary and metamorphic rock interspersed with treacherously jagged outcroppings of volcanic rock. The West side, by contrast, is composed of relatively young volcanic formations, including spectacular columns of basalt. Most of the villages of Grand Manan are concentrated on the East side, which has many natural harbors and beaches, while the West side, with its 300 foot cliffs, is much less accessible and is reserved mostly for nature trails and campgrounds.
Kent Island, Hay Island, and Sheep Island, which make up the “Three Islands” of the Bay of Fundy, are about five miles South of Grand Manan. The journey to Kent Island from the U.S. involves crossing the border, taking the ferry from Blacks Harbour in mainland Canada to Seal Cove on Grand Manan, then taking a boat to the skiff moored off of Kent Island, and sometimes walking from there through the Basin, depending on the tide. Besides weekly trips to Grand Manan for groceries, we have also had the opportunity to explore the Island’s immense natural beauty and to enjoy the hospitality of the islanders, many of whom are descendants of the Loyalists who moved here during the American Revolution.
Swallow Tail Keepers Society: http://swallowtailkeepers.blogspot.ca
Marshall, Joan. Tides of Change on Grand Manan Island: Culture and Belonging in a Fishing Community. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP, 2008.