Scatarie Island - East Point lighthouse
Scatarie (Scaterie) Island
Main-à-Dieu is a bustling, traditional fishing village located on the most easterly point of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. Its name in French means "Hand of God," and to anyone who's experienced the area's renowned natural beauty it's obvious He had a hand in making it what it is.
Found on the scenic Marconi Trail between Louisbourg and Glace Bay, the area neighbourhood also includes the villages of Bateston, Little Lorraine, Catalone and Baleine. A large lobster fishing fleet is based in Main-à-Dieu, its sister fleet in Little Lorraine, and every spring, at the start of lobster fishing season, the fishermen set out to make their catch, a two-month enterprise so collectively successful the area's been dubbed the "Lobster Land of the Maritimes."
The boats of Main-à-Dieu & area have a history as rich and varied as the fishermen aboard them.
Europeans fished off the Eastern coast of Cape Breton as far back as 1550. The first European settlers were Scottish, landing in Baleine in 1629; 85 years later settlers from France and Normandy arrived. Main-à-Dieu's name was likely the transcription of a Mi'kmaq word having to do with evil spirits, a reference, perhaps, to the large number of ship-wrecks in the area.
On land, meanwhile, schools, post offices, lighthouses, and stores began to appear, as if referencing another potential source of the area's name: "mennadou," a Gaelic-like word meaning "resolutions, intentions, and projects." Between 1753 and 1773, Irish, Scottish, and English settlers caused a population explosion in the area: from 13 to 131.
Around the same time, fishermen from newly-founded Louisbourg began moving their families to a tiny island a mile off Main-a-Dieu's shore, called Scatarie (also seen: Scaterie). Its location proved ideal, for a time. Being a mile offshore meant the fishermen would barely need to step into the water to get their catch. Until the second half of the last century, when the mass exodus left Scatarie the wilderness reserve it is today, there were as many houses on the island as there are in many of the area communities today. There were no big fleets like there are today, and there were at most a hundred traps aboard each boat.
"They fished when fishing was what we call fishing," says a fisherman today. Pretty well everybody came out of school - whether at the legal age of 16 or earlier - and got on a boat, on which there wouldn't be much need for an academic education. Not much has changed in that regard: "I've got brothers," says another fishermen, "who've got more degrees than a thermometer, and they're walking the streets." A fishermen's education, on the other hand - like much of his life - happened on the water, in real time: a fourteen-year old "greenhorn" on his father's or his brother's or his uncle's boat, in the middle of the ocean, learning to swim in the deep end, so to speak. When he got his catch ashore, it was often his to keep.
"If you're not going to go to school," the future-fisherman's parents might say, "you're not going to walk the roads, or sit around." This meant either get onboard a boat, or pick up a tool. Young, unskilled boys helped dig wells for drinking water, even helped build the Western breakwater (which was recently extended).
Many families, not just on Scatarie but around the area in general - and certainly not unlike many homes all across North America in those days - raised and grew their own food. In barns, meadows and gardens, integrated into the landscape of the family homestead, were sheep, pigs, horses and cattle; chickens that might be killed for Sunday dinner; even an ox that would be slaughtered in the Fall and the meat preserved through much of the cold months ahead. The only meat, fresh or otherwise, was their own; or from their neighbours, who often shared - not surprisingly, considering there was no refrigeration. Nor was there a shortage of fresh fish either. In the Winter they froze fish in an "ice house," Mother Nature's refrigerator; and when it thawed, they salted or pickled it. They heated their homes with wood stoves, and they hauled water indoors from wells dug into the surrounding ground. It was a far cry from today's "flick of a switch" lifestyle.
In 1950, the power lines made it to Main-à-Dieu. More and more community infrastructure and businesses of all sizes were being built in Main-à-Dieu, meaning the people on Scatarie more and more wanted - or needed - to come to the mainland to buy and sell goods, and to purchase supplies like rope and twine for boat building.
"But we didn't have a cent to bless ourselves with," an old fisherman says. So when each new fishing season started, fishermen would get local suppliers to "fit them out," that is, supply them with whatever they needed for the fishing season - on credit. If, by May, the fishermen had their doctor's bill and the outfitter paid off, they considered themselves set.
While the modernizing economies of the mainland areas were navigating micro-booms and -busts, busily trying a hand at just about anything as if suffering from an economic identity crisis, the living spaces on Scaterie were becoming relics, as slowly, and then quickly, the island was abandoned.
Holdouts, like the lighthouse keepers, relied for supplies on fishermen who knew the rugged current between the smaller and bigger island well.
When the Western lighthouse beacon was automated in 1965, and its keeper Mrs. Campbell left, she had been the only inhabitant on the West side of the island for almost ten years; her nearest neighbours, the lighthouse keepers on the East side, were six miles away.
Which isn't to say the economies on the mainland made anyone's life any less precarious or full of struggle. The fishermen from the surrounding area might spend the fishing off-season on a trawling boat, an icebreaker, on the coal piers that existed in Louisbourg at the time, or in the woods cutting timber. Back then, it wasn't unusual for Main-à-Dieu & area fishermen to walk to and from Louisbourg, morning and evening. "It didn't mean a thing," an old fisherman says. "But when you got home, you were ready for a meal!"
Meanwhile, the newly automated lighthouses on Scaterie could do nothing but look on in silent wonderment at what became of their wardens.