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Ferry Tales : Coming Home, The Destination and the Journey

Ferry Tales : Coming Home, The Destination and the Journey

written by Gary Hopkirk 
RED Magazine THIRTEEN Fall & Winter 2014/2015

Over forty years ago I was coming home from Montreal on Eastern Provincial Airways (EPA). As the plane taxied to the terminal the captain proclaimed, "Welcome to Prince Edward Island.  Please set your watches ahead one hour and back twenty years."  Many passengers chuckled and some may have been annoyed, but for some strange reason I felt a calming sense of place.  Yes, I was back and it was good.

Last week I drove home alone from Toronto, speeding along the crowded sixteen lanes of the 401, skirting around congested Montreal, past construction near Levis and so on through New Brunswick.  Just before passing the last exit to Cape Tormentine I met a string of traffic and immediately thought, "The boat is in."  Of course, when I rounded the corner I saw the looming Confederation Bridge and I was battered by mixed emotions.  Efficiency of course: I would be on the Island in 15 minutes.  But would I have time to set my internal clock back 20 years?  I longed for the 40 minute ferry ride and peaceful transition to the rhythm of an island cradled on the waves. I dreamed of a bowl of clam chowder, a simple cup of tea or perhaps a lime rickey.

Most of all I yearned for a chat.  I had often met someone I knew on the ferry and caught up on the news and gossip.  If there was no one I knew, the chat still happened.  Standing next to someone by the deck rail watching the ice splitting, or the wake foaming, all you needed to say was, "Some weather, eh?"  Regardless of the weather at the time, the chat was on.  By the time you moved through "Where are you from?" and "Who's your father?"  it was time to return to your vehicle.  And you returned grounded in the spirit of the Island; back in that comfortable cradle of 20 years ago. 

Those are some of my memories.  But long before I was born, the "coming home" ritual was much more strenuous: no bridge, no ferry, but only the dangerous, unpredictable crossing on an ice boat with its proud crew.  This ice boat adventure tells of yet another dramatic transition for those Islanders returning home. 

(Thanks to Michael Daudet for passing on an internet source, "Antipodes of Prince Edward Island, " from which this story is re-imagined and retold.  A longer version was written by an unknown English gentleman and published in 1867).

"I was desperate to get home after having left the Island last summer.  Never having crossed the Strait in winter I could only guess what was about to happen.  We descended on to what is called the shore ice - that is, a band of fixed ice extending about a mile out, of vast thickness.  Arriving at the edge of this, our work began.  Here we found the boat buried in snow.  I was surprised to see a small craft fifteen feet long, shallow and lightly, but, at the same time, strongly built and sheathed with iron. 

"To each side were fastened three short ropes with a broad band to put over the shoulders and drag the boat when not in the water. Four oars, six boat hooks with a broad flat hook, instead of a pointed one, as was usual, for readily laying hold of small floating pieces of ice.  These, with a small keg of water, were all the appointments of our little craft, in which we had to make our voyage of most uncertain duration.  Only the week before the boat was out for thirty-six hours.  Miraculously, there was no loss of life. 

"The boat was launched, mail-bags stowed, great-coats and wrappers taken off and put into a large waterproof bag, and then the captain gave the word, "All aboard."  Here I met my first misfortune.  Getting into the boat I stepped on a loose piece of ice, which gave way under me , and I went in up to my waist.  Had the weather been severe I would have been left on shore to avoid frozen limbs.  The weather was mild and I was permitted to stay.

"The captain steered the boat.  I was put to row the stroke of the oar.  I never had such a desperate pull.  It was almost impossible to force the boat through this horrible lolly, a mixture of snow and small pieces of ice, and for every two feet of the way we made we were squeezed back one.  After about two hours of this work, we reached a perfectly level field of floating ice about a mile wide.  We donned our harness and dragged the boat through two feet of snow.  Then we found a tolerably clear channel and rowed with a will until we again became tangled in masses of piled up ice many of them as high as a small house and of most fantastic shapes.  The color of some of the blocks on which the sun shone was very beautiful -brilliant green, blue and red.  And on it went: the danger, commitment, and beauty of coming home.  It took a full day.

"Whether by ice boat, car ferry, bridge or airplane, at a very deep level we long to come home.  Coming home is about the physical place we call the Island.  Coming home also includes the journey, and mystical sense of the home we carry within us.  Have we ever left?"

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Jack & Lillian Paul - January 16, 2022

Thanks for the story Bruce. My parents, husband, brother & I all crossed on the ferry on New years Day 1958…It was cold and windy but the red Island soil…or should I say mud…. awaited us…No snow that early that winter.

Bonnie arnold - January 15, 2022

Very descriptive account of the ice boat crossing to the Island.wonderful story.
I remember my mother telling me of our ancestors the Irving’s who lived in Cape Travers near Borden, working on the ice boats. What dangerous crossings but the only link to the Island. We’ve made such advances in some ways but at great cost. Global warming.

Mike Lajoie - January 13, 2022

This story of the crossing of the Northumberland Strait in winter, over a century and a half ago, and twenty years ago, and today on the Confederation Bridge was to me one of the most interesting I’ve read in this blog. Thank you for an uplifting read !

Lynn - January 13, 2022

Wow! Are we spoiled or what! We have a choice of the bridge or the ferry, and neither of them involve pulling the boat or rowing. I’ll take it.
Thank for the story!

Geraldine Gadsden - January 13, 2022

Thank you for sharing, coming home always makes everything alright. I miss the Island, my Grandparents home where I spent a lot of time. Many many wonderful memories.

Susan - January 13, 2022

What a wonderful story. I have only been to P.E.I. over the bridge and have loved the island since! My grandmother’s mother was born there.

Doreen Mallette - January 13, 2022

Such a good read. Thank you for all your wonderful history and stories❤

Dorothy Klimis-Zacas - January 13, 2022

Thank you, Bruce for the wonderful story; a reminder of Kavafis poem “Ithaka”. I also long for the ferry crossings from 25 years ago,
Thank you also for your Saturday morning blogs that I look forward to reading with the hope that my return to the island will be soon.
Dorothea (Orono, Maine)

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