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?"