“I hear an ambulance coming,” the lady at the counter says, raising her head to listen. The pen she is holding remains still in her hand, hovering mid-air. My head swivels around. “I don’t hear anything…” I don’t get the words out of my mouth before the sirens become audible.
“Someone must have fallen off the rocks at Peggy’s Cove,” the lady says, pinching her lips together and shaking her head. The realization takes hold and she returns her gaze back to the work of registering me into the campground.
She turns the registration form around and pushes it towards me. I start to fill in the spaces for vehicle make, model and licence plate but twist my head toward her and ask, “Does that happen often?” Her eyes soften and she replies, “Yes, too often.”
With my paperwork completed, we start the payment exchange, falling silent listening to the toggling pitches of the Emergency Medical Services vehicle. It is very close now. The urgency of it has shattered the peacefulness of this community on St Margaret’s Bay and when it finally passes I am almost relieved, yet it has left a uneasiness I can’t shake.
“Will you be going to watch the sunset at the lighthouse?” she changes the subject. “Yes, I hope to get some nice photos,” I reply.
“Just stay off the black rocks, they are slippery,” she makes a fine point of it raising her eyebrows.
Despite the current humid temperatures inland, I anticipate it will be cool at the ocean when evening comes on. I change into long pants and drape my jacket over the passenger seat. It is only 12 kilometers to the village and sunset is still three hours away, but I want to pay my respects at the memorial for the 229 passengers that lost their lives on Swissair Flight 111 which crashed in the ocean near on September 2, 1998.
I am friends with a retired Canadian Forces member who was part of the search and rescue mission. When I mentioned to him I was coming this weekend, he told me, “It was gruesome, I will never be able to return to Peggy’s Cove.” The wince on his face told me more than his words.
As I drive along the winding road, I take notice of the stunted and scraggy spruce trees fighting for a foothold among the massive white granite rocks that make up this stretch of Nova Scotia’s coastline. It is vastly different from the grayish-black slate that comprises most of the coastline of New Brunswick.
When I see the sign for the memorial, I pull in and park. Solemnly I walk up the roped-off path of crushed stone that leads towards the dedication. Two-upright granite ovals and a polished granite floor, a couple of benches, all chiseled from the natural stone of the area. It impresses a mix of emotions: a place of remembrance, reserved for sadness and tears, but what a view. Commenting on the beauty of the place feels inconsiderate and I am glad it is removed from the lighthouse.
The stone on the left is for the victims, it reads: In memory of the 229 men women and children, aboard Swissair Flight 111, who perished off these shores on Sept 2nd 1998, they have been joined to the sea and the sky, may they rest in peace.
The stone on the right is to mark appreciation, it reads; In grateful recognition of all those who worked tirelessly to provide assistance in the recovery operation and comfort to the families and friend during a time of distress.
There are approximately 30 villagers who call Peggy’s Cove home. The access road ribbons its way between their homes and immovable rocks. It swings sharply right, weaving around a sitting area, perched high on a stand of worn granite, outside the Sou’wester Restaurant, then pours me into a parking lot that is nearly full to capacity.
I feel the ocean breeze as I get out of the truck. It gives me goosebumps, so I feed my arms through the sleeves of my jacket as I walk toward the rocks, never taking my eyes off the view. A plaque reminds people of the dangers that await the careless.
This evening the ocean has a soft wave pattern, nothing crashing, nothing battering – a person could easily get lulled into a sense of safety and I too get caught-up in the rock-hopping. To tell you the truth, the lighthouse is pretty, the view spectacular, but climbing around on the rocks is the best part of the place.
Magnificent boulders pull you up and out. From one mound to the next, down into a divot, around pockets and holes, leaping across gaps. They pile against each other and form bridges, the next one is higher, it probably has a better view. In a low crouch I climb up the side of steep slope and make my way to the highest vantage point. Once on top I stretch to a stand-tall position. The view is fantastic, but I can see a clueless happy family out walking on the black rocks.
A seven-foot ledge and 15 foot gap separates me from their toddler wobbling at a half run, chasing down the man staring at the waves.
They are tourists that disembarked from a bus, not locals who know better. I leap down and make my way carefully over toward them. This whole place has been shaped by eons of salt water pock-marking up the surface of the granite, and it is hard on the hands as I descend back down to warn them.
I nudge forward but I stay far enough back and shout a warning, “I wouldn’t go out any further, it isn’t safe the rocks are coated in plant life and they are slick.” They ignore my warning and continue walking the edge towards the lighthouse. Today they got away with it.
Further below and far away from me, is another man. He is at the water’s edge, phone held high, trying to get the best wave action photo. He is in sandals, and wouldn’t have a chance of getting rescued. He is alone.
People depart, others are just arriving for sundown. Along a flat high spot ten or fifteen tripods are placed with a perfect line of sight to the lighthouse and a backdrop of the sun reflecting across the water. On our left -far out, is a bank of cloud.
Like synchronicity, as the sun sinks, that cloud draws closer. A chill runs through me and I am glad I brought my coat. Several people hug themselves, shivering, then jog towards the parking lot.
The lowering sun has drained away the heat of the day and the wall-cloud is pushing menacingly close. As if the ocean is an ogre, we are denied a sight of the treasure. Five minutes to sunset we are enveloped in fog and it shuts down the hope of a brilliant finale.
I had been chatting with a cameraman who lives nearby, he has been photographing the area a long time. While we waited for the big event, I told him I heard the ambulance fly by this afternoon, did he know what happened? With his eye pressed into the viewfinder he said it was a motorcyclist who had been struck by a car, no one fell off the rocks today.
With the fog growing thick, he concedes and folds up his tripod, slinging it over his shoulder. He smiles at me and says, “The ocean always has the last say,” then walks away.
You can easily spend several hours here. Besides the rock-hoping and photography, there are painters, craftsmen, boat tours, bird-watching and hiking. Make sure you stop at the famous home of sculptor William E. DeGarthe. He was unable to finish carving his memorial monument before he died. It is on a rock-face in his back yard.
Arrive in the morning, you’ll see fewer crowds. Sunrise is not as photographic; the sun rising east of the lighthouse, you would have to be in a boat to capture that shot, but it is still excellent and you’ll have the place all to yourself. Stay off the black rocks, and happy travels from Maritimemac.
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