When you start a new column in a new newspaper, the very first column is very important. Sure, my Field Notes column is the same one I've been writing for more than three years but this Wednesday, it debuts in the Citizen-Record newspaper and reaches a whole new audience, many of whom don't know me from a hole in a log on the wood pile.
I can't decide what to write about for this all-important first column. You get one chance to make a first impression, you know, and a good dog trainer also taught me to "start as you mean to go on" so I'd rather write funny than poignant or opinionated. (I'm already worried about those online comments... I've already decided I won't be reading them...)
I wish my husband had been up to something lately because his antics are always good to write about. He and the dog went snowshoeing this morning and had a grand time (without me) but aside from Abby dragging home a "fresh" deer leg this afternoon, those two have been behaving themselves.
Is it too soon to write my "Why I don't like spring" column? After the all the snowstorms of the last two months, complaining about spring may hit too many raw nerves. At least I can work the dog and the deer leg into that one.
My doctor said something very interesting to me last week when I was in for my annual check up. I should write it down because I'm going to forget it -- and it's such a great argument for country living. It needs to be shared but as a first column?
I'm leaning towards a 4H column, inspired by Saturday's County Rally in Pugwash and everything I saw there. These kids are remarkable. They make me feel like a right chicken shit. Someone should call me out for hiding behind a camera instead of participating in the Woodsmen competition (please don't!). I'll make up for it with a shout-out to Becky for grace under pressure -- and under fire. So to speak.
It's not bad to have more ideas than I know what to do with. I'd scaled Field Notes back to once a month in the Journal because I felt like I had tapped all there was to write but now that the column will be a combination of Field Notes and In Conversation With, there's been a renewal of energy and an unplugging of the flow of creative juices.
There's nothing quite like the challenge of expanding one's horizons.
There seem to be a lot of blue jays around our house these days. The reason could be this simple: My mother, primary supplier of bird seed, is away so the fill-in help (me) is left in charge and I tend to forget to feed the birds.
Case in point, it's after ten a.m. and I haven't done it yet. I can hear a blue jay calling to me from the spruce tree outside my upstairs office.
And yet, the other day when I took a whole bucket of seed to the snowdrift-less space under the clutch of pine trees in our front yard, I couldn't count the number of blue jays who suddenly were dropping down from the limbs to snatch peanut halves and sunflower seeds from the smorgasbord I'd just provided. Best estimate would be a dozen.
Then yesterday, I looked out the window and saw blue jays gathered in the tree tops next to the house. There were six in total, the two sitting side by side in the middle appearing as one in the photo.
I've always had a soft spot for the raucous blue jay. Love its colours, love its boldness. It is so sure of itself. It knows its place in the world and it is not afraid to shout about it.
And just so you know, it has a "thank you" call. I hear it as a I walk away from the seed I've put down on the snow.
In 2004, after my nephew was born, after my parents had left our house on Pugwash Point to go to Georgia to meet him, I looked out the window and saw a flock of blue jays fly out of the lilac bushes. I asked my friend Kim, who is in tune with the spiritual lives of animals, if that meant anything.
"Blue jays are a sign of good things to come," she told me.
I held onto that idea after my nephew was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. Instead of saying, "Kim, you were so wrong," I allowed myself to believe that the blue jays were helping me through that worrisome time. And good things did come: My nephew will be eleven in September. He has five brothers and sisters.
Having lost my job at the community newspaper and facing down the next five months which will determine (I have arbitrarily decided) whether I become a book author, I wondered what the late Ted Andrews had to say in Animal Speak, a book that informed my ideas for my 2011 Saltscapes article about the ospreys who nest near our home.
"Those with a jay as a totem usually have a tremendous amount of ability, but it can be scattered or it is often not developed any more than is necessary to get by," Andrews wrote. "The bright blue crest of the jay should be a reminder that to wear the crown of true mastership requires dedication, responsibility and committed development. The blue jay is a reminder to follow through on all things"
So it's time to toss the day-after-the-layoff list of ideas for what I could or should be doing now. Now is not the time to be starting many new things but to be focused on completing what I've already begun.
Andrews went on to say, "The blue jay reflects that a time of greater resourcefulness and adaptability is about to unfold. You are going to have ample opportunities to develop and use your abilities."
But clearly, I need to remain committed to certain abilities and not try to start anything new.
Best of all, and perhaps for me, most importantly, blue jays are fearless and fun-loving. The right symbol for a period of transition and uncertainty and hard work.
The blue jay is the right bird to have peering in my office window, reminding me to work hard on my books, to come out to play in the snow (and feed the birds while I'm at it), and most of all, to believe, with my whole heart, that good things are on the way.
A version of this photo appears in The NovaScotian section of the print edition of today's Chronicle-Herald. I chose to leave Maddie Bushen (junior member with the Linden 4H club) in this shot because I love how the members have to/get to sit on the log to anchor it while someone is sawing. Front row seat to the grunting and forced exhalations!
Every column I write seems to be "my favourite" -- and the next one in May will be all about animals -- but each column reveals some new idea or skill I'm learning through this year in 4H and that gets my enthusiasm up. I'm not bashful about admitting that I'm a totally biased journalist.
Not sure I want my husband to witness my act of sawing but this certainly is proof that what you think can't be done probably can be. Although the last sentence of my column is a true-ism!
My father ran a small business in a small town. In fact, his experience spanned two small towns; in the first one, he was the second, "under-dog" business but ten years later, he ran a very successful, "top dog" business, building upon the reputation of the company he purchased in another small town down the highway.
Whether he was struggling to keep up or secure in the lead, he didn't change his methods of operation: He put his customers' needs first, which is easy to do when you structure your business around what they want, not what you want, but also when you live where you work and know the families you serve.
He also knew that community support runs both ways. A small business in a small town (or in a small neighbourhood in a big city) needs the local community to support it but as a small business owner, he knew that he needed to support the community as well. When he owned the "under-dog" business and was its sole employee, he was out every day sweeping the front walk, even if it didn't need sweeping. This allowed him to be seen but also to greet every person who walked by. He walked two blocks to the main street every afternoon to buy the daily newspaper so that he so that he could talk to the man running Woody's Smokeshop, so he could visit other businesses. So he could see and be seen out in the community.
A smile and a handshake are small gestures that mean a lot to people.
When a new company opened in the second small town, splitting the competition into three (from two) companies, my father made the decision to sell his business to a large corporation in order to save the jobs of his employees. The corporation was based in Texas with its Canadian headquarters in Hamilton.
This was my first lesson in the disconnect between Big Business and small towns. When my father told his "overseers" to undercut the new guys in town in order to keep business, they wouldn't.
"These are our prices and this is what we charge," they said from their big desks in the big city. They don't understand that big city prices aren't possible in small towns.
My father knew how to run a small business in a small town; those savvy, smug corporate guys sold my father's business in five years because they didn't understand small towns and the needs -- and eccentricities -- of the people who live in those small towns.
Attend a pancake supper at a community hall? Put up a banner on the sideboards at the arena? Join a service club? Give that widow a break on the regular price because her husband left her in debt? This is what it takes to run a small business in a small town. You support my business and I'll support your event, your team, your fundraiser. We are in this together and we need each other.
We are losing this, I'm afraid, in these times of online communications and big box shopping, of corporate pandering and rural neglect. We are forgetting, to our peril, the personal connections in our small towns.
When we stop supporting each other -- whether we're shovelling snow from someone's driveway or handing over eight bucks for a plate of pancakes or putting an ad in the local newspaper -- we stop supporting the small town way of life.
You don't know what you have until it's gone.
First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, by Sara Jewell Mattinson.
This spring, Rosemary Donkin’s daughter is graduating from the University of Prince Edward Island with a nursing degree, making Elizabeth the fourth generation of Rosemary’s family to be a registered nurse.
But that’s not the only way in which Elizabeth has followed in her mother’s footsteps. By studying for her nursing degree while working and raising two children, with the help of a very supportive husband, she was very much influenced by her mother’s example.
After graduating from high school in Amherst, Rosemary studied nursing at the Victoria General in Halifax and practiced clinical bedside nursing, mostly with children, from 1973 until 1989.
During that time, after she began working full-time in Amherst, she met and married Phillip Donkin, a respiratory therapist and beef farmer from Mount Pleasant. Both Rosemary and Phillip had young children from previous marriages (the oldest was 12) and when blended, they became a family of nine, with four boys and one girl.
For some people, that would be challenge enough but in 1989, Rosemary was offered a job as the Education Coordinator for five hospitals in Cumberland County. The new job with regular day hours and travel came with a catch.
“A degree in nursing was a requirement for me to work in that position,” Rosemary says. “It forced me to remain marketable, to look at what I was doing personally and professionally, and to learn and accept the responsibility I was asking other people to do.”
As Education Coordinator (a job that would eventually become district-wide and involve nine hospitals in three counties), Rosemary was responsible for coordinating all learning and development programs for hospital staff, programs such as CPR, arthritis management, and palliative care.
“With this job, I was able to combine my love of nursing and my love of teaching,” explains Rosemary of her decision to move out of bedside nursing and into management.
It took her seven years to earn her nursing degree from the University of New Brunswick, studying part-time (mostly by distance education courses) while working full-time, raising five active children, and supporting a husband who also worked full-time and ran a beef farm. A year after she graduated, a promotion inspired her to enroll at St. FX for a Masters degree in adult education.
“I earned two degrees in the heated room of the rink and in the back of the Leicester hall at 4H meetings,” she laughs. “For many years, we would spend five nights a week at the rink and on weekends. And when we were driving to Yarmouth or Cape Pele or wherever the hockey tournament was, I would be listening to my university lectures on a tape deck or doing my homework. Or I sat at the kitchen table, still in the hub of the family. I did my homework will the kids did theirs.”
Rosemary credits the support of her family for making it all work out.
“Money was a major challenge but my family was extremely helpful. For every birthday and Christmas, I would receive money or textbooks or money for tuition. That happened a lot,” she says. She also admits to looking at a cow and wondering if it could pay for another course.
She says her husband kept her going through the tough slogs and financial strains.
“When I’d get really discouraged, he’d say, ‘It’s just for another six weeks. We can do anything for six weeks’. He was behind me 100 per cent for all of it.”
That’s the advice she gives to other women who want to further their careers but aren’t sure if they juggle home and school and the financial strain for several years.
“You have to look at it in very small blocks. If you look at whole thing, it’s overwhelming,” Rosemary advises. “If I’d looked at the whole thing, I couldn’t have done it but when I put it into blocks of three months [a semester], I could get through that. That’s how I tackled it. I hate to study but I love to learn new things and the only way to learn them is to study them.”
It seems there is no job you can give to Rosemary that she won’t see the educational potential in. When the Northern Regional Health Board was dissolved and her job as Education Coordinator was dissolved along with it, Rosemary took a position as a nurse supervisor at East Cumberland Lodge in Pugwash. Within a few months, she became the facility’s administrator.
“I figured I should know a little bit more about looking after people in long-term care so I enrolled in the Continuing Care program at St. FX. It’s a specialty in home-care and long-term care with a focus on the elderly,” she says.
Rosemary calls her tenure at ECL it a very special time in her life.
“It was a very humbling experience. There was so much kindness in the building. It was overwhelming for me sometimes, knowing how kind and patient the staff could be,” she says.
Rosemary began her nursing career with children, moved into adult education in a hospital setting then ended her career with seniors. It isn’t surprising then to find her new passion is at the very end of the human health spectrum: palliative care.
“The Cumberland County Hospice/Palliative Care Society is going to construct a hospice building for Cumberland County,” she says. “A stand-alone hospice. It will be one of the first in Atlantic Canada. It’s for people of all ages who are at the end of their life who, for whatever reason, are unable to stay in their own home or within their own community but who don’t need to be in an acute care hospital.”
Rosemary has been involved in palliative care since she began working as an education coordinator in 1989 and calls the palliative outreach program at the hospital in Amherst one of the best in the province. Of the new hospice home, she says, “It will be a place of hope, a place of joy and a place of comfort.”
Through all of these years, Rosemary did have one activity was separate from work and study, and nurtured her love of music: She’s been a member of the Cobequid Fun-Tones (a barbershop-style singing group) since 1989.
“I’ve always said the Fun-Tones was the thing I didn’t have time for but I had to have time for. Even though I worked in Amherst, our children were educated in Oxford and I wanted to have more of my social life involved in this community.”
Now a co-director with the Fun-Tones, she’s counting down the days until June when the Fun-Tones make a much-anticipated trip to Newfoundland for a convention and contest.
My thoughts are not going to be eloquent or elegant -- they are going to be raw and honest because the loss of our community newspaper is yet another "canary in the coal mine".
Today's issue of The Oxford Journal is the last one. After more than 115 years of publishing, 110 of those with the Marchant family (Stanley, Victor, Glenn and Paul), the Journal has been forced to close its doors due to plummeting revenue and rising costs.
On Tuesday afternoon, when Paul Marchant, the sleeplessness of the past six months etched into new lines under his eyes, announced "We're done," he was talking to a bare-bones staff. Only four employees were affected.
Only one of those employees was a reporter. He was also the editor and photographer. He worked seven days a week but he couldn't be everywhere.
Another employee (me) was part-time. I worked two days a week.
I also wrote two columns for the paper that neither Charlie and Paul micromanaged or ever interfered with. (For that, I will be eternally grateful because doing that kind of intense, deadline writing for the last three and a half years has been an amazing learning experience.)
I've worked as a teacher and as a radio newscaster, as well as always being a freelance writer, but this was my first job at an actual newspaper. I really enjoyed my work, which included creating ads and doing up the In Memorials and Cards of Thanks, and I will miss "paper day", Tuesday, when we put the paper together. There was always a sense of accomplishment when we made everything fit and look good.
But lately, there has also been a growing sense of doom: Since January, we've been publishing a 16-page paper. When I first started in June 2011, it was regularly 24 pages, although there might be a couple of 20-pagers in the slow months of January and February. Every page needs a paid ad in order to pay for the page; fewer ads meant fewer pages.
But you want to know why. Why did the Oxford Journal close down? Could we have done something to prevent this?
Locally, for those of you who sell your belongings through the free listings on the Internet, for those of you who post your events online, for those of you who commemorate birthdays and anniversaries and deaths on Facebook, the loss of those ad revenues hurt the paper. A lot of associations and municipal departments who advertised with us simply stopped. We didn't have any ads this year for March Break activities for the Town of Oxford.
"It costs too much," we'd hear but the cost of postage has gone up and the cost of ink cartridges has gone up and the cost of fuel has gone up. When you won't pay for ads, Paul can't pay his bills, or his employees.
Nationally, when Ford and GM pulled their ads out of weekly newspapers last spring, that was the beginning of the end. Losing that income took away the safety net.
When people stopped advertising in the Chronicle-Herald's Classifieds section, that paper lost $7 million in revenue. The Atlantic Community Newspaper Association used to bring in $90,000 in ad revenues; now they're down to $9,000. There is no way for newspapers to make up that kind of lost revenue. The readers and advertisers will only pay so much for a subscription and for ads.
Too many people turned their back on their community newspaper.
Selling out to a large corporation wouldn't have preserved the Oxford Journal, either. Our 2,000 readers mattered to us in a way that wouldn't to the large corporation based in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. They want 2,000,000 readers in the cities, not a couple of thousand in Hicksville, Nova Scotia.
Paul made his own decisions about pricing, about content, about fundraisers and he made every decision with his home community in mind. He didn't have to wait on lawyers and accountants in the corporate head office to make decisions for him based on their numbers, not based on people or community.
Whether we're talking churches or gift shops or the local newspaper, if you don't support it, it will close down. Now your newspaper will come from outside your community, a newspaper with local editors but faraway owners who don't give a rat's ass about 2,000 readers in rural Nova Scotia.
Who is going to write the stories of Pugwash and Wallace, Oxford and Wentworth, Linden and Mount Pleasant, Collingwood and Westchester now? You don't know what you have until it's gone, and this is the story
throughout Nova Scotia. If you don't support your local community, your
local community will fade away.
Do you know what I admired about the Journal and why I liked writing for
it? I didn't have to
interview politicians or write political commentary; I didn't have to be
snarky or ironic or dig up people's secrets. I could write nice,
uplifting, interesting stories that made people feel good about themselves and about their neighbours. I am going to
miss that so much.
And I bet you will too.
My six-year-old nephew Vincent called this afternoon to tell me it is "super hot" in Atlanta, Georgia.
"Well, you could come here and cool off," I answered.
"Or you and Uncle Dwayne could come here and get warm," was his much better idea.
So while I was shovelling mounds of snow away from our doors, I thought I should Skype Vinny and his older siblings to show them exactly what the opposite of super hot looks like.
The wind was nasty last night, hitting the side of the house like a giant wolf trying to knock our house of wood down. And no one got up in the night to toss another log in the furnace so the house was frigid this morning, filled with the cold breath of the big, bad wolf.
It certainly wasn't dog breath. She was buried under the covers between my husband and me.
As I lay in bed this morning with my body pressed up against Abby's soft, warm back, my cold nose pressed into her warm neck, this photo popped into my mind. Me and my daddy and Daisy the pup snuggled together under the quilts.
It appears I was the early riser, dressed and breakfasted before waking Daddy up.
As I lay in bed this morning listening to Abby breathe, thinking of this photo, thinking of this morning ritual established in my wee baby brain, I thought, "I was born a dog person."
Then I wondered how I could be so bad at it. Not at being a dog person, necessarily; I love them and want a life filled with them. But I don't have great success training dogs. Really, I raised my dogs to be like me: More enthusiasm than skill. I just don't jump up on people and cars (although I did back into a tree a few years ago).
Given my trials with the obstinate, dominant Stella, we tried something different with Abby. She slept with us from the moment she came home with us (ohmygodshewassocute). Trainers may say this is a recipe for disaster since our little puppy would grow into a large, leggy dog that would consider our bed equally hers but at the time, it was very convenient for house-training and for bonding.
I didn't do this with Stella and Stella is a completely different dog than Abby but I still believe bringing Abby into our bed when she was a puppy, instead of making her sleep in a crate as Stella did, has made a difference. Gosh, it's nice having a dog that comes when she's called.
Yeah, the bonding is worth it even though her face is the first one I see when I
wake up in the morning. Now I have sneak back into bed to snuggle with
Here's the other thing about that little dog person in the photo: She's still the early riser who gets up, makes a fire in the cold furnace, turns on the coffee maker and gives the dogs their breakfast before crawling into bed next to her husband and waking him up with a cold nose pressed into his warm neck.
First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, March 11, 2015, by Sara Jewell Mattinson.
Imagine your house burns down on a Saturday night. You and your kids are homeless and have lost everything in the fire. Over the weekend, you manage to get yourself together enough that you only miss one day of work.
When you arrive at work on the Tuesday following the fire, wearing the donated clothes that are best suited for work but still involve a pair of yoga pants, your boss looks you over.
“That’s an interesting outfit,” she says. “What do you think it is, Casual Friday?”
As shocking as that boss’s utter lack of compassion is, it may be a symptom of our growing disconnect with each other.
According to Mary Purdy, a long-time yoga instructor and healthy living facilitator, we are all born with the capacity for compassion but it’s a skill that must be developed.
“Compassion is about seeing suffering and wanting to do something about it,” she explains as we sip tea in her home in Streets Ridge. “More importantly, it’s about doing something about the suffering. Compassion takes a lot of courage.”
In this spirit of taking action, Mary is shifting the focus of her education and workshops to compassion because she believes we live in the kind of world that no longer encourages the development of that skill.
“The place where we used to learn about compassion and kindness, the church, is no longer there,” she says. “The other thing is this culture we’ve created. It’s about keeping the economy going by buying and it’s all throwaway stuff. We’ve become a materialistic society and that means I have to do and be something bigger and better than you. To be a successful person doesn’t have much to do with compassion. I think we need to reverse that.”
Having worked in local schools over the years and being married to an education assistant, Mary knows first-hand the stresses facing students, teachers and parents.
“These are trying times in the education system,” she says. “Teachers are so overwhelmed they don’t want one more thing to do, like a breathing meditation or a compassion circle but compassion cultivates trust and safety. I think many children don’t feel safe and they don’t trust. I think many teachers don’t feel safe and don’t trust because they don’t believe the resources and the support will ever come.”
Mary recently conducted a compassion circle with the 24 students in Mrs. LeBlanc’s Grade 3 class at Oxford Regional Education Centre.
“We sat in a circle and I was just the same size as them which worked out very nicely,” she laughs. “We talked about what compassion means to them then we talked about when someone showed them kindness. That’s how they understand compassion but when they talked about kindness, it was definitely compassion.”
She says she was warned that the students wouldn’t be able to sit still for more than 20 minutes but when she asked after 30 minutes if they wanted to close the circle, they said no.
The compassion circle lasted an hour and Mary was amazed at the honesty with which the children expressed themselves. This hunger for more meaningful connection with others fuels Mary’s passion for teaching compassion to children and adults.
“I want to rattle the cage,” Mary says. “I want to be somebody who wakes people up. I want to be the one that comes in and points out that we’re all interested in stopping bullying then say ‘Stop using that language’. What we’re interested in is creating more peace. I don’t want to hear that someone is labeled a bully; that person is someone who needs skills. That’s the person who needs compassion.”
Mary, who is a member of the Atlantic Contemplative Centre in Halifax, sees herself as being part of a compassion evolution but one could argue that if Mary is out to rattle cages and challenge language (and bosses), well, that sounds a lot like a revolution.
"Compassion is a practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently day by day."
-- Karen Armstrong
For this week's column, I share my conversation with Mary Purdy, who is making it her mission to teach children and adults about compassion and develop the skill of caring about each other.
"I'm interested in getting people to make connections with themselves, to reconnect with their basic goodness," Mary told me. "That's when they can recognize the basic goodness in other people."
We have got to stop the insanity of the time change. It's not so bad in the fall when we move our body clocks back an hour but in the spring,
there is no other word,
I try not to whine and complain and moan but when I had to be at church for a 9:30 service this morning, ruling out the possibility of sleeping until my body woke naturally at its usually pre-change time, I couldn't help myself. I flopped into a pew and said, "There should be a rule that church is cancelled on time change Sunday!"
Now it's time for the traditional time change Sunday nap.
What a beautiful walk this morning, through the woods and over the river.
For snowmobilers and people who have lived here all their lives, this is not a big deal -- walking over the frozen River Philip next to the TransCanada Highway -- but for me, Big Moment!
This is the first time I've done the loop from my friend Jane's house along the old rail bed trail and cross the river to continue along the other side and back through town to her house. It's a really pretty walk on the other side, one I've never done because we only walk to the river in the spring and fall, and of course can't go any further. Why it's taken us three years to do this loop in the winter is beyond me. Using the snowmobile trails for walking the dogs is the best way to keep active during the winter and thank goodness the Oxford and Area Trails Association is working so hard to get the multi-use trail open (as part of the TransCanada Trail). As part of their work to complete the trail, a bridge is being installed to complete this loop, over the river right here, right where I'm standing. Very soon, we'll be able to do these early morning walks year-round.
I didn't appreciate what a difference the bridge will make to the Oxford area until I walked across the river this morning so to quote Councillor Darlene Ellis, "Let's build that bridge!"
First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, March 4, 2015 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.
During summers at the family cottage in West Pugwash, a boy from Oxford sat on the shores of the harbour and watched salt boats manoeuvre through the channel. He watched every time a ship sailed in or out, even begging his parents to wake him up in the middle of the night so he could see a ship come in.
Makes perfect sense, then, that when the boy grew up, he earned a Watchkeeping Mate licence.
“It means that for eight hours of the day, I’m responsible for the ship, its crew and its safe navigation. I share that responsibility with two other mates and we all work under the captain,” explains 28-year-old Jeff Marchant.
After graduating from high school, Jeff thought he wanted to study business but it didn’t take long for him to realize he really wanted to work on those ships he’d watched as a boy. He enrolled at NSCC’s nautical institute in Port Hawkesbury where he learned to be a deck-hand, an entry-level position.
“Once I had that, I sailed with the Coast Guard and that course was one year,” he says. “Then I worked and sailed with the Coast Guard for three years as a deckhand and a wheelsman.”
But with aspirations to become an officer, Jeff left the Coast Guard in 2011 and enrolled in the commercial shipping program at Georgian College in Ontario.
“It’s two-and-a-half years solid,” he says of the program he completed in June 2014. “The way the program is set up, the academic portion is September to April with no spring break and as soon as that’s done, there’s a co-op portion. I spent four months as an officer-in-training on a classic lake ship.”
His co-op provider, who is now his employer, is Algoma, one of the four big shipping companies; another company is Groupe Desgagnés “which people in Pugwash will be familiar with,” says Jeff.
After his second academic semester and co-op, Jeff had the chance to go to China to sail home one of the company’s brand-new Equinox class bulk carriers. This trip also would provide him with deep-sea sailing experience.
“A lot of the co-op providers are within the Great Lakes because that’s where a lot of Canada’s shipping takes place,” he says. “China was an opportunity I’ve never had before. We flew to Shanghai and spent a couple of weeks at the shipyard getting the ship ready to sail. I was still a cadet and had six months of school to complete which was a good way to do it because I got to see all aspects of the ship and everything had to be done from scratch because they were new ships.”
All eight ships in this new class are being built in China so in order to make these lake ships safe for a sea crossing, the company designed a Delivery Voyage Strengthening system in which two eight-foot walls were welded onto the sides of the ship. Those walls were removed once the ship reached the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Jeff on the deck of the Algoma Equinox in China in 2013.
According to Jeff, the difference between lake ships and sea ships is weight. Lake ship construction is not as strong as ships built for deep sea because there is no significant wave action to deal with. Lake ships are lighter which means they can carry more cargo.
“All the ships are bound to the Great Lakes so their construction doesn’t allow them to pass Anticosti Island which is in the northern section of Quebec. They’re not allowed to travel east of that.”
Having now experienced both sea and lake sailing, Jeff says he prefers lake.
“There’s a lot more going on, I like the responsibility, and it’s a healthy dose of stress. I’m still learning, there’s no question. I finished the six months I had left at school and immediately went to work as third officer on the Algoma Equinox and I’m still learning the systems. There’s so much more to learn and I want to master it.”
As a Watchkeeping Mate, Jeff works on the bridge.
“I work with an Able-Bodied Seaman (AB) and that person steers the boat for me. I take in all the information available, all the other vessels in my area, course alternations and channels, and I’m responsible for making sure the ship is safely within those areas. The AB is responsible for actually manoeuvering the ship. If it’s time to alter course, I know what the next course is and I’ll look at the AB and say, ‘Please bring the ship to, say, south 1-8-0.’ He or she does the physical work while I do the monitoring.”
He says the 2013 movie, Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks, provides a very accurate idea of the work done on a commercial ship like his.
“Less the pirates, of course,” he laughs.
After graduation, Jeff went to work almost immediately and worked for six months straight. While he says living on a ship was hard at first, it didn’t take long to settle in because it’s similar to home.
“On board, everyone has their own cabin. The rooms are really well-furnished for the most part. On every ship I’ve been on so far, everyone has their own washroom and shower. On the Equinox, for example, I had a nice big closet, a refrigerator, a toaster oven, a couch (which on a ship is called a settee). I have a double bed, a great big window, a flat panel television with satellite TV and Internet. I have a desk for doing paperwork.”
And all his meals are provided by a galley staff who cooks for a crew of 18 people plus cadets.
In the hierarchy of a ship, Jeff has been sailing as a second and third mate. When he first started working after graduation, he had no desire to be a captain but the last six months have changed his mind.
“I was always kind of nervous of the position but now I’ve seen different people holding the position,” he says. “I’ve sailed with a few different captains and picked up a lot of good stuff from all of them and now I see that, with the proper training and more experience, I’d have no problem.”
Jeff says there are plenty of job opportunities in the shipping industry for young people graduating from high school.
“There’s a shortage in both engineering and deckside so if you have an interest in either, grab a course calendar and head to Port Hawkesbury or Ontario.”
The commercial shipping year runs from late March to early January and Jeff is using the few months off during the winter for training.
“The licence I’m going for now will be first mate. Once the training is complete and I get enough sea time, I’ll apply for my licence. Once I take a position on board a ship, I will manage the ship, the personnel and be responsible for cargo and piloting. I really want to get this first mate licence. I’m in school mode and I want to stay there and get it over with.”
Besides the challenging work, what Jeff appreciates about his chosen career is that he can live anywhere he wants, including home in Nova Scotia.
“The position pays well, just as good as Alberta, and I actually get more time off than that guy travelling to Alberta. I’m closer to home. While I do spend more than three or four weeks at a time working, I’m home for three months at a time.”
Stella is 12 years old today. When she was 18 months old, her nickname was "Frankenstella" because she was such a little monster. These days, with the grey face and the less bendy hips and knees and the lumpy spine showing through her fur, we call her "Stellasaurus".
Age hasn't really diminished Stella; she's in pretty good health for a 12-year-old pure bred. All age has done is mellowed her. But not her appetite, of course; even with her gum problems which we see now prevent her from actually chewing food -- as if she ever did -- she remains as ever food-oriented.
Thereby earning her the nickname "Guts".
And truthfully, since I started adding a teaspoon of coconut oil to her breakfast in January, Stella seems to be doing better than she was a year ago.
Happy Birthday, Guts. Enjoy your cake.
The first club meeting for the 4H woodsmen competition was held yesterday afternoon in the leader's farm yard and it was an eye-opening experience for me. Till now, 4H has been about club meetings and projects like cake decorating and rabbit. Pretty easy stuff right in my comfort zone. Even spending Saturday morning at the club's Public Speaking and Demonstration Day was familiar ground to me.
But put a saw in my hands and show me the stance for sawing a cookie off a log in which every pull (not push) of the saw matters and it's definitely unfamiliar ground. This was the first experience I've had so far in 4H that's been true to my mission for the column, and as it turns out, to the 4H motto: Learn by doing!
Pictured above is the water boil and while I've seen photos in our newspaper from the woodsmen competition at the county rally (which is March 28), nothing compares to seeing this live. In the photo, Will and Olivia are using kindling he cut and shavings she made to light a fire -- with one of their three matches. After the fire is going, the trick is to place the can of soapy water on the fire without putting it out and then to keep the fire going. At one point, Will and Liv were both lying flat on their stomachs, one blowing on the fire while the other turned her head away.
My nerves couldn't stand it! Then again, I'm not 12 or 16 or 21 years old. But what a skill-testing event. Every second counts -- especially if it's windy.
Why the soapy water? You're done as soon as the bubbles boil over the top of the can.
I'll say more about the woodsmen competition in my next "A Year In 4H" column at the end of March.