Tantramar FM hosts a community over radio waves

The word eclectic is in their mission statement, so it’s no wonder I got a kick out of Tantramar FM.

The sign on the side of their building caught my eye as we drove through Amherst on our first day in the area. I like to know what’s up with local news and weather, so I flipped the truck radio to 107.9 FM, and it stayed there — and on the cottage radio — for a week.

The characters on the radio became my new friends, surprising me with classic rock on the way to the beach, hillbilly tunes while preparing dinner, then a little light jazz over cocktails (by “cocktails,” you understand, I mean a local beer while I barbecued). I was by turns bemused, taken aback, and reduced to delighted giggles.

CFTA 107.9 FM became such a fun part of our trip that Trevor and I stopped to take pictures of the building on our way out of town.

Trev urged me to go inside to talk to them, but I was, as always, overcome with shyness. The best I could do was tell a guy standing outside the station that I was just a fan of the station and not being creepy wandering around taking pictures. I felt kind of creepy, though, so I took some shoddy, badly framed pictures and dodged back to the car. I had just started pulling away when he came up to the driver’s side window.

“You want to come in?” he asked with a giant Nova Scotia smile. “I could give you a little tour if you wanted. Yeah, just park that car again and come on in.”

His name was Mike. He had eyes the colour of the sky just after the clouds clear, and he was wearing a tweed newsboy cap and white button-down shirt. He had the barest of Maritime accents and was clearly passionate about music. Though he’d sounded almost dismissive when I’d asked if he worked here, it became clear within seconds that the station is a big part of his life. He turned on tour-guide mode, waving broadly at the vinyl-sided building.

“This was originally a Dairy Queen,” he began. “Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Then for a long time it was a restaurant — you can see part of a sign right there — and back then it was just one storey. We built on the extra floor just really recently. We have all the windows and doors open right now to get some air through, so we might have to be real quiet when we go in.”

He led us confidently inside and introduced us to the ladies at the front desk before ushering us toward the sound booth. He never stopped giving us information and anecdotes, though in hushed tones, and pointed to screens in the sound booth to explain how the announcer knew he had two minutes and eight seconds before he was back on air.

amherst cfta tantramar fm stage

“There’s an antique bingo machine,” he said, pointing into another small sound booth. “That’s for radio bingo.” Then through to a recording studio and two other little rooms, one for archiving, and the tour of the lower floor was almost done. As he led us back down the hallway, he tapped the red light outside the main sound booth.

“That thing goes on when he’s on air,” he said. “We’ve been wanting one of those outside the washroom, too.”

Mike got more excited as he took us upstairs. He’d helped build this extension and he was clearly proud. It was clean and open and bright up there, with a large rectangular table under a wall painted with “Music is life. That’s why our hearts have beats.” The small green stage on the street end of the extension came from their old building, and it looked like it was dusted with the sounds of a thousand stories.

I think Mike would have told us half those stories if he’d known where to start.

One of the first nights we listened, I was enchanted by an announcer who had a personal connection with every song he introduced: “And this one is by a close personal friend who played often throughout …” and “This was recorded by so-and-so, who also played with my friend such-and-such …”

CFTA’s head of sales, Beverlee Estabrooks, told me over the phone that it was probably Wilson Moore (“He breathes bluegrass”) or Randy Geddes, who just bought a church where local bands can play. His son’s part of the music scene, too, Bev told me.

We listened to a wonderful and strange travel show recorded while the hosts were on the road. Knowing dead air is death for radio, the hosts did their best to narrate during a slow drive through Minudie: “Oh, look over there. A Saint-Bernard is pooping on the grass.” We weren’t able to squeeze in a trip to Minudie despite the sights.

I grinned every time I heard my favourite signoff, which came at the end of the weather and tide reports: “It’s 2:36 in Amherst. If you’re listening on the Internet, I don’t know what time it is, because I don’t know where you are.”

Tantramar FM is just five years old, but was the result of five years of planning. During a major ice storm, Bev said, a former announcer from another local station tuned in to find out what was going on and what sort of services he could get. But that station was fully automated, leaving him quite literally cold. He and two colleagues set out soon after to start a truly community radio station that would broadcast important information during power outages, storms and other emergencies.

The rest of the time “we just have a lot of fun,” Bev said.

There are only four employees, so volunteers fill 60 hours of on-air time. “You think about the couple of hours they put in at home before they even get in here,” she said proudly. “They’re the inside heart of it.”

The station is non-profit and teams up as often as it can with church groups, the cadets, Lions, local artisans, and other groups. It extends its to hand to community members who want to try out radio to see how it fits. Some record at home, others come in to test-drive the recording studio. A group of students is working hard on a series of ghost stories, Bev said, that will include the mystery of Esther Cox — a story I was going to tell you. But I’ll wait and leave it to the kids.

It’s 12:44 p.m. where I’m at. If you’re reading this on the Internet, I don’t know what time it is, because I don’t know where you are.

If you have a photo from when the building was a Dairy Queen, I’d love to see it. You can shoot me an email at luanshya@yahoo.com


Intercolonial: The railroad that was almost a jewel in the Crown

I’m keen on the railroad, I tell people who ask, because of its role in building Canada, especially here, where Confederation could not have happened without this track being laid.

But it’s more than national pride. It’s a matter of personal history and more than 40 years of stories that touch rail to one degree or another.

I think of riding the train cross-country as an eight-year-old, with a new doll with a plastic head and plush pink body. She had a cord on the back — pull it and her head moved and body wriggled like a real baby.

As older teenagers, Melani and I boxed up our bicycles and took the overnight train to Moncton — the Hub City that is the end of the line and as far as you can go by rail if your destination is Prince Edward Island.

As a 24-year-old, this time with a real baby, four-month-old Trevor, and a deep desire to show him to spread-out family, and introduce him to the most beautiful land I know. Half a year later, he would learn to walk on a train, headed home from the Maritimes again on the Ocean, which was named here as a line on the Intercolonial Railway.

amherst nova scotia rail

Amherst, long a shipbuilding centre and home to four fathers of Confederation, was not built by the railroad, as many Canadian towns were. Yet it owes much of its growth to that technology.

Source: Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2aggmR7
Source: Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2aggmR7

The Intercolonial Railway was dreamed up around 1840. It would be a road linking Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — isolated by land, sea, and  a sliver of Maine — with the Province of Canada, then just Quebec and Ontario. Such a road would take a northern route, smoothing the transport of military supplies in case relations heated with the Americans again, as they had in 1812, and respecting the United States Act during the U.S. Civil War.

In theory it was a genius plan. But it was also a rich plan, and who on earth could pay for it? The four regions started laying track separately and hopefully, waiting for a solution to materialize.

That solution was Confederation itself, with the building of the Intercolonial Railway being inscribed as condition of the union of this eastern half of what is now Canada. It thus became the first major Crown corporation and the biggest infrastructure and transport project of its time.

amherst rail switch

There is debate over the reasons the Intercolonial wiggled and wound its way through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: Was it to bring the railroad to logging communities and more effectively avoid the United States and their just-ended Civil War, or was it a sign of corruption, and the towns’ foresight in wanting track through their blooming towns?

Whether politically motivated or through the intelligent design of chief engineer Sir Sandford Fleming, a wooden train station was built in Amherst to accommodate the opening of the grand project, which boasted the best quality construction with raised rail beds and iron bridges. It was 1,100 kilometres long when it was deemed ready to roll in the mid-1870s.

The Canadian Guide Book in 1891 gushed, “It is a government road, admirably built and equipped, and most moderate in its charges. It runs through some of the best fishing and shooting districts of the continent and some very beautiful landscapes.”

Amherst was a boom town with the world at its feet. It replaced its little wooden train station with the lovely red sandstone building that stands today, a glory of local supplies and craftsmanship.

All good things come with a price, and for Amherst that marker was called in 1910, when its beautiful station was still fresh stone. The nation experienced a downturn, and of course those are always felt more heavily in the Maritimes. Nine years later, workers called a general strike over worsening conditions and in solidarity with the great strike in Winnipeg at that time.

amherst nova scotia mural

The Intercolonial, which in its prime had swallowed the Grand Trunk Railway, was in turn swallowed by the Canadian National Railway. The tracks were eventually turned over to passenger service Via Rail, which uses them to this day.

But the station is shuttered. Its whitewashed beams show signs of dirt as they must have when steam trains were the most heavily seen traffic. It’s a stop on the route inland, but there is no glory here except in the whisper of ghosts and the imaginings of a train whistle heralding prosperity, so very very long ago.

amherst train station inside
Further reading:
North America Railways Hall of Fame
The Canadian Encyclopedia
Historical map of the Intercolonial Railway

A walk in the park: Amherst Shore Provincial Park

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

Probably the water doesn’t always smell like sewage. And maybe it wasn’t sewage after all. Maybe the sheet of oil that made brown bubbles on the surface of the otherwise clear water was caused by all the speedboats taking advantage of a perfect summer day.

If I sound grouchy, it’s because all I wanted was to swim in the warm, warm ocean waters that flow through the Northumberland Strait.

Our sweet little cottage is three kilometres west, but the long, flat, slippery rocks there make it nearly impossible to get out far enough to swim. Beatons Bluff is smack between two provincial parks: Tidnish Dock, which we visited briefly two years ago, and Amherst Shore.

amherst shore provincial park2

Split in two by the Sunrise Trail, the inland half of Amherst Shore park is reserved for camping — No Picnicking! it declares at the entrance — and the beach is a 10-minute walk away, through a wide rocky rail through the woods.

The beach is about 100 metres long at high tide, tucked into a shallow bay created by treed, 40-foot bluffs. High tide made the beach seem smaller and more private, and we played in the sand and relaxed in beach chairs and wandered waist-deep into the clear water.

Trevor, who is 20 and can in theory wander about without my panicking, walked the shoreline and reported back that the water on the other side of the bluffs was wild and choppy and that ours was comparatively peaceful.

That it was. We traced the paths of butterflies and dragonflies and watched in awe as seabirds danced in formation over the waves. We built sandcastles with uncooperative red sand and decorated them with shells. We waded waist-deep into the water and, eventually, got used to the smell.

two wheelsWe give Amherst Shore Provincial Park two stroller wheels out of a completely arbitrary five. The path to the beach is wide and, though rocky, smooth enough to use a stroller to shuttle all the things one needs at the beach. We didn’t have time to wander the trails, but they appear to be wide mown grass and rocky earth. And even if it isn’t the best park in the world, it is a byproduct of the best ocean in the world, and it’s an honour to spend a few hours sitting quietly near it.

amherst shore provincial park

The puzzling house on Beatons Bluff


When I was a little girl, my Barbies’ Dreamhouse was made of shoeboxes and toilet-paper rolls held together with Scotch tape.

On the edge of Nova Scotia, our little Airbnb, which slopes toward Northumberland Strait, is a dreamhouse like that: one shoebox taped to another, added to a cereal box as soon as the Cheerios were done and the prize claimed. We spent our first day imagining how this cottage began, made up as it is of three unique little boxes, and whether it’s finished.

What’s clear is that it’s a house inside a house. The door to the kid’s room used to be an entry from outside. It still has the porch light, and there are tall narrow windows on either side. If that room and the kitchen beside it represent the 1970s, then the long dining room with painted floors, fat woodstove, and faded flyswatters are the ’80s, and the polished living room and master suite, with its right angles and cleanly caulked windows, are the 1990s.

amherst shore nova scotia beach stairs

Once we realized it was a Barbie construct — none of the pieces being original to the other — we tried to stop figuring out how the cottage came to be (though I dreamed about it) and started thinking about it like a puzzle.

If you glance at the puzzle, laminated and framed and hanging about like a regular piece of art, you’re just fine, but it’s unnerving for a moment when you realize it’s full of cracks and curves and patterns that are hard to appreciate when you weren’t part of the assembling.

We have nothing but respect for the industriousness of the architect. We’re spending a week in their dreamhouse, surrounded by hay fields and ocean and rosebushes and wandering each shoebox and cereal box with delight and wonder. 

The door to the kids' room clearly used to be an outside entry.
The door to the kids’ room clearly used to be an outside entry.

ASL, oralism and Alexander Graham Bell

A diagram by Alexander Graham Bell is painted on the wall of a museum in his honour in Baddeck, N.S.
A diagram by Alexander Graham Bell is painted on the wall of a museum in his honour in Baddeck, N.S.

BADDECK, N.S. — There’s a lot more to this Alexander Graham Bell fellow than telephones.

He was a lover of science who laid a fatherly hand on the shoulders of flight in Canada with the Silver Dart and broke the hydrofoil speed record in 1919.

From his summer retreat in Baddeck, far from the bustle of his home in Washington, D.C., he conducted scientific experiments and became an integral part of the region’s society and history.

But perhaps the most fascinating part of the life of Bell—arguably the most famous communicator—is his work with the deaf and his attempts, while educating them, to keep them from forming any sort of community of their own.

Alexander Graham Bell at work in Baddeck, N.S.
Alexander Graham Bell at work in Baddeck, N.S.

The crusade started with Melville Bell, who was married to a deaf woman. He invented Visible Speech, a series of diagrams to show the deaf which muscles to contract and how to position their tongue and throat. The theory was that, using Visible Speech, a person could learn to speak any language, whether they had heard it spoken or not. Asked to lecture on and teach Visible Speech in his new home in the U.S. in the early 1800s, Melville sent his son, Alexander Graham, in his stead.

The younger Bell considered sign language an abomination and devoted his life to its removal from society. According to PBS.org, Bell called ASL “essentially a foreign language” and argued that “in an English-speaking country like the United States, the English language, and the English language alone, should be used as the means of communication and instruction at least in schools supported at public expense.”

He also showed great concern that deaf people were forming societies outside the mainstream and feared their numbers would grow. Unlike many believers in eugenics, he stopped short of demanding a ban on intermarriage of deaf people, but he clearly thought it was not a good idea. There were three things he did fight to do away with: sign language, deaf teachers, and residential schools where community and fellowship formed among deaf people. Bell “mainstreamed” children by separating them from their deaf peers to assimilate them into hearing society.

Alexander Graham Bell married one of his oralism students, Mabel.
Alexander Graham Bell married one of his oralism students, Mabel.

The point is not to demonize Bell. While his ways appear backwards now, his intention was to forward mankind through science and education. He encouraged his wife, Mabel—a deaf woman—in her work to establish a public library in Baddeck, a home and school association and, most importantly for the modern feminist, a “club for young women to promote the acquisition of general knowledge.”

Considered the most important American in the history of oralism, he used the profits he made on that other little invention, the telephone, to further the promotion of speech and lip reading over sign language. The deaf community fought back with a series of films in the early 1900s distributed by the National Association of the Deaf. In one of them, association president George Veditz says, “As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs.”

The Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada in Baddeck, N.S., is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. through Oct. 20. Entrance ranges from $3.90 for a youth to $19.60 for a family. The site is free with an annual national parks pass.

A walk in the park: Cape Breton Highlands National Park

 Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

cape breton highlands park roadCAPE BRETON, N.S. — It had been about 90 minutes, a third of that in the rain. Trevor had gone on ahead. I was stumbling along with a significant limp. Melani was carrying sound-asleep Jilly like a sacrificial lamb.

A dad, his two kids close behind, paused and smiled pityingly at my discomfort. He was just starting on the path. “Was it worth it, though?”

I was a little grumpy, as you might imagine, so I said, “Not if you’re used to long walks in the forest.”

Maybe that wasn’t fair. I mean, most walks through the forest don’t culminate in a vista so grand no camera can capture it and no words can describe it. But the truth is, we’ve walked in lovely forests in Quebec and they have a lot more in common with this trail than one might imagine. We were interested in the other virtues of Cape Breton, like cliffs and whales and waves and islands jutting out of the sea. Those things Highlands National Park has aplenty … just not so much on the seven-kilometre Skyline, which is advertised as Nova Scotia’s premier hiking trail.

But don’t let my forest-jaded self discourage you. Highlands Park is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and has dozens on dozens of trails to discover, over bog and along high beaches as well as through thick woods with a myriad shades of green. Even if you never leave the car, you’ll see the most spectacular sights from winding avenues twisting over French Mountain, past Jigging Cove and through Lone Sheiling. It takes at least two and a half hours to drive the entire route from Cheticamp to Ingonish, through towns with captivating names like Cape North, Dingwall and the elusive Meat Cove (ask me about the drive to that place sometime).

There are hundreds of species of animals throughout the park, which covers a sweeping 950 square kilometres, at least six salt- and freshwater beaches, and Acadian, Boreal and Taiga habitats. There are layers on layers of history here, from the beginning of earth through a time when the land was owned by no one but home to a few brave people, to the settling of the Europeans to we slightly grumpy tourists and gawkers who come to swallow as much beauty as we can before returning to our two-dimensional lives.

Despite the weather and what I consider to be a poor choice in walking trails, Cape Breton Highlands National Park gets four out of five stroller wheels. The paths were clear and flat and an easy walk, even though they passed through forest and over a mountain. And—oh!—everyone we met had a smile and a “hello,” which you just don’t get as often at home.

four wheelsThe road from Cheticamp to Ingonish Beach is 170 kilometres, but mind that much of that is on mountain roads—you’ll have to gear down to get up and down those ancient hills safely.

A park pass must be purchased between May and October. Prices range from $3.90 for youth to $19.60 for a family for a day pass. But consider purchasing the annual family pass, which will run you $98.10 and is accepted at dozens of attractions across the country.