Family spends summer on private island


Some people have beach houses. Some people have summer cottages in the mountains. Some people have ranches. I have an island.

It’s a queerly shaped protrusion of sand and rock and trees, situated within sight of Nova Scotia’s East Coast. The settlers named it “Spectacle” for its bulbous ends and slender middle, reminiscent of a pair of reading glasses. It’s home to hordes of mosquitoes and skittering chipmunks and an sea-hawk family that makes its home in the skeleton of a teepee my dad put up years ago.

The words “private island” conjure images of opulence, but living on Spectacle isn’t all that luxurious. Or rather, it’s a different kind of luxury. I can only run precious well-water when the generator is on, so I wash dishes by hand and take hasty outdoor showers. But I do so looking out at a vast expanse of water that stretches unbroken until it reaches the Portuguese coast.

A lot of my time is spent on maintenance. Trash and recycling have to be sorted, bagged and brought back to the mainland. No matter how much I sweep, the white wooden floors of the cabins collect a fine layer of sand within hours. Compost has to be buried at the far end of the island. The foot-washing bucket, the generator and the engine of the boat need to be refilled every few days.

Everything has it’s place on Spectacle. In the words of Biff Bonell, the gnarly old seaman who acts as caretaker for most of the properties in the area, “on a’ island, ya’ can’t make too many mistakes.” A loose knot means the boat floats away at night, leaving the family stranded and down a couple grand. Forgetting to buy extra food and water at the grocery store means we go hungry when a storm keeps us from reaching the mainland and a bad fall can be deadly when doctors can only reach the island by helicopter.

Yet despite the work, the constant cleaning and the extra effort of using an outhouse instead of a septic system, living on a private island is luxury in its truest sense.

It’s waking up to the sight of a great blue heron catching its fishy breakfast at low tide. It’s throwing off my clothes and diving into icy water that sets my nerves alight and makes my blood sing. It’s taking twice-daily walks along the shoreline to scour for beach glass and shells.

It’s not until I spent time on an island that I realized how loud the modern world is, how crowded, how rushed. I grow so used to the silence and familiar faces that the human masses and garish advertisements of the mainland are overwhelming, and the drying touch of air-conditioning leaves my skin and lungs aching for the sea breeze.

The boat ride across the water marks the passing from one world to another as the wind and spray clear traces of smog from my skin and bring a flush to my cheeks.

On Spectacle, the rush of the waves is both my lullaby and my alarm clock. I float in the shallow water and see a sea-hawk hanging motionless in the sky, supported by the wind in the same way I am supported by the sea. On Spectacle I do my summer reading beside the wild roses and pick raspberries on my way to the bathroom. I touch my toes against a sea-and-sky backdrop of flaming sunset-red while fresh herring fillets sizzle in the kitchen. I stare into a midnight sky unpolluted by the glow of civilization and I trace the path of a Europe-bound jet as it passes beneath the Milky Way.

The Caribbean may be warmer. Saint Tropez has a better party scene. California is a lot more accessible.

But Spectacle … Spectacle has something that no tourist trap can match.

Spectacle has a soul.