SERENDIPITY


Dr. Hardy Eshbaugh has been coming to Nova Scotia almost his whole lifetime, ever since he was a young boy and his father and my grandfather were sport fishing the St. Mary's River in Guysborough County. SKYLAN PARKER*

Photography by CASEY TUCKER

ANTIGONISH, NS -- I CAME by the opportunity to participate coincidentally. I met our long-time family friend in Lyghtesome Gallery one day, and with mention of the class I began teasing him about whether or not he ever let anyone audit it or even if he might need an assistant this year. I did not expect to become a part of his field course three days later, immersed in the Natural History of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. I had no idea what kind of a learning experience this was going to be.

Dr. Hardy Eshbaugh has been coming to Nova Scotia almost his whole lifetime, ever since he was a young boy and his father and my grandfather were sport fishing the St. Mary's River in Guysborough County. His deep appreciation for the landscape and the warmth of the people in Nova Scotia began in these early years, and it has lasted and grown. The formative role Nova Scotia has played in cultivating his love for the natural world is evidenced throughout his life. Today, he is a renowned and respected botanist and naturalist. Professor Emeritus of Botany at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Dr. Eshbaugh, now retired, is still committed to teaching and directing graduate students. He serves on the Board of Directors of the National Audubon Society as Vice-Chairman, is a member of the bi-national Atlantic Salmon Federation Board and the American Botanical Council. Closer to home, he is also a dedicated and active member of the St. Mary's River Association in Guysborough County.

This year marked Hardy's ninth field trip to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. When he would get together with my family in the summers after each course, he would share stories of his recent experiences in the field as well as accumulated memories from the past. These would include his new discoveries -- special sacred places, fascinating people, exceptional animal sightings, and exciting new plants that the class would identify. His enthusiasm was alluring. I knew immediately that his invitation to take part in the course would be an opportunity that I could not pass up.

It was the last week in June, 2003 when I met the class at Hardy's summer home in Waternish, located on the outskirts of Sherbrooke, just inland of Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore. There were nine students, a keen group, almost all with backgrounds in botany; most had chosen this as an elective towards a Masters or Ph.D. program. The Graduate Assistant was a zoologist, there was an Environmental Science graduate currently working for the Environmental Protection Agency in Ohio, and myself, trained in the Social Sciences, the sole Canadian and the sole native of Nova Scotia.

I quickly assumed the position of cultural interpreter, being frequently asked to comment on all things Canadian, including tidbits of information about the area that somehow complemented the course content and the students' interests. This ranged from sharing common names for plants and their uses, my childhood experiences growing up in rural Nova Scotia, as well as broad perspectives on social and economic influences, culture and lifestyle, and examples of Canadian law and history. In exchange for the wealth of knowledge each student brought with them from their respective field of study, I was able to draw from my life experience and love for Nova Scotia.

Like veteran beachcombers, it seemed like everyone would have enjoyed spending all day exploring the coastline
Students came prepared to spend long days in this outdoor classroom, armed with the requisite bug repellents and bug nets, rain gear and sun protection, and clothing for every temperature. This year, it happened to be unseasonably hot and sunny in the region throughout their week-long stay. Class began with an introduction to Barachois beaches and the headlands of the Northern Boreal Forest. Here, the opportunity to explore the wild and marine life and environment began by examining the relationship between the land and the sea. This gave us an immediate sense of place, acquainting them with where they had come to study. Like veteran beachcombers, it seemed like everyone would have enjoyed spending all day exploring the coastline.

But the course schedule was intensive. Most mornings began with breakfast as early as 7am and class would begin enroute or in the field within the hour. Lunches were usually packed for picnics in the field and dinners were eaten out. In the first few days, the students came to know many well-loved local treasures and some times remote places such as a privately-owned Hemlock forest, Taylor Head Provincial Park and the Nature Conservancy site at Abraham's Lake. Each location provided a wealth of material for study and investigation.

Guysborough County leant a kind of gentle wildness to the introduction of Nova Scotia to Dr. Eshbaugh's students. It provided a sense of escape and the feeling of being tucked away that is so treasured by those that come to appreciate the special nooks and crannies in the area. It was this feeling that Hardy was so eager to share with his students.

Just over the county line in Antigonish County, a visit to Pomquet Provincial Beach gave students the chance to identify poison ivy, and to see the endangered Piping Plover and the public interpretive resources that have been posted to increase awareness around issues of conservation. A birding walk on the Antigonish Landing and a visit to see the St. Mary's River Association Museum gave the students insight into community-initiated and managed natural resources in Canada, of which these two sites were excellent examples.

All the students had been assigned topics that they were responsible for researching and presenting throughout the course, from specific bird species, animals to more in-depth topics that could be discussed to a greater extent throughout the trip. Hardy would give students notice so that they would know when they might be called on to present, a teaching methodology that worked well in the field. Different teaching styles and aids assisted in keeping the attention of the class and making the many hikes and outdoor labs educational. This also seemed purposeful in exercising and developing the students' teaching capabilities, which they would later apply in classrooms of their own.

A geology component was added to the course content as we moved to Cape Breton. One student, Adriane Carlson, was responsible for presenting on this topic for credit in a Masters in Education for which she was currently studying. With Hardy's assistance, she demonstrated her lesson for the class by pointing out distinct fault lines and rock formations that are identifiable within the landscape in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Finding practical examples in the field made the class interesting and enhanced the students' experience of the landscape as much as it served to deepen their learning.



A great deal of the educational material for the course developed organically. Panoramic views along the Skyline Trail demonstrated the formation and uniqueness of the Highland landscape. Whale watching at a distance from this site built anticipation for the segment on whales that was scheduled to follow with an evening sail whale watching out of Bay St. Lawrence. A quiet short walk on the Lone Shieling Trail provided history of the Scottish Gaelic influence in the area, and moose sightings along the French Mountain Bog trail demonstrated the abundance of moose within the Park and key management issues that they present. The Jack Pine Trail on the Northern tip of the Park showed sections where controlled burning had been implemented by Park authorities as a strategy for managing resources and conducting research.

For most students, the course served as an introduction to active birding. Casey Tucker,
the Graduate Assistant, led most of the birding exercises with Hardy. On all the hikes Casey carried a microphone with recorded bird calls which was used to draw birds into sight.
'Oh, Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada' is the call of a White-throated Sparrow
He would suggest words to remember the tune of bird calls and to assist in identifying the birds associated with the sound. For example, "Oh, Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada" is the call of a White-throated Sparrow; "Sweet, Sweet, I'm so sweet," is the call of the Yellow Warbler, and so on. Although it took a keen ear and eye to begin to match the calls with the birds, some students caught on quickly. Everyone had his/her own set of binoculars and participated in identification.

Although birding was a daily activity for the group, Bird Island, not far off shore in the mouth of the great Bras D'ors, proved to be an incredible source for seeing some of the sea birds for the first time. Another site visited by international birding expeditions, Port Moren birding flats, was also a part of the itinerary before the course made its way to Newfoundland.

Newfoundland was a special follow-up to what the students had seen in Nova Scotia. The Avalon Peninsula, like the areas in Nova Scotia that were visited, is but a sample of the landscape, its flora and fauna, and all the magnificence that Newfoundland has to offer.

We ran the shore following them, coming as close as 100 meters of the massive creatures
It's the perfect time to be in Newfoundland. The night before we arrived, the capelin, the staple of the entire aquatic ecosystem, had just come ashore to spawn. Near the community of St. Vincent, a humpback mother and its calf were working in tandem to feed on the small silvery fish. At the beach adjacent to the main road, interpreters are stationed to provide information to tourists and to keep a record of the number of visitors and whales within the bay each day. As soon as our rented van pulled into the parking lot, we saw the two whales swimming the length of the beach, pooling the fish and feeding. We ran the shore following them, coming as close as 100 meters of the massive creatures.

Later that evening on the shore nearest to our hotel, we had the chance to examine the capelin up close. Every year millions of capelin die when at the age of four the females come ashore to lay their eggs and the males follow to fertilize them. In the later June and early July, the capelin can be seen dead on beaches late in the evenings and early in the morning. We returned the next morning to see people collecting buckets of the remaining fish for use as fertilizer in lawns and gardens.

The whales make their return every year to the North Atlantic to feed on plentiful fish like the capelin. They, too, participate in the reproductive process of mating and tending to their new young. They can be seen in greater abundance in the time that the capelin arrives. Their arrival also marks the season for cod fishing, as cod are also predators of the capelin schools. Both stocks of capelin and cod have declined in recent years and concern for the long-term health and safety of the whales is also being questioned.

Our main attraction to the Avalon Peninsula was to visit one of North America's most spectacular sites for bird research, conservation and viewing -- Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve. Located on the southwest tip of the Avalon Peninsula, Cape St. Mary's is one of the most accessible seabird colonies, home to some 60,000 migratory seabirds every year. For most of us, this was the greatest collection of birds we had ever seen at any one time.

We were received by the naturalists at the modern interpretive centre with the warmest of welcomes, open arms and friendly smiles. They had been expecting us with much anticipation. Hardy had been instrumental in helping to launch the site as a nationally protected reserve and over the years he had contributed a great deal to the Cape and its staff. They greeted us in true Newfoundland spirit, as friends.

It wasn't until we came to Newfoundland that the students came to know what it feels like when the sure and weighted fog nestles in along the coast. We arrived at Cape St. Mary's, our first day in the fog, not expecting to see very much. It was cool, the terrain rough and the cliffs high, ranging well over 100 meters in most instances. There were few visitors besides our group. This was a wild and raw habitat, unhampered by the devises and constructs of human interference. We shared the unspoiled barren lands with grazing goats that kept to their own paths at a distance.

As we neared Bird Rock Cove, we could see the white of birds covering the rocky cliffs and further into the belly of the cove, dozens of white foam streaks could be seen in the water. New streaks were appearing all the time. I wondered if this could be seals diving, and if not, then what action would be causing such a stir. As I got close enough to focus, I could hear the commotion of birds swarming just above where I had been looking and I could see them diving into the water. I couldn't believe it! They were hitting the water with such force and there were so many of them, it was hard to follow any one bird at a time to see it return to the surface. They were staying under water for what seemed like a long time. The streaking foam lines were the trails caused by their plunging into the salty waters.

These were the Northern Gannets -- large distinctive birds with an easily recognizable light golden head, black marking along the beak and around the eyes, and bright white plumage. Their two-meter wingspan lent them a grace in the air as they soared with such skill before tucking and streamlining their wings just at the last minute before hitting the water. Watching them was mesmerizing. We learned later that the Gannet will dive from heights of 15-60 feet, equipped with an extremely thick skull that enables it to withstand the impact on water from these distances. Air-filled cellular tissue on the breast and neck fill when it dives to assist in its return to the surface from what can be depths as far as 600 meters!

Tony Power, the Director at Cape St. Mary's, tells us that they are diving for the capelin and that they feed when the schools come into the cove. The day before two humpback whales had also come to feed, just as near to shore as the Gannets were that day. The magic of the place, like the fog surrounding us that day, had already swept us away. Every step from there forward, and each moment spent in the next few days of our visit, was like entering further and further into the sacred world of the birds at Cape St. Mary's.

Our destination that first day was Bird Rock, a little ways up the trail, the sea stack home to most of the birds who spend their summers at this special sanctuary. We could hear and smell the birds as we neared, seeing more and more as we made our way to the very edge of the cliff. Birds surrounded us. Bird Rock stands like a high-rise complex adjacent to where the trail ends. It feels like the tip of the world. Every ledge, outcrop and overhang is occupied to the high tide mark, making almost the entire stack in the sea appear snow white. For many of these birds, Bird Rock has been their breeding site for thousands of years. Year after year, they will return and partner, often keeping the exact same nesting site on the cliff's edge.

In the days that followed, we saw more Gannets, Common and Thick-billed Murres, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Black Guillemots and other more common birds such as Cormorants, Ravens, and Eider and Harlequin Ducks. They were everywhere.

We didn't want to leave Cape St. Mary's. Hardy said every one of his group felt that way. It is the kind of place that made you somehow want to become a part of it. We had made friends there.

What was most unique about the Cape was how much the success of the site was based upon the fact that it had grown from a community-based project. Even today, the Director and much of the staff are from the local surrounding communities of St. Brides and Branch. This brings not only a wealth of knowledge and familiarity with the land and its history to the visitors, but each of these people shares a love for the place that is irreplaceable. This is what makes a lasting impression on all who visit. Cape St. Mary's is also supported, in part, by a committed group of individuals, the Friends of Cape St. Mary's. The contributions of this group help to ensure the preservation of the site for years to come, working to hold true the values on which it was founded.

Leaving Cape St. Mary's crossing the barren lands outside of Trepassey and Cape Pine, we saw herds of Caribou, like small goats, dotted and tattered on the landscape. We spent a day visiting Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve and the Cape Race Light, finding fossils and thinking of all the ships wrecked at sea just off this rugged rocky land.

Our last two nights on the island were spent in Bay Bulls, a small harbour town located just south of St. John's. Newfoundland's oldest community, Bay Bulls is a deep-water port in close proximity to one of the richest breeding grounds for whales. Two large family-owned whale watching operators take up shop in this harbour. We took one of the guided boat tours to see some of the whales. Fin, minke, humpback and longfin pilots could be seen in all directions, breeching, feeding, and waving their fins playfully as they swam. This was our finest opportunity for viewing so many different whales at once and everyone got a good chance to see them. An iceberg was still melting in the bay at this time, standing in eloquent beauty next to the bird-covered islands nearby. As demonstrated in some of the other communities we visited, Bay Bulls was an example to the class of how important nature-based tourism (ecotourism) has become for rural economies. As a group we were treated as special guests and returning visitors, even though it was only Hardy who has been coming back to this area over the years.

Before leaving the Island, visits to Hawke Hills Ecological Reserve, Memorial University Botanical Garden, the Museum of Newfoundland, Cape Spear and Signal Hill were scheduled -- but it still felt like our time had run short. There was still so much left unexplored in both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. I suggested places to visit and things to do when the students would someday return. I think for this time, all they had seen and done had left them satisfied. There was the sense that what we had gained from the experience would endure.

The opportunity to meet so many of the local people, to begin to understand their way of life and how local resources are utilized, fascinated us all. I learned a great deal about the natural history of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland this summer, but what I have taken with me from the course is much more than that. I observed how great it is to see groups like ours purposefully involve and engage local people. Likewise, I experienced how incredible it was to be embraced as visitors by the people in the communities we would visit. The quality of the exchange was priceless and inspiring, and this, I think, touched all of us as students as much as it made a lasting impression on our hosts.

Out of his own love for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and his devotion as an educator, he built a relationship between the students and the areas they studied
Hardy used the course to model how experiential learning and the exchange of ideas and knowledge can support local industries and sustainable practices. In essence, he brought to the outdoor classroom with his experience over the years, invaluable insight into what makes communities strong. Out of his own love for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and his devotion as an educator, he built a relationship between the students and the areas they studied. By doing this, he cultivated the best interests and potential in all of us while supporting local initiatives. For me, seeing someone contribute so much simply by fact of doing what he loves to do, has strengthened my own ambitions to be a more active contributor to where I live and to the places I visit in the future.

*Skylan Parker lives in Antigonish, NS. Her article was originally written for shunpiking in December, 2004. Skylan can be contacted by email at:sjparker@mailcan.com

Dr. Hardy Eshbaugh resides in Oxford, Ohio, USA and can be reached by email at: eshbauwh@one.net

Casey Tucker is an Audubon At Home Education Specialist for Audubon Ohio, based in Columbus, Ohio. Casey is a birder and educator and has taught numerous classes in Ornithology and Zoology.


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