Nova Scotia's lobstering paradise

The waters off Yarmouth are among the richest lobster fishing grounds in the world. But the summer months are a closed season for the local lobstermen. Fishing of this most tasty of crustaceans is strictly controlled by the Canadian federal government in order to conserve stocks. In the Yarmouth area the season begins on the last Monday in November and ends on May 31.

This means that during the closed season the lobster that appears on every restaurant menu here will come either from other parts of the Maritime Provinces , from "pounds" (storage tanks), or, in the case of some dishes like lobster Newburg or hot lobster sandwich, will have been fresh frozen.

Thousands upon thousands of lobster traps are stacked in neat rows in the fishing villages during the summer while most of the fishermen go out to catch other species.

On the whole the lobster fishing ban is loyally observed. Any fisherman caught poaching would lose his license immediately.

I got my first insight into the lobster fishing industry from the lighthouse keeper on Cape Forchu, which dominates the entrance to Yarmouth Harbor. The lighthouse stands out on the port side as you enter the harbor by ferry from Portland or Bar Harbor, Maine. Yarmouth itself lies on the starboard side.

(Cape Forchu or Fourchu was named by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who sighted it in 1604.It means forked or cloven hoof.)

Lightkeeper Laurence Wertzell told me that some of the lobstermen in these parts lay their traps as far as 16 miles offshore because the waters are shallow and the rocks where the lobsters breed go a long way out to sea.

More than 2,400 lobster boats are registered in the Yarmouth area, each having 200 to 250 traps. Some boats are equipped with deep sea traps and carry as much as 65 fathoms of rope.

No new lobster fishing licenses are being issued for the time being, and as fishermen retire the authorities are buying back their licenses.

Mr. Wertzell came to the Yarmouth Light in 1977. He said during his first November here, at the start of the lobster season, he saw some boats return with as many as 30 crates -- or 3,000 pounds of lobster each. "I couldn't believe it ," he said.

Big, friendly Mr. Wertzell was hauling rocks in a wheelbarrow from one part of the lighthouse grounds to another when I found him. He mans the light alone. The government recently built him a new house lying in a more sheltered spot behind the headland and equipped with improved insulation to protect it against the Atlantic winds. The old frame house close by the lighthouse, where the lightkeepers used to live, will come down.

Mr. Wertzell welcomes visitors, but for practical reasons they are not allowed inside the lighthouse. It would not be possible for him to cope singlehanded with a steady stream of tourists in such a confined space.

But it is worth going up to the lighthouse grounds for the spectacular views of the shoreline and the ocean. It's no wonder Mr. Wertzell says, "I love it here."

Viking explorer Leif Erikson is reputed to have made a landfall in this area about AD 1000. The scenic road that runs from Yarmouth to the tip of Cape Forchu is known as the Leif Erikson drive, and a picnic park located amid the rocks below the lighthouse also bears the explorer's name.

Many visitors tend to treat Yarmouth merely as a point of entry into Nova Scotia via sea ferry or airplane, and as a springboard for touring other parts of the province. But for those who can resist the temptation to push ahead, a few days spent exploring the Yarmouth area will be well rewarded.

The Yarmouth County Tourist Association has mapped out four day-long trips in detail, taking in the hinterland as well as the fishing communities and islands.

The association has a bureau at 404 Main Street (in Frost Park, opposite the courthouse). It works in close cooperation with the Nova Scotia provincial government's Department of Tourism, whose offices are near the quayside where the ferries dock.

The Yarmouth Hostel Committee has sponsored a guide to the area for hikers and cyclists, and information is available at the tourist bureau.

Yarmouth has a fascinating historical museum located on Collins Street, where the local historical society has assembled a wide variety of artifacts and memorabilia. The museum's most famous exhibit is the Yarmouth Stone, or Runic Stone, found in a cove at the head of Yarmouth Harbor in 1812.

The stone bears an inscription that has baffled scholars since its discovery. The most popular theory is that of American runeologist Olaf Strandwold, who concluded that the inscription reads, "Leif to Erik raises (this monument)."

According to Mr. Strandwold's reasoning, "There is nothing more natural than that Leif should raise a memorial in the newly found land in honor of his father , Erik the Red, who ruled Greenland, the place from which the (Leif) expedition started."

There are good motels in Yarmouth itself and in the surrounding area. I stayed at a pleasant inn-cum-motel overlooking a lake three miles outside the port.

The inn is located in the former residence of Commodore H. H. Raymond, a Yarmouth boy who made a fortune. The parklike grounds around it are still maintained by the gardener who laid them out for the commodore.

The loveliest part of the grounds is a circular rose garden -- a secluded spot with a fountain in the center, and surrounded first by a ring of yew trees and then by a ring of birches so that it is hidden completely from the outside.

Don Prosser was in his 20s when he designed the rose garden 50 years ago. A bronze plaque on a rock almost hidden by shrubs pays this tribute to his long record of devoted work as a gardener: "The beauty of the grounds reflects the dedication of one man: Don Prosser."

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