Island Keepers

Island Keepers by Allison Mitcham tells the story of two brothers who worked on two isolated and inhospitable Nova Scotian islands. James Dodd served as the lighthouse keeper on Scatarie Island from 1838 to 1855 and Philip Dodd served as the superintendent of Sable Island from 1855 to 1873. Life on these islands was bleak and lonely; Sable was further from the mainland and visits from the authorities were more infrequent. More frequent were the unexpected visits: the shipwrecks which each brother was in charge of rescuing. Both islands were nicknamed the “graveyard of the Atlantic”, and special teams of rescuers and wreck salvagers were assigned to each island to deal with the ocean’s carnage. The survivors, grateful for the divine intervention of the rescue squads, sometimes though were stranded on the island for months:

“Ordinary seamen and less distinguished visitors were billeted in the houses (and sometimes even the barns) closest to the spot they had come ashore. Sometimes the Farquhars at the East End House or the Knocks at the South Side Station had put up entire crews of wrecked vessels for months. Amazingly, they had coped, despite the demands of their own large families. They had not even appeared to mind: open-handed hospitality to unexpected guests had seemed an understood prerequisite for staff of any of the stations of the Sable Island Establishment.”

The Dodds honed their skills and sense of perception both of the ocean conditions and the weather around it. It was always a risk to their own lives in their attempts to save others.

“These men and women, these island keepers, dedicated many of the best years of their lives to rescuing other human beings they did not even know. Today their places are mostly filled by mechanical devices which, although they warn seafarers of shoals and other obstacles, cannot provide the comfort or the helping hand given so often by the former guardians of these out-of-the-way places.”

Mitcham also wrote about fishing violations that occurred within Canadian waters, and Sable’s role in apprehending and detaining foreign ships. It was sometimes a futile job to police the area because the limitless fog shrouded all violators and made for clean getaways.

Island Keepers
 was supplemented by maps (a necessity) and black-and-white sketches, some so lifelike I wondered if they might be photographs. I liked the various appendices, one of which included Philip’s own record of a fishing dispute with an American shipmaster:

“…every line of his affidavit being marked with falsehood…”

However you won’t find anything more genuine than the testimonials in Island Keepers, a rare glance at life on two of Nova Scotia’s most feared island outposts.

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