Monday, August 23, 2010

hermit hits no. 1 and i go drinking

1 The Hermit of Africville
Jon Tattrie
2 Buried in the Woods
Mike Parker
3 Memoirs of a Cape Breton Doctor
C. Lamont MacMillan
4 Trails of Halifax Regional Municipality
Michael Haynes
5 Ghosts of Nova Scotia 10th Anniversary Edition
Darryll Walsh

woot woot! the hermit climbed its way to the top of the chronicle herald's best-seller list on sunday. it's in good company - three of the top five are pottersfield press books. mike's Buried in the Woods is an informative, evocative look at lost worlds in nova scotia and darryll's Ghosts of Nova Scotia is required reading for any would-be ghost busters.

i also filed my last biggest and best for the herald on sunday - a pilgrimage to north america's oldest social club, the order of good cheer in port-royal. i had planned to do this one earlier in the series, but my plans kept falling through. i spent two weeks trying to contact the modern version of the order before giving up. i then tried to join the tourism department's version, only to find nova scotians are prohibited from becoming members.

i was very happy to track down samuel champlain himself in the person of wayne melanson, who works for parks canada. his twin brother alan, who also works for parks canada at nearby fort anne's, made the connection for me and i spent a great couple of hours talking to wayne. he has a vast knowledge of champlain and his excursions into acadia and it's worth a trip just to chat with him, to say nothing of the fun-for-kids port royal habitation.

if you really want to burn away your monday,all eight biggest & best columns are now on my website.

Biggest and Best: North America’s Oldest European Social Club
I’m drinking in the gloomiest pub in town. This being pretty Annapolis Royal, that means the bright confines of Ye Olde Towne Pub. It’s sunny and warm. It’s hard to get a good gloom on.

I think miserable thoughts. I glower. I snap at the waitress.

It’s not working.

It’s time to break out the grim guns. I plug in my ear buds and press play. The guitar trembles through the air as Tom Cochrane tells me about a hockey-mad kid in a cold northern town desperate to make the Big League. I’m fighting back tears when he hits that truck doing 70 in the wrong lane. When Cochrane wails about how sometimes, at night, he can still hear the ice crack, I’m gone.

My misery is enhanced by my earlier disappointments. For my last Biggest and Best column, I wanted to tackle that most Nova Scotian of claims to fame: the oldest drinking club in North America. Sorry, the oldest European social club. The Order of Good Cheer, founded by Samuel Champlain in 1606 to haul his men through another depressing Valley winter.

I started by seeking the modern iteration of the order. I called my sources on the shore and got a name, but the number just kept on ringing. I got another name, another number. Nothing. The order was taking on Freemasonic shapes in my mind.
I was sinking into a pit of self pity when I thought, if I can’t meet them, maybe I can join them? I called Michael Noonan at the department of tourism, which welcomes thousands of people annually to the Order of Good Times, but he breaks my heart. All visitors to Nova Scotia are welcome, but all Nova Scotians are barred. He tried to explain it to me, but my sobbing drowned him out. “You’re not deficient,” he assured me. “I can’t even join.”

I decided to meet the man himself.

I finish my drink and make my way down the road to the Habitation at Port-Royal. Champlain, sporting a dashing fur hat and handsome britches, greets me with ample good cheer. We move into the dining hall, the site of the order’s birth. It’s a pretty spot. Why did they need an order to be of good cheer?

Champlain, who spends his off time doing an historical re-enactment of a 2010 Valley man called Wayne Melanson, drops the smile. When he and his 78 French comrades arrived in the new-to-them world in 1604, they had a pleasant time inventing names for the coastal areas before wintering on the Bay of Fundy’s Isle Sainte-Croix.

“We had chosen the island because we thought it could be easily defended,” Champlain tells me. But the enemy was not the Mi’kmaq, who were friendly and helpful, but the winter, which was not. “In my journal, I remember entering that winter in that country lasts six months,” he grumbles.

Their island prison, surrounded by tidal waters that refused to provide safe passage to the mainland, grew grim. Tired men developed rotting sores and their legs swelled to double size. Their teeth fell out. Thirty-six men died of scurvy that winter.

The next year, Champlain and the men built an anti-snow fort on the mainland at Port-Royal. A colleague later wrote about the folly of the island adventure. “It’s easy to say that in hindsight,” Champlain gripes.

In the winter of 1606/07, Champlain dreamt up the order as a way to alleviate the boredom of the long, dark nights. His eyes grow misty as he recalls the bountiful food and bottomless wine consumed during the massive parties. “We’d eat as well as the finest restaurants in Paris,” he gushes.

I press for details. He lists boiled moose nose and beaver tail as two of the “delicacies.”

In 1607, France canned the expedition because the men had failed to achieve any of their goals. Perhaps too much good cheering? “Uh, probably not,” Champlain sputters, but his guilty eyes cannot meet mine. He talks vaguely about “being on the verge” of starting something.

Still, he takes comfort knowing the order lives on in Nova Scotia, even if he, as a local, would not be allowed to join.

“Maybe I could be an honorary member,” he suggests.
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