Pictou Island’s mail delivery

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I would like to recount a true story that the late Dr. Roland Sherwood wrote and shared with me some 30 years ago. In his early life, Mr. Sherwood worked for the Telephone Company. The following is a true story of a winter excursion that he made to repair phone service to Pictou Island in the early 1940s. The following is his story.

Both the submerged telephone cable and the radio telephone service on Pictou Island were out of order. I was sent to repair the radio telephone. I was flown to Pictou Island in a two-seater plane that landed in Howard MacCullum’s field. Repairs were made but the plane would not be returning for days. It was a cold crispy winter morning when I along with Eddie Glover, Spike MacDonald, Punch Patterson and Vincent Turple set out for the mainland in the Island’s iceboat. This iceboat was built on Pictou Island by Vincent Turple and was no ordinary boat. It was about 16 feet long and built to withstand rough buffeting from the ice. It was equipped with a metal plate wrapped around its stem post and metal runners on its bottom for sledding it across the snowy ice fields.

We move from the shore through snow, open water and pan ice. It was only minutes before the steel nose of the boat jams into solid ice. We fasten leather safety straps to the boat and we all get out to pull the heavy boat up on the solid ice.

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Some 12 miles straight ahead lies Pictou Harbor but mountains of jagged ice rear themselves up from the strait between that haven and us. We all strain into the harness of our safety belts. We pull the boat away from the piled ice. Taking the way of least resistance we set out to circle the upheaval ice. For at least two miles we move on steadily, until Eddie Glover, the lead man, breaks through the ice. He goes down to the bottom of his hips and the water swirls up around him. He pulls himself up by his safety harness, and we go on.

Rounding the ice barrier we find open water. Instead of moving straight towards Pictou Harbor, we stay on the ice and move toward Prince Edward Island. This is to counteract the swift current so that when we launch into the water, the fast current will bring us down opposite our goal. The strong tides take us as if we are rafting down a river.

We are on ice again and Eddie Glover cautions us. There is a sinister grinding of the ice and it is on the move. Big gaps of water appear as we move on. The dark, swirling waters reach our ankles and we thank God for the high hip waders. The huge cakes of ice we are on tip and surges. By now we are not pulling the boat but pushing it ahead of us. Suddenly the huge ice pan begins to break up. We all tumble into the iceboat that rocks crazily as it slides into open water.

The hugw cake of ice on which we were riding now whips out from under us. It stands aloft for minute then crashes down cascading icy water over us and the boat. In the frost freighted air the boat bobs like an eggshell and the water freezes on us.

More ice shoots up from the swift water, grinding and ripping around us. But the four experienced mailmen have the oars out and with strong, quick strokes they pull away from the immediate danger of the moving ice.

I look at my watch, it is noon. We have been on the ice for five hours and are little better than half way across.

We go up and over and around the small ice mountains. We push and pull the boat and in open water, the men row. For hours the constant struggle continues. Darkness comes down quickly and it is a black one indeed. The shore is now blotted out and we can no longer see land although we are only about a mile from our goal.

Suddenly a bright light gleams through the blackness ahead. Les Simpson has built a bonfire on the shore at Bay View to show us the way. Les and his wife Hilda live in a big house that overlooks the Northumberland Strait. They are the Pictou Islanders contact and are always watching for the iceboat. The cheery gleam from the fire flashes out upon the ice that is beginning to break up once more.

I bring to mind an event that happened years before when the winter mail boat was dragged under the ice by the fierce currents. The frozen bodies of the mailmen were found on this very shore at Bay View. I thank my Lord that we are almost there.

There is now open water ahead. Firm steady strokes bring us to the land where the bonfire burns in the night. I give a short sigh of relief as I step wearily onto the shore. We gather the mail and are led to Les Simpson’s house. Mary Simpson has prepared a magnificent supper for us. We had spent ten hours on the ice-packed Strait and are now quit hungry.

For years men like Eddie Glover, Eddie (Spike) MacDonald, Punch Patterson and Vincent Turple provided the winter delivery of His Majesty’s Pictou Island Mail. They did this without fanfare or fuss, in a job devoid of comfort, and fraught with constant danger.

Footnote: That iceboat which was built by my father in 1940 is now on display in the Northumberland Fisheries Museum in Pictou  and is as sound as the day it was built.

Jim Turple