A Walk on the Edge 2020 | Clay Appell

A Walk on the Edge

Clay Appell

My first occasion walking along PEI’s North Shore was last September (2019). It was early in the month, so technically it was still summer, although the nighttime temperatures were quite brisk, which made it feel more like autumn. I arrived at Cavendish Beach in the late morning to avoid the herd of tourists that would inevitably pack the area later that day. It was a magnificent morning: a gentle breeze was present, the air had a tinge of saltiness and the bright sun warmed my shoulders. I was pleasantly surprised by the summery air, as I had heard back home from some people who had visited the Island in years past that PEI typically began to cool down significantly by early September.

I recall how mesmerized I was by the warm, shallow waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence that could be waded in for ages. The beach seemed like it belonged in the Caribbean, as it was so beautiful, expansive and balmy. I remember sticking my hand in the water many times to collect it in the palm of my hand and dab it on my hair and face in order to cool my body. The first time I did it, I put too much water on my face, and the residue trickled down my cheeks and touched my top lip, and I was shocked at how salty the water was. In hindsight this was foolish, as, after all, it was water from the ocean. However, it seemed so foreign to taste saltwater, as it greatly contrasted to the freshwater in the Great Lakes that I was accustomed to. Looking back on that day, I felt so overwhelmed with relaxation, as I stared out at the placid, azure waters, that I at least briefly forgot all my troubles. The beach looked like a postcard that day, and for that moment in time I was very content with life on the island. Little did I know that in a few months time I would be standing in that precise location, freezing to death, as the wind blew 40 knots or greater in advance of a storm.

Below are some of the pictures that I took from my visit to the coast in the summer.

The second time I visited the North Shore was in the winter. Well, technically it was not ‘meteorological winter’, as the calendar still read November (albeit late November), but the harsh, frigid wind could have fooled me or anyone else who was not a ‘local’. This time around, I was blown away (literally!), as I exited the vehicle I was in, and was immediately greeted by a howling wind that whipped my face with great force. I felt as though I entered a freezer, and someone was running a couple of high-powered fans in it that were aimed directly at me.

This encounter changed my perspective on PEI. Before this experience, I was convinced that this was a placid isle with a tranquil coast and tame weather, but I soon came to the realization that this was totally a false initial perception, and that this island could be quite harsh, especially in the colder months. As I walked towards the coastline, I could barely make out the once conspicuous sand dunes, as they were covered in fluffy snow that drifted quite high. The water was still not frozen, and the waves crashed ashore, spurred by the northerly wind from the open sea. “Wow!” I thought, surely this was not advertised by the tourism board. I felt slightly duped, as it seemed like practically overnight, after a pleasant, lingering fall, that the Island was transformed into a giant snowglobe. This visit to the coast was far more fleeting, as I was candidly exceptionally eager to retreat back to the warm, inviting car. However, I decided to stick it out like a true ‘east coaster’ would, at least for a short while, and I braved the inhospitable conditions and took a stroll down the beach. I could barely keep upright, as the wind blew from all sides, and my ear lobes felt like they might fall off, as there were nearly rendered frostbitten by the brisk wind. After walking backwards to buffer the wind, and stumbling side to side like an inebriate, I managed to get back to the car. I felt as though I had been subjected to a frosty ‘haboob’, as I stared in the front mirror, only to witness snow and sand in between my scarf and the top of my jacket. For an instant I gazed at the coast, and I felt like an Islander for the first time. I don’t know why this realization occurred at this exact point in time, but it did, and that moment has stuck with me since.

Reflection on the significance of the coast

The coast is always a very special place in my opinion. Whether you are on the frigid shores of the Bering Sea, preparing to go crabbing, or basking in the baking hot sun on a beach in the Caribbean, coastlines are a medium between the land and the sea. The beach, in particular, divides the aforementioned areas, and offers protection from the temperamental seas. The coast is the ‘edge’ of the mainland, and I believe that it is important in relation to evoking feelings of ‘islandness’, as it makes me acutely aware when I look out at the water that we are surrounded by a powerful force that ebbs and flows, and lurks at our doorstep. The coast is very important in many parts of the world, as it is ecologically, culturally and economically significant to many. On islands, and especially small ones, however, I feel that the coast is constantly imbued in the islander psyche, as it offers a confirmation of identity-that ‘yes’, we are indeed isolated and surrounded by the sea. As well, the coast, I believe, presents an opportunity to escape, or dream of escaping, as sometimes life on small islands can be claustrophobic and mundane. The coast means different things to different people, but it is most certainly an enduring part of the island landscape that has, throughout human history, evoked a complex range of emotions, depending on one’s reasons for visiting it.

This is not a piece advocating for the protection of the planet, but I do feel obliged at some level to at least briefly mention the fact that due to climate change, our coastlines are threatened. Coastal erosion is a major issue around the world, and it is particularly pronounced on PEI. On my most recent visit to PEI’s North Shore, I felt this overwhelming sadness, as I pondered what would happen to the magnificent crimson cliffs and the iconic beaches, as sea level rise threatens to erode and inundate PEI’s shores. I feel, even as a ‘come from away’ with little connection to the Island, that this place would well and truly lose part of its identity, or perhaps even its ‘soul’, if its coasts are degraded.