Those who follow the Needlefish will understand how much I love our summer home in picturesque Mahone Bay, but not gonna lie, there remain a couple of irritants that I wish to God I could do something to fix. One, of course, is the pigeons, about which nothing more needs to be said, I’m sure; another is the frigging motorcycles, which roar by at a rate of about 30 per hour, loud enough to drown out polite conversation, a sad artifact of the town’s location along a stretch of the ever-popular coastal Lighthouse Route, beloved, apparently, of hog riders the world over. Jesus those things are loud, and the noise travels for miles across the bay. No kidding, they’re practically halfway to Lunenburg before they’re out of earshot, the antisocial pricks.
More disappointing, though, is the light pollution, which thwarts a particular ambition I once had for the place. Mahone Bay is just a little town, you see, with maybe 800 permanent residents, which even in peak tourist season rolls up the sidewalks and shuts down the shops and eateries not long after nightfall. I was hoping this meant it would get properly dark at night, dark enough to really see the stars, something I’ve grown to miss awfully in Toronto, but no. The businesses may all be closed, and most of the houses across the bay may be dark and silent, but all night, every night, the sky is almost completely washed out by the brilliant illumination of the nearby Irving station. The thing is lit up like a Las Vegas casino. It glows as if it’s meant to serve as a beacon to vessels far out to sea, as if the fear was that motorists would never find their way back at night unless they could navigate towards the distant aura from miles and miles away, beyond the surrounding forests and distant hills. Flights passing over on their way from New York to London can probably make it out. Like the entire South Shore needed a night light, just in case anybody might trip down some exterior stairs in the dark. I mean it’s bright, you follow? Look, it’s like this:
Believe me, under real night time viewing conditions, that’s a crapload of candlepower. It’s overwhelming. Most nights, I cant even make out Orion, or the Big Dipper.
Even in broad daylight, the frigging Irving station is a gaudy blight upon Edgewater Street, right there on centre stage, next to the iconic three churches, sticking out like a zirconium-studded, gold-plated upper incisor – though you’d never know from the stock images, since photographers are always at pains to keep it out of frame when they take their picture postcard shots, like this one:
You can’t tell, but just to the left is a garish gas bar made out of acres of white plastic, festooned with corporate logos and big signs setting out the latest hike to the price of premium unleaded. What was town council thinking? It couldn’t have been plonked down up the hill somewhere?
Anyway. Light pollution.
So, a few years back I wrote a column about how much I wanted to revisit the sort of starry sky that amazed me on a night during my youth, when I was lucky to tag along with my older brother and his friends on an after-dark visit to Crystal Crescent beach:
That night, all those years ago, was the only time I ever saw the Milky Way stretched out across the heavens. I’d never had the opportunity to grasp the literal nature of its name, figuring it was some sort of metaphor, I guess, but there it was, glorious and mind-boggling, and it took me a few seconds to realize what it was. Of course. Far away from the city lights, it dominated the heavens. No wonder it had so impressed the ancients! No wonder it had always been a thing of myth and fantastical speculation! For years, decades after, I wished I could see it again, but no chance of that in Greater To., and, sad to say, even living in a small coastal community in Nova Scotia wasn’t going to do the trick. Not even through binoculars. It just wasn’t visible.
Lately, I’d almost forgotten about my old urge to see the pristine night sky the way our ancestors once enjoyed it. I hadn’t thought about it much this summer at all.
Then came last night. Kathy and I have been on a road trip to Cape Breton Island, and yesterday we stayed at a lovely little resort of seaside cottages in Ingonish, one of the stops along the celebrated Cabot Trail, on the fringes of vast Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Our cabin, which featured a hot tub (!), was right across from the long, narrow peninsula called Middle Head (on which is located the famous Keltic Lodge hotel), behind which loomed Cape Smokey, Cape Breton’s iconic landmark. This was our view as we sipped champagne and bobbed contentedly amid the water jets, watching the sun go down:
Later, after Kathy was in bed, I was sitting there having a drink, watching the satellite TV, when it hit me: no light pollution. It was pitch black out the window. When I stepped out on to the porch and looked up, there it was, surrounded by a thousand bright points of light, stretching all across the sky, the Milky Way at long last. It was breathtaking to see it again, literally awesome, and as I debated whether it would annoy Kathy to wake her, eager as I was to share the moment, she emerged on her own, as if motivated by that strange telepathy that we often seem to share. We stood there in the crisp night air, looking up at the stars, and at the rim of the galaxy in which our own little solar system is just an unremarkable collection among billions of its kind, and I was, for just a little while, uncharacteristically and unreservedly happy to be alive.