Canadian island and its lives rest on seaweed

Email|Print| Text size + By Kari J. Bodnarchuk
Globe Correspondent / September 18, 2005

GRAND MANAN ISLAND, New Brunswick -- The eerie bellowing of a nearby foghorn punctuated the night air, cutting through the mist and echoing off an island less than a mile away. We slipped on oversized rubber boots that reached our knees, rolled up our sleeves, and began digging our hands into the thick purple seaweed, pulling it free from the slippery rocks and dumping it into an orange laundry basket.

When the basket was full, we dumped its slithery contents into the back of Reid Ross's pickup truck, which was angled so that its headlights lit up the field of seaweed around us.

We were on an island we had reached over a sandbar at low tide, off the east coast of Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, and one thing was certain: This was no ordinary Friday night for my friend Sarah and me, Bostonians both.

''We come out here every day," said Ross, 39, a lifelong resident of Grand Manan, who has been harvesting seaweed since he was 16.

''Or twice a day when the tides are right," said his friend Judy Woolridge, who was showing us how to identify and extract the dulse, a local seaweed that is darker, thicker, and more flavorful than other varieties and, thus, better quality. ''This is one of the best places to find dulse."

Grand Manan considers itself the ''dulse capital of the world" and residents earn their living by hand-picking the edible seaweed at low tide, drying it on fields of beach rocks, then selling it to a local cooperative, which ships it around the world.

According to Woolridge, this ''sea vegetable" can be eaten right out of the bag as a crunchy snack, ground into flakes and used as seasoning in soups, salads, or pasta, or dry-roasted in a skillet and eaten. I am a fan of seaweed spa treatments and enjoy a hint of the spice in certain meals, but what piqued my interest in this local industry was the act of harvesting seaweed.

Last summer, Sarah and I took a road trip from Boston to New Brunswick and spent a week exploring the province's east coast: biking coastal trails, kayaking around barrier islands in a national park, visiting the Acadian Peninsula for an annual French Acadian festival, and stopping on Grand Manan to try our hands at dulsing.

Although Grand Manan belongs to New Brunswick, it's just 8 miles off the coast of Maine (and about 21 miles from the Canada mainland) and is accessible from Eastport, Maine, by way of Deer Island, Campobello Island, (home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's rustic 34-room summer cottage), and Letete in southern New Brunswick. Alternatively, it's just a 6-hour drive from Boston to Blacks Harbour on the province's south coast, where you can catch a 90-minute ferry ride to the island. That's what we did.

Grand Manan is 15 miles long by 6 miles wide. The rugged west coast is dominated by cliffs that rise to 400 feet, rocky beaches with driftwood the size of telephone poles, and a few small settlements. The east coast has gentler terrain and a majority of the island's roads and settlements. Here, the land is scalloped with coves, harbors, and pebbly beaches protected by nearly two dozen islands sprinkled off the coast.

Many of the 2,800 residents on the island know each other either by face or name, or at least know one another's business.

''If you haven't heard a rumor by 10 o'clock, start one," quipped a local man.

''It's a very simple life," said Guenther Bogensperger, who had moved from Cape Cod five months earlier to run the Shorecrest Lodge, where we were staying ''People don't need or want a lot."

True to island style, Bogensperger set aside his daily errands to show us some of the highlights: Swallowtail Lighthouse on the cliffs of North Head, a deer farm, a lobster pound, herring weirs (round fishing traps that poke out of the water and are visible in coves and inlets around the island), the Sardine Museum in Seal Cove (Grand Manan is also the self-proclaimed ''herring capital of the world"), and, of course, the local dulsing grounds.

Tourists usually come here for reasons other than harvesting seaweed. Forty-three miles of marked hiking trails wind along the cliffs, cut through the island's forested interior, and meander along the flatter east coast. The sea kayaking, too, is unbeatable, if challenging: The area has 27-to-30-foot tides (some of the highest in the world), water temperatures around 47 degrees, and fog that can roll in fast, so choosing a reputable guide or outfitter is essential.

Grand Manan is a top bird- and whale-watching spot. More than 1,000 birds -- as many as 230 species -- nest on the island, and you have a good chance of seeing puffins, razorbills, cormorants, eagles, ospreys, and peregrine falcons. Whale-watching by sailboat is popular, and minkes, finbacks, humpbacks, and Northern right whales are common.

The island, once the summer home of novelist Willa Cather, is also home to artists' galleries, several small museums, and shops that sell local crafts and trinkets.

The Grand Manan tourist office doesn't officially market ''seaweed harvesting" for tourists, but the dulsers we met seemed to welcome anyone who was interested in helping or simply watching and asking questions.

We met Ross and Woolridge at the dulsing grounds, a large field in the middle of the island blanketed in beach rocks and covered with netting to keep the dulse from sticking. They showed us the art of spreading out the dulse to dry. Some people shake their hands up and down to loosen the seaweed and let it fall freely; others toss clumps of it to the ground as if dealing cards. Each dulser develops a personal style.

Sarah and I had little finesse at first -- our rows were clumpy -- but we eventually got the hang of it. Later, once the dulse had dried, Woolridge, Ross, and Wilbur Ingersoll, another local dulser, showed us how to flip the long rows of dried seaweed. This required a long pole with a piece of rope attached to each end. We rolled the dulse around the pole, like dough around a rolling pin, then flipped it over and unrolled it. Once the other side was dry -- probably the next day, after we had left -- they would come back, roll up the dulse, bundle it, and drop it at the cooperative, which pays them about $2 per pound.

As a parting gift, Woolridge and Ross gave us armloads of dried dulse and Bogensperger used his vacuum-packing machine to hermetically seal it for us -- a good 40 baggies of seaweed.

Contact Kari Bodnarchuk, a freelance writer who lives in Somerville, at

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