Beach House Diaries: Call of the Wild

gray seal waving

From boardwalks to board games, fab food to family bonding, there are many reasons why we love beach house living. Of course, proximity to nature also ranks high on most people's lists -- mine included. About the only thing I notice growing at home is the mold in my basement. But at my Pictou Island vacation home, where I'm more attuned to my surroundings, I monitor Mother Nature with uncharacteristic interest. As summer unfolds in its usual way, I mourn the wilting of irises; then applaud the blooming of Queen Anne's lace. The arrival of wild blueberries is cause for a cork-popping celebration.

So when flora merits that kind of attention, you can imagine the excitement fauna generates among locals and summer residents alike.
The sudden appearance of a deer a few weeks back is a case in point. The news that rare hoof prints had been observed began spreading around the island almost instantly (seriously, the TMZ crew could learn a thing or two -- even their coverage of Kardashian scandals seems slow by comparison). Moreover, the grainy photos of the elusive critter that finally did materialize were met with the kind of enthusiasm that would elsewhere be reserved for a close-up of Big Foot.

The reaction is understandable considering this determined deer probably had to swim six miles across Northumberland Strait to reach us. To put it in Disney terms, Bambi is an anomaly here. Thumper, on the other hand, is not because rabbits are ubiquitous. They outnumber people by a wide margin and might sink the island under their combined weight if slow-to-swerve drivers and much-discussed coyotes (which I've yet to actually see) didn't keep the population down.

They'll noiselessly nibble their way through gardens full of produce, creating a curious Peter Rabbit vs. Farmer McGregor dynamic. Or they'll simply line up along the roadside, sitting frozen on their haunches in that classic, ears-erect Easter bunny pose -- in which case, the only sound heard is the rustling of tall grass after they acknowledge your approach and plunge into their hiding places.
Like those ever-present rabbits, some of our airborne wildlife is remarkably quiet.

Bald eagles make only an air-slicing swoop upon take-off; and the tiny, cartoonish sandpipers silently skitter in and out of lapping waves, as if playing a child's game without the requisite laughter. Balancing this, however, is the melodic symphony of song birds, the insistent caws of seagulls, the electric buzz of hummingbirds and the frog-like croak of great blue herons. Oh, and don't forget all the unknown species of insects that make orchestral maneuvers in the dark.

Not surprisingly, though, marine life is the main attraction here -- and I'm not just talkin' crabs and starfish. We have gray seals... lots of them. In fact, the winter number (4,000 by some reports) has brought the island national media attention and, in doing so, made it a poster child for global warning. You see, back when the Strait was ice-packed, seals gave birth on floes. Nowadays, with ice in shorter supply, the beach below my house has become their make-shift maternity ward.

Come summer there are far fewer (which is a good thing as I don't fancy sharing my beach towel with a barking seal pup, no matter how doe-eyed and adorable). Still, there are enough to make an impression -- especially on folks who've only ever watched ones flapping their flippers at an aquarium or bouncing balls on their noses at a circus. From my deck I can see them dive for dinner; from my kayak I can hear their Darth-Vaderish inhalations and smell their fishy breath.
Once my children and I even spent an afternoon with a seal, who swam mere feet from us as we looped along the water's edge. We naively figured "Celia" was being friendly: turned out she was trying to beach herself to die. By dusk she'd succeeded, and we held a hasty funeral, complete with a bad rendition of "Amazing Grace." By dawn, the tide had taken Celia away.

Given how young my kids were at the time I'd anticipated tears and trauma. But the whole thing left us feeling oddly peaceful -- which only goes to prove that aside from providing pretty scenery, Mother Nature can provide real-life moms with potent teachable moments.

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Each week writer Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb will report on summer beach house life from her vacation home on Pictou Island, Nova Scotia. Follow along for a glimpse of the shore, plus tips on what to pack, how to entertain guests and how to relax at your own beach house.
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