Saturday, June 26, 2010


From this:

and this:

and this:

to this:

and this:

and this:

From the time we left in February to our return in May, the thick blanket of snow had given way to green grass and a garden in full bud and blossom.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

~ William Wordsworth

I was amazed when I arrived to find the garden bursting with drifts of daffodils, narcissus and tulips.  The birds were enjoying the spring as well, and I counted 12 different species, all with their own favourite trees.  I figure we have at least a dozen pairs of robins, who march across the lawn in rows like redcoated soldiers, vigorously defending their own territory. 

After having spent most of March and April jumping through hoops to make it to closing day, we were less than pleased to find that the date came and went, and we still did not own the property.  Lawyers made phone calls, government clerks went on holiday, the sun rose and set, and still we did not close.  A week passed, then ten days, then two weeks.  Nails were chewed down to the quick.  Finally, after a last minute face-off between the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Transportation, the t was crossed, the i dotted and we closed ... but not before I'd already flown home.  I'd really been looking forward to that champagne on the deck, but it would have to wait. 

Red tape aside, it was a wonderful two weeks.  Paul had already been there a week when I arrived, having driven from Southern Ontario (a gruelling two day trek) and endured numerous vehicle problems along the way, not the least of which was a broken water pump, which he had to change in a parking lot.  Oh, and did I mention he had a broken thumb?  Yeah ...  

I'll update tomorrow with lists, water courses and bears ...

Spring garden ...

Hummingbird in his favourite tree, the honey locust.

American goldfinch posing for me.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

You've Got To Have A Dream

... if you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?"  Wise words from Rogers & Hammerstein's classic musical South Pacific - and words that I kept at the back of my mind as my husband and I made our way from the Toronto suburbs into the highlands of Cape Breton in February (yes, I said February) to look at a house we'd found on the Internet.

The dream - our dream - was to find an old farmhouse with around a hundred acres with forest, meadow and some kind of water source, private but not isolated, with the potential to live off-grid.  As well, we wanted a place which would be suitable to build a couple of guest cabins and open a retreat.  This meant finding a location that was already an established tourist draw, but still had capacity to accommodate something new.  Oh, and did I mention it had to be affordable?  Yeah right.  So we started looking ... and looking ... and looking.  After a while, it became painfully clear that our home province of Ontario was out of the running (unless we won the lottery).  We started to look in B.C. until we realized it was even more expensive than Ontario.  Finally, inspired by a spur-of-the-moment visit to England in November, we did something radical: we searched the MLS for the Maritimes. 

It's funny when something keeps popping up over and over, and it almost becomes so familiar that you don't really see it anymore.  It was the same listing that kept coming up on our searches, both my husband and I had bookmarked it independently of each other, but for some reason we disregarded it and continued with our (largely fruitless) searching.  It had a lot less acreage than we wanted, in a place we knew nothing about, and the pictures were not that flattering; but every time we searched the MLS, there it was.  Finally, after the New Year had come and gone, we said to each other, why not?  So we phoned the agent, and booked a trip to somewhere neither of us had ever been: Nova Scotia.

Halifax in February is freezing.   We stayed overnight at the Sheraton, which was adequate, and had lobster at Tugs Pub, where we were the only customers.  Most places seemed closed or empty, and the city had an air of desolation.  We were quite glad to get on the road the next morning to our real destination: Cape Breton Island.  The journey was long and draggy, not to mention there had been a weather bomb dropped exactly where we wanted to go.  The four-wheel drive rental car was obviously not up to the task, and we almost called off the whole thing and went home, but some dogged sense of adventure (or maybe it was the Alexander Keith's hangover) kept us going.  Finally we made it to Baddeck and the only open hotel in town, Telegraph House. 

We were the only guests at Telegraph House.  Mr. Dunlop, in bible-black coat and galoshes, greeted us with a gloomy courtesy (we later learned he is also the local undertaker).  The hotel, with its atmosphere of shabby gentility, reminded me of my grandmother's bedroom.  There was only one place open to eat, the lilac-and-lace bedecked Country Kitchen, which served hearty hot turkey sandwiches, for which we were definitely ready.   Finally we set out for the property, which was half an hour's drive up the Cabot Trail in the community of Middle River.

The Jeep Laredo had obviously never been used as a 4x4 in its rental life, but we certainly gave it a workout.  Tall pines, their branches weighed down with snow, lined the winding country lane from the Cabot Trail.  After a couple of kilometres, as the snow-covered hillside drew ever closer, we began to wonder where we were headed.  We were surrounded by a silent, pristine winter wonderland, and it seemed impossible that anyone could actually live out here.  At the last moment as we rounded a bend, we came upon a large Dutch barn, a chicken coop, and Peter, the owner, enthusiastically clearing the snow with a backhoe.

It's always useful if you can, to sneak a look at a property before the real estate agent arrives.  Peter was quite happy to show us around, and we were able to get a sense from him of the history behind the place.  The house had been empty for almost 3 years, and to be honest, it showed.  We took note of the cracks in the bedroom walls, the rotted floorboard behind the toilet, the mouse and chipmunk (rat?!!) droppings that hadn't been swept up in advance of our visit.  But there were advantages of an owner-led tour: Peter showed us the banks of batteries from the Diefenbaker bunker, that now store the house's electricity supply.  We strapped on snowshoes and hiked up the hillside to the power house (in reality a tiny shed, painted to match the main house) which generates the electricity.  We saw the cascading water which not only produces the power to generate enough electricity to run a three bedroom house, but also provides natural spring water year-round.  All provided by nature, for free; no more utility bills. 

First impressions:  needs TLC.  Has less acreage than we wanted (25 acres).  Forest: check.  Meadow/Gardens: check.  Pond and two brooks: check.  Rolling/hilly countryside: check.  No neighbours: check.  Habitable house: check.  Off-grid: check.  Barn: check.  Established tourist location with room for our ideas: check.  And last but not least, affordable: check. 

We slept on it.  It was in Nova Scotia.  It was in Cape Breton.

The next day we met the real estate agent, took another tour of the property, and (much to her astonishment) made an offer.  We haggled back and forth over incidental details: the gazebo, the few bits of old furniture that had been left in the house, that sort of thing.  I said that if they left the Sweet Heart stove and the piano, I'd be happy.  They said yes, and the deal was done. 

Or so we thought. 

Barn in winter

Our first view of the barn, February 2010.

House February 2010

The house is a custom-built log home.  The logs are covered on the outside by cedar shakes. 

Winter postcard

This would make a fine greeting card for the winter season.

I'll post more photos from our February trip soon, as well as bring you up to date with where we are now.  My name is Anne and my husband is Paul.  We'd be glad to share this blog with anyone who is interested in self-sufficient living, off-grid, organic gardening, country retreats, the Cape Breton area, as well as like minds/fellow travellers anywhere.  Please feel free to friend, share and comment - you don't have to ask permission.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

~ The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost