An Island Renaissance?

I met a guy named Dwight yesterday. He was using a two-by-four to pry a steel beam into place on a bridge over a 120-year-old dam in Hunter River. When he saw me coming, he threatened to get his shot gun. Guess I looked “Government.” Must be Ottawa. Turns out the bureaucrats in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were telling him he couldn’t raise the pond (by closing the dam) until he got “fish nets.” This, after 3 years of following all the rules, of getting all the right permits. (and over 100 years of no fish nets on the Hunter River dam). Meanwhile, the -12C was threatening the exposed concrete of his dams retaining walls. When I arrived he was tossing straw into the river, hoping it would be absorbed by the cracks, delaying the inevitable collapse. Dwight was fit to be tied. In fish nets. “Those fuckers better not show their god-dammed faces here or somebody might get hurt.”

I liked him straight away.

Dwight and his wife Darlene have remortgaged their house to restore the old mill and dam in the central-PEI community. The huge two-storey building was slowly sliding into the pond, abandoned for years, when the couple stepped up to restore it. They’ve done all the work themselves, even making their own shingles by hand. Three years into the project, they have completely rebuilt the hundred-year-old mill building, and are eager to try out the dam once they flood it. They’ve rigged a boat propeller in the spill shafts. An engineer told them last year that if they hooked up a prop to a generator they could generate 50 kilowatts of power from the water. Fifty thousand watts. I immediately thought: That’s a lot of compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Hunter River’s where my family’s from. Uncle Kirk used to own the local garage. The woman who runs a guest house at the top of the hill past the old rail yard is rumoured to be my dad’s lost love (she swore to me at a chance encounter at the Irving pumps last year that she never slept with dad.). That dealt a blow to the old story that dad’s illegitimate son was killed by a car at the junction nearby here. He would have been my older brother. Local Baggage.

So I’d long written Hunter River off. A big Irving gas station and a fast moving highway kill community – in more ways than one. I would have never considered living here. Too much history, no future. Then I stumbled upon Dwight. He’s in his fifties. He and Darlene decided to restore the old mill. They plan to turn the building into a centre for eco-friendly enterprise. I instantly saw an innovative social marketing firm tucked in there in the loft overlooking the mill pond and bakery.

Dwight’s old school with new ideas. In between bursts of profanity he gestured widely with his arm to the hillside to the east of town. “There’s 20 acres. We’re gonna build a community there, powered by this dam. And a wind mill. We’ll be smart and self sufficient.”

Dwight and Darlene are on the bleeding edge of what will inevitably be the life or death of little towns like this, as soon as oil runs out, the Irvings leave, and the road quiets down. Suddenly, I want to move back. There’s hope in the silent waters of Hunter River, in central PEI. That is, if the government will let this guy test his turbines. And people believe.

Dwight called the cabin tonight. I didn’t recognize his voice. It was calm. He was calling to apologize for being so rude. I thanked him, and told him it has been a while since I was so impressed by someone. He’s definitely got passion. I like that.

“Stuart, you only got one life. And it’s important to do the right thing for your kids and theirs.”

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