When Rendell Wilson was a teenager, he couldn’t wait to get away from Big Tancook Island, where generations of Wilsons have eked out a meagre living from the soil and the sea. But now as a senior, he feels the tug to the place he still refers to as home.
The pull is so strong that his daughter, Seretha, feels it too—even though she grew up on the mainland.
The Dalhousie nursing student spent the winter term traveling back and forth to Big Tancook, the largest of 365 small islands scattered throughout Mahone Bay, as part of her course Nursing Practice: Caring for Families.
Keeping families healthy
“We’re so used to going in and taking care of the sick patient,” says Seretha, on the ferry ride on the way over for her last visit with the Baker family. “That’s why I think this class is so important—it’s understanding what goes into keeping families healthy.”
The class requires students to conduct a series of five interviews with the members of one family, allowing for an in-depth look at their particular situation and the factors that influence their health, including socioeconomic and cultural. In the case of the Baker family—David and Katie and their children Megan and Dylan—the challenges of island living were also taken into account.
Accompanying Seretha for the visit was dad Rendell, whom she refers to as “our Tancook tour guide,” and her professor, Debbie Sheppard-LeMoine.
Prof. Sheppard-Lemoine says she’s impressed with her students, who’ve gone further afield this year, seeking out families in rural and isolated settings to understand their unique situations.
“It’s intriguing for them but also for the students who’ve stayed in the city core because they’ve learned too,” says Prof. Sheppard-LeMoine, who likes to accompany the students on at least one of their visits. “I think it’s important to thank these families in person for their support of student learning.”
With a desire to work in rural setting, Seretha sought out her dad’s Tancook connections in arranging visits with a family on the island. Rendell introduced her to the Bakers, who live in a quaint brown-shingled house overlooking the ferry terminal. David is a lobster fisherman and Katie, originally from Western Shore, is one of the island’s main boosters. When she’s not on the boat helping her husband, she volunteers at the school, tends her garden, gathers sea glass and shells for crafts and generally thinks of ways to attract tourists to the island in the summer.
Kitchen table talks
“It’s been really wonderful to get to know them,” says Seretha. “Katie’s very welcoming and we usually sit at the kitchen table and talk while the kids are running around, having fun.”
The Bakers also act as “medical first responders” for the island’s 125 permanent residents—a population that doubles in the summer. It’s an important role in a community where a hospital is more than an hour away by boat: Katie’s been there to hold a hand when a cancer patient has passed away and been first on the scene of a devastating ATV accident.
“A lot of the time things get worse because the people are too stubborn or don’t want to see a doctor—they think it’s too much bother,” she says.
Thirteen-year-old Megan takes the 50-minute-long ferry ride to attend school in Chester and back each day. Her brother Dylan, age 10, goes to school along with nine other students at tiny Big Tancook Elementary.
Nestled into the corner of the couch on a cold, blustery day, Katie explains that living on the island is great; it’s coming and going that’s the problem.
Going to the dentist or the doctor—even going for a grocery run—becomes a big, all-day production when you’re at the mercy of ferry schedules. And things that parents in the city take for granted—like taking the kids swimming or skating or movie watching—is a once-in-awhile treat when you live on Tancook.
Nevertheless, there’s lots to do without leaving the island, she continues, as she offers coffee to the visitors in her home. There are bingos, card games and pizza parties to go to, fostering a tight-knit sense of community among residents.
“And we love to go to the ice cream socials,” she says. “Dylan likes to do the cranking.”
Katie packs a lot into her last visit with Seretha, giving her guests a quick tour of Tancook’s highlights in her pick-up truck. There’s a trip to the school while the kids are having lunch and to the pretty white church where she was married. She says some folks on the island have formed a marketing committee to promote tourism. They’ve launched a new website, gotten involved with geo caching and created rest stops perfect for picnicking.
“There’s less and less of us here and we want to stay,” she says. “We’ll do what we can to survive.”
SEE PHOTOS: Trip to Tancook (photos by Nick Pearce)
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