Alfred MacKay: All-around fisherman from Big Harbour Island, Malagawatch
I met Alfred back in the 1970s when I was buying oyster from the public fishery in the fall. Alfred lived southeast of what we call Malagawatch Reserve. In order for him to get to his home, he had to drive through the Malagawatch community on a daily basis. So everyone got to know Alfred and his family. Alfred was a well-known fisherman and he fished all year round–lobster, cod, oyster, herring, etc. Alfred had tremendous experience with all the fishing stocks and every inch of the Bras d’Or Lakes.
As I said, I met Alfred when I tried my hand in the buying and selling trade of oyster from September 15 to November 30, and for years he would sell oysters to me, and just like those of my old friend, Gabriel, his oysters were excellent. Alfred was a real good friend of Gabriel’s, and for hours they talked about the good old days. I just loved listening to the two of them talk about how plentiful the fishing stocks were.
One of the stories I remember was about the abundance of lobster in the Bras d’Or Lakes. Alfred would tell me that when he fished for lobster he would set all his traps within the River Denys Basin and he wouldn’t bother going into the main lake. He would say there were so many lobster he wouldn’t be able to squeeze one more in the trap. Well, of course, as the years went by, things changed. If you look at the Lakes now, you wouldn’t think it has changed. But the population of lobster and their habitat has certainly changed, causing major concern.
Alfred and Gabriel would talk about trying to find a market for the lobster because, I guess from the way they talked about it, lobster was a poor man’s food. Markets were very poor then because of the abundance of lobster every where. I remember Alfred saying that he couldn’t get his children to take lobster sandwiches to school because it was well known that it was a poor man’s food. Alfred told Gabriel that sometime he had to quit being a fishing boater because of the poor market. He mentioned that one year people were putting lobster in the fields for fertilizer. I was thinking what a sight that would have been, seeing all those lobster going to waste. Just imagine, if you had all those lobster, you would be laughing all the way to the bank!
I remember one time when I was fishing oyster in the Basin, it was getting to the point where the sun was setting and it was time to head for the camp in Malagawatch and rest for the night. Any how, as I was heading home from River Denys, I saw a boat and somebody fishing on MacLean’s Island. Recognizing the boat by its colours and shape, it had to be Alfred’s. So, not wasting time, I turned my boat to head for the island. Sure enough, it was Alfred raking away. He was glad to see me and we chatted a bit. My curiousity got me wondering why he had all these huge rocks piled on his boat. I couldn’t resist and asked him what was going on. He looked at me and chuckled. “Well, Charlie,” he said, “if you took a look at the bottom, there’s oyster between those rocks and rakes are too wide. So I figured if I took away all those rocks I would be able to get access to those oyster now and in the future. Once I have enough rock, I take them to shore. See my pile over there?” I took a look at the shore and saw a pile of rocks and I couldn’t believe the size of the rocks and also the huge pile. He must have spent the whole day raking, maybe longer. This tells you how tough Alfred was.
My final story with Alfred, I just have to tell. We chatted for a while and he asked me if I would like a cup of tea. Well, I jumped at the opportunity because I never had tea all day. He took out his thermos bottle and filled the cup right to the rim. Alfred apologized that he didn’t have any milk for the tea and I said that was okay. He mentioned that the tea might be a little cold but that was fine with me. Knowing that it was cold, I took one gulp and swallowed it all. As the tea went down my throat, I could feel the heat slowly going down and bang, it landed in my stomach. It was black rum and in a short while I found myself warmed up and soon I was raking those rocks with Alfred. Well, of course, everybody back in the Malagawatch camp was concerned because of my being so late. Everybody thought I had found a huge oyster bed and that I would show up with a boat full of oyster.
I wanted to share this story with you and how Alfred had tremendous knowledge about the Lakes and also how much of a real good friend he was. Alfred passed away a few years ago but is sadly missed by everyone.