Since childhood, I had always seen Parks Canada as sort of a “maiden aunt” type of organization. You know the type. Her house is spotless, everything in its place, but for gosh sakes, don’t touch anything.
Well, no longer. This past June I had a chance to get up close and personal with Parks Canada in Cape Breton, and the result was, well, breathtaking. Auntie has a new lease of life. She is kicking up her heels and saying “take heed”…and the results are amazing.
I knew something was up when I visited the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. The reconstructed citadel, once the third largest city on the eastern seaboard of North America, was leveled in 1758 and mouldered for many years until getting a new lease of life beginning 1961 with the commencement of a historic reconstruction. Fully one-fifth of the city is now back in action. No longer is it “look and don’t touch”.
At my recent visit to the fortress, I was offered the opportunity to fire an 18 pound cannon on the wall, along with my friend Dale Dunlop, who was celebrating his 65th birthday. Actually, we drew lots and my good friend Helen Earley won. She sensibly declined this opportunity to rupture her tympanic membranes, but I jumped at the chance.
Firing an Eighteenth Century cannon isn’t just a matter of pushing a button or lighting a fuse. We had to dress like French artillerymen of the period, tricorn hat included, and march in formation up the battlements with a musical escort. The artillerymen of this time had to be well educated in math and logistics to be able to calculate how best to place a cannonball where it would do the most damage. While many of the ordinary soldiers were illiterate, the artillerymen were well read and knowledgeable.
Approaching the cannon, our teams placed wads of gunpowder into the barrels of the twin guns. An 18 pound cannon fires iron balls weighing 18 lbs., hence the name. While 6 lbs was the usual black powder charge, we only used 1.5 lbs. After it was all tamped down, my uniformed sidekick offered me a stick with a lit fuse at the end.
The orders were given in French.
FEU! And Dale placed the fuse to the cannon with a satisfyingroar, and a billow of smoke ensued.
The second cry of “FEU” was my signal to blast away at imaginary foes…and my cannon belched out a lick of flame and pungent, sulphuric smoke.
Being cannon virgins, Dale and I had our cheeks marked with parallel stripes of charcoal from the hot barrel of the gun. We proudly wore these as marks of bravado for the rest of the day.
After our exercise, we had worked up a good appetite. Making our way back to the governor’s courtyard we tried our hands at lighting fires using steel and flint and then competed to prepare a savoury stew to the taste of Governor Duquesnel. Elegantly attired as a French nobleman, Parks Canada’s Les Marchands judged the repast…and found the one prepared by my team mate Stella and myself particularly to his liking.
The night was still young, and since we were all staying overnight, we toasted our friend Dale’s 65th birthday with Fortress Rum, a potent distillant available in the gift shop and in liquor emporia throughout the fair province of Nova Scotia. Afterwards, we retired to the fort’s ancient chapel for a reading about the unfortunate Duke D’Anville, now buried in the chapel, followed by an impromptu ghost hunt through the governor’s apartments.
Some of us spent the night in the Rodrigue House (an Eighteenth Century reconstructed home within the fortress walls), others in tents in the courtyard. I chose to remain in the barracks on a straw tick and plank bed that the ordinary soldiers would once have used. Fortunately, Parks Canada had not gone to the trouble of replicating the vermin of the Eighteenth Century and I slept reasonably well, at least partly due to my allowance of Fortress Rum.
IF YOU GO…
Co-authored by George Burden and Stella van der Lugt
Photos by Stella van der Lugt – All Rights Reserved