New Brunswick

Keepsake from long-ago beachcombing days arrives in senior's mailbox

There was always a piece missing from Jim Gaunce's expansive beachcombing collection spanning 50 years. And that's weighed on the mind of a Colorado woman, who was finally ready to close the loop after a 12-year lapse.

Jim Gaunce, 90, receives letter finally 'closing the loop' on message-in-a-bottle discovery 12 years earlier

Jim Gaunce, 90, calls the beaches of New Brunswick his 'private wilderness.' (Sarah Trainor/CBC)

Jim Gaunce's beachcombing album is a treasure trove of discoveries from New Brunswick's shoreline over the past 50 years.

Attached to its pages are pictures of the coast, a record of the people who walked the beach with him, and a chronicle of his finds, from the underwater camera that stored pictures from Florida to distress signal containers and flares, thousands of buoys and kilometres of rope.

The album also holds the Grand Bay-Westfield man's prized collection of messages in bottles. There are six in total, the last one retrieved when he was 78.

Gaunce, shown here with his dog Whistler, keeps a record of his finds along New Brunswick's shoreline. The Grand Bay-Westfield man used to beachcomb at least 20 times a year but has had to scale back recently. (Submitted by Jim Gaunce)

Gaunce, now 90, exchanged letters with every sender, mostly people from the Maritimes, except for one: a no-reply from Colorado.

It's taken over a decade, but a surprise in the mail completes Gaunce's capsule of memories.

The discovery

In August 2007, Gaunce was walking the beach in Welch Cove near Maces Bay west of Saint John, when he came across a bottle with a note inside.

"If you find this, please call us at our home in Colorado, USA," said the message, which included a phone number and address for five-year-old Ryan Stone.

Gaunce, 90, recovered Ryan Stone's message in a bottle in the summer of 2007. (Sarah Trainor/CBC)

Gaunce tucked a $10 bill inside an envelope and sent a reply with some remarks about his favourite pastime.

"Beachcombing is a good way to relax, and you never know what is on the next beach," Gaunce wrote.

"Beachcombing reminds me of a saying, 'Somewhere in your heart is your own private wilderness.' I take my chocolate Lab, Whistler, with me, he is good company and he doesn't even bark."

You're out in the fresh air, and the smell of the water and the sea. I enjoy that.- Jim Gaunce, beachcomber

The years went by. Whistler died. Gaunce said he saw fewer people at his favourite haunts, and eventually he had to slow down after a fall.

"Your health will tell you, when you get real tired," he said. 

"Some places are too long to walk. There's one that takes three hours up over hills and through woods and everything. It's too hard."

In his reply to Ryan's bottled message, Gaunce wrote about the joys of beachcombing.

Gaunce, a retired carpenter, took up painting and carving as new hobbies. But the joy of beachcombing was always present.

"You're out in the fresh air, and the smell of the water and the sea," he said. "I enjoy that.

"Whenever I want to get away from everything, I just drive somewhere and beachcomb. No matter how old you are, you're going to keep going."

The reply

In Evergreen, Colorado, Michelle Stone addressed her letter to James Gaunce or a family caretaker and sent it by certified mail in May to make sure someone would sign for it.

Her son, Ryan, 17, had just celebrated his prom and they were preparing to visit the U.K. to see colleges for aerospace engineering.

While clearing paperwork, Stone had come across an old letter and a map of the Bay of Fundy showing where Ryan's bottle ended up 12 years earlier.

In 2007, Gaunce attached to his letter a map of where Ryan Stone's bottle ended up. (Submitted by Michelle Stone)

"When I was a young lad like you, I spent a summer on Grand Manan. I would like a reply to put in my beachcombing album," it read.

Stone began her reply with an apology.

She and her family were vacationing in the Bay of Fundy and on a whim, they sent the message from Seeleys Cove. Upon their return home, Stone learned she had lupus and rapidly became ill. That was on top of raising a busy child and caring for ailing parents.

Ryan Stone, a 'happy, adventurous and curious boy,' his mother said, is now scouting colleges for aerospace engineering. (Submitted by Michelle Stone)

"Life just got away from me and my paper piles grew, and I thought, I want to get back to him someday," she said.

"But life just exploded, and I was trying to survive, and keep my family members alive. And as much as that kind of thing gives me joy and is important, it just got lost in the shuffle."

Magic in human encounters

Stone, a family therapist, says human connections are what make her heart sing.

"I so worry in this high tech day that kids are losing, especially with the elderly, people are losing those kinds of connections," she said.

"And I was just so touched that he sent such a big letter to us with the map of where the bottle had travelled, and it meant something to get back to me."

'I'm back'

Stone said over the years since, life settled, and she felt compelled to finally close the loop.

"Part of the grief of the illness was that I wasn't able to do things that mattered to me," she said. "It's so powerful I can be back at it again, and he's still alive, and I can make it happen. 

"I'm back. Life has carried on, and we can still make connections even though there's big pauses."

Kinship discovered

Gaunce said Stone's reply was, "by far, worth the wait" and a new letter is in the works.

"She sounds like a very nice person," he said.

"It made my day. And she is a beautiful writer."

In an era of email and texting, Stone said, letter writing holds its own sort of magic, and she's looking forward to Gaunce's response.

Michelle Stone, shown here with Ryan, says the world has become far too high tech for her liking, and human encounters and adventures are what makes her heart sing. (Submitted by Michelle Stone)

"I felt a kinship with him based on his letter because that's how I walked the beaches, and he just seems like a sensitive soul," she said.

"It's been years since I received a letter from anybody, so that'll be exciting too."

Tides bring rewards

Neither Gaunce nor Stone are drawn to bottles on the shore anymore. The amount of plastics in the ocean makes the concept far less romantic.

But Gaunce continues to beachcomb the smaller beaches, and hopes the tradition continues.

"Get a good pair of boots and a big pack, and pick up things of interest," he said.

"When you're beachcombing there are many surprises, because each tide brings its own reward."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Trainor is the morning newsreader at CBC New Brunswick. She has worked for the CBC since 2005.

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