Nova Scotia·Atlantic Voice

The last man of Port Hood Island and his promise to survive climate change

Alone and stranded on a speck of an island in the Atlantic Ocean is exactly how David Smith likes to spend his winters. Even though it's getting more dangerous all the time.

‘I'm not saying I won't fit in with society, but this is what I like’

David Smith is the caretaker of Port Hood Island and the only person who lives there all year long. (David Burke/CBC)

Alone and stranded on a speck of an island in the Atlantic Ocean is exactly how David Smith likes to spend his winters. He treasures the peace and quiet that comes when all the residents are gone and he can be by himself for weeks with no one to interrupt his work. 

He's the caretaker of Port Hood Island, just a few kilometres off the coast of Cape Breton's western shore. 

With its rolling hills, sandy beaches and small forest, the island is more than a home to Smith, it's almost like it's a part of the 64-year-old.

But the isolation he so cherishes will likely only become more intense. Climate change is reshaping how he lives on the island, and can even determine when he's able to leave.

Smith was born here and has been the island's caretaker for 16 years, taking over the role from his father. Even a handful of the houses that dot the island's landscape were built by Smith.

People used to live here year-round until the 1980s, when the last school in the community was shut down and residents started moving away because of the lack of services.

But the reason people left is precisely why in the years that followed some have returned during the summer, seeking a place that's disconnected and allows them to get away from their day-to-day lives.

No matter the season, Smith's boat can be found at the wharf on Port Hood Island. (David Burke/CBC)

Smith is now the only person who lives on the island year-round. In the summer months boats full of people come and go all the time, and the community is alive with chatter and activity.

It's a stark contrast to the winter, when Smith is surrounded by empty homes and has only his thoughts and his dog for company.

"I can't see myself being away during the winter. I enjoy this, this is what I want," said Smith. "I'm not saying I won't fit in with society, but this is what I like."

Being alone doesn't seem to bother Smith in the least. Even his wife has stopped staying on the island with him during the winter, although she does make him some casseroles and other meals to help him eat well in the months they're apart.    

"I have work. The people here, I maintain the homes and stuff," said Smith. "In the fall, the spring and the winter is my time to get work done when nobody's here to bug me." 

Port Hood Island was mainly a fishing village before most of its permanent inhabitants left in the 1980s. (David Burke/CBC)

Smith takes care of a litany of things on the island. He maintains most of the community's 33 houses during the winter, he repairs any storm damage, plows all the roads and makes sure the pipes in people's homes don't freeze.

Smith's work keeps the island going, according to Dawn Tobey, who visits every summer.

"I think it's vital to the continuation of the community. If David wasn't here there would be something lacking," said Tobey. "I think if he decides to move away then we're going to realize quickly how we all have depended on David throughout our summer vacations and fall and spring."

But stronger storms and bad weather caused by climate change are making Smith's decision to stay on the island more dangerous. In recent years he's been stranded more often and for longer periods.

Dawn Tobey visits Port Hood Island every summer. In 2018 she hoped to use the island's isolation to her advantage and get a lot of work done on her master's thesis. (David Burke/CBC)

"You get a little edgy sometimes when the storms are real bad," he said.

He noted one storm last winter had winds of 206 kilometres an hour. "That was a pretty bad storm, you know the house was shaking. My house is over 200 years old, she was shaking pretty good," he said. "The dog and I we just went to bed and covered up, and that was it."

After a storm in 2016 he was stuck on the island alone for three months. 

"I never seen another soul. At that point I was ready to get off for a couple of days, you know, to go see somebody," he said. "It's not a life for everybody, that's for sure."

Generations of fishermen used to fish out of Port Hood Island. (David Burke/CBC)

Smith expects to be stranded on the island for a few weeks every winter. He has five freezers packed full of food, a backup generator and lots of fuel, just in case. He isn't cut off from the mainland, either. He has phone service, high-speed internet and satellite TV. 

In the past Smith knew he would be stranded for about three weeks on the island while the harbour froze. Then he would simply walk or snowmobile over the ice back to the mainland.

But not anymore.

"The climate has changed and we don't get that kind of ice anymore. Now you get stuff you can't push through with a boat but yet you can't walk on it either. So you get stranded here and the only way off is with a helicopter," he said. 

Grant Cameron is one of the few fishermen who still use Port Hood Island to sort gear before heading out to sea. His family also spends part of their summer on the island. (David Burke/CBC)

Environment and Climate Change Canada backs up Smith's observations. Climate change is hurting coastal communities throughout the Maritimes, according to Bob Robichaud, a warning preparedness meteorologist with the federal department.  

"We know the sea levels are rising, and so every year the sea levels rise by a few millimetres and have been over the last number of years," said Robichaud. "So that combined with more frequent storms will result in more of this coastal infrastructure being damaged. So that's what we've been seeing over the last few years."

Port Hood Island has already been hurt by those changes. The 2016 storm that left Smith stranded for three months also destroyed the island's only wharf. The pounding waves ripped huge holes in the deck and damaged the cove's breakwater. 

The community managed to piece part of the wharf back together, but it's still missing large sections and some areas that were repaired are so uneven the surface resembles a rolling wave.

People who have homes on the island are talking with the Municipality of the County of Inverness to try to get the wharf replaced.

"I'm totally worried, because all it takes is one more storm and it will be gone completely," said Harvey Tobey, a member of a residents association on the island.

One of the main modes of transportation are golf carts. They're easier to get to the island and are made of plastic, which means they don't rust as easily in the salty air. (David Burke/CBC)

He estimates it will cost about $1.6 million to replace the wharf. Many on the island want to make sure the new one can stand up to climate change. They want the breakwater replaced with a new one made out of armour rock, and the wharf built higher to accommodate rising water levels.

The municipality is willing to put up some money for repairs, but it's also looking for cash from the provincial and federal governments to help out. So far there is no plan in place to repair the wharf, according to the municipality.       

Even though the wharf would only serve a few dozen people who have homes on the island, Tobey said it would still be an investment in the local economy.

"We vacation and bring our money here. When these people come here they're not only lugging their laundry, they're buying their materials, their building materials in Nova Scotia, they're buying their groceries in the area," said Tobey. "There's a large infrastructure that is dependent on all of these people being here."

Many of the homes on Port Hood Island have been renovated, and a handful of new houses have gone up on the island in the last few years. (David Burke/CBC)

But neither a damaged wharf or bad weather are going to drive Smith off the island. His roots here run deep and keep him from staying away for too long. 

Smith tried moving away before and it didn't stick. He went to Calgary to try out big-city life. He stayed there eight years before he had enough and moved back.

"I tried the city life, I didn't like it. I like my quiet time and my alone time. I'm not a big city person, so this is what I love."

Then Smith's father died and he decided he would take over his job as caretaker. That was 16 years ago. 

Large portions of the Port Hood Island wharf still haven't been repaired since a powerful storm damaged them in 2016. (David Burke/CBC)

Smith's 64 now and his age, combined with the increasingly bad weather, is making some people question his decision to remain on the island.

"I've had a lot of pressure from people here, and my family also, not to spend the winter here again, things like that. But I don't know, I can't, I can't see myself being away through the winter. I mean, I enjoy it. This is what I want," said Smith. 

Not even the birth of a new granddaughter has been enough to make Smith leave the island for long. However, it was enough for his wife. She now leaves the island during the winter and spends her time in Truro helping look after their granddaughter.

So Smith stays on the island by himself, despite the risks. If there's a medical emergency, he hopes the coast guard can get him out.

"If it's storming real bad you worry that if you get hurt or something like that they can't get in. But you're not going to solve anything by worrying about it, it only makes things worse," he said. "This is home, home for me."  

The old church on Port Hood Island isn't used much anymore, but some special events are held there during the summer. (David Burke/CBC)
Port Hood Island also has its share of rocky beaches. (David Burke/CBC)

About the Author

David Burke


David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.


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