Some of you might be wondering about the location of my blog’s home page picture. That just happens to be my hometown beach, which has been one of my favourite places in the whole world since I first discovered it in the summer of 1974, just prior to my second birthday.
This is Grande-Greve Beach. It’s located a few kilometres off the main road (officially, and generously, known as “Highway 247”) in eastern Richmond County. My parents built a house along the main road in 1974, and they still live there today. To get to the beach, however, you have to leave the pavement behind and make your way through a maze of twists and turns, leaving clouds of dust behind you (and on your vehicle) as you go.
It’s worth the drive.
It won’t ever be mistaken for the Caribbean, but that doesn’t matter. Grande-Greve is French for “big cove,” and that’s what you find when you get there. It’s a full-on showcase of God’s creativity, with kelp-dotted sand caressed by endless Atlantic Ocean waves in between a beautiful cape head (above) and a winding hill. And if you go up on the cape head, you’ll find another entire shoreline on the other side, with all kinds of rocks and driftwood giving the place its unique character.
My first experience in these waters marked me for life. My father led me into the waves and gave me the opportunity to splash around. I distinctly remember a wave coming over me and a wall of blue suddenly appearing before me as my tiny body was submerged. I also can’t forget how relaxed I was when that water hit me. The wave subsided and I calmly looked around to see my equally-calm father and mother. From then on, I was hooked on the water, culminating in a life of swimming, snorkeling, free-diving and SCUBA diving that even saw me getting my PADI certification in Jamaica in my early forties. And it all started on the shores of Grande-Greve Beach.
I have nothing to tell you about the history, geography, marine biology or wildlife habitat of this part of Cape Breton. Sorry, no specifics here. All I can tell you is how much I loved coming here with my parents and my younger sister (born a year after my life-changing experience in the Grande-Greve Beach waves). Memories of this beach are the stuff of childhood happiness – building sand castles, splashing between the waves, burying each other in the sand, attempting to dig our way to China.
Little did I know how much this spot would come to mean to me as a young adult. In the spring of 1991, after I wrapped up my first year at the University of King’s College in Halifax, I walked from the Cooke family home to Grande-Greve Beach and was struck by how much at peace I felt with myself, my home, and my Lord. It hadn’t been a bad first year of city living – I had experiences I’ll always treasure, met people who are still my dear friends to this day, and expanded my horizons in a sorely-needed fashion. But my heart and soul needed to be refueled by the gentle lapping of the waves, the sight of the horizon from the edge of the cape head, and the simple joy of being back at the beach.
Back at my beach.
(This picture, taken by my mother in 2002, is similar to one I asked her to take of me in 1995 for a “self-portrait” my King’s College photojournalism professor asked me to submit as an assignment. He gave me an A, declaring that it “looks like an album cover for The Rankin Family,” and wrote in his official comments: “Sing us a Gaelic song, b’y!”)
I made a regular habit of walking to Grande-Greve Beach whenever I was home in the ’90s. often taking a copy of the Pete Seeger-edited songbook Rise Up Singing with me. During my travels and while I was on the shoreline, I would try to memorize the lyrics to many of my favourite folk songs; I still have fond memories of singing “Arthur McBride” and “John O’Dreams” to myself as the surf pounded the shoreline.
(The view opposite the Grande-Greve Beach cape head, in 2002. No, I have no idea why I have such a serious facial expression. It’s all so deep, don’t you know.)
In 1992 I even wound up writing a song of my own about Grande-Greve Beach, “Brothers and Sisters,” which I recorded for my 2001 debut album Side Roads. Using the combined imagery of being back with my family and reuniting with a location that felt as much like family as my flesh-and-blood relatives, I came up with this chorus:
Together on the coastline, my family and me/My mother the sunshine, my father the tree/My brothers the beaches, and my sister the sea.
(No, I don’t have any real “brothers,” and yes, I’m sure my real Mom and Dad and my sister Colleen are as confused as you are that they’re the sunshine, a tree and the ocean. Some metaphors just defy explanation.)
(This picture was taken by my Vancouver friend Lisa Harding in 1993. She arrived shortly after my Montreal Canadiens won their last Stanley Cup to date; I’m proudly wearing my Habs jacket in this shot.)
I’ve returned many times to Grande-Greve Beach over the years. Whenever friends would visit from Ontario or Western Canada, this was among the first sights they got to see. On one of the first visits to Grande-Greve by the woman who has become my wife, the great love of my life, of course we had to come to “my beach.” Today, I’m thrilled to be able to take my sister’s children to Grande-Greve Beach when they all visit Cape Breton during the summer.
As I said before, it won’t be mistaken for the Caribbean. It doesn’t even have a boardwalk, change rooms or lifeguards. But I’ll never mistake Grande-Greve Beach as anything but perfect in my mind and heart. And I’ll always be grateful that it was the site of my first pivotal trip “into the blue” in the summer of 1974.
(The view from the top of the hill overlooking Grande-Greve Beach, as taken by my Mom Rose in 2002. Another way-too-serious shot. I believe I was posing for what I thought could be a potential album cover at the time.)