The Gulf of St. Lawrence is the sum total of everything that rolls downhill. It gathers from rivers whose finger streams begin hundreds of miles away—in cities like Montreal and in old-growth forests in New York State. It sweeps up sediment, runoff, and the litter of leaves. It churns and roils in a constant state of metamorphosis. Underwater, bacteria and plankton mix sediment with light and animate the inanimate. The accounting adds up to a density of shimmering, biting, drifting life as rich as anywhere else on Earth.
Geologically speaking, the gulf is new to the world. Nineteen thousand years ago, the entire gulf was under ice more than a mile thick. The ice pressed down the land to such an extent that when it finally melted, the earth sprang back up in what one can describe only as relief. As the land rose and the ice melted, the gulf filled with water and life. Freshwater fish migrated down the St. Lawrence River; saltwater fish, sea urchins, sea stars, plankton, and whales arrived from the Atlantic.
The thumb of land known as Cape Breton Island separates the southern edge of the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the sea. On the cape’s east the waters are cold and can be terrifying. On its west the waters are, if not warm, warmer, and if not calm, calmer. The first gatherers on Cape Breton were the ancestors of the Mi‘kmaq (pronounced MIG-maw), one of the indigenous peoples of Canada’s Maritime Provinces. They arrived at the gulf at least 9,000 years ago, spreading through what is now Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and gathering the bounty according to their preferences and needs: seals, seabird eggs, salmon, sturgeons, shad, and even whales.