Transfortressing the Wind-Down

September 15 was the last official day of Peak Season, although we could feel the signs of a wind-down as early as the final week of August. That’s when the crowds began to thin even so slightly. We still saw hundreds of visitors per day, in a year that overall has had a 47% increase in attendance at the site. But there was less feeling of hectic pressure, fewer points in each day when I felt beset on all sides by questions. Subtly, because there were no longer ubiquitous crowds, the timbre of my interactions changed. Peak Season, a shift at the barbette — the highest point of our defenses, the cannon-firing lookout spot — was fraught with potential peril. The barbette has two gravel slopes on either side, granting access to adventurous visitors. On the inner side, between the ramps, there’s a stone lip that drops 10 feet to the terre-plein. On the other side, there’s actually a small stone step up, onto the wall itself, then about eight feet of tall grass, and then — nothing: an abrupt, and fairly well-hidden, forty-foot drop. Even though visitors are warned to stay off the walls when they first arrive on site, their curiosity often gets the better of them, and they step up and creep, like slow-motion lemmings, towards the precipice. So when I’m on sentry duty, part of my job is to coax people down from the wall, lest vertigo or slippery grass bring about Louisbourg’s first casualty in 300 years.

On the busiest days of peak season, when I am surrounded by visitors hungry for facts about the cannons or the sieges, I may not even spot the looky-loos until they’re right out at the edge. My speeches often go like this: “In 1745, the New Englanders anchored their ships — Monsieur, please step down, merci — three miles south, near Kennington Cove, and — Madam? Madam? — dragged their cannons over land, to set them up near — Monsieur, if you want to see the walls, yes, there, just down those steps — Madam, your son! — sigh. Anyway, they kicked our butts.”

Now, however, there is usually time for me to greet each group or family as they come up the ramps. “Bonjour/good day! Please stay off the walls — there may be British snipers in the woods.” From there, I feel free to launch into longer, more intricate descriptions of the Fall of Louisbourg, as I am no longer concerned about the Fall of Visitors. the Labour Day weekend, the weather had also changed subtly. It has been an uncommonly warm, dry season, but now the wind has cooled, and more rainy days have come. We’ve even had a few downpours — normally, you can see them rolling towards the fortress from miles away, a grey virga that spreads across the treeline like a curtain, advancing until all at once, you can’t see ten feet for the rain. Within minutes, the unpaved streets become rivers, or else wide puddles form, creating a soggy game of hopscotch for visitors, many of whom are sporting sandals. The deluges last an hour or two at most, and then the wall of precipitation ripples off to sea.

Even on these days, there are perks. During a torrent, visitors cluster under the guardhouse eaves, or huddle in the chapel, or even take shelter in the sentry boxes. Then it’s my job to keep them distracted from their dampness, which I’ll do at first with some standard in-character complaining (“At least you don’t have thirty pounds of wool on you. I’m going to smell like a sheepdog for the rest of the week.”). Then I’ll drop out of character, to commiserate about the weather (something which, I believe, unites all Canadians, regardless of colour or creed). Or I’ll ask them how the weather’s been on their trip so far. Finally, I’ll try to frame the unexpected rain as a good thing, because it made for a memorable visit, and because “If we hadn’t been trapped here, we would have missed this chance to chat.” It’s kind of a trick to coax a smile, yet it’s also true.

Not all my in-depth encounters have been positive. There are a few history buffs from the ‘States who try to get me to agree that all historical preservation is equally important, and essentially apolitical — “You folks’ve got this place, we we’ve got our Confederate statues, and it’s a sore loss to lose either one, am I right?” Well, no sir, you are not — but I’m not allowed to say that. Similarly, the other day, all the soldiers on site were beset at one point or another by a single visitor who adopted the fortress as a personal soapbox from which to broadcast his 9/11 conspiracy theories. No matter that I, an illiterate private from 18th century France, kept insisting I had no idea what an “airplane” was. He sensed in me a captive audience, so I was forced to nod and smile while he ranted about micronuclear detonations and holographically projected planes.

Ah, well. Everyone has their own version of history, I guess. I got to spend the summer inhabiting and describing mine, so I can’t begrudge visitors who bring their own along to compare. Very soon, I’ll be all finished here, but a few staff members stay on for another month (or more — the site is officially open year-round, though only a skeleton crew stays on in winter). I imagine it must get awfully lonely once the visitors are all gone, and you’ve got nothing to keep you company except the past.


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