Fathoming the Mysteries of “Ghost” Docks and Finding a Bit of Hollywood

Fathoming the Mysteries of “Ghost” Docks and Finding a Bit of Hollywood

—August 14, 2016

I discovered the strangest dock I have ever encountered several decades ago just outside of Greenville, North Carolina in a small pond deep in the woods near my step-grandmother’s farm. And when I say “small” I’m talking quarter acre at most. So small that you could traverse its length in a canoe with a couple of strokes of the paddle. So small that the dock, which only extended about seven feet over the water, seemed like it ended right in the middle of the pond. And ended to what purpose would be the question, as the pond was too small for boating and one could easily fish every part of it by casting from any one spot on the shore—that is, if that dock hadn’t been in the way.

The dock essentially proved to be a complete nuisance to fishing the pond, as its apparent age and dilapidation precluded any thought of walking out on it to drop a line. Thus, it was in the way, and its possible role as serving as cover for a lunker bass or two also proved worthless, as the only bites I got that afternoon were from the herds of deerflies that assaulted me in successive, increasing waves. Given the difficulty of reaching the pond, apparent lack of any fish, and abundance of hungry deerflies I never went back.

While I did not have a term for such structures back then, I now call docks that serve no readily apparent purpose “ghost docks.” And the only purpose I have been able to come up with for that particular dock is that perhaps it had been a good fishing hole at one time, but whoever fished it had been especially afraid of snakes. That notion only came to me in hindsight when I gained a healthy respect for snakes after coming face to face with a mating pair while fishing a different pond…but that’s another story. 

In my adopted home up here in Nova Scotia I have encountered quite a few ghost docks over the years. With more than 4,600 miles of coastline and at least 3,800 coastal islands we have a lot of docks. Generally, wherever one sees a dock there is a nearby or adjacent house, cottage, boathouse, seafood processing facility, or some other variety of human construction. But sometimes there is just simply a dock.

These ghost docks are usually found on remote islands or out-of-the-way, hard-to-reach sections of the shore, and cause seafarers such as myself to wonder, what is the purpose of that dock? Why is that dock there when it seems to serve no other purpose than to provide easy access to a deserted island or barren stretch of rocky seashore?

These are rhetorical questions because I do not know the answers, but I always speculate as to the purpose. I generally assume that newer looking docks built in especially picturesque locations have been built by landowners who dream of eventually building a cottage at the site. I tend to believe that older looking ghost docks were built by coastal fishermen as perhaps a waypoint at which to take a break or clean fish between home port and the fishing grounds. And the really ancient looking structures in the remotest waters call to mind the rum-running that significantly bolstered the local fishing industry’s earnings in the 1920s and ‘30s.

A ghost dock at one of my favorite anchorages along the coast morphed over the years from “spirit” to “working.” The anchorage is located in a gut between Taylor and Moore’s Islands roughly 20 nautical miles northeast of my home waters, a perfect distance for an overnight stay when cruising for a two-day voyage, or as a first-night stop for an extended voyage up to Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. The gut provides excellent protection from wind and waves, and despite being only about four miles from the tourist-trap destination of Peggy’s Cove, feels “ends-of-the-earth” remote—the granite cliffs, boulders, spruce strands, wildflower fields and scrub brush seemingly showing little change from 2,000 years ago. We generally see few other boats when there, and have never had to share the anchorage overnight with other boats, excepting friends cruising in company on their own boat. And while Taylor Island has become quite popular with rock climbers in recent years, their occasional presence is unobtrusive and they are hardly noticed during our walks around the island. 

The ghost dock was present on my first “discovery” of the anchorage back in 2003. It was almost more platform than dock, and rather unremarkable other than the fact that it was not connected to anything else related to man. It was also located on the much smaller and much less interesting Moore’s Island. I assumed that it was just a place for local fishermen to rest or wait out a storm, though we never saw anyone tie up to it.

Nothing changed about the dock until we arrived five years ago to find that it had been rebuilt or refurbished, and seemed more like a dock than a platform on stilts in the water. But again, I did not give much thought to it.

The next year found the dock connected to a staircase ascending the granite slabs some 100 feet to the island’s primary plateau. Ah, now this was interesting, and so, for the first time ever we landed on Moore’s Island. The stairs were well built and sturdy, and someone had been willing to spend some serious coin to ease access to the plateau, which, while having nice views over Dover Harbor, had nothing over the views from the ridges and plateaus of Taylor Island. It seemed like a nice picnic spot, but other than that we hardly gave the dock and stairs another thought after returning to our boat.

Until the next year, when we saw that the stairs ascended now to a small house. While I was slightly put off by the thought of a house looming over one of our favorite anchorages, its placement and design made it seem inconspicuous. As I had an architect friend on board with me, we had to do some snooping, and he was especially impressed by the quality of the home’s design, build and materials, all of which he deemed of “European” style and exceptionally expensive.

I’ve been back five times since it was built, and the home does not mar our enjoyment of the anchorage. It’s owners are always absent and the house seems to be receding into the landscape.

There’s a last bit of information I can convey regarding the evolution of this particular ghost dock: A year ago I started doing movie reviews of films shot on location in Nova Scotia. While1920x1920 watching the movie “The Weight of Water” I was struck by one particular scene featuring Sean Penn cavorting with a bikini-clad Elizabeth Hurley on a 50-foot sailboat anchored in a gut between two ruggedly beautiful islands. While Ms. Hurley in a bikini was definitely worth the re-watch, during that second viewing I realized that the action was taking place at my Taylor Island anchorage. Sure enough, a little research proved the film crew spent quite a bit of time there, and I now believe that the original ghost dock I found when I first went there had been built by the film crew, perhaps as a camera platform and/or for use by a supply boat.

I suppose that I will next have to figure out the mystery of the absent homeowners…but then again, I’ll be just as happy if I never meet them there.

—Published August 4th by Slidemoor.com