Visit to Newfoundland in August 98, Globe & Mail, Oct 98
As part of my plan to Get To Know Canada Better, I have spent the last three summers travelling through PEI, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. I loved them all, each province providing particular pleasures. This summer I chose Newfoundland. I used the Internet to find and book B&Bs, read the tourism websites, sought advice from friends who had been there and from transplanted Newfoundlanders living in Toronto. Nothing quite prepared me for the marvellous surprise that was ahead. In late August I flew with 5 friends to St. John’s. We rented a 6-passenger minivan and set off on our 8-day odyssey.
Everywhere we went we met charming, caring, friendly people, and drove through unexpectedly stunning vistas of forests, seascapes, and islands. Gros Morne National Park was the most beautiful place I think I have ever seen in Canada. At Trout River, we took a wilderness boat tour on a crystal clear lake surrounded by immense high cliffs and waterfalls. At one point along the two-hour trip, the captain slowed the boat down beside a pine-dotted hill where a magnificent bull moose stood its ground, guardedly checking us out. Then, after eyeing me intuitively, he decided we had seen enough of him. He turned and trotted off into the bush. It was my epiphany. I, of course, decided that he had anticipated my visit, posing just long enough to give moi a treasured photo-op. My friends were as excited for me as they were to see the great beast themselves. I was ecstatic. I learned later that there are more than 100000 moose roaming Newfoundland, six having been brought over from the mainland about a hundred years ago. There are moose warning signs along most of the province’s highways, and I saw one electronic sign that monitored the current number of moose/car collisions this season (12). On our Air Nova flight out of Deer Lake, Jason, our young flight attendant regaled me with his moose hunting exploits. So far he has bagged five. He cuts them up himself in the bush, and schlepps the meat back home to share with the family. Everyone helps everyone else in Newfoundland. It goes with the territory.
Here are some diary highlights of an unforgettable week:
Sunday Aug 23 Flew into St. John’s with my travelling buddies John and Susie, Marcia, Cliff and Ray. We picked up our rented minivan, checked into a cute Victorian B&B on downtown Gower Street, ran around photographing the quaint old row houses painted royal blue, hunter green, deep maroon, and lemon yellow. Toured massive serpentine Signal Hill and Cape Spear (easternmost points of North America) in brilliant sunshine overlooking cerulean blue sea. Got high gulping deep breaths of clean ocean air, watching boats scurry and putter around St. John’s harbour. Dinner at pretty Stone House Inn. We tried cod tongues with scruncheons (addictive crunchy little cubes of deep fried pork cracklings), fresh lobster and mussels. Great banter with our waiter who told us an Ontario joke: Did you hear about the guy from Toronto who bought a pair of water skis and went around looking for a pond with a hill?
Monday Aug 24 Photographed more St. John’s architecture, then checked in at another B&B called “Oh What a View” (and it was!) perched high up on a promontory overlooking all of St John’s harbour. Spectacular. Off to a great lunch and schmooze with painter Mary Pratt, a tour of her wonderful home and garden, and a peak at her latest work. Mary enchanted us with her insights on The Artist’s Life. John & Susie came back from David Ariss Gallery on Water St, said one of my Queen on Moose prints was hanging there. We went back to the gallery, met David, a young dealer originally from Guelph, schmoozed with a lively group of his friends including Montreal painter Antoine Prévost.
7:30 Dinner at The Hungry Fisherman in the carefully restored 19th century downtown warehouse complex known as the Murray Premises. A woman came over to our table, smiled, introduced herself, said she was a marine biologist living and working in St. John’s, and remembered me from Vaughan Road Collegiate in Toronto 40 years ago!
Tuesday Aug 25 We left St. John’s, drove through the beautiful seaside village of Petty Harbour down the southern shore of the Avalon peninsula to Witless Bay where Captain Murphy, straight out of Central Casting with his salt and pepper beard, pipe, and jaunty cap, took us in his boat across a pea-green sea to a group of rocky islands to observe the nesting activities of the Puffins, those skittish little black and white birds with the enormous orange beaks that are Newfoundland’s mini-version of the penguin. We were treated to a robust round of folk songs and a running commentary on the birds’ habits by Brian Doyle, a recent graduate of Memorial University who let us know how sad he felt to have to leave for Calgary to find work. Back to Mrs Murphy’s modest little café perched on wooden stilts overlooking the harbour where we lunched on hearty fish & Brewis, another local dish of chopped fried cod and potatoes. We continued down the coast to Ferryland where Sir John Calvert -Lord Baltimore first tried to establish a settlement before he went further south to found Maryland. Students were in the midst of digging up artefacts around the foundations of the Calvert mansion constructed around 1620.
A block away, we settled into Ark of Avalon, our modest but spotlessly clean B&B. We were greeted by our host Shirley Maher, a witty and effusive young mother of three, who told us her husband had gone fishing for shrimp with 6 other men from the town, and they were heading all the way up to St. Anthony’s on the northern tip of Newfoundland for a week. Just as we were preparing to go out for dinner, the power went off all over town. Something to do with Hurricane Bonnie, said Shirley. The local restaurant was closed. No problem, you’re eating here, said Shirley cheerfully. She lit some candles, invited us all to her kitchen table for a memorable meal of stewed caribou and baloney sandwiches with partridgeberry jam on her own home-made bread, accompanied of course by screech (dark rum) and various other mysterious libations. Scrumptious, in its own unique way. Her sister-in-law Kathleen, a beautiful and perky young woman whose father had died of cancer that morning regaled us between her tears with the bluest of Newfie jokes, the kind I’d been warned by a haut-bourgeois “Nyoofendlander” in Toronto never to tell, let alone use the “N” word. Kathleen was irresistibly funny and poignant. I thrilled to her stories, she to mine. We all went to bed drowsy from laughter, drink, and “newfoundcamaraderie”. Then the lights came back on.
Wednesday August 26 We bade goodbye to dear Shirley, vowing to return one day. Drove down the misty coast in the rain to Trepassy, a fishing village obviously hurting from the cod moratorium, with many For Sale signs on the empty houses. We continued around the south shore and up the scrubby coastal flatlands, stopped for a photo-op with a few grazing caribou in a treeless landscape more like a prairie mesa, then up to the verdant village of Salmonier for a visit and lunch with painter Christopher Pratt in his impeccable home and studio overlooking the rushing amber waters of the Salmonier river. Chris shared his thoughts on his abiding passion for Newfoundland, and treated us to a sneak peak at some impressive works in progress. We continued along a bumpy dirt road through dense forest and foaming rivers west to Placentia, originally the French capital of Newfoundland facing the open sea. We overnighted at Rosedale Manor, a funereal but spotless B&B next to the old French cemetery. Hung on the walls were faded photos of bewhiskered ancestors and an imperious portrait of a previous pope that spooked me a little. Our hostess Rita Power was down-home friendly, efficient, opinionated, and not shy about saying what she thought of anyone and anything. I’d gotten a traveller’s cold which was worsening. She admonished me to get some Buckley’s Mixture. I did, and nearly choked from its powerful bitter taste, but it worked! A half hour later, I was a changed person, feeling much better.
Thursday, Aug 27 Leaving Placentia, we stopped at Castle Hill, a National Historic site overlooking the bay, where the last battle between the French and English for Canada took place in 1762. An inadvertently comical display of plaster mannequins of scruffily-clad French soldiers in bad wigs gave me pause. We drove in blinding rain through an ever-changing landscape, suddenly jolted forward to 1998 by suburban Clarenville where the familiar sprawl of KFC, Tim Horton, and Walmart evoked the reassuring banality of Anywhere, North America. We sighed, headed east towards the Bonavista peninsula and the delightful village of Trinity for lunch of delicious fried capelins (like sea smelt or sardines) and a tour of restored historic cottages, jarring memories of Cape Cod, Lunenberg, NS and St Andrews, NB.
We went to see a play by the Rising Tide theatre company in the old meeting hall in which a group of women, wearing outfits like the characters in Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs reminisced over the hardships of rural life – one woman’s ribald description of having to pee in a chamber pot in the dead cold of winter was hilarious – “I couldn’t decided what I liked more – the sound of the ice cracking in the pot from me warm pee, or the steam coming up and heating me bum”.
Our B&B, the Peace Cove Inn, was in neighbouring Trinity East, an even smaller, more thinly spread-out village with some stern but dignified wooden houses with high pitched roofs perched on the hillsides overlooking a peaceful harbour inlet. I walked around in the twilight inhaling its timeless beauty.
Friday, August 28 Colder and raining again. We drove up to Bonavista to view the famous lighthouse and statue of John Cabot on a windy promontory surrounded by stormy seas, trying to imagine the unspeakable hardships confronting the early seafarers approaching this barren coast. Into town to poke about a replica of Cabot’s little ship, the Matthew, then headed west and north through the magic carpet ride of undulating green forests and bays in Terra Nova National Park, and east to the beautiful outport fishing village of Salvage, where we stayed in a century home lovingly restored by Edythe Goodridge, former Visual Arts head of the Canada Council, now an environmental activist in the area. With the cod moratorium temporarily lifted for 3 days, we watched a bustle of fishing activity as neighbouring families chugged back into shore with their first permitted catch of 10 fish per day. You could savour the group contentment as the sea yielded up its food. We watched with silent curiosity as everyone, young and old, pitched in to gut, clean, filet and stack the day’s catch. I thought back to the late 16th century when Portuguese fishermen reported schools of fish off the coasts of Newfoundland that were so numerous they prevented the boats from moving.
Saturday August 29 Drove the Big Easy (about 4 and a half hours) across Newfoundland on the svelte Trans Canada highway bypassing Gander and Grand Falls, arriving on the West Coast in Deer Lake just in time to drop our bags at the Driftwood Inn and head an hour north up to Gros Morne for that unexpected Magnificent Moose Moment on Trout River Pond. But the car ride itself, twisting and turning, up, up, and further up, around towering tablelands, lacy cataracts, rushing rivers, dizzying vistas, higher plateaus, tiny perfect villages perched beside highland lakes, was this traveller’s dreamscape. And we didn’t get to the best-known fjords at Bonne Bay or Brook Pond which the locals told us were even more gorgeous. After travelling for a week sandwiched together inside our cosy van, our usually chatty group sat silent and awestruck by what we were witnessing. Exactly what was l feeling? It wasn’t just awe. It was the joy of discovering more of Canada’s splendour. So we missed the icebergs and the whales this time around. No matter. I’ll be back. We were all changed by what we saw, and by the people we met. I no longer feel like I come from “away”. Newfoundland is “home”.