Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Farthest East

The darkening sky does not bode well over Signal Hill in St. John's, Newfoundland.

We were standing on the farthest-east point of land in North America: Cape Spear. A cold blast of air sent chills through us but here we were, a year after being at the farther-west point, Anchor Point, Alaska. And to make the moment special we had a pod of humpback whales feeding just offshore. One massive mammal did a full breach, rising straight up and curving into a dive back into the deep with a huge splash. Another humpback seemed to lie sideways in the cold Atlantic, raising one enormous flipper which he/she waved at us. The other whale pooped while swimming inshore, leaving a gigantic trail of brown stuff in the water.

Cape Spear light was built in the 1830s. Gun emplacements were built to repel German subs in World War II.

We looked westward and could see Signal Hill, at the entrance to St. John's Harbor. This stone building on the horizon was used in the early days to spy out approaching merchant ships. The word then would be signaled to the wharves of St. John so the stevedores could prepare to quickly offload the cargo.

Today, Signal Hill sits in the gloom of a heavy black cloud, with wreathes of fog on the surrounding approaches.

St. John's is a real city – one of the very few in the entire province. This is the seat of government and there are universities and much industry here. We were even able to find replacement batteries for our RV. One of our 6-volt batteries lost a cell and we endlessly were filling the battery with distilled water to no effect. As a result, we have not been able to dry camp for the entire stay in Newfoundland. But now we are rebuilt and ready to live away from the electric grid.

One strange occurrence worth mentioning: Last Sunday, I stopped at a gas station for my final fill-up of gas on the island. I filled the RV's tank to the brim – I thought. $336 worth of gas. We drove up to Trinity and I noticed our gas gauge did not register that the tank was full. I sagged and thought “just another electrical issue.” So I checked fuses but they were fine. So I prepared to drive and calculate the number of miles. The next day, however, we drove back down the peninsula and I noticed the gauge had actually dropped a little, making me believe the gauge was actually fine. I pulled into the gas station and went inside. I explained my dilemma and asked if there was any possibility that the gas pump did not actually pump gas.

The lady behind the counter rolled her eyes and said, “You're the missing link!”

“Excuse me?” I said.

She explained the pump had failed at 3:30 pm on Sunday and they had a discrepancy of money paid for about 270 liters of gas – my non-existent gas. She was profusely apologetic. I was just delighted that I had stopped in. She told us to go ahead and fill up and I found I could only fit $325 worth of gas into the almost-empty tank. She refunded the $11 difference and then presented me with a bag containing two Irving Gas tee shirts and two water bottles.

Saturday's weather broke for the better in the afternoon and we headed for Quidi Vidi Village, a unique place in our experience. The village has its own entrance from the Atlantic Ocean, through a 30-foot-wide cut between vertical rocks. When you pass through the cut, you are inside a quiet haven where storms cannot reach you. A sailboat had just come through this little cut and was tied up at the Quidi Vidi Brewery docks.

We visited the brewery and bought a sixpack of one of the smoothest ales I've every experienced. One of their beers is made from the purest water from icebergs.

We walked the rocky shore and marveled at the variety of colors in the flinty rocks. Then we wound through the narrow streets (9 feet wide in places) before heading back to Paradise, where our rig is located.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Dinghy scoots along the headland at Trinity, Newfoundland.

Serendipity: An aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident

I'm a huge believer in serendipity when it comes to living life. By this, I mean you make a decision to go one way and everything changes, usually for the better.

That's what happened today. We did a favor for a friend in Maine. We'd offered to go to the little town of Trinity in Newfoundland after listening to our buddy Gayle talk about her genealogical search for ancestors in which one relative was born in Cuckold's Cove, now called Dunfield, which is next door to the town of Trinity. We offered to stop by the museum in town to see if we could find anything for Gayle.

We came into town late on Sunday and were depressed to learn the only campground was 'way too small to accommodate our rig. We had to retrace our tracks to the main road and then head for a provincial park that was five kilometers up a washboard-like gravel road. We arrived at the park tired and, thankfully, there was a site available. It turned out to be one of the best campgrounds we have discovered in Newfoundland.
Early on Monday, we set out in the car for Trinity and discovered a jewel. It is the quintessential little harbor town built into the shoulder of the hills surrounding Trinity Bay. Each house has been preserved and was painted tastefully and individually. Everywhere we turned there was a pleasing view. The sun was coming over the big Anglican church in town, creating a biblical sparkle when I captured it creeping out from behind one of the crosses on the roof of the church. A woman worked lovingly on her rock garden and we stopped to chat. She and her husband recently retired from the U.S. diplomatic service. She had been stationed in Denmark, she said, and that country has an intricate ferry system. They liked what they saw when they came across on the ferry to Newfoundland and life eventually took them to the waterfront of Trinity. They bought a beautiful house there and now she gardens here in the summer and returns to Washington, D.C., for the winter.

We visited the town's museum and the young girl said we were in the wrong place for genealogical information. She spoke in that extraordinary dialect that seems to be old-fashioned Irish-influenced English. She pulled out a map and showed us where we should go. We did. Then we met a young-ish man on the third floor of a Georgian-style brick building which houses the archival collection of the Trinity Historical Society.

We told him our mission: Find the relatives of the Morris family which dated back to the 1700s in the Trinity area. He said not a word, but leaned over a file cabinet and, after a few minutes, said “Here he is...along with all of his relatives.” I gasped and asked how it could be that easy. “We have fanatics who love genealogical research,” he said with a laugh. “They have worked on every family in town.” Then he added, “Most genealogical researchers tend toward the fanatical.”

While he was photocopying the multiple pages he suggested that we return to the museum and ask the girls there to allow us to photograph the ship's bell on the second floor. This bell was all that's left of the Effie M, a ship built by the Morris family in Trinity that went down with all hands in 1907 right offshore in a nasty nor-Easter. A Morris was among the dead and his daughter, we discovered received a payment from the government of 20-pounds for several years. We made our way back and the young girl took me upstairs where she showed me the bell and the story of the destruction of the Effie M.

So our little side trip ended up being a highlight of our journey.

We drove around the harbor to the lighthouse so we could photograph the town from across the water. While I photographed, a little sparrow-like bird with a fluffed-up chest kept harassing me, probably because I was too close for comfort to her nest.

We headed north to the end of another road which took us to Elliston, which proudly claims to be the “Root Cellar Capital of the World” in case there is a competition for such a title. We think root cellars are wonderful devices but we certainly wouldn't make a trip to a town to look at the outside of root cellars. What they ought to be promoting are the puffins that live on islands so close to shore you can sit on the rocks and watch them nest and throw themselves in the most ungainly way off their island and fly with their red legs straight behind them. There are more than 2,000 pairs, all of them mated for life. They produce one egg per couple per year and everyone was sitting on their nest area, awaiting the arrival of junior.

Meanwhile black-backed gulls, herring gulls and kittiwakes all fly around and stand in a threatening way very close to their nests, hoping to grab an egg or even a chick.

We had a great lunch in an old fishermen's meeting house where the menu offered a Jigg's Dinner. This meal seems to be unique to Newfoundland and is described thusly: Salt beef with turnips, potatoes, carrots and pease pudding. It triggered in my memory having eaten pease pudding as a kid back in Scotland. But I couldn't place what was in it.... so I asked the waitress. She explained it as green peas that are boiled to a pulpy cream and poured over the dinner. We didn't order it!

We ended up in Bonavista, where we found The Matthew, a full-size replica of John Cabot's ship that brought him and his crew of 20 men to New Found Lande in 1497.

Cabot was an Italian, Giovanni Caboto was his name, and I couldn't understand why the English king would pay him to sail west on behalf of England to find a new route to Asia. We went through the entire exhibit and visited aboard the ship without this being explained. So I returned to the front counter and posed the question to the woman there. “No one has ever asked this,” she said.

She fumbled for an explanation and we eventually uncovered that Caboto tried to get a ship financed by the King of Valencia in Spain. No go. So he took his family to Bristol, England, where he gained English citizenship and, because he was known as an outstanding navigator, King Henry IV backed him for the trip west.

So this peninsula which we would have passed by on our way east to St. John's, the capital, turned out to be a treasure trove of rich experiences. Serendipitous.

On Tuesday, we stopped at the little town of Dildo on the Avalon Peninsula. Dildo has little reason to exist if it didn't have that name. Jo refused to be photographed under the cut-out of Capt. Jack Dildo down on the waterfront. “It's a guy thing,” she explained.

Now we have just arrived in St. John's. It's raining again.... but we feel good about making it all the way across the province. We have another week to explore the Avalon Peninsula before catching the long ferry back to Nova Scotia (that's a 17-our ferry ride through the night).

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Sailor's Story

The Abigail Anissa lies alongside at the little town of Durrell.

Gordon Webb and his wife, Sharon, are born and bred Newfoundlanders and live aboard their 48-foot cutter-rigged sailboat in the little town of Durrell, east of Twillingate. Gordon built the boat in his backyard over a period of 16 months and he did all of it from plans in his head. That's right. Gordon could see the boat in his mind's eye, he told me after he invited us aboard.

In a strong Newfoundland accent he explained he had gone into the woods with his chainsaw and cut the ribs for the vessel out of hardwood juniper. He shaped the elbows of wood with his saw and then went to the lumberyard and bought his planking of Newfoundland spruce.

We saw his boat while we were snooping around the harbor and approached the couple who were sitting in the sun.

He told us he and his wife live aboard the Abigail Anissa and it only costs $150 a month for the slip, including the water and electric. He isn't planning to sail her away to the warmer climate of the south, he said. When we stepped aboard, we found his main cabin had a home-sized wood-burning fireplace with a slab of stainless steel as its hearth. He uses a refrigerator from an RV motor home that runs off propane or 12-volt or 120 volt AC. And he even installed a washer and dryer.

The boat is rustic below, but it is practical He has two steering stations, one up at the stern, one down below when the weather is Newfoundland-ish.

He and his wife had just taken her out in the early morning because today was the first day of the three-week personal cod-fishing window. You are allowed to keep 15 fish per boat and Gordon said he caught his limit in two hours. He planned to go out every day and catch his limit, he said. He has a freezer ashore where he can store the cod.

Jo wanted to know why we have been told all the cod are gone if this is not the case. “There's more cod out there now than there ever was,” Gordon said. What's going on, Jo asked. “Ah, these do-gooders want to leave all the cod for the seals to eat,” he said with disgusted laughter.

He has no winches aboard to help him trim the sails so that must be a feat of strength. But he does have a John Deere diesel engine under the floorboards and when he opened the hatches to show me the ribs he had cut, there was no water in the bilge.

As we chatted about his exploits, he pointed out the bowsprit of a boat in his brother's backyard, up on a hill across the harbor. He invited us to drive over to take a look. That vessel also was built of wood and is covered in fiberglass. It has a hinge on the mast that allows his brother to lower it and place it all the way back, hanging off the stern. He won't launch until next spring, Gordon told us.

I asked if he and his brother were competing but he said not. “We both just love boats, he said.

Passing the Tickle to Twillingate

Tour boat noses past one of the many bergs in Iceberg Alley.

Twillingate is at the end of a road. All our roads seem to end and you then have to turn around and retreat. But, to get to Twillingate, you pass through some wonderfully-named places.... like Virgin Arm, and Shoal Tickle, Main Tickle, Eddie's Cove, River of Ponds, Robert's Arm. There are so many fun and funky names in this province that I want to linger and taste them all.

We've been through Deadman's Cove, Parson's Pond (settled by the Parsons, of course), we've passed Hungry Hill, Dildo Run Provincial Park (just down the road from us), ignored Camp Boggy, and probably won't reach Roundabout, Mutton Bay, or even Path's End.

This special place, with its own language that's almost impenetrable has left a lasting impression for its total friendliness and openness. We haven't met a single grouch. Everyone wants to chat and all the women in the stores call you “love” or “sweety”.

In Twillingate, we kept coming north, through just awful fog and arrived at the only campground in town. A young boy bid us “Good day” and figured out where he could position us and our rig for two nights. His grandfather came into the office and said he had put us in an awful site and re-figured a better spot for us at the top of a hill, overlooking the Back Bay. From our front window, we can see an island with little icebergs bobbing by.

This is Iceberg Alley. The Labrador Current comes south, along the northern coast of Newfoundland and there is a constant stream of the bergs, all of them broken off the Peterson Icefield. There are a couple of tourist boats in the town that ferry people out around the bergs. We, on the other hand drove up the road a little to Sleepy Cove where we pulled off the road and came upon a huge berg, pointed and blue that drifted along ever-so-slowly. We met a couple from Greece, New York, who told us they were with a group of six other rigs in the campground and spend about seven months of the year on the road. While we chatted, a Minke whale breached and blew offshore.

They were flabbergasted by the high cost of food up here. We have generally stopped sucking in air when we visit the markets. Boneless chicken breasts at $10.39 a pound, Maxwell House coffee at $7.39 a can, butter at $5 a pound, Cool-Whip is $4.99. Gas, of course, is out of this world: $1.37 per liter. I have stopped converting to the cost per gallon – but it's north of $6. All things are expensive because everything must be shipped to the island.

We are finding water in some of the campgrounds is tea-colored and needs to be boiled. So we take on good water in our internal tank when we find it and use that instead of contaminating our tank with the colored water. Problem is these towns are so isolated they have few resources and the natives have acquired immunity to the bugs in the water – very much like in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Labrador's Siren Song

These totemic stones are the hallmark of Labrador's Inuit people.

We answered the siren song of Labrador. How could we not? It beckoned to us from across the Straits of Belle Isle, dark, forbidding, barren. But how could we not take the ferry across to this remotest of places?

Even though it is part of the Province of Newfoundland-Labrador, it stand apart and alone. There are only 22,000 humans who live in this triangle of rock that is 293,000 square kilometers. And 16,000 of those folks live in two towns – Goose Bay and Labrador City. The huge majority of humans are Inuit and Innu.

What Labrador has in the extreme is 750,000 caribou – the largest herd on Earth.

There are very few roads: one comes in from the eastern edge of Quebec and is gravel for 300 kilometers. The other is the road we traveled from the ferry. The boat dropped us off in Blanc Sabon, Quebec, and we drove the only tarred road east to Red Bay.

This place feels so remote. We stopped so I could photograph a pastoral scene of a dinghy tied off in a lake, with a lonely house on the shore. The silence grabs at you and announces itself. There is utter quietness. Perhaps an osprey screes overhead. But it is perfectly peaceful.

The snow lies still in the crevices of the hills and it is CLEAN and white. For there is no pollution here. No people, no pollution. It's simple.

Jo and I made our way through tiny fishing communities – mostly descendants of the Scots, Irish, English and French. The little settlement of Red Bay, where the road changed to gravel, was a whaling outpost, settled by the Basques of Spain in the mid-1500s. We visited a Canada Parks interpretative site and discovered the government had found the remains of a Basque sailing ship of around 3,000 tons capacity at the bottom of Red Bay. The archaeologists spent years excavating under water, using hot-water suits that allowed the drivers to stay down twice as long as if using dry suits. Hot water was pumped down to them and circulated through their suits to remove some of the chill from the near-freezing water.

And then we discovered Paul Comparelli and his daughter, Jo, who had just arrived from British Columbia after driving his Russian-built Ural motorcycle and sidecar across the gravel road.

Paul is a bit of a character. He loves his bike, even though he says it is a piece of crap. He says he has had to rebuild almost every piece of it. Formerly it was all-Russian. Now it has Taiwanese tires, Toyota alternator, Italian brakes, and a couple of German tires, too. He says he only get about 10,000 kilometers out of a set of tires, so he carries a spare tire and a spare wheel and tire, as well as all their gear. His original Russian tires gave him 2,000 kilometers, he said.

They stay in motels along the way and he decried the $151 a night it cost him to stay the previous night in a Labrador hotel in the back of beyond. Paul and Jo came over on the ferry to Newfoundland and were planning to scoot south and head for a motorbike rally in Pennsylvania in another week.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Viking Sagas

They tell of the Sagas, when men were men and women were to be feared.

When Clayton Coulbrooke was a small boy, living in L'Anse aux Meadows at the very northern tip of Newfoundland, his mother would tell him to play outside. He and his buddies would climb over the old Indian ruins, he thought they were, and pretend to be killing Indians. In the little brook that ran through the land, he said he would take a pitchfork to catch the salmon as they ran up the stream.

It was 20 years later that a Norwegian couple, came to his village by boat (for there were no roads here then) and began excavating the ruins. They dug for several years but were hard put to find the definitive item that proved this was no Indian mound but a village settled by the Vikings.

But Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad persisted and she had her “Eureka” moment. She came upon a small bronze pin, used by the Norsemen and women to fasten their clothing. By this time (1974), Clayton was old enough to be a helper and a digger on the site and he remembers Anne finding the pin. “She tried to put into a context we fishermen would understand,” he said. “She said it was like landing the biggest salmon.”

That pin is the lynchpin to the Norse site at L'Anse aux Meadows. Clayton walked with us on the boardwalk over the bog, explaining each of the indentations in the peat ground. He showed us the largest home and workshop, built and used by Leif Ericsson, he believes.

Leif was the son of Eric the Red who left Norway and settled in Iceland. Later, because he was a bit of a troublemaker – well, actually he killed a few fellow Norsemen – he was told to clear out of the settlement in Iceland and he sailed his open boat to the west and found Greenland which he named with a fetching name to try to entice other Norse lads to come over and join him. They did and the Sagas report he got into more trouble and set out and sailed a bit farther west, across what is now the Davis Straits to Labrador. He was blown south and seems to have made a landing on the northern tip of Newfoundland.

There were a handful of women who made the journey, all described in The Icelandic Sagas. Several voyages were made 500 years before Christopher Columbus sailed his ocean blue. The belief is this lonely outpost was only a way-station for the Norsemen for about 10 years. They pushed south to a place where grapes grew, hence their reason for calling the new land Vinland. There is no possibility that grapes grew in this cold, inhospitable piece of rock. Quite amazingly, though, butternuts (the size of walnuts) have been uncovered here in the houses. They can be found down in what is now Connecticut. In addition, a special kind of flinty stone which is only found here has been located in Saybrook, Connecticut. There is no proof, however, that Leif and the boys made it all the way down there. It is possible that the indigenous Dorset people, now extinct in these parts, traded their chips for butternuts. Who knows?

We sat in the rebuilt houses whose six-foot-thick walls of peat kept the chill out and listened to the re-enactors tell of the early days. The women sat by the fire and knitted on a single needle while Bjorn told the stories of the journey. I asked him about the women, their role, and what mark they made. He smiled and told me about one who was an illegitimate daughter of Leif who became a leader in her own right. She was one tough chic, by the sound of it. When trouble brewed between the 25 men and the five ladies after three years in the settlement, this woman ordered her husband to slay the ladies. He wouldn't do it (would you if you were sitting out at the end of the world on a piece of rock with a bunch of stinking men?) so she took up her sword and slew them all by herself.

We visited the forge and learned that the Vikings made iron nails from the ore that is found about a foot down in the peat. They smelted 10 kilograms of ore into 1 kilo of iron at 1200 degrees C and used their new nails to replace their rusty nails on their open sailboats. Only a single “new” nail was found on the site of the forge. But numerous broken and old nails of Norse iron ore were found at the boat shop they built.

The site is the only authenticated site for Norse presence in the new world. I met up with Clayton after the tour and complimented him on bringing the site alive. He beamed and said, “You've made my day.”

Later in the evening, we returned to the peat houses for a Sagas and Shadows program in which other re-enactors recounted the sagas by firelight and entertained us with the long-ago stories. The little hut was filled to overflowing from folks who came from across the world - China, Japan, France, Spain and even one from Newfoundland.

Friday, July 15, 2011

An Iceberg Inundation

This massive iceberg has drifted into entrance of the harbor at Griquet, NL

Mr. Taylor is a thin, spare man. He's a bit deaf. But he is Newfoundland-friendly, which is to say he made us feel welcome in his little cove at Griquet.

I met him on the stony beach and bid him good day. “And good day to you, sir,” he replied. I complimented him on the beauty of his little cove but he said it was beautiful until the storm came through last fall. “Then all the wharves were washed out... even some of the houses were moved inland by the waves,” he said.

We talked about the storm and he told me his wharf was in ruins. His boat sat high on the stones. “But a boat is no good without a wharf,” he said grimly.

Mr. Taylor told me he was a retired fisherman. “I caught the cod,” he said. And he added “When times got hard and the cod disappeared, I caught crab.”

We talked about the enormous iceberg that occupies the entrance to the cove. Jo and I had seen it on the way in with the motor home. Now we were back in the car for a photographic visit. “It's been here a week,” Mr. Taylor told us. “I think she be aground out there.”

He had seen us wandering among the rocks, looking for a good angle to shoot the massive berg and he, being nosy, I suppose, thought it worth his time to come on down to the beach and meet with the folks from away. As always, the little encounter enriched our stay.

We drove down a dirt road and came upon a young boy squatting beside a box on which were 20 pairs of mittens, knitted caps and socks. We asked him if these were his work and he told us “Nah. It's my Nannas's.” He also told us he had taken the boat out to the nearby icebergs and had bags of the pure ice in the Igloo cooler beside Nanna's socks. Quite enterprising, I thought.

The bergs are quite astonishing. We had planned to take a boat to go in search of them. But they are so numerous and so spectacular hiring a boat seemed pointless. So we just drove down the coast to St. Lunaire and then to Quirpon and photographed to our heart's content.

They are utterly spectacular great blue-white behemoths. Some are serrated on the top. Some are flat-topped like an aircraft carrier. CBC Radio alerted us a couple of days ago to a iceberg on the east coast of Labrador that is six times the size – wait for it! - of Manhattan. It broke away from the Greenland iceshelf and is slowly drifting south along the Labrador coast. This is all tied to global warming, of course. I doubt we will see this monster because they move pretty slowly. But it would be a spectacle.

Climbing North, Ever North

Gros Morne National Park on a better morning.

Gros Morne National Park looms grimly through the mist of a damp day on Newfoundland's west coast.

Gros Morne is a National Park as well as being a World Heritage Site. It's because in the early, early years of this planet's gestation glaciation laid bare the bones of the Earth and a rare chapter of the Earth's history is exposed – an ocean floor upturned, the deepest layers on top – a wondrous example of plate tectonics. Now I don't normally get that excited by plate tectonics – and I am not exactly orgasmic over this park. But it is interesting and – particularly – it is photogenic, always a plus for me.

We came to Gros Morne on a dreary, drizzling day. It was difficult to see much of the plate tectonics. But the gloomy scenery is quite reminiscent of Scotland on a summer's day. Low strands of clouds rolled down the mountains to the sea. Fisherman pushed their sturdy little wooden boats through the placid water to collect their catch.

We'd come here to Newfoundland on the short ferry – a seven-hour ride that began at 4 on Monday morning. We'd parked the rig at the ferry terminal on Sunday afternoon and settled in to wait. There seemed no point in going to a campground and leaving at midnight! At 11 at night, however, strange clicking sounds emanated from our refrigerator. I was asleep but Jo woke me. I checked the voltage in the rig and it told me we were at a dangerously low 9.4 volts, hence the protesting fridge. I turned it off, then started the generator, all the time trying to figure what was going on to cause this. I brought the batteries back up to 13 volts by 3:30 when we boarded the ferry, an enormous vessel named Atlantic Vision. She is is 700 feet long and her job seemed mostly to carry dozens of tractor trailers across to the island. She can carry 702 passengers. We drove aboard on one of the lower levels while trucks boarded on a ramp above our rig.

We spent the crossing dozing in and out of sleep, arriving in Port aux Basque at 10:30 in the morning. We drove for an hour and decided to call it a day at a campground. Then, I set about pulling my batteries out of the rig. I have an automatic battery filler because of the inaccessibility of the batteries and because of their weight when moving them. When I pulled this apart, however, I found the filling system had failed to pump water into one of the cells in the rear battery. I topped everything off, figuring I probably have fried that battery.

Then we took a hike through the woods along the river at the campground. At every turn in the trail was an inspirational saying that amused and calmed our nerves. We were in bed by 8 p.m. and slept for 12 hours.

Newfoundland is a wonderful mixture of green mountains – similar to Vermont – but much lonelier. There are fewer people on this island – 522,000 – than in the state of Vermont – but it must be 20 times larger than that state. Moose seem to be doing quite well, however. Four moose were introduced to the island in the early 1900s and they've been working hard so there are now more than 200,000. Don't even ask about the inter-breeding in this population!

Lots of signs warn us to save a life – our own!

Thursday dawned bright and crisp and clear – 42 degrees. Not a cloud visible. The Gulf of St. Lawrence is a rich azure and visibility seems to reach forever. We drove the only road north. This route did not exist before 1968. Before that time the little fishing villages we pass through were isolated and could only be reached by boat. We came through the national park and were able to see Tablelands which was invisible and much closer yesterday. Now the rugged rock structures stand bold on the water's edge. Off to our right is a fjord with rocky escarpments rising 2,000 feet from the water. You can take a boat ride through the fjord if you are willing to hike 3 kilometers each way through the bog.

As we climbed farther north, we found people growing potatoes in little garden patches in peat alongside the road. There were numerous scarecrows and the rich peat made for ideal gardening. These patches seem endless miles away from the little settlements.

Now the gulf between Newfoundland and Labrador is narrowing. It's possible to see the low, dark Labrador coastline in the distance. As we go even farther north, that will eventually be just a few miles across the straits.

We came to rest at Torrent River where Atlantic salmon make the run up the river to spawn and rest before doing their return visit to the ocean. These guys are quite different from the Pacific salmon we watched spawn and die in Alaska last year. They are capable of making the freshwater-saltwater transition up to five or six times in their lifespan. Just like the Pacific salmon, though, they have a hard-wired instruction that demands they return to their natal stream.

We visited the Torrent River Fishway and met an informative young woman with a Newfoundland accent that was a struggle to understand. There was a definite hint of Irish in it, along with colloquialisms that defined her as a Newfie. But as she spoke we learned of the fight to bring the river back after loggers virtually destroyed the spawning grounds of the salmon.

Now 5,000 fish make the trek upstream each year. Happily, we were there for the journey. A fishway - or fish ladder - encourages the salmon to make their way around the massive 100-foot-high waterfall they'd try to climb. This takes them through a 34-step-program where they can climb and rest, climb and rest.

When our guide took us underground, we came into a large room with two 10-foot-wide windows that let us view the salmon as they reached the next to the top ladder. Some of them were 40-inches long. Some were 20 inches. A few were showing the wear and tear of the journey and had sustained cuts and gashes on their flesh.

Our guide said the fish gather in great schools in the straits offshore. They know they must make it back to the stream of their birth. But there is a great gathering in which fish seem to line up for each of their birth streams. Then they depart and head inland. Each river is lined with fishermen who are using fly rods only. The salmon will not eat once they enter the fresh water, our guide told us.

So why would they be tempted by the fly on the rod? "We think it is more an annoyance to them than anything, ya-know," she said. "They kind of lash out at it and sometime get caught. But, mostly, they don't get caught and manage to make the journey home where they spawn and linger, still not eating, for weeks before they decide to make a dash for the ocean again. They come down the waterfall backwards (tail first), our guide told us. Then they gather offshore and head out for as far away as Scotland, France and Spain before returning the following year.

In the evening, we drove over to a beautiful little village named Port aux Choix where we wandered a quiet path through a place called Philip's Gardens on the top of a cliff. Lichen, ferns, junipers, bunchberries, wild strawberries, buttercups by the millions - maybe billions - welcomed us in the warm evening air. It was a perfect way to end the day.

Back at our campground, we met our neighbor, an accountant/home builder (interesting combination, I thought) from St. John's, Newfoundland. He was settling in around his campfire outside his new 43-foot motor home. He told us he had bought it in Orlando, Florida, and had recently driven it north to his home. Now he was out on a 2-week fishing trip and decided to park on the banks of the Torrent River.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Miners of the Deeps

Getting a feel for life in the mines, all these visitors have cricks in their necks.

The miners went down to the sea in Cape Breton. And they continued on down, 600 feet below the sea floor before their carts carried them six miles off the coast to the coal face. That's where they worked for 12 hours a day.

We went down the dripping wet, dark mine shaft on a dreary, foggy Saturday, recreating their daily toil. We were clothed in hard hats and a black smock and our guide was an old miner, Sheldon Gouthro. He'd spent 32 years working under the sea – miners of the ocean deeps, he said they were called.

Sheldon prepared us before the journey down. We were at the Miner's Museum in Glace Bay. Our shaft had been created to give us a genteel taste of that early hell. We paid for the privilege. Sheldon told us the collieries in Cape Breton produced millions of tons of coal until the shafts took the miners so far under the Atlantic Ocean that it became prohibitively expensive - not to mention unsafe – to get the coal out and pump safe air into the mines. They all have been closed for 35 years now in the Glace Bay area.

We started out slowly enough, walking down a slope in a tunnel that was six feet high. My hard hat scraped the roof which was coated with dripping water. When we turned a corner and went through a barrier (used to channel the fresh air below), the tunnel dropped to five feet. There were seams of coal all around us. Sheldon reminded us the lighting is new. Back in the day there were no lights – except for the lamps on the miners' heads.

This colliery recreated conditions in 1932. It was grim. The men would slowly make their way to the face back then, hauling in their own water and lunch bucket and tools. They had to pay for their own powder to blow out the coal seam. The only thing they didn't have to pay for, according to Sheldon, was the canary in a cage. The mine owner provided the canary so he could protect his investment. The canary would sing – a good sign – and the miners would hold it as high on the roof of the tunnel to where the methane gas would rise.

If it kept singing, they would set about extracting the coal, digging with picks and shovels, loading the carts that were pulled by pit ponies – small horses that had been rounded up on Sable Island offshore. They'd been wild for 200 years and their growth was stunted. The miners loved those ponies, Sheldon told us. They were sent down the mine and they stayed there until they died.

The men would return to the surface after their 12-hour shift. They would make their way home to the company-owned houses on which they paid rent. All their food and clothing was bought at the company store. If – or when – they were injured in the mine, the company would send an inspector to the house and tell the miner to find a replacement for himself in the mine or he and his family would be thrown out of the company-owned house. As a result, sons as young as nine years old would be sent down the mine. No girls or women were allowed down there because the miners believed a woman in the mine was bad luck. From what I heard, I would say it was good luck for the women that they weren't allowed down.

This journey was a powerful journey for us. My back was killing me as I stooped for more than an hour in shafts that got as low as four feet 10 inches. We pulled off to the side on our way back to the surface and Sheldon sat us down around a bed of flowers. There was a rose bush, some succulent plants and a number of colorful flowers. He said a German miner, early in the 20th century, had received permission from the mine owner to grow flowers down in one of the mines and the miners had helped him by using their helmets to carry down the topsoil. The bed was fertilized by the horse manure from the ponies. The recreated bed of flowers was illuminated by fluorescent lamps but I don't know how the early flowers were able to get light.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Through a Curtain to France

These French-speaking maids gather around a window to chat between chores in Louisbourg, NS.

Louisbourg likely is unknown to most of you. It now is a quaint little fishing village on the outer edge of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Back in its day - that would be 1713 to 1758 - it was a money-making machine for those who lived here. They mostly were French, Spanish, Portuguese fishermen. And they relentlessly fished the cod: 30 million pounds of it every year.

This was the capital of the French colony of Ile Royale back then. It was the most eastern part of New France and included Ile Royale (now Cape Breton Island, Ile St.-Jean (Prince Edward Island) and the Magalene Islands. Today, France can lay claim only to the St. Magdalene Islands, just south of Newfoundland.

England liked the cod just as much as France. And even though she was battling the Scots back in 1745, she was a powerful nation that could battle on two fronts (do you begin to see the Iraq-Afghanistan-U.S. linkage?) back then.

She sent a flotilla up to the enormous fortress that had hundreds of cannon, all facing the sea. But the English slid their fleet around behind Louisbourg and came at the fort through the back door. No cannon back there because the French thought no one would dream of attacking from overland.

The English sent all the French home with honor the first time. Then they agreed to hand the fortress back after a few years. The French learned nothing from the experience, though, and set about making more and more money from the cod fishing again.

And the English came back and did the same thing again. Through the back door again. This time they send the French packing without honor and they took apart much of the fort, using the wood, the doors, the windows, the slate roofs for their own buildings down in Massachusetts.
Now the cod is no more. So the fortress at Louisbourg essentially disappeared.

We came to the fortress and our minds boggled at the size of this place. This is the largest national historic site to be reconstructed in North America.

The work began in the early 1960s when the coal ran out in Sydney, to the north. The government stimulus plan retrained the out-of-work miners as carpenters, stone masons, and other craftsmen. Then they set about restoring this site. They have excavated about a fifth of the old fortress - but the rebuilding job is impressive. They spent $25 million over 25 years. The miners got work and we got a treasure-trove of history.

Re-enactors, dressed as French soldiers, are everywhere and will gladly share their experiences with you.

Jo and I settled in for a discussion with one on the ramparts. She told us about her lot in life. (Of course, there were no female soldiers back then!) She said she had been living in France, without a job so this opportunity seemed like coming to the promised land. She signed on for six years, was given a pay of 9 livres per month. But she soon discovered that 7.5 livres were deducted from her pay for her quarters and food. This leaves just enough for a bottle of bad red wine each month.

She said she works 24 hours on and 48 hours off. This allows her to work for the fishermen in her off hours. But the officer who arranged the extra work keeps most of the money she makes because she is illiterate and doesn't really know how much she makes. At the end of her six years, she needed to re-enlist for another six years to pay off her debts. Because people generally lived to be about 35, they usually could only manage about two six-year deals before they died.

Another man, a fisherman, explained how he doesn't think about doing better in life. "I only think about surviving," he said. He says he was born to be a fisherman and he has no aspirations to anything other than that. Now I was beginning to understand India's caste system. You don't fight being an untouchable for that is what you know you are!

The merchants in Louisbourg made a fortune. They traded in everything - from silk to cocoa, to shoes, to spoons, to cloth. The little people didn't do so well, of course.

I love this re-enacting business. It allows you to step through a curtain in time and see the world through a different lens.

The previous night we attended a concert in Louisbourg Playhouse which was fairly close to being a ceilidh- that Scottish speciality in which people sing, play and dance their jigs while a party atmosphere prevails. This event had some woefully lame comedy skits which proved once again how hard it is to write funny material. They should have stuck with the singing and playing and dancing. That was wonderful. One girl, named Erin, had a quirky smile and was an expert at playing the box. That's right. She sat on a wooden box that had a microphone inside it. She made that box talk and reverberate in ways you would not believe.

One of the perks of the concert was intermission where tea and oatcakes were served. Mmmmmm!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hair-raising Entertainment

The blue light and the smoke casts an eerie air to the Tattoo in Halifax.

Gerald and his wife Ellie sat on the concrete steps outside Halifax's Metro Center, awaiting the opening of the doors for the International Tattoo. (A tattoo is defined as a signal on a drum, bugle, or trumpet at night, for soldiers or sailors to go to their quarters. But it is much, much more than that. More about it later.) We joined them after a pretty good dinner at Maxwell's Plum bar where we enjoyed fish and chips.

Gerald and Ellie are natives of Newfoundland, where we head in another week. They love their island, even though they no longer live there. Their children are scattered to the world: Alberta, Australia, as well as Nova Scotia. So they have come off the island after Gerald worked at the pulp wood mill for many years. “It was a good living,” he said. “Mostly because of the union.” He said he made newsprint for the Daily Mail in Britain, as well as The New York Times and the Washington Post … “and that newspaper down in New Orleans with the funny name; what is that name?” he asked. I suggested The Times-Picayune. “That's it,” he said with the smile. “I can't tell you how many times I slapped a label on a roll of newsprint for the Times Picayune.”

He waxed eloquent about the good old days on Newfoundland when the villages were isolated – with few roads - and only had oil lamps. “People would choose their village when they came on the island depending on where they came from in Scotland or England or Ireland,” he said. “There was a bad class system back then, though,” he said. He's not a big fan on the English. “The manager of the pulp mill, an Englishman, expected us to stand when he entered the room for a meeting,” he said. He and the other managers were above themselves, he said, but that is pretty much gone now.

Gerald's father was a fisherman. He would get the two boys up at 3 in the morning, Gerald said, and they would launch the boat for fishing the cod before anyone else in the village. “It was a point of honor,” Gerald said. In those early days, they would throw back the crab or the flounder they caught in their nets. They were worthless, from his father's point of view.

He and Ellie said the island is doing well financially now, despite the demise of the pulp wood mill. “We have the oil off the east coast of Newfoundland now,” he said. Now the biggest worry is keeping the icebergs away from the oil platforms. He said men will attach the cables to the bergs and try to pull them clear. Otherwise, the platforms have to be moved.

The doors of the Metro Center opened and we left the old couple who were joined by two of their grandchildren from Australia who were visiting for the summer.

Inside, we settled in for a night of music and dance as 1,700 performers from all over the world – Estonian, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, the U.S., as well as countless bands and an excellent 150-voice choir from Canada – entertained us for 2.5 hours.

My experience with military tattoos circles around the spectacular one on the esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland. This was a gentler, less militaristic affair – more in keeping with the quieter, less macho character of Canada. This is not to say it wasn't exciting. The massed pipes and drums, as well as brass bands made the hairs on our arms stand straight up. But there was a more youthful element – tumblers from Denmark, brilliant cyclists from Germany, as well as twirling young people on hoops.

But what lives on is the spectacular finale, when the floor of the hall was filled with all the performers. Because we had chosen July 4 – America's Independence Day – for our visit, and because the U.S. Consul General for Nova Scotia was present, the U.S. National Anthem, sung and played in unison by so many performers was a sound to bring tears to your eye. And that was topped quite easily when they morphed into “Oh Canada” an anthem that is easy to sing and is exquisitely moving.

Then the lone highland piper took up his lonely call (the very definition of “tattoo”) from the highest point in the arena. Amazing Grace was just that. His pipes stood alone, but then the melody was picked up by the other massed pipes, followed by the choir. Memorable.

We returned to our campground in thick, wooly fog. But we were warmed inside by the spectacular event.

Now we have edged along the eastern shore of Nova Scotia. This is an unpopulated land. We are only an hour east of Halifax, but there is little but woods and water. As we sit in our new campground, we can hear the plaintive call of the loons on the lake. This is heaven.