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by the Sea
© Mother Linda's
Perched on the
eastern edge of the North American continent, Newfoundland offers a bounty of
wildlife, berries, good food, and kindred folk.
A winter burial used to be an arduous
affair," explained my driver, Greg Day, as we slowly pulled past a cemetery
with neatly white-fenced plots. "After warming the ground by burning boughs
and rubber tires, all the young men of the village would be conscripted to help
dig the grave, sometimes through three feet of solid-frozen earth. It was an
exhausting, whole-day event." He drew in his breath at the end of the last
sentence, as Newfoundlanders often do, seeming to emphasize the point.
His simple statement sums up so much
about Newfoundland, a giant rock at the easternmost edge of North America.
Though now one contiguous landmass, Newfoundland is really the by-product of
varying geological forces. Amazingly, fossils on the southern tip of its Avalon
peninsula at Mistaken Point link it to northern Africa, while other parts of the
island are risen ocean floor or an extension of the Appalachians. Though the
island possesses fish-rich rivers and forests, if you lose sight of the sea, you
will seldom encounter people or habitation.
Three hours out of Toronto by air,
Newfoundland comes into view. At first it seems a gray-green, somewhat duller
version of Ireland, another northerly island in the Atlantic. But since it lacks
the caress of the Gulf Stream, harsher features prevail. Rocks are more exposed,
and vegetation is stunted. And I soon found out why natives don't carry
umbrellas: They are easily ripped to shreds by the volatile and unpredictable
But as in most extreme environments,
there are surprises. It turns out that the Vikings had good reason for calling
the rocky island Vineland, for the whole island is covered with "little
grapes." Berries, to be exact. Berries of every persuasion--blueberries,
cranberries, partridgeberries, bakeapples, currants, dewberries, and
brambleberries. In August and September, the natives reap a rich harvest from
The last province (with Labrador) to
join Canada in 1949, Newfoundland is inhabited by an independent and proud
bunch. I found them charmingly insistent about the correct pronunciation of
their beloved homeland. "Newfoundland, rhymes with understand" is a
catchy phrase they employ as a learning tool. Without knowing it, most Americans
pronounce the province "newfunlund," with the accent on the middle
syllable. Newfoundlanders stress the last syllable and say land the way it
should be, not lund. You will be gently corrected until you get it right, which
will probably take the better part of your trip.
Other than Corner Brook in western
Newfoundland, the capital, St. John's, is the only real city on the island. It
claims one of the oldest streets in North America and possesses a sought-after
port. When gale winds are raging on the high seas, St. John's harbor is a haven
to merchant and cruise ships alike.
Confusing St. John's with St. John,
New Brunswick, can be costly mistake. It's not uncommon that a traveler bound
for St. John unknowingly ends up stranded at St. John's airport. And I've been
told that Memorial University, located in St. John's, has a very high faculty
turnover rate, probably related to the lack of upscale malls and amenities on
the island. That leaves St. John's and Newfoundland for the hardiest and kindest
I came here to visit eastern
Newfoundland and to learn about the upcoming celebration, the five hundredth
anniversary of the landfall of Italian navigator and explorer John Cabot, a.k.a.
Giovanni Caboto. On the first leg of my trip, I stayed at St. John's Hotel
Newfoundland. If you are on the right side, the rooms have a spectacular view of
the harbor. After a delightful breakfast, head chef Steve Watson explained about
some of the hotel's regional cuisine. "If we took the Jigg's Dinner off the
menu, the natives would probably riot," said Watson. And after tasting one,
I know why.
A Jigg's Dinner is quintessential
Newfoundland: It evokes memories of childhood, mom in the kitchen, and the
population's Irish roots. Whether the name comes from the lively dance or the
method used to catch the local cod (i.e., to "jigg" by jerking up
quickly on a line), the feast is the same. Salted beef is soaked overnight and
the cooked for a few hours in fresh . Next, a Newfoundland
filled half full with yellow
split peas is placed in the pot. After another hour, potatoes, turnips, and
carrots are added to the brew. When done, the peas are removed from the muslin
bag and whipped with black pepper and butter to a delectable mash.
Especially delightful is the dish's
presentation--unique for what is basically a simple Irish dish. Each component
of the meal is so well arranged that the pattern on the plate becomes a visual
and gastronomical stimulus.
Visible from the hotel is Signal Hill,
made famous by another Italian. It was here that Guglielmo Marconi received the
first transatlantic wireless transmission from England in 1901. The hill
overlooks city, sea, and harbor. Home to a museum, it is also a great vantage
point to see icebergs and whales. In fact, this past spring, the "mother of
all icebergs" perched itself at the narrows of the harbor, innocently
causing one of the worst traffic jams St. John's has ever experienced.
But my favorite spot in the St. John's
area was Cape Spear, the most easterly point of land in North America. I arrived
between rain showers, with the sun shining, wind blowing, and a rainbow just
forming over the water. I climbed to the top over an old World War II bunker
guarding the entrance to the St. John's harbor. With the wind rushing in my
face, I took the time to ponder man's perseverance against the robust forces of
A new career
When Cabot arrived off Newfoundland
in 1497, the ocean teemed with fish. Portuguese fisherman had been fishing the
waters for years. Newfoundland's fishery sustained its people until the
mid-1980s, when the North Atlantic fish stocks, especially those of the Grand
Banks, collapsed due to overfishing by international fleets.
Families who had fished for
generations were forced to find other livelihoods. Many were forced out of
fishing altogether, but the O'Brien family of Bay Bulls, about an hour's drive
south of St. John's, has kept to the water by offering whale and bird tours to
Prone to seasickness, I was not really
looking forward to the trip out to the nearby Witless Bay Ecological Reserve,
but I climbed aboard the forty-two-foot vessel anyway. The boat plied past
conifer-covered slopes set on triangular juts of vaulted sandstone, as Capt.
Loyola O'Brien entertained the group with an Irish folk song and charts
explaining the diversity of wildlife we would not be seeing on this particular
jaunt. Unfortunately, by late September the two million birds that usually
inhabit the island sanctuary had already departed for the winter, and the
humpback whales and other marine delights would most likely be absent as well.
With the reserve finally in view,
David Snow from Wildland Tours in St. John's started pointing out the nesting
sites of puffins, murres, kittiwakes, razorbilled auks, gannets, and four types
of gulls. It wasn't too hard to imagine the cacophony that must accompany such a
gathering. But with nests now empty, guano was the only real clue to former
I was especially disappointed by the
absence of exotically plumed puffins, which I'm told are so ubiquitous in summer
(95 percent of North America's population nests here) that they are considered a
provincial symbol. They seem to be wearing white T-shirts and black dinner
jackets, with vivid orange markings on their beaks and feet and around their
Once back in port, we headed for the
family-owned restaurant run by Ann O'Brien. A lunch of Newfoundland pea soup and
meat cakes, accompanied by a cup of tea and a dessert of bread pudding topped
with a light caramel sauce, did wonders to warm the bones and refocus the
"In the summer, I usually serve
iceberg ice cubes in the morning orange juice, but unfortunately I just used the
last piece of a big berg that drifted into the bay on my birthday, July
13," said Tineke Gow, owner of Campbell House. Decorated with period pieces
and a touch of Tineke's Dutch flair, the upscale bed and breakfast sits on the
banks of Trinity's Hogs Nose Bay.
Small towns like Trinity, nestled in
bays and inlets along Newfoundland's coast, are called outports. The term
originally applied to ports other than London, but around 1820 the term was
co-opted by Newfoundlanders to refer to any coastal settlement other than the
chief port of St. John's.
Trinity's history is an encapsulation
of the island's. The Portuguese were probably the first Europeans to find
shelter in Trinity's ample harbor. Using the harbor as base, they fished the
northern waters six months of the year. Beginning in the seventeenth century,
the town forged strong ties with Poole, England, when businessmen came to make
their fortune. Over the years, a series of merchants pioneered there before
returning to the comforts of Mother England. Most prominent among them was
Benjamin Lester. At his death in 1802 he was the largest landowner in
Newfoundland and a principal merchant in Poole. Soon, tourists will be able to
visit the Lester-Garland home, which is being reconstructed from a pile of
Modern-day Trinity, population 326, is
going through a boom period. Townies--as St. John's inhabitants are called--and
others wanting a place to escape the hassles of modernity have recently
discovered her tranquil shores and are snapping up properties and restoring them
for summer and weekend homes. Tourism has increased through the entrepreneurial
efforts of the Trinity Pageant, an open-air reenactment of the town's history.
Yet some things remain unchanged. The phone service can be compared to that of
rural America, circa 1950. But this only adds to its charm.
Sipping tea by the fire in Campbell
House, named for an Irish navigational teacher who built the house around 1840,
I thumbed through a copy of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English (DNE), a
fascinating compendium of Newfoundlandese with an eye-catching yellow dust
jacket. The tome took three English professors twenty-five years to complete.
The DNE contains authentic quotations from Newfoundlanders around the island
(most dictionaries use literary sources), which are indicated in each entry and
backed up by audiotapes filed in Memorial University's folkloric archives. I
highly recommend buying the book if you plan to read any regional literature.
O happy site
On the drive to Bonavista from
Trinity, I asked Greg to stop the van for the tenth time. After leaping out and
carefully traversing the rocks and rills, I tried to position myself for what I
hoped would be the definitive picture of a Newfoundland telephone pole. Two
poles are together, instead of the usual one, but the treatment is the same.
Because permafrost doesn't allow them to be dug far enough into the ground, the
poles are propped up by rocks in a heavy-duty wooden box, a method called rock
After snapping a few shots, we were
back on the road to Bonavista. With its narrow lanes, beautifully fenced
properties, and high-peaked houses, Bonavista is a typical Newfoundland outport.
Legend is that in 1497 while in search of gold and spices for King Henry VII,
Cabot sailed into Bonavista Bay and cried "o buon vista" ("o
happy site") on spying land. Of course, there were no houses then, but
perhaps he was moved by the stark beauty of Newfoundland's rocky, rugged
At the edge of town stands the Cape
Bonavista lighthouse, which has been in operation since 1843. On June 24, 1997,
a replica of the Matthew, the vessel Cabot captained on his historic voyage,
will sail around the cape. As it passes the lighthouse and enters the harbor, it
will be saluted by trumpets, brass bands, and applause from a crowd including
the queen of England. Built in England, the new Matthew will sail from Bristol
on May 5, 1997. After the three-day visit to Bonavista comes the celebration's
highlight: a forty-five-day circumnavigation of the island, with festivities in
each port of call.
Another impressive tourist attractions
in Bonavista is the soon to be completed Ryan Premises. Premises is a common
word in Newfoundland; according to the DNE, it refers to "waterfront
property and stores, wharf, 'flakes,' and other facilities of a merchant,
'planter,' or fisherman." (A flake is a structure made of poles on which
fish are laid to dry.) At its zenith, the Ryan Premises contained retail and
residential buildings, a salt fish processing facility, wharves, fish flakes, a
barn, cooperage, sawmill and lumberyard, lobster factory, and powder magazine.
"Watch your step, " warned
Pat Buchanan from Parks Canada, as we entered what will become the premises'
retail shop. She promised that the huge shelves would be full of
fishery-heritage merchandise by June. "It was only after we joined Canada
that money became the preferred form of exchange in Newfoundland. For centuries,
our fishing industry used a barter system based on the commodity of salted cod.
Everything was valued relative to cod. Fishermen dealt with a central merchant
who accessed their catch and gave them credits for supplies and food
staples," explained Buchanan.
From her words and from reading
historical novels like Random Passage, by Newfoundland writer Bernice Morgan,
one deduces that the cod trader, being the sole merchant, was almost as powerful
as God in each Newfoundland fishery community.
Circumventing ladders and workers, we
made our way into the former factory, where cod was processed and stored for
export to Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the West Indies. Most noticeable was the
scent of salt, a tangy aroma that impregnated the whole structure. I was
compelled to think about the community's historic and life-supporting connection
to the ever-present sea.
The Ryan Premises will contain a
museum, interpretative exhibits, and the retail shop. There will be live
demonstrations of Newfoundland crafts such as furniture making and other skills
integral to outport life since the 1700s--a testimony to Newfoundland's east
Take some time to enjoy Newfoundland's
unspoiled beauty. In addition to the scenery and sea, you will be amazed at her
unpretentious and friendly people. Though generations separate them from their
European cousins, it is not uncommon to come across a Newfoundlander who seems
just as much (or more) Irish as an Irishman, or more English than an Englishman.
Though an ocean away from its origin, the rugged spirit of Celtic and Saxon
culture has flourished in Cabot's "New Found Lande."