Newfoundland: Multifaceted gem with innumerable sagas

Canada’s Atlantic province of Newfoundland and Labrador is littered with lines. There are fishing lines, clotheslines, ancestral lines, beelines, cod lines, lines laden with knitted woolens and yarns of a humorous kind, but what you won’t find are long waiting lines.

The longest line I experienced on my recent trip to the island of Newfoundland was while waiting to get off the Atlantic Marine Ferry in Port aux Basques, after a six-hour journey from North Sydney, Nova Scotia. During the crossing, I met a trucker who regaled me with classic Newfie sayings such as “Stay where you’re to ‘till I comes where you’re at.” Their singular way with words is legendary. Even the names of their villages and towns can’t escape — Black Tickle, Come by Chance, Cow Head, Heart’s Desire, Dildo, and Nameless Cove. I mean, how can you not be enchanted before you even reach the Rock, as it is so fondly referred to? Newfoundland Labrador is the first province of Canada to see the sunrise and the last to join the Confederation in 1947.

For one week this summer I drove 400 miles north along the western coastline highway with the ocean on the left and spruce forests and mountain ranges on the right — the Appalachian mountain chain, born in Alabama, ends its journey here. Before I arrived in Newfoundland, I was told to watch out for moose, as there are 120,000 of them. Newfoundlanders keep their “moose eyes” open just in case one or more of them decides to leap out in front of your car. I was wide eyed searching the sides of the road, both fearful and excited. Oddly enough, I saw only one and he was a beauty. A family I met at lunch that day told me they had seen 13 on the same patch of highway … oh well.

What I did see were lighthouses. In Rose Blanche, just south of Port aux Basques, I visited one of the last granite lighthouses on the Atlantic seaboard, perched high above one of its most dramatically beautiful coasts. A few miles away, in Isle aux Morts (Isle of the Dead), the memory of the lighthouse keeper’s family’s heroic deed in 1828 is kept alive in annual celebrations. The Harvey family, including their Newfoundland dog, Hairy Man, rescued 163 sailors whose ships sank off their coast. It was here that I first noticed something unique to Newfoundland cemeteries — bright bouquets of flowers atop all the gravestones in such a joyous celebration of life, in seeming defiance of the very name of the village itself.

Newfoundlanders are nothing if not defiant and resilient. Fishing was their way of life and cod their lifesaver. The word “fish” itself, usually refers to cod. You can have cod tongue (apparently a delicacy, which I politely declined), cod au gratin (with lots of cheese on top), cod fish cakes (my favorite), fried cod, grilled cod, cod any way you want it. Whatever fish is caught that day, you can be sure it will find its way to your plate. Fresh mussels, snow crab, (lobster in season), halibut and salmon and creamy fish chowders round out the sea portion of the menus. Then there are scrunchions, fried pork bits, which can be washed down with Screech, a Newfoundland rum with 40 percent alcohol. Please don’t try drinking this and driving, as the moose on the roads might be the least of your problems.

That afternoon I drove on to Gros Morne National Park, one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Western Newfoundland. It is 1,120 square miles of mountains, bays, fjords, forests and all the outdoor activities anyone could possibly wish for. And to top all that, one of the few places on the planet where you can actually walk on the earth’s mantle — The Tablelands.

Tight-knit communities dot Gros Morne National Park. Woody Point in particular is known for its yearly Writers at Woody Point literary festival in Bonne Bay. Perfectly understandable considering the surrounding beauty. There’s also the music festival and theater productions just about everywhere. Sipping a Newfoundland-made beer down in any of the waterside bistros, while watching whales, kayaks and ferries parade by is a well-entrenched pastime. So too is visiting the arts and crafts stores laden with folk art, local jams and pottery at Honky Dory or strolling over to Molly Maid Fibre Art Studio and meeting Molly to learn all about knitting and hooking rugs. I bought a kit with all the materials to hook a small lighthouse. My first attempt. Fingers crossed.

A few miles away in the tiny, charming fishing village of Trout River, clotheslines were multi-tasking: cod fish drying in the sunshine, woolen mittens and socks for sale pinned to the lines, and fresh, white laundry blowing in the sea breeze. All out there among the distinct square wooden houses (Salt Box) painted in bright, cheerful colors. A photographer’s dream.

That night I met the Ugly stick. It was being played by one of the musicians during a rollicking concert by Anchors Aweigh, at the Ocean View Hotel, Rocky Harbour. It looks like this: long stick with female head made out of woolen materials, black rubber fishing boot attached at bottom and in between, dozens of attached bottle caps clanging together when struck by a piece of wood. Wade Jones played it like a bass, Newfoundland-style. He was joined by his musical brethren in this sold-out evening of Newfie songs and humorous stories.

Before you leave Rocky Harbour, order the cod fish cakes at Java Jack’s and shop at The Glass Station where Urve Manuel’s one-of-a-kind art glass art is a marvel.

Continuing north, I passed packed RV parks, hiking trails, lookouts and communal root vegetable gardens on the sides of the well-paved highway. Finally I arrived at one of my favorite towns, Cow Head, with a human head count of about 500. I was thrilled to have scored the little cottage with the porch facing the ocean at the Shallow Bay Motel. Early the next morning I strolled down the main street. It was as quiet as a church mouse. Appropriately so, as I came across the most enchanting garden of my entire trip, adjacent to a church. Individual bedded areas displayed a variety of shrubs and galas of flowers each with its name painted on a small beach stone. Joyce Kilmer’s lyric poem, “Trees,” was writ large at one end and a book for your name and comments placed next to a small donation box, at the other. The entire effect was joyful. Down another road, a cenotaph honoring the villagers who lost their lives during various wars induced another set of emotions. Cow Head also has one of the best sandy beaches I had come across on my trip. The water of Shallow Bay was warm and inviting and one could walk for miles. I did.

But I still had miles and miles to go — some of them at sea. At St. Anthony’s on Newfoundland’s northern tip, I witnessed truly awesome beauty. Despite a torrential downpour, Captain Paul Alcock with Northland Discovery Boat Tours expertly navigated the tossing sea and encircled, up close, the last colossal, majestic iceberg of the season. We may have been wet to the core, but none of us could ever forgot that glorious sight. Alas, no whales came our way. A pity, considering that 23 species have been known to parade by. Good old reliable porpoises did their best to entertain and they didn’t disappoint.

After that, a much-needed cup of hot tea and a home-made partridge berry scone was most welcome at the tea room in the Grenfell Interpretation Centre. It’s what the doctor ordered. The doctor, in this case, was Dr. Wilfred Grenfell (1865-1940), a Renaissance man if there ever was one: a missionary doctor from England, prolific writer, painter, buddies to the rich and famous and champion of the poor and ill. His lifelong motto, “The purpose of the world is not to have and hold, but to give and receive,” inspired the people of Newfoundland and Labrador to whom he dedicated his life. The center showcases photographs, videos, his own art work, and testimonies of those whose very lives depended on his multiple skills and largesse. Housed in the same building, a craft and book shop is filled to the rafters with Grenfell art and an eclectic selection of Newfoundland treasures.

Long, long before Grenfell found his life’s calling in the “new” world, Norsemen set up camp in L’Anse aux Meadows a thousand years ago. It is the second UNESCO Heritage Site in Western Newfoundland and what a site it is. It is the ONLY known Viking site in North America and the earliest evidence of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. Archeological research suggests it was the site of the first meeting of Europeans and Aboriginal people. Today, on the exact land where they built their unique sod mound homes, reconstructions re-create their daily lives. Men and women, dressed in Viking clothes, employing Viking cooking techniques and spinning Viking tales, draw you inside their mounds, and for the while you are there, you’re transported to another world entirely. Magical.