Friday, August 27, 2010

No Wind, Whales and Familiar Faces

After a brief stop in Trepassey on the South coast, to wait out some heavy winds, we headed of for a two day sail around Cape Race to Long Pond in Conception Bay just passed St John’s. Our weather checks were extra thorough before departing on this trip. Cape Race is famed for creating high winds, is located by the notorious Grand Banks of Newfoundland, has seen numerous shipwrecks in its history, Titanic's distress signal was first received here, and it experience 158 days of fog a year. 
We approached the Cape with conservatively reefed sails as the winds were indeed high leaving Trepassey but then ended up motoring around due to a lack of wind. This confirmed our experience of the extremes of Newfoundland weather, it either ‘blows the cows off the dyke’ as they say in Holland or there isn’t a breath of wind. We had no thoughts of complaints however, as we sailed along the 100 metres cliffs. As we approached the cape the air and water around us was suddenly chock full of thousands of sea birds, gulls, sea pigeons, turrs, razorbills, shearwaters, gannets and cheeky looking puffins to name a few that we recognised. We quickly jumped to the conclusion that there were capelin running in the area (we have slowly been filling in our knowledge of Newfoundland wildlife). 
Whooosh! Suddenly we were also surrounded by another, much larger, capelin fan. Humpbacks and fin whales were feeding around us. Water spouts kept erupting and you could hardly get a “Thar she blows!” past your lips before another one broke just next to us. The humpbacks showed us some wonderful acrobatics with their tail fins often coming incredibly close to the boat . Sadly, we also saw a humpback caught in fishing gear. After some complex satellite discussions with my parents they tracked down the Newfoundland and Labrador Whale Release and Stranding organisation and we reported our sighting. Fortunately, they were aware of this whale and had already removed the majority (and dangerous) part of the gear. We bobbed slowly around the cape glancing about in absolute rapture. Slowly the feeding activity diminished and we continued up the coasts towards St. John’s.

We met the Boag family, Olous, Vicky and their kids Naya (5) and Rogan (3) in La Gomera in the Canary Islands last October when they were sailing around the Atlantic on their boat the Atmosphere. The joined us for a trip to The Gambia and we’d promised to look them up again when we got to Canada (of course at that time we thought they would be in the more accessible Saint John, New Brunswick).
Olous had arranged a very secure and protected berth for us on Long Pond, close to St. John’s and the whole family came out to welcome us when we arrived. It was great to see their friendly familiar faces and Emma and Macsen were thrilled to have some people their own size to play with. The family Boag then took us in hand and cared for our every need (entertainment, meals, laundry, showers and the use of one of their cars).
St. John’s is a great city, lacking the harsh beauty and open friendliness experienced in other areas of the province but great all the same. It is located in a narrow, cliffy bay, is extremely clean, full of charming brightly painted houses and the city and surrounding area is full of festivals, great walks and stunning scenery. At the St. John’s Folk Festival all six of the children in our group spontaneously jumped on the stage to act as back up dancers for Rose Cousins. Fortunately, she took it with great humour (see video) On three occasions we took the kids for a short trips to the beach and were able to watch whales swimming in the bay. As a final touch, Seb and I were 'screeched in' on the famous George Street, which has more pubs and bars per square metre than any street in North America. Being screeched in involves drinking a shot of local rum-like alcohol, kissing a cod fish and answering the question "Is ye an honourary Newfoundlander?" with the phrase "Indeed I is me ol' cock, and long may your big jib draw."

Macsen and Emma are also integrating well. Their favourite bedtime song is now “I's the b'y that builds the boat. ” Not very lullabyish but a nice change and more seasonal than Macsen’s previous favourite “ Jingle Bells.”

Fjords and Waterfalls Along the Southwest Coast

From Grand Bruit we sailed on to Burgeo where we again encountered some incredible Newfoundland hospitality when a man named Jim took us for a two hour drive into the barren highlands of the Long Range Mountains. The rugged land was strewn with huge glacial erratics--pieces of rock left behind from the last ice age and full of lovely lakes (locally known as ponds).
Two of the most beautiful spots that we visited in Newfoundland were The Grey River fjord and Lahune Bay. Grey River is an outport with no road access housing around 160 people. It perches at the foot of the looming cliffs near the mouth of the fjord. The fog lifted as we navigated about six nautical miles into the Northwest arm. Otters frolicked on the shore as we passed and bald eagles flew overhead. It had rained earlier in the day (needless to say) and several waterfalls cascaded down the steep walls. A few small cottages were hidden in the trees at the end of the Southwest arm. We spoke to one of the residents who explained that his regular home was in the Grey River outport but they kept the cottage so they could “get away from it all.” He directed us to a spot where we could safely land the dingy and explore the waterfall and river flowing into the fjord. With the monkeys on our backs we waded up river (each only falling in once) until we found a nice picnic location. Desert consisted of M&Ms and a few blueberries that were just starting to ripen on the river banks. Lovely.
Our next anchorage in Lahune Bay (Deadman’s Cove) was equally beautiful. The high cliffs create some significant wind effects so we set two anchors (at 30 degrees off our bow) before heading in for a good climb in the hills and a splash in the waterfalls. Ahhh, the views were spectacular but words are inadequate so you are better served by switching over to the pictures to get a real impression. Our walks are becoming somewhat less tiring as Emma has taken to hiking herself and rarely needs to be carried anymore. Even on long hikes! Hooray!

Francois (pronounced Fransway by the locals) is a lovely community perched on the cliffside in the Francois Bay. It houses 134 people, 21 of whom attend the local K-12 grade school. Francois is one of the few outport communities that has taken advantage of its unique cultural and natural advantages and has successfuly marketed these to a very specific tourist community. As such, in addition to the still viable lobster fishing, there are a couple of thriving B&Bs. Hiking around the bay is wonderful and the community has invested much into the maintenance of the trails. There is a wonderful freshwater lake up on the hills above Francois but it was a little too cold for us to swim. Emma and Macsen still enjoyed sloshing about on the muddy banks and spotting bullfrogs. There are two small stores stocking a wide selection of food and goods and these act as a gathering place in the early evenings. The monkeys loved stopping in at these time as they were guaranteed to get some candy and compliments.
Grand Bank is located on the Burin peninsula and differs significantly from the outports we have seen to date. It’s current population is approximately 2500 people and it is accessible by road. Grand Bank was the nucleus for much of the Grand Banks fishery and a consolidation point for Fortune Bay and for trading with the French in St Pierre and Michelon (just over 20 nautical miles away). As a result a merchant class took hold here so the older houses are much larger, there is a fish processing plant (built to process fresh fish following the decline of the salt fish industry) and it has a more industrial feel and a more sprawling community. It is still at heart a fishing village. A group of older men meet almost nightly on the wharf to tell tales about the old days and make music if the mood takes them. These men have incredible stories of huge catches, colossal storms, incredibly dangerous and taxing conditions (year round fishing in snow and ice) and a wistful sadness when they tell of a livelihood lost.

In short, the Southwest coast of Newfoundland is absolutely magnificent, both the raw nature and the communities, and the people are extremely kind and generous. If it weren’t for the weather you might think it were perfect. We have experienced a few bright sunny days but much of our time is spent in the rain and even more is spent in the fog. This just makes the brief glimpses of breathtaking scenery all the more special. Our love affair with Newfoundland continues...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Outports and Fishing

Outports of Newfoundland are some of the oldest European settlements in Canada, many of them having been established by Portuguese, Spanish, Basque, French and English fishermen and whalers in the 1500s-1800s. Outports were settled where families could get shelter, fresh water and access to the fishing grounds and space to ‘make’ or salt process the fish. When all the existing shore space became allocated, or when more productive fishing grounds became known, some people would move to other areas leading to the high number of small outports spread over the length of shoreline and hundreds of islands of Newfoundland and Labrador. In 1934, more than 1200 outports spread along the coasts of Newfoundland, only 100 of which had populations over 500 people. Several have no roads connecting them to other communities on the mainland and are only accessible by boat or by footpath. 

Intellectually I know that the outport life was very hard and extremely cold but it is also achingly romantic (certainly from my outsiders perspective) as reflected in the many stirring songs and stories. Sadly, with government resettlement programs, the devastating demise of the fishery, and ongoing depopulation as young people move to larger urban centres, the outport is an endangered phenomenon. As we cruised along the South coast we were privileged to see several of these communities in very differing stages and sizes, but all abandoned or with rapidly reducing populations and economic opportunities.

Grand Bruit, located about 40 nautical miles from Port aux Basques, was the first outport that we visited in Newfoundland. Grand Bruit is pronounced locally as 'Grand Brit' but comes originally from the French for 'big noise' due to the enormous waterfall running through its centre. This town has twice been named the tidiest community in Newfoundland since 2000, held its homecoming in 2007 and as of July 11, 2010 has been abandoned. The huge waterfall running through the middle does create a racket of white noise, brightly painted houses cluster together on the hillside and well kept log wharves ring the cove around to a little grave yard with white stones in the meadow on the edge of town. Grand Bruit is not accessible by road and wooden boardwalks and cement sidewalks wind between the houses, creating a charmingly cosy feel. A picture perfect community but absolutely empty of people. The church was open and the guest book full of very emotional entries from the last service on July 11^th . We found the pub, Cramalott Inn, a tiny 1-room building with benches around and a few empty beer bottles lingering. It was so easy to see a group of tipsy comrades sitting around discussing the latest gossip or the last catch and making music and telling tales. In the houses, the curtains still hung, decorations were left, vegetable and flower gardens had been planted this season and peering into one house we saw a pair of eyeglasses left on the kitchen table. But noone around, not a soul to be seen.