Sunday, June 02, 2019

We Come From Away

To "come from away" = To be not from Newfoundland

With just eight vacation days between ending my last assignment and starting Spanish training, we needed to get away.  It was too few days for the tiresome lateral travel across time zones, and we weren't in the mood for tropical weather as we've got three years of 80+ degrees days ahead of us.  Given those restrictions, we chose to head north, even further than Nova Scotia and Cape Breton we loved so much last year.  

We're now preparing for take-off on our third and final northbound flight to reach our destination.  The young man who just loaded our bags into the slim belly of the Beechcraft 1900, attached the staircase for us to board, and gave us the quick safety chat, also just pulled a headset out of his jacket pocket, plugged it into the flight console and took the co-pilot's seat. We're heading for the opposite of El Salvador in every respect: Deer Lake, Newfoundland, Canada.  There are about ten of us on board the one hour flight from the provincial capital St. John's to the western hub town of Deer Lake. Take your pick: every seat's a window and every seat's an aisle.  The three guys hoping to continue on to Goose Bay, Labrador were told not to board as the pilot scheduled to take them on the final leg from Deer Lake was feeling sick and they'd cancelled that segment until... maybe tomorrow.  Air Canada would put them up in a hotel in St. John's for the night, but the desk agent wasn't sure about reimbursing their lost wages. Many Newfoundlanders work in some of the toughest jobs in Canada: in Alberta in the Athabasca oil sands, in Northwest Territories in the diamond minds, in Labrador in the iron ore mines, and of course, in the North Atlantic fisheries.  So one pilot's flu could mean a loss of a lot of wages; I understood why they were asking. 

The flight took us east to west across the length of the island nicknamed "The Rock."  In a plane that size, the engine and propellers provided a loud, constant, vibrating hum that lulled me into a nap with my head against the window.  By dozing off, I didn't miss out on any views, as although the calendar said late May - it was more like late February down below.  And besides, the heavy cloud cover hid what would've been my first good look at the province.  But even if it were clear skies - as we'd learn the next day in our long drive halfway back across the island - the interior of Newfoundland is rather, how should I say it... homogeneous.  Through the windshield we saw only spruce, birch, bog, spruce, birch, lake, spruce, birch, river, spruce, birch, rock.  



But that's okay, we weren't planning to stay in the interior anyway.  Our first destination was Fogo Island, an hour's ferry ride into the Atlantic from the north-central coast.  Waiting for the ferry in the dock town of Farewell, we figured we'd walk through the town, maybe pop into a somewhere for a something warm to eat/drink/put on. We figured wrong.  There was in fact no town, just a few cars parked in the ferry line alongside a quiet inlet dotted with icebergs.  Yes, icebergs.  This northern coast of Newfoundland receives a veritable parade of icebergs coming from the northern Atlantic at this time of year. Those few that drifted into the inlet were destined to simply bob along until they beached themselves somewhere and melted.  We took advantage of our early arrival to the ferry line to park the car and go for a walk along the stony shoreline to check out the 'bergs. 

The ferry arrived exactly on time, one of multiple runs per day, and we parked on the car deck and took the stairs up to the passenger deck. Immediately, I couldn't help but notice our fellow passengers. First, they weren't interested at all in looking out the windows, moving excitedly from port to starboard to take in the scenery like the family dog on its first road trip (that'd be me). Instead, they grabbed coffees from the lady at the snack counter and settled into comfortable chairs for the trip.  Next, I noticed they were all BIG, even the small ones: hearty, hardy, solid folks of Irish root stock. The men wore camo somewhere, contrasting with hunter/road safety-reflective striping somewhere else on a jacket or work pants, leaving me confused about whether they wanted to be seen or not.  They had moustaches, big bellies and meaty hands that proclaimed, "I'm just after fellin' an 'ewing a 'hacre of logs an' buildin' me own 'ouse!"  The over-40 women had weathered skin, thin lips, and super-short highly highlighted and layered hairstyles, giving them a birdlike appearance. This look was astonishingly consistent, so much so that my husband and I couldn't tell if we were just seeing the same woman everywhere we went.  The under-40 women preferred dyed-black straight hair and, were this ten years ago, would've certainly been in acid-washed jeans.  Regardless of age, the women were as rugged and no-nonsense as their men, ready to pick berries and jar rabbit in the summer, and in winter care for their own three kids plus their sisters' three while everyone was away working on the "mainland" (i.e. the rest of Canada). 

We'd heard about the Newfie dialect before arriving by watching some YouTube videos (which I'm thankful for).  We learned it's not "New-fun-lund", but "Newfin'-LAND."  We learned that H's disappear from where they're supposed to be and reappear where they have no business, like starting all words that normally begin with vowels.  Verbs are all conjugated in the third person, and "th" is replaced with "d." 

"I's goes h'over dere an' sees dis fella comin' an' I says, luh! I'm just after tinkin' 'bout 'im an 'ere 'e is!"  

This is all said without a space between any of the words.  I was instantly mesmerized and lingered within earshot of any conversation, no matter how mundane, just to listen. 

After driving off the ferry, we headed about 20 minutes to the far northwest corner of the island, to Fogo Island town where we'd rented "Nan's House" for a few days.  I thought "Nan" was someone's name, but it was clear after arriving that "Nan" meant grandma. Duh.  
Cozy and authentic, just as grandma left it it.  We had a few years' supply of "Down Home" magazines to work through (the Newfoundland and Labrador homemaker's Reader's Digest, with cover stories ranging from "Saved from the Sea: Our Most Dramatic Rescue Stories!" to "Our Favorite Puddings: Steamed, Broiled and Baked!") and a great collection of "I'm watchin' da' grandkids dis month" videos: Strawberry Shortcake, Barney, The Care Bears, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, and inexplicably, Carmen Electra's Aerobic Striptease Workout.  Finally, it's a good thing my husband is 6'0", because at 6'1" he wouldn't have been able to stand up straight in the kitchen.  

My choice of teapots!
But it was lovely that we had the whole place to ourselves: a full kitchen with all of Nan's spices still in the cupboard from before she... well, I'm not sure what happened, a sitting room, a bathroom with lovely view of the harbor, and two upstairs bedrooms with beds piled with quilts and sloped dormer ceilings.  The place had been warmed up for our arrival and, according to the guest book, it seemed we were the first guests of the season.  And really, we still weren't in "the season" which wouldn't begin until late June.  Seeing as it was 36 degrees outside and blowing hard - this was understandable.  Normally we prefer traveling off-season but at times it has its downsides.  The weather isn't always ideal and often the restaurants or stores  - those that are even open - will be open only limited hours.  We had this fact working against us combined with our Sunday evening arrival on Canada's 3-day Victoria Day weekend.  So it was a very good thing we'd stopped at the grocery store in Deer Lake to stock up before leaving the main island or we'd be having toothpaste for dinner.  

Actually, we lucked out even more in that one restaurant (of the four in town) was open.  Naturally, it was the Chinese restaurant.  Although we were the only patrons, we had a good feeling about it after being greeted by the Cantonese owner/waitress/cook.  She offered an extensive menu of Chinese favorites and my husband and I ordered two completely different dishes.  I was a bit puzzled when, while taking our order, she paused for a good long beat to think before jotting down our choices on her notepad, as if trying to remember how to spell something.  We realized when our plates arrived that she must've been doing a mental inventory of her larder, because as you can see here - we clearly ordered two vastly different dishes.  Ah well, it was good enough regardless of what the menu may have described.

Okay, one was a bit spicier. 
I was up early the following morning, giving me some time to walk around the town in the morning light, which had been streaming in through the windows fresh across the Atlantic since 5:15 a.m.  Fogo Island town is just as charming and authentic as could be, with two protected harbors, tall-spired churches, traditional salt-box architecture houses, rugged, rocky tundra-covered landscape, and lobster traps stacked on the piers.  

Now THAT'S an iceberg!

Lobster traps and other fishing accoutrement. 

An hour or so later, I returned from my reconnaissance walk to find my husband up and having breakfast. After getting a full belly of tea myself, I got dressed for our day hike to the top of Brimstone Head, just a few minutes' drive from our house.  I put on my long underwear top and bottoms, fleece-lined winter leggings, wool cable-knit sweater, down vest, wind and rain-proof coat, gloves and Andean wool cap. NOW I was ready to go back out again. 

Hmmm... a two bedroom house that has ten coat hooks.  What does that say?
We were excited to see Brimstone Head as it'd been designated one of the four corners of the earth by the Flat Earth Society, which coincidentally had an office and (until recently) a museum on Fogo Island.  I couldn't wait to see what the edge looked like.

The path to the edge.  The local Lions Club does a great job of maintaining the trails and boardwalks on Fogo. 

Beautiful autumn-colored tuckamore, peat and heather. 

Final staircase to the top. 

Did I mention it was a wee bit windy?
At just above freezing and facing winds as strong as I've ever felt in my life (do I still have eyebrows?), we made our way up the perfectly maintained paths and stairs to the top of Brimstone Head. The effort was well worth it. However, I gotta' say I'd pictured one corner of the earth to be a bit more.... square?  I mean we could still see the neighboring islands and icebergs slowly drifting by and all. Disappointed as I am to say this, I'm not entirely convinced that we were really on the edge of anything more than a hunk of rock in the north Atlantic Ocean.  Sorry Flat Earth society, but I don't think you'll be getting our membership paperwork this year. 

The next day we took off to the east side of Fogo Island and the towns of Joe Batt's Arm and Tilting. (Oh side note here: Newfoundland has THE BEST names for places!  Among my favorites are: Random Island, Ireland's Eye, Tickle Cove, Seldom Seen, Heart's Delight and Heart's Content.) The Fogo Island Inn in Joe Batt's Arm, just 20 minutes' drive from Fogo Island town, was what had originally attracted me to come up here to begin with.  While searching for places to visit online, I came upon photographs of the inn and knew I had to see it for myself.  And see it we did. Equal parts sculpture and building, it perches out over the cliff like an occupiable, wooden Moby Dick on stilts (personal interpretation).  The inn isn't just a tourist destination, it's also a concept.  Sure it has rooms and a restaurant, but it also serves as a way to reinvigorate investment into the Fogo community, as their website boasts. I was contemplating splurging on a night or two at the inn... until I saw the room rates which START at $1500 per night. So instead of a month's salary for the weekend, we settled for a brisk walk around the grounds like celebrity wedding crashers, as staff greeted us and politely asked, "Tell me your name again, please? I just don't remember..." certainly code for "You're not supposed to be here, are you?" I snapped some pictures and we hopped into the car before they could run us off the property.  But check out the place and read about their raison d'etre for yourself here. 

The great beast of the Fogo Island Inn seen through the mist. 

Sculptural workshop of sorts at the Inn. I snuck in to take a peek; it was pretty cool. 

Just a few minutes' further to the east we found the community of Tilting, recognized for the preservation of its Irish heritage.  We stopped for a cup of tea and some conversation at a cafe (after narrowly escaping an impromptu acoustic sing-along of "Hotel California" we were told) and later had a cliff-side walk and sandwich lunch in a protected spot on the rocks, tucked between the tuckamore and the crashing surf. We later learned that "tuckamore" is the Newfoundland word for the stunted, tangled stands of spruce and fir trees that cling to cliff edges like Canadian bonsai. 

The omnipresent net/boat/fishing shed.  We never figured out what the dots meant, but they're on nearly every door. 

Classic saltbox style house surrounded by tuckamore and heather.

A surprisingly abundant amount of grass considering the general lack of topsoil in which to grow it.
Our final day on Fogo brought the sunshine and we climbed Fogo Head for a last look around before heading back west across Newfoundland to our next stop.

We learned icebergs can be very dangerous to approach as unseen parts can below the surface can break off and shoot to the surface, because don't forget that we only see the tip of the... well, you get it. 

We were happy to find the craft and quilting shop open and a friendly couple working there to chat with.

Typical Newfoundland crafts: quilts, hooked rugs and miniature lobster traps.  This fella' helps in the shop and works overnights at the fish processing plant in town, one of three on the island and a huge source of income for locals.

The path to the top of Fogo Head.

A last look at Fogo, finally in the sunshine.
We left the sunshine behind and spent nearly all of the next day driving back west to Deer Lake in the slushy rain (spruce, birch, lake...). But then continued a bit further to Norris Point, a small town surrounded by the incredible Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO heritage site.  Besides wanting to see the park's fjords and snowy peaks, we chose Norris Point as it was hosting its annual Trails, Tales and Tunes festival, timed to kick off the summer tourist season.  (See weather commentary above about whether or not the chosen festival dates may still have been a bit, errr, premature.)  And really - how could I resist a festival dedicated to just about all my favorite things: outdoorsy activities, storytelling and music.  If it was the Trails, Tales, Tunes, Tea and Cat Appreciation festival I'd have been apoplectic. 

"Downtown" Norris Point: the Marine Research Center in the middle and the Cat Stop pub on the right in blue. 

Colorful Newfoundland houses with the Tablelands as the backdrop.

We'd rented a cottage from Big Garden Cottages along Neddy Harbour, one of the many scallops of Bonne Bay, a fjord-like inlet off the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  The festival was in its sixth day by the time we arrived, offering organized hikes into the park and along the coastline each morning, and music featuring Newfoundland and Labradorean (or at least Canadian) acts at various venues each mid-day and evening.  The "tales" part was mixed into the above schedule. We spent our second evening listening to stories of the (now-defunct) Newfoundland railway system: the folks who built 'er, the "wreck-house" winds which frequently derailed 'er, and the songs to accompany it all. 

Oh Canada, once again you spoil us with your perfectly maintained trails. Roofing tiles on the boardwalk - what will they think of next?

A duo performs at the "Cat Stop" pub venue in Norris Point.  I was sad to discover that the "cat" in the title was short for the catamaran that docks there.  Ah well. 
The forecast improved each day, and we woke up one day to a thinly-overcast sky that looked like it just might burn off and turn blue.  By 10:00 a.m. it did not disappoint, and we joined one of the festival's organized walks out to Cow Head under sunny skies.

Gros Morne panorama.

Hiking companions.

Ya' gotta' have a sense of whimsy in such an extreme environment.

Our final day hit the low 60s, which may not sound like much - but after a week of topping out in the 40s - it felt like Malibu.  I scampered around the town re-taking pictures of the landscape and houses now bathed in flattering sunlight.  

Gros Morne National Park's Tablelands. The mountaintops are made of the earth's mantle (look it up - I can't explain it well) which is one of the reasons the park is a UNESCO Heritage Site. 

View of Neddy Harbour, the Tablelands and Norris Point from our cottage. 

Fisherman's shack. 

Before turning the car back to Deer Lake, we joined one last festival event: the Lion's Club Market Day featuring live music, crafts and baked goods for sale, and the main event - a Fisherman's Brewis lunch.  We'd been hearing about this local delicacy since our arrival in Newfoundland and my husband was excited to try it.  Always frightened by the word "delicacy" and not much of an experimental eater (okay not an experimental eater AT ALL) - I wasn't so confident.  But who could resist a big scoop of minced fish, piled on a mountain of reconstituted hard tack, loaded on a hill o' mashed potatoes, smothered in a simmering broth of melting scrunchins and topped - if yas' like - with drawn butter?  Sign me up! Especially when we learned that "scrunchins" are minced salt pork - i.e. pure fat.  For $7.50 we joined the line and filled our bellies with a week's worth of calories and a lifetime of cholesterol.  I felt I could, and probably should, go row a boat across the ocean afterwards. By myself. In winter. While dragging a net full of writhing cod. 

Folks digging into their Fisherman's Brewis while enjoying some music. 

Spoiler alert on your Christmas presents.

But our trip had to come to an end and so we packed up the car and drove an hour back to Deer Lake from where we'd catch the flight back home at the crack of dawn the next morning.  It was a spectacular day - nearly 65 degrees - and families were out enjoying the first day at the lake.  The water was probably close to 45 degrees, but as we learned - that's nothing to a true Newfoundlander. 

The father on the right reported that while this WAS his first day of the year with no shirt on, it' wasn't his first day in his shorts and flip flops.

We were happy to report to Budget Rent a Car that this did NOT happen to us.