In the second installment of a feature series, author Lesley Choyce walks the Rock.
My official Newfoundland road map didn’t have nearly enough detail for my liking, but I did see a large green chunk of something labelled Witless Bay Ecological Reserve which I decided we should definitely explore. The only problem was that it appeared to be entirely off the shores and in the Atlantic Ocean. Therein existed the largest puffin colony in North America if not the world. Alas, without a watercraft it looked like we would return home without seeing a solitary puffin (or whale or iceberg.) But then there were reasonable reasons why this was the case and, well, the rugged hiking and rollicking music were themselves enough to call the trip a success. And we had just begun.
Travelling hither and yon without a hard itinerary is definitely the way I prefer to travel so we didn’t really give Witless Bay a good look over. As we drove on, I continued to wonder about the name (as usual), so Linda looked it up and found it was named for a Dorsetshire captain named Whittle. Hence Wittle’s Bay. When Captain Whittle passed on, his family buggered-off back to England and the folks left in town said something like, “Well, I guess we’re now Whittle-less Bay.” It would be like if I moved my clan out of East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, and my neighbours celebrated the news by renaming the town, “Choyceless Town.” At any rate, the name whittled its way down to Witless Bay over the years and now has a population of about 1600 or so who have the offshore puffins, whales, and icebergs pretty much all to themselves when the tourists are not around.
There is a crab processing plant there that does not generally give a public tour and, locally, the town is famous for as much political turmoil as a small community could muster for itself. Back in 2017, the whole town council got itself elected unopposed in a most Soviet manner and then voted to do away with the previous guidelines for ethics, conflict of interest, land use, and such. There was a backlash, and the council voted to hire a criminal lawyer to see if they could muzzle their critics. Having learned this, I decided I would henceforth not do further research into local politics and instead commune with rocks, trees, wind, and waves, as was my penchant.
I took a couple of backroads beyond a place called Mobile and then Tors Cove, expecting to get lost again – but happily so this time. One windy paved single-track road took me to Burnt Cove where the pavement came to a halt at a pebbly little beach in the middle of town where a middle-aged man in high rubber boots was collecting fish from the water in a bucket. We had stumbled on a capelin scull of which I had never seen before. Capelin are smallish fish – much like smelt – that spawn in June and July and then many (mostly males) die and drift in ashore where they are collected for cooking, salting, for bait, or for tossing on your garden so you can grow some mighty fine potatoes and cabbage. It is the end of the life cycle for the fish, but the capelin scull has been a blessing for many a coastal inhabitant in these parts since the 1500s or earlier.
Just off the coast from Burnt Cove were the exquisite islands of the Ecological Reserve: Gull Island, Green Island, Great Island – and, yes, Pee Pee Island. On a pristine day like this, they beckoned but clearly were beyond our reach. A final drive further south took us to Cape Broyle, Island Cove, and Admiral’s Cove, but we had reached the limit of our daily tether and were ready to follow the Irish Loop back to St. John’s.
For sustenance, Linda convinced me dine at the St. John’s Fish Exchange which sounds funky enough to suit my taste but was actually an upscale fine-dining establishment near the harbour with oversize black and white photos on the wall of men in rubber outfits filleting fish the size of my living room sofa. I wondered if once upon a time it really was where Newfoundlanders traded fish. “Trade ya’ these two mackerel for that nice fat cod you got there.” That sort of thing. But no, I suppose that was just my imagination.
I can report, however, that the fish was tasty and the wine expensive as is common in such ritzy chow houses. But at least we had enough paella left for the next day’s lunch and we consumed enough seafood to buoy our spirits and make a second visit to Broderick’s where we were entertained by a most excellent Stan Rogers style performer. He preferred to sing each tune either sideways to the stage or with his back to the audience, a style of performance I had only seen with young edgy hip-hop artists. But he had a bellowing, mellifluous voice and some original tunes that melded well with the Dayboil brew that helped finish off a most extraordinary day.
I was determined to seek out more material about the Irishness of Newfoundland.
After studying the map of the Avalon Peninsula, however, we realized that we would not be able to do the complete Irish Loop this trip. We would settle for Irish music when we could find it and some celebratory pints of Murphy’s and Guinness. However, the lad delivering pints to our table at Broderick’s informed us that there was a current crisis in town concerning a dearth of draft Guinness. It had something to do with a change in distribution and, if I understood it correctly, the shame-faced server sadly reported that the Guinness had to find its way to St. John’s by way of Toronto. And, apparently, until the distribution deals were settled, the pubs of the city would not be pouring any pints of the dark brew any time soon. Clearly St. John’s was a city in crisis, and it would not be resolved until well after we left.
Back in our loft at night, I could have done more research into the waves of Irish immigrants down through the centuries, but instead decided to formulate a list of pubs in town with Irish names or themes. Within a stone’s throw of our roost on Duckworth Street was O’Reilly’s Irish Newfoundland Pub, Bridie Molloy’s, Kelly’s, Shamrock City, Trinity, Greenslieve’s, Celtic Hearth, Erin’s, and the Ship to name a few. Other Celtic establishments included The Rose and Thistle, The Black Sheep, Rob Roy, and Trapper John’s Screech Pub. We would not have enough time to report on the goings on at each venue but would save that until a future date when those bastards in Ontario had permitted the Guinness to flow freely back into the worthy pubs of Sin City.
In the morning, we headed north to Portugal Cove and drove around the harbour trying to figure out how to get on the ferry to Bell Island. We ended up on a film set where everyone was from out of town and, even though the ferry was within sight, none of the cast or crew could suggest how we could get on it. So, we drove around town some more until we saw a man in a little white booth waving to us. We paid for a round trip and drove our Mazda into the belly of the beast. There is not much to say about the crossing of what they call “The Tickle” although I had intended to wax most eloquent about the waters of Conception Bay and the magnificent view of the high cliffs of the island as we approached. Instead, we got yelled at when we tried to leave our vehicle to go up on deck and endured the crossing inside our car listening to the CBC report how bad COVID-19 was in the U.S. and in other parts of Canada.
The great thing about getting off a car ferry is that you feel like you have arrived somewhere exotic after a lengthy ocean voyage.
Well, this one wasn’t lengthy – 20 minutes tops – but when you are stuck in the hold of a big steel vessel and the front of the ship cracks open for the light to smack you in the face, it is like you have arrived at a brave new world. Bell Island is actually a brave old world.
The island itself is about 9 kilometers long and a mere 3 kilometers wide. According to Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador, “Reports of iron ore on Bell Island go back to at least 1578, when a merchant from Bristol, England, reported finding iron deposits there. In 1628, members of Sir John Guy’s colony in Cupids sent iron samples from Bell Island to England for analysis.” Apparently, the reports were good because mining iron became the mainstay for islanders even though the earliest settlers came there to fish, farm, and harvest seals. The mining of the ore lasted from 1895 to 1966, but things slowed down when the Germans stopped buying from Bell Island during World War I and next the Depression knocked the wind out of it during the “Dirty Thirties”. The town of Wabana was at the centre of it all and we wondered what might be left to see of the rusty glory days gone by.
The sun was out, and it had that million-miles-from-anywhere feel to it that always puts a big smile on my face. I could see from my map that the island itself was shaped like a ship and I thought we should drive to the bow of the ship which, in my mind, meant driving north to a place called Long Harry Point. There was a lighthouse there (of course) and, although I am not a huge fan of lighthouses, we headed there. Let’s face it; most lighthouses are disappointing once you actually see them, especially the modern, automated kind. But there is almost always something interesting near a lighthouse and that was true for Long Harry.
There was a little café there, but it was closed. Some men were sawing boards and hammering away on the construction of a shed. If we weren’t on our quest for a true Bell Island adventure, I would have liked to just walk over and lend a hand. What could be more satisfying than sawing some boards and hammering ten penny nails into wood on a day like this? But Linda was itching to run her 10 kilometres, so I slapped on a little backpack to hike along as her stalwart companion and coach.
At this most northerly tip of Bell Island, we located a grassy trail heading due south on the east side. The sky was blue, we were high above Conception Bay and an eagle soared above us as we headed south on the path. As the sound of workers diminished and my wife disappeared ahead of me on the trail, I savoured the warm sea breeze (almost an oxymoron in these parts) and put one foot ahead of the other. Could there possibly be a moment more satisfying than this? If your soul is weary and you need to reboot your brain, I suggest heading to Long Harry on a grand summer day and follow my footsteps.
Well, the trail snaked along the cliffs and, for the most part, it was on the edge of a big grassy field with wildflowers and more dragonflies. Studying some local lore later in the day, I learned that this field was known to be a place where lovers in this century, and the two previous ones, would come to get away from civilization and do what lovers do. So, I assume that many a lustful Bell Islander had once cavorted here and tamped down the leaves of grass in this bucolic piece of heaven in their lovemaking.
The place reminded me somewhat of Bempton Cliffs in England because you could stand along the cliff edge and watch birds nesting on the walls below while gulls and other sea birds flew in the sky below your eye level – swooping, gliding, and catching the updrafts effortlessly. No puffins mind you, despite the Newfoundland tourist propaganda, but the place had everything else I required for happiness that day. (Did I mention, I really liked everything about Long Harry and his point?) Oh, and the time of the season was right for blueberries. Buckets of them – if you had a mind for it and a pail. I had the mind but not the firkin, so I gorged on fistfuls until my lips turned blue and, when Linda doubled back for a mid-hike kiss, she wondered what I had been up to.
We logged at least four kilometers out and the same four back, but the trail itself wandered off south for many miles and Robert Frost was in my head saying someday we should return and see where it goes.
And so, the morning itself was like a dream, a very good one, and you know what those moments are like that you wish will never end.
I think I had soggy shoes by the time we arrived back to the Mazda for sandwiches. The workmen were eating lunch as well and the hammers had ceased as I put my wet socks on the dashboard to dry in the sun which gave me a powerful déjà vu of doing just this very thing in some previous life…or perhaps on a previous trip on another continent. If you are like me, wet black socks drying beneath a windshield after a near-celestial hike is an image to carry around in your head on dark winter days.
After Long Harry, I have to say, the rest of Bell Island was a bit of a disappointment. We motored down to Wabana and I found it a little depressing. It was a mining town after all and when was the last time you found a mining town cheerful? There was a museum there and a hockey rink and some government buildings and most things were closed including what appeared to be a dinner theatre that, in healthier times, provided entertainment based on the history of mining on Bell Island.
This reminded me of a most famous entertainer who had hailed from Bell Island – the amazing Harry Hibbs. Tourism Bell Island describes that Harry this way: “With his laid- back personality, his salt and pepper hat, his pipe and his button accordion, he became Bell Island’s and Newfoundland’s ambassador across our great nation.” I remember being introduced to Harry Hibbs accordion records in the early seventies while living on Cape Breton Island when a couple of draft dodgers introduced his work to me. For a while there, my absolutely favorite music performers were Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Harry Hibbs. Two Jims and a Harry. Apparently, Harry sold over 8 million records to draft dodgers and music enthusiasts even beyond his “great nation.”
I sipped cold coffee as we drove the western perimeter of Bell Island south to Lance Cove and looped back around to catch the ferry to the mainland – well, not exactly the mainland because Newfoundland is, of course, an island itself, although a bloody big one.
I think I dozed on the ferry ride back to Portugal Cove or just fell into a nice post-hike self-hypnotic trance which always reminds me that you have to do something physical each and every day or you turn into neurotic pear, if you know what I mean. Driving off the lower deck of the ferry MV Flanders, the attendant who waved us on was smiling like Buddha, or at least someone who had just heard a really good joke. I wondered what that was all about other than just another good omen that reminded me that, while the rest of the world was going to a COVID-19 hell, we were out bouncing about on our smallish adventure filling our soggy boots with bog water and filling our minds with happy thoughts and exploits.
And wasn’t it Buddha himself who had said something like, “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise, you will miss most of your life”?
So, with Smiling Buddy’s image still swimming in our heads, it was determined we should next seek out Quidi Vidi Brewery, the birthplace of Dayboil IPA, for some snacks and beer supplies before heading back to our roost above the Trinity Pub.
On the way, we drove past the airport again and through some suburban sprawl that seemed to have been placed there to remind us that Newfoundland was a land of contrast. For here were shopping centres flush with all the imaginable chain stores and restaurants possible, snarled traffic, unhappy pedestrians, and endless pavement. It all made the northern tip of Bell Island seem like a fantasy. I thought we should escape this zone as soon as humanly possible, so I proposed we take a short side trip out to Logy Bay. We had flown in over Logy Bay as we were landing a few days back, and there were some fine-looking mountainous headlands thereabouts. It turned out to be a bit more developed than I remembered it, as the suburbs had demonically creeped seaward to swallow up bogs and fields with cookie-cutter housing.
Many years ago, I had worked for Canada’s Conservation Renewable Energy Branch of the government documenting “alternative energy” and renewable resources in Atlantic Canada. The job had taken me to visit a cutting-edge pioneer of composting toilets who lived in Logy Bay. He was a professor of some sort (Composting maybe?) and he had what was reported to be the largest biological toilet in North America. For those of you unfamiliar with this type of apparatus, it requires no water and sometimes no energy and I know you are thinking – it is just a big outhouse. But not quite.
As I recall, the Logy Bay professor had constructed his new home on the steep hillside looking out to sea with the whole first floor beneath the living area as a giant composting chamber for human waste. Apparently, the bigger it was, the better things would compost. It was all a matter of keeping the proper temperature and humidity and, in the end (no pun intended), you would have perfectly harmless compost you could put on your turnip patch. (Well, not my turnip patch.) The idea, of course, was to stop wasting water, use less electricity, and not pollute the environment. At the time, I was impressed enough to go back to Nova Scotia and buy my own commercial biological toilet which was more or less a disaster. But to this day, I still admired the great composter of Logy Bay who had invited me to inspect first-hand the sacred chambers where the famous composting took place.
But now, weary from travelling, I failed to locate the house on the seaside hill and found that the citizens of Logy Bay had succumbed to streetlights, stoplights, sidewalks, and other symbols of modernity. It was just another bedroom community now although the sea still splashed the rocks along the shore enthusiastically as it had for the last several million years. Maybe Quid I Vidi would be more appealing.
And it was. Sort of. Quidi Vidi is a bit hard to find but everyone travelling to St. John’s eventually gets there. It is picturesque – just like in the provincial traveler’s guide – but it feels like it is trying too hard to be what a Newfoundland fishing village should look like. It was fairly empty of tourists thanks to the pandemic. (There is, perhaps, always an upside to global health crises.) The streets are narrow and steep, and we drove to the end of one snaking road where we located what looked like some great hiking trails. So, we made a note that we had to return here to hike the Cuckold’s Cove trail on a future day.
Quidi Vidi Brewery was mostly closed, but they had a small outdoor shop selling caps and t-shirts and we bought a couple of Calm Tom’s and a Dayboil for the apartment. Later that evening, we dined on leftovers in our fridge and returned to Broderick’s for more Newfoundland and Irish music.
To read more about Lesley’s travels in Newfoundland, CLICK HERE