Sunday, May 23, 2010

Interlude from Birding

It was on August 28, 1972 that I crossed the US\Canadian Border in Halton, Maine to immigrate to Canada. I knew full-well what I was leaving behind, but I had no idea what lay ahead. I had been fortunate to live and visit many modern cities and countries before coming to Newfoundland. I could only imagine that this province must be like the many other places that I had visited.
Thirty-six hours after crossing into Canada, I drove my shiny new red Mustang MACH I down the steep ramp of the MV William Carson into the community of Port au Basque. For the first few minutes there was the surprise of the breathtaking scenery, houses and buildings of bright colors and architecture that I had never seen before and then the back-end of one 18 wheeler after another. The V8 in my car has been "reved" at top speed all the way from Arkansas, but now it could only crawl up the hills and fly down them with an 18 wheeler hot on my bumper.

After about 30 minutes the traffic opened up on the two-way highway and I was moving along again. Now what? No houses, no filling stations, no signs - where was everybody? There were "Beware of Moose" signs along the way but not much else. I began to seriously wonder about whether I would run out of gas or where I might access a privy. I will never forget how dismayed I was about this.

Well, last week I felt the same sense of edginess about whether I would find gas before my tank ran dry. It brought up the memories and feelings of disbelief that I had known 38 years ago. I decided to take a drive to visit a part of Newfoundland that I had never been before. (I plan to do a lot of this.) This time I chose the Bonavista Peninsula. I had studied the map and tried to incorporate some birding into the outing.  Arnold's Cove was the first stop because it touts a bird sanctuary. Well, not much can be said about the sanctuary as there were only a hand-full of gulls there. Not to worry, it was early in the trip. A drive to Arnold's Cove Harbour was uplifting.  There was a grand mix of old fishing sheds, a fisherman doing what fishermen have done for years and a modern, well-maintained harbour that seemed to speak of prosperity. There was what appeared to be an oil-related vessel and one of those 18-wheelers. The sun cast a particularly beautiful light on the busy scene.

I left perfectly satisfied that I had taken the time to see this. The trip was on! From Clarenville the trip North up highway 230 and 235 was next. Shortly after leaving Clarenville, I began noticing that my gas gauge was falling a bit quicker than I anticipated. I began watching for a gas station.  None was in sight and no signs indicating that there would be one. When I reached Lethbridge, seasoned by my no-gas experience of 1972, I stopped and filled up the car. It was a good thing I did because that was the last station I saw until I circled around the whole peninsula and reached Lethbridge again, some 7 hours later. 
From this point, I began to see scenes of an older, more authentic way of life. Images that I more vividly remember from many years ago. After living in St. John's for a while, it is easy to forget that all of Newfoundland has not evolved into a franchise, modern architecture, convenience-driven society. The drive was quiet, few cars were on the road (no trucks) and the scenery was grand. I began to remember more and more about my first exposure to these images.  Small lumber mills were a common sight. In fact, we cut most of the wood that went into the house we built and had it cut at a mill in Gambo in the '70's.

The new style-homes of Clarenville, the cookie-cut barn-sheds had disappeared and minute-by-minute, I felt like I was travelling back in time. When I reached King's Cove, it was a good-sized community but with no signs. I thought that I had reached Bonavista and thought it was a grand little town. I drove on. Then, out of the blue a large town came into view as I crested a hill. I was stunned. There were no signs announcing its arrival, but there was Bonavista.  What a fitting name because this was a beautiful view. I slowed to drive through the town and drink in all that it had to offer. It was immaculate! The roads were narrow, the homes were of a traditional vintage, everything was freshly painted and bustling with activity. My daughter remarked that it was like an expansive Quidi Vidi and she was right. It was wonderful.

It had a beautiful, picturesque harbour that was breathtaking!  As grand as the harbour was, the traditional style homes and gardens were just as awesome. People still have vegetable gardens, animal enclosures for sheep, ducks, geese and chickens. It looked like there was such joy in living in a natural way.

After having a great look at all that was there, it is important to mention what was not there. There was not one McDonald's, Walmart or Irving Station.  I did see a Home Hardware but the franchise sign was low-keyed and the building was in keeping with the other buildings in the community. Hats off to Bonavista! It looks like, by design, they have chosen not to let big business rule their lives. Grocery stores and other shops (and there were plenty) had local merchant names. There was even a sign for Newfoundland Fashions.  I can't remember ever seeing a community of this size that is free of external big business influences. It looked like the best place in the world to raise a family.

I drove right to the tip of Cape Bonavista to have a look at the Puffin breeding grounds. After a short walk out over the rocks, up popped yet another beautiful view, an understatement. To stand there with the wind, the sun and the rugged rocks in control of all of your senses, it is a moment to remember.

After a very healthy pause, it was onward to Elliston. Of course there were no signs. This is conducive to communication. I had to ask people how to get there. The map was helpful but not as helpful as the people were. When entering Elliston, there is one sign that says "Root Cellar Capital of the World." The sign is erected over a root cellar. Eager to see the over 100 root cellars, I drove around the roads. I didn't see even one. There were two men working in a yard, so I stopped and walked over to find out where to go. I asked, "Where do I go to find the root cellars?" The man answered, "Well, my love, just turn around. There's three there and look over there, there's two. They're everywhere."  He was right. I was looking for some "splash" of signs and hoopla but they were there, all there, just nestled into the landscape. He was very helpful, and we even got to look inside as he suggested. The earliest cellars were apparently built over 200 years ago with the latest ones being built in the 1950's. For more info about these cellars visit:    These cellars were a food-line for people in times before electricity. Today, they are just as practical and functional as they were when they were first built.

What struck me was the humble presentation of the cellars. The residents know the history, the legend and the locations, but it has not become a commercial driver for the area. It's as though the preferred communication about the cellars is through word-of-mouth. How wonderful!

Next stop - Trinity. I had read quite a bit about Trinity and even considered attending a photography workshop there. Nothing prepared me for what I was about to see. Trinity is a time capsule. All buildings are of a traditional motif. I saw THREE cars and trucks traveling on the winding, narrow roads, two men cutting wood and clothes handing on the line. Other than that the community was dead still. It was like a movie set, after hours.

There was a grand old church with a very old graveyard surrounding it. The original church was built in the 1700's followed by another re-built in the 1800's and another re-build in the 1900's. The headstones are weathered, but those that could be read date back to the early 1800's. It is likely that many stones with no print remaining are much older than that.
There was a reverence about these stones, this site and this peninsula that is lasting. Coupled with the total absence of noise of any kind, it was like for a brief moment knowing life on this island in 1700.  What a great way to preserve and show respect for those who suffered such hardship and yet, were so happy in their outport life. It was hard to pull myself away from the moment and the place.

As I drove away from Trinity, I came upon an Aquaculture site. A sign of the times! At first I thought, what a shame to have that in this pristine part of the province. On second thought, I considered that this may well be the way forward to enable outport life to co-exist with the fast-pace, economy-driven world beyond its boundaries. It is most important that people can continue to live, by choice, in areas that are free of contamination of all varieties.
It was a joyful and relaxing day. I can hardly wait until my next trip to another peninsula on this island.

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