It was, for us, a New Found Land although we knew the maps, had seen the pictures and heard regularly of this island that is not-quite-Canada in the news. The rugged beauty of the out ports, the magnificence of Gros Morne National Park, the charming architecture of St. John’s are not exaggerated in the travel brochures.
But like the majority of the planet, you can hardly find a place where the majesty of the created and evolved planet isn’t mitigated by the presence of humans and the things humans make: highways, railroads, cities and towns, docks and ships and salt-box houses clinging to the rocks. For the filming of the CBC mini-series—Random Passage—a cove was found from which no sign of human activity can be seen; such a place is a rarity. What’s unique in Canada about Newfoundland as a province is that every human endeavour there has faced daunting obstacles in the steep, rugged landscape. Quite literally, it means that every structure must cling to the side of a rocky hill, every fish or chunk of coal must be carried uphill and down to reach its market.
And then, there’s the sea from which Newfoundlanders have traditionally earned their daily bread. A map of the shipwrecks around Cape Bonavista is so cluttered with Xs that they overlap each other. Still, the map doesn’t include the dories smashed against the rocks in storms, their planks scattered on the shore, husbands and fathers and brothers drowned.
For men must work and women must weep
For there’s little to earn and many to keep
And the harbour bar be moanin’.
Although written for fishermen off the coasts of Great Britain, the song popularized in Canada by Stan, Nathan and Garnet Rogers summarizes well the agony of out port life on the sea.
All this complicated further, of course, by the hurricanes that roar up from the Caribbean, blow kisses to Boston and Halifax and vent their nearly-spent fury on the Avalon Peninsula. The remnants of Hurricane Marie blew us off Signal Hill but barely raised an eyebrow among native islanders. The winds that powered the ships were, indeed, fickle and truculent friends.
So Newfoundlanders are a hardy, friendly, honest lot like everybody says? I’m not going to add to this generalization: I’m sure that kind folk, happy folk, thieves and liars appear in the same proportion in Newfoundland as in Saskatchewan. Furthermore, visitors (tourists) are catered for and pampered because they have—in fact—replaced cod as the staple in much of Newfoundland and should therefore hesitate to judge the smiles and courtesies of their hosts as indicative. I do know that you can pile your firewood along the roadways in Northern Newfoundland without fear of its being stolen, and front doors are seldom locked except in downtown St. John’s. I also know that the off-the-record chats with hosts at the historical sites were highlights of our trip; most seemed relieved to branch off the official discourse into the friendly, dignified stories of the real Newfoundland, its beauty and its warts. Their Newfoundland.
I took hundreds of photographs, as we tourists tend to do. My favourite is of the young woman who passed by me in St. John’s, walked decisively to the end of a deserted wharf and sat for fifteen minutes gazing pensively out to the harbour mouth. I could say that this photo summarizes the personality of Newfoundland, but for all I know, she was a student from Saskatchewan studying archaeology at Memorial University, as some have done.
Give me a break; I’m just a tourist!