A Yankee Notebook

August 24, 2015


PETTY HARBOUR, NEWFOUNDLAND – I’m not exactly a party animal, but I’ve been to a few shindigs now and then over the years. Some were a lot of fun, others not so much. The one I’m enjoying at the moment ranks up among the all-time stars. It’s late afternoon, we’re done with the day’s fishing, and we’re sitting in a rough oval in old kitchen chairs in Tom Best’s stage on the south side of the harbor. We’re surrounded by stuff – life jackets, foul weather gear, an outboard motor – and from somewhere mysterious has appeared a generous supply of Molson’s and rye. Ted, the retired communications engineer sitting by my right shoulder, has just produced a small bottle of Jameson’s, which confirms that this is the Catholic side of the harbor. There are two guitars, and Pat Chafe, a hilarious retired sea captain, has just unlimbered his squeeze box.

I ask Pat if he knows “The Old Pollina,” and he dives right into it: “But the wind was on the quarter, the engines runnin’ free...” Pollina is the local rendering of the name of a famous whaling ship, Polynya (Russian for “an opening in the ice pack”), that sailed west every year from Scotland to pick up Newfoundland fishermen for the Arctic whale hunt. The fastest ship in the Scottish fleet got here first and got the best men, who apparently were lively librettists, as well.

Petty Harbour got its name from the French, who once ruled these shores. It’s pretty small – petit, you might say, which they did. It’s also funnel-shaped and faces directly east toward the open Atlantic; so an easterly gale could really make a mess of the fishing fleet at its wharves. But a sturdy breakwater with a pretty small opening protects it. A small stream burbles into the head of the harbor, draining several ponds just inland. Upstream, it’s dammed, and with a tributary running down the steep, rocky side of Gull Hill into the powerhouse through a penstock, feeds electricity into the provincial grid. Only six miles from the capital of St. John’s, the town appears to want for little – if you except a tropical climate – and even won the provincial competition one year for “Tidy Town,” a tradition imported from Ireland.

But all is not entirely well here. For hundreds of years, cod-fishing was the basis of the local economy. Fishermen traced their heritage back – and boats, too, in some cases – many generations. But over time the technology for harvesting cod advanced radically, and eventually foreign fleets moved into Canada’s waters. As Stan Rogers, the late Canadian singer/songwriter, laments in one of his songs, “Foreign trawlers go by now with long-seeing eyes. Taking all, where we seldom take any.” The stocks of fish plunged; Canada enacted a 200-mile territorial limit, and in response to cod’s apparent near-extinction, closed the commercial fishery in 1992 in hopes of restoring it.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact this had on not only the outports’ economy, but upon their culture and people, as well. A fisherman who can’t fish is a cowboy without a horse, a farmer without land. Many boats were hauled, and still sit beside their owners’ idle stages on the wharf. The shock was intense. Some, when the fishery is eventually reopened, won’t have survived it.

But Newfoundlanders are – since they’ve pretty much always had to be – resilient, creative, and tough in the face of adversity. I listened recently to a CD of Stan Rogers doing a show in Halifax, Nova Scotia, his adoptive home, and noticed his audience’s loudest cheers – sometimes even in anticipation as they heard the first chords – were for the songs that celebrated the gumption, righteous anger, and determination of the screwed-over little guy. That goes a long way up here.

So the fishermen turned to other resources: snow crab, lobster, haddock, and shrimp. The wharves here, for instance, are piled with cylindrical, mesh crab traps. I asked one fisherman what happens when they lose traps on the bottom: Don’t they keep on trapping, like the infamous ghost nets floating around in the ocean? No, he said, pointing to a little patch of cotton-fiber mesh in the otherwise almost indestructible plastic trap. That little patch rots out after a while, and whatever gets into the trap can get out. And he was quick to say they pick up old nets whenever they find them.

Earlier this afternoon the TV crew and I joined a merry crew of fishermen on Tom and Reg Best’s fishing boat, chugged a little way out of the harbor with a fisheries biologist along, and started jigging for cod. Ted, the friendly supplier of the Jameson’s, handed me a cod line on its small rectangular frame and urged me to try it. It doesn’t seem like a very sophisticated technique, but jigging has its fine points. Leaning against the gunwale to steady myself, I jigged my line up and down and thought, “I’m going to feel this tomorrow – like the first day back on the Nautilus machines at the gym.” There were four of us at the rail, all having a great time, but I couldn’t help noticing Ted’s constant delighted smile. What was up with that, I asked him. Well, he answered, I’m retired, I’m healthy, I’m in the best of company, and I’m catching fish.

Back here in Tom and Reg’s stage, I can’t help but reflect on that, because so am I. Cliff, a very large man with a very loud voice and an in-your-face way of conversing, has just served what he calls seal-flipper pie. Its exotic name and provenance suggest more than what it appears to be: a potroast with a pie crust on top. It’s great duffle, appropriately dampened with Molson’s Canadian lager. Pat Chafe assures us that within half an hour we’ll all be stricken with incredible abdominal cramps and be sick for days; and there are a few comments about how the United States has put the clamps on the seal fishery for humanitarian reasons. Meanwhile, the bonhomie rolls on; but I have my eye on Tom, sitting in a straight-back chair against one wall. He’s just returned from a cancer treatment in Montreal, and watches his old friends with a smile that takes it all in – the songs, the smells, the outport accents – with eyes that seem to be looking back four hundred years.

Photo by Willem lange