A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1828
August 1, 2016

A PLACE TO RETURN TO

MONTPELIER – There are two main perquisites attached to this television job I managed to get after I retired from contracting some ten years ago. The first is the people I get to meet – folks I never would have known existed if we hadn’t been thrown together by a shooting schedule – and the other is the places we get to go – places I never would have known existed, just like the people, if there hadn’t been a need to go there for a specific reason.

We’ve been to South and Central America, Jamaica, Cuba, the Chihuahuan desert of Mexico, the grassland prairies of Montana and Ontario, Newfoundland, and all over New England. I can’t say I was delighted with all of them. Driving back to our base at night, for example, through drug cartel-riddled Chihuahua was exciting in a dreadful sort of way; but at my age I’ve finally achieved a zen-like attitude that pervades everything from hang gliding to bandidos: I’m either going to die from this, or I’m not. Either way, it’s been a great life.

People often ask, “What’s your favorite place?” That’s unanswerable. It’s like asking, “Do you prefer barbecued ribs or ice cream?” Jamaica is lovely, but it’s impossible to stand on the yellow sand beach amid tracks of sea turtles and saltwater crocodiles without feeling the grinding poverty just over my shoulder, the corruption of the government, and the developers’ bulldozers waiting impatiently to transform another black mangrove swamp into a high-walled tropical resort. Cops shaking down passing tourists’ rental cars in the hinterlands rather took the bloom off Nicaragua’s rose. Don’t even ask about the Sagamore Bridge to Cape Cod on a holiday weekend.

The question to ask is, where would you most like to go back to? If I had to pick such a place, congenial in every way, it would be the Canadian province of Newfoundland, and the most spectacular spot would be(keeping in mind that our crew hasn’t yet made it to the fjords of western Newfoundland), the tiny fishing village of Bay de Verde, almost at the tip of a peninsula of the same name on the far east of the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland. Its population of about 400, when it looks eastward into the Atlantic, has its view of Ireland blocked only by Baccalieu Island, just across the Baccalieu Tickle. It’s clear why the early transatlantic flights of the 1930s traversed that narrowest of gaps between Newfoundland and Ireland.

It’s hard sometimes to figure out why immigrants settle where they do. The Inuit, for instance, probably followed large mammals eastward across Beringia and thence all the way to Baffin Island. And there they stayed. Some migrated south during the so-called Little Ice Age of the 16th and 17th centuries, but most stayed uncomfortably put, even developing a theology to justify their reluctance to venture below tree line, where the “whispering at night” of the trees was thought to be that of evil spirits. It’s not for nothing that the island of Newfoundland is often called “the Rock.” That’s what it is: a gigantic rock, almost the end of the Appalachian chain. The bitter end of the chain pokes above the ocean one last time as the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. An early immigrant farmer from England or Ireland would have looked at what passes for soil and wept.

The sea around Newfoundland, however, swarmed with incredible shoals of codfish. It was said that by lowering a basket weighted with stones anyone could pull up fish all day. The Basques were the first to exploit the resource in the 1500s, harvesting both codfish and whales. The French followed, with the British not far behind, and war right behind that. The first recorded settlers of the Bay de Verde Peninsula arrived in 1662 – probably French, as witness the name. When everything finally sugared off, the Brits were in charge. Fishing has remained the island’s mainstay. In recent years, as almost everyone knows, modern fishing technology reduced the cod stocks to near-non-viability, and the fishery was closed. The fishermen today harvest snow crab, shrimp, scallops, and lobster. Their sons, many of them, work the oil fields of Alberta or the Grand Banks. But the cod appear to be returning, and the grandsons may again be able to make their living on the sea.

Our crew had the immense good fortune to go out jigging for cod during the short recreational season in August. We chugged out to Baccalieu Island, an almost inaccessible, cliff-girt sanctuary, to film the thousands of puffins, gannets, shearwaters, and kittiwakes nesting there. As fast as we could put down our jigs, we pulled up cod, one a 37-pounder. The helmsman cooked up a codfish stew, while Tony Doyle, the captain, cracked snow crab legs and dished out the meat. It was a lovely, lovely day. A right whale enlivened the scene by breaching and blowing beside us.

I forget just how, but after our crew left, Tony and I discovered we were both on Facebook; so now we’re friends. His posts are amazing to me: hundreds of old photographs of Bay de Verde and Baccalieu Island. Old-timers out at sea in open skiffs, long-lining for cod; the lighthouse keepers (three generations of one family) out on lonely Baccalieu; the remains of an islandman’s attempt to build a home on the island and raise a family; the derrick by which supplies were lifted up the cliffs from boats below; and a huge crew of men and boys moving a two-story house by a combination of brute strength, a huge raft, and lots of greasy slush to make the whole thing slide. And over all, the constant, throbbing sea, the cliffs, and the birds.

Like most outports, Bay de Verde can’t accommodate too many overnighters. I did google Jimmy’s Place, a B&B that’s got five-star reviews and Pauline, who’s apparently a terrific cook. Two churches, Anglican and Roman. Few diversions – unless you fancy walking the trails along the cliffs looking for whales, listening to sea birds, and watching the restless ocean. A village nearly surrounded by the sea, where every road leads down to water. Yeah, that’s where I’d go back to.

Photo by Willem lange