How’s August treating you? Is it warm where you are? Here’s a little refreshment, from the very northern tip of Newfoundland.
The Parks Canada recreation of the first North American Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland – complete with iceberg. Click to enlarge.
There’s just time to sneak in another excerpt from my latest book, Out in the Cold: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada before the audiobook version goes live on Audible.com any day now. In this clip, sailors set out a thousand years ago from Greenland in search of what would become Vinland, a tiny settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland, a place called L’Anse aux Meadows today.
It’s me speaking; I narrate the book. I hope you enjoy it.
You can get the written version of Out in the Cold on Amazon, here, and the audiobook versions of my other books here:
And here are several more written and spoken excerpts from Out in the Cold.
Here is an excerpt from Out in the Cold, my recent book about travel to Svalbard, The Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland & Atlantic Canada. If you enjoy it, get yourself a copy here.
THE 1914 NEWFOUNDLAND SEALING DISASTER
A century ago St. John’s was a vital, bustling hub of maritime commerce, Water Street its beating heart. As the closest North American landfall to Europe, a concentration of trans-Atlantic communication cables came ashore here. St. John’s anchored the most bountiful cod fishing grounds in the world. But the sea provided bounty far beyond fish.
Clubbing helpless baby seals may not strike you as the most manly activity, but take a look at Newfoundland’s climate, its isolation, and then at the benefits of swiling, as they called seal hunting on the ice:
• Seal meat is nutrient-rich food in a land where coaxing food from the ground presents a perennial challenge.
• Seal hides make fine boots.
• After flensing (separating the fat), seal fat makes soap, margarine and lipstick, and in the old days powered the lamps that drove away the long winter darkness.
The rest of the seal, the dogs would take care of. Like the Inuit, Newfoundlanders knew how to use every bit of nature’s scant provision.
In late summer ice forms between Canada and Greenland in Baffin Bay, far to the north of the sealing grounds. The Labrador current moves the young ice south and with the coming of winter it grows into ten-foot blocks the aquamarine color of sea water, save for edges made white and jagged by constant grinding against other ice.
Off the Labrador coast, most of the way to Newfoundland, the ice freezes into vast, miles-long sheets that jostle, crack and re-form, and arrive off Newfoundland covered with gravel from scrapes against land. The job of the swiler was to walk across this ice field for miles, searching for seals.
Harp seals follow an ancient migratory cycle between the Arctic and the Grand Banks, a shallow part of the continental shelf off Newfoundland. In early March harp seal mothers climb onto the ice pans, give birth to their pups and abandon them, so that each year hundreds of thousands of newborn seals would lay helpless when the swilers approached.
The swiling ships sailed through the Narrows north into the ice field each March. It was St. John’s biggest event of the year. Swiling became a sort of national sport, with statistics compiled like the number of pelts taken in a season and the career lifetime hauls of “jowlers’,” or successful swiling captains.
No other country’s commercial fleets systematically sailed into ice floes. No other country even had a dedicated sealing fleet. Successful St. John’s captains became swashbuckling national heroes, in demand as pilots for polar excursions.
The swiling trade exploded over the course of the 1800s. From 140 vessels in 1804, by the middle of the century 13,000 men collected half a million pelts in a season lasting only weeks.
It was brutal, brutal business, a coming of age, a test of manhood for country boys from all across The Rock. Men and boys converged on St. John’s, the younger ones exaggerating their age. If selected they would be pelted, pounded and battered by snow, hail and ice; every year some would be crushed in the floes.
Jenny Higgins writes in Perished: The 1914 Newfoundland Seal Hunt Disaster, that “A typical pay would have probably been between $30 and $40, that would have been for about six or seven weeks of very hard physical labour, severe deprivation, little food, and basically putting your life at risk.”
It was for their families’ survival. “It really is a story about men who are putting themselves in harm’s way to put food on the table,” says Higgins.
Here is a bit of weekend reading for you from my new book, Out in the Cold. In this excerpt we visit the easternmost point in North America, closer to Galway, Ireland than to St. Louis. Welcome to St. John’s, in the province of Newfoundland, Canada.
ONLY ONE SUNNY DAY, NO EXCEPTIONS
The crusty, balding stalwarts of the Royal Canadian Legion fill the town from across the country to debate by-laws and elect officers, to show the wife a good time and test out that new hip replacement all in one go. Banners and berets, sashes with ribbons and medals fill the streets, even a marching band with someone still hardy enough to march inside a tuba.
They spill out of George Street, the locally famous concentration of debauchery, restaurants and bars, where touts invite you to get “Screeched In,” a transaction by which they’ll call you an honorary Newfie if you gulp their booze, then kiss a fish.
Traffic stands down in good-natured deference for the old guys. We fall in with two men in berets who have peeled off from their wives for a pint of locally-brewed Iceberg lager down at the Celtic Hearth pub. Men have come not just from across the land, they say, but from Germany and even New Zealand and one man from Australia.
They comport themselves with earned honor. One old soldier gives me a Prince Edward Island lapel pin he has a pocket full of and says it is the friendliest province in Canada. I’d like to believe it, I say, but it would be hard to top the hospitality right here in St. John’s. Just come and give us a try, he says.
These two old war horses must have just come from a remembrance, for, eyes misty and each embellishing the other’s words, they relive for our benefit the bloody battle and desperate fight for survival at Blaumont-Hamel on the first day of the battle of the Somme, its centennial imminent on July 1, when 801 Canadians of the Newfoundland Regiment went in and only 68 came out alive.
Older Newfoundlanders tend toward considering themselves Newfoundlanders first and Canadians second. It was just in 1949 that a referendum bound Newfoundland to Canada, prior to which it had been a British colony after a brief period as an independent British dominion. At the height of the war some 100,000 Americans lived and worked in Newfoundland and many hoped the colony would become part of America.
And then, uh oh, the vets realize how long they’ve been away. Wide eyed, making haste, they flee to find the old ladies.
Fun while it lasts, the warmth and sunshine, but the next afternoon down at a used bookstore called Afterwords, the heater rumbles right here in mid-June and wet coats reinforce the natural musk of old books. Rain overfills the gutters, slaps against the pavement and slings itself at the plate glass.
The proprietor, upturned nose above a popped collar in some Victorian conceit, says he reads from the very poetry book Mirja buys for six dollars, prompting us to ask if he’d rather keep it. No, he’d rather sell it, he mumbles. How riveting could his marble-mouthed readings be?
Heaters chug inside restaurants up and down Duckworth and George Streets. Newfoundland cuisine is cod, cod, cod a hundred ways. Cod baked, battered, broiled and fried, cod en papillote, confit of cod, cod roasted and poached. Lapland does this with its reindeer.
A recent law, a thunderclap of sensible governance, will give cadres of regulatory officials in Ottawa palpitations. Restauranteurs may now buy what food they wish from whomever they want – meaning right off the boat. Your lobster claws may still be twitching.
Then there is fried bologna, “Newfie steak.” The local paper says that if the rest of Canada shared Newfoundlanders’ bologna fervor the country would consume 141.1 million kilograms of the stuff each year.
Poutine, dastardly poutine. “Shed Party,” made from Lamb’s spiced rum, bologna gravy, caramelized onions, pork sausage and green peas. You may plead for poutine as comfort food here in the cold and the fog and the wind, but you may not claim it promotes good health. Still, in a pub on the 13th of June, heater ablaze and rain pounding the roof, you can make a fine case for poutine’s home food attraction.
On the street in St. John’s, Newfoundland
SOME QUALITY TIME IN THE RAIN
“St. Johner” can’t be right. St. Johnsian? St. Johnite? What do you call a St. John’s resident? A Townie, it turns out. It means either native-born, or someone who has come from a Newfoundland village to the main town. In Rock-think, there is no one beyond the island.
Bullets of rain sling themselves into the door of the Ship Pub, away from the determined fun purveyors on George Street, entrance to the side, across the street from the Fog Off clothing store. The storm rumbles outside while we hear about the life of Beth Twillingate, not born a Townie. She started life as a fisherman’s daughter. St. John’s is a big city to her and a fine and comfortable home, she says as she serves up Iceberg beers.
She answers a cell phone on the bar.
“No. No, I’m a bartender. In. St. John’s.
A woman she’d never seen before was in here not twenty minutes ago and left the phone. We wonder if she has just caused a divorce. The chill makes that humor wry, not sardonic.
She plays music from the Halifax band Hillsburn, a song with the refrain, “I killed Billy but Billy wouldn’t die.” On the relative culinary merits of the local wildlife, caribou, says she, is more gamey than moose. And Newfie steak is just fine.
A retired railroadman in a red jacket, a regular named Melvin, recalls the good old days when he worked the stretch of line from Argentia to St. John’s. He remembers the days when the trains would leave Port aux Basques with five locomotives to carry 140 rail cars up the grades in the interior, but now there is no rail line in the province, and toward the end of his working days he helped to pull up the narrow gauge rail he worked all his life. They sold it to Chile for their coal mines.
If you visit St. John’s, chances are it will rain.
Rain pounds the pavement when the door opens. Here is Martin, a philosophy doctoral candidate, who helps us all handicap the prospects of the coming end of Western civilization, beginning with the then-imminent Brexit and followed by the elections of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, and then the collapse of the EU. It sounds just possible.
The whales ought to be here in ten days, two weeks, and they will bring tourist dollars. Things are looking up. Hard to imagine how they couldn’t be after the howling wind and spitting showers of the night before. We won’t be here, but by Saturday they’re looking for nineteen degrees, proper basking weather again. Trouble is, it’s only Tuesday.
If you enjoy this excerpt from Out in the Cold, please go and get yourself a copy of the whole book. Here are a few other excerpty bits:
Quirpon Island, between Newfoundland and Labrador:
Wind rattling the windows, we sit before the locally famous Jiggs dinner: Roast beef and carrots with potatoes, puréed turnips and dressing, each served from ice cream scoops, and gravy from a gravy boat for every two people.
I believe it may be served every night. Learn one thing, learn it well.
The kitchen crew of Marilyn, Mariah and Madonna prepare breakfast, dinner in two seatings, and keep the kettle on for visitors. They serve tonight’s meal, repair to the back and we dine, strangers at the common table.
Stooped and graying Reiner and his wife Ellen from Kitchener. Two German girls, one pregnant. A young woman and her consort, neither terribly fetching, whose names are never revealed because they never say a single word except “hi.” Nor do they make eye contact. Ever.
Showing an easy disfluency with politesse, Darlene, a formidable woman who gives her chair disquiet, regales us with tales of her extensive travels to Myanmar, Sossusvlei and Maccu Pichu. She makes sure we know of her extreme devotion to photography and shares a blow by blow of her fall getting into the boat earlier today.
Rapacious with our little group’s time, she lectures with apodictic certainty on the state of Canadian politics while the table prefers a much more politically vegetarian conversation. Ellen stares at her scoop of turnip.
Sometimes klatches of strangers provoke stimulating conversation, but often there is a Darlene. I’d like to advise her that if one is convinced she is the smartest person in the room, she will find greater mental challenge by changing rooms. Alas, here there is a shortage of rooms.
So I take my own advice and find an early opportunity to track down the boys in the back. Angus and Ed and Brian are downing beers, TV on, sound down. This is a small house, this inn, once the lighthouse keeper’s residence alone, and the boys sit atop one another, furniture and belongings in a jumble, a rumpled, strewn-about place far more lived in than the anodyne common space.
Time worn jokes about needing to get around to some remodeling. You have to close the door to the hallway to open the door to the toilet, which is full of toothbrushes.
These men provide all the brawn on Quirpon Island, the laboring face of Ed’s lighthouse business. Ed, the leader, lanky and craggy with long teeth and a formidable Newfie accent, folds himself into his chair. Brian, the quiet one, is charged with running the ATV up and back across the island, not an inconsiderable task.
Angus, the great outdoorsman, says they dress to be out all day every morning, because they never know quite what chore will have to be gotten up to, and the wind is blistering and he guesses maybe 250 icebergs arrive each year, having sailed the 1,600-odd kilometers fromGreenland (The Titanic’s fateful berg drifted in this same way down the Labrador current from Baffin Bay south of here). And after another day out amid the wet and the wind and the icebergs, Angus is simply and openly baffled why we would ever want to go back to St. John’s.
I want to hear stories, but they are in their home space and I don’t begrudge them their private time.
So: Squeeze down the hallway to the kitchen, gaze at the gale through the window, then look around this tiny kitchen in this modest building. Consider the even more modest one in which we stay. These two buildings, when full, hold 22 max. I must surmise that Marilyn, Mariah and Madonna spend an indoor life constrained. We make the short walk back to the building where we’ve been given a bed.
The clearly not good for you Canadian dish called poutine is French fries in gravy with cheese curds. This particular plate, from a pub in St. John’s, Newfoundland, was strictly in pursuit of research for Out in the Cold, my new book.
This is how it looks in summer on Quirpon Island, off the northern tip of Newfoundland in the Strait of Belle Isle that separates Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The north wind blows icebergs down from Greenland, like the one in the background, in a trip that lasts two years, and that wind will rip right through you.