Newfoundland cod’s country

Newfoundland

Newfoundland cod’s country 

  A generation after the collapse of one of the world’s great fisheries, Newfoundland is thriving as the Canadian island has begun to share  its secrets icebergs in summer, breaching humpback whales, and the most charming seaside villages on this side of the Atlantic.
  On a beach draped with seaweed, on Eastern Canada’s Bonavista Peninsula, Duane and Renee Collins are hosting their version of the ‘Screech In’, the rite of passage that welcomes newcomers to Newfoundland. In the rowdy pubs of George Street in the capital, St John’s, CFAs or Come From Aways, the local name for those not lucky enough to be born on ‘the Rock’, as Newfoundland is known are made to down a shot, or three, of a dark rum called Screech and then plant a kiss on the clammy lips of a frozen cod.
  Beside a campfire, Duane pours healthy slugs of Screech into enamel mugs. He has just oared his 16 foot rowing boat over four nautical miles of swelling North Atlantic, all the while teasing his passengers with yarns of close encounters with 40 ton humpback whales. Meanwhile, his wife and business partner, Renee, has laid out a fisherman’s feast salmon steaks, salt cured cod, smoked capelin and pan seared sea trout, to be followed by rectangles of bangbelly, a dense cake made with salt pork, stuffed with tart red partridge berries and slathered with butter cream sauce.
  ‘That’s what Newfoundlanders do,’ says Duane, who runs Hare Bay Adventures with Renee. ‘At the end of the day, we like to have a chat, tell stories, and share some good food. It’s like fishing off the dock, having a boil up on the beach, or rowing in the ocean a quintessential  Newfoundland experience.’
  Then a real life ‘screech!’ rends the air. An osprey, after plucking its own meal from the waves, wings triumphantly inland. The iridescent fish wriggling in its talons is a capelin, the oily bait fish whose ups and downs map the rise, fall and gentle rebirth of rural Newfoundland.
  For 400 years, the cod that feasted on North Atlantic capelin meant survival, and even prosperity, for Newfoundlanders. Small boats, setting out from hundreds of outports small coastal communities,  most unserved by roads couldn’t dent the vast biomass that turned the Grand Banks, the fishing ground on Newfoundland’s continental shelf, into one of the planet’s most reliable sources of protein. By 1968, ruthlessly efficient factory trawlers from Europe and Asia were landing enough cod to stretch head to tailfin three times around the world. Then the catch nose dived, and in 1992 the Canadian government declared a moratorium. Overnight, 30,000 Newfoundlanders were put out of work. One in eight would leave their birthplace, many for high paying jobs in the tar sands of Alberta. Over a quarter of a century later, the cod show no signs ofrecovering. Even the capelin, whose massive migrations lured whales inshore and marked the beginning of summer, have become rarer in the water.
  But Newfoundlanders are nothing if not resourceful. While Renee and Duane joined the exodus to the Canadian mainland, not a day went by that they didn’t pine fortheir old life. Now the couple are back in Hare Bay, leading richly narrated hikes and water adventures that bring visitors up close to the local geology, ecology and culture. Two local fishermen have joined the circle around the campfire. Bryan, whose forearm sports a tattoo of a fisherman spearing a cod  adapted from the logo on the Screech label has taken to catching bigger fish. With his son Alec, he takes visitors offshore to chum for sharks on his 38 foot long liner. At time, they can bring up half a dozen, including porbeagles and 800 pound tiger sharks. It’s strictly catch and release and the season, from July to October, is short, but they make a good living at it.
  ‘The thing about Newfoundland’, says Alec, ‘is that it’s still undeveloped, as far as tourism is concerned all of this vast beautiful country we have. Now we and people like Duane and Renee are starting to tap into it. And people love what they see.
  There’s a lot of Newfoundland to see. Though its population only just surpasses that of New York’s Staten Island, the province, which includes Labrador on the Canadian mainland, is geographically larger  than Germany. Its history is equally impressive. When Sir Humphrey Gilbert arrived in 1583 to claim the ‘Newe Founde Land’ in the name of Queen Elizabeth I, St John’s harbour was already packed with Portuguese, French and Basque fishing vessels. (Archaeological evidence in L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern coast suggests Vikings may have settled here as early as 1000 AD.) Permanent settlers, discouraged by early administrations that viewed Newfoundland foremost as a source of fish and fur, stubbornly made homes forthemselves. Eventually they studded 6,000 miles of coastline with such gloriously named communities as Come by Chance, Dildo and Trepassy, where an estimated 66 distinct dialects were spoken.
  One of the grandest communities was Trinity, north of St John’s on the Bonavista peninsula. Settled by Dorsetmen who made fortunes building ships forthe cod fishery, Trinity claims to be the site of North  America’s first court case, its first fire engine and its first smallpox inoculations. When Tineke Gow came here, Trinity’s year round population had fallen from a peak of 2,000 to 300. Handsome homes, some brought stone by stone from England’s West Country, lay scattered over a grassy headland, paint peeling.
  ‘We bought a little place here for $4,000 recalls Gow, whose English stillretains traces of her upbringing in Holland. ‘The locals thought I’d been taken, paying that much for a derelict house She turned the 1840 schoolmaster’s home into Trinity’s first B&B, which had the town’s first queen sized bed An old fishing shed on the bay became the Twine Loft, now a sought after dining destination serving locally sourced seafood with European flair. With her daughter Marieke, Gow now rents out six restored heritage homes to visitors.
  Trinity, following its near death experience, now attracts young people in search of a simplerlife outside the city they staff a coffee roasting house, a cooperage and a community theatre called Rising Tide.
  ‘The tourists are the fish now, says Tineke with a chuckle, as she finishes a plate of maple blueberry chicken in the Twine Loft. Marieke shoots her mother a look, but agrees. ‘Tourism has helped to preserve a lot of culture and heritage that would have disappeared otherwise. Our staff take pride in talking to guests about what life is like here in Trinity where they go snowmobiling in winter, or how their husbands and wives go out fishing.
  But the transformation ofrural Newfoundland was well under way even before the cod disappeared. After April Fool’s Day 1949, when Britain’s oldest colony became Canada’s newest province, the new government encouraged fishing families to resettle from remote  communities served by costly coastal steamers to growth centres reachable by road. By 1974, some 250 fishing villages had been abandoned and, with them, the small, strong worlds Newfoundlanders had proudly created in improbably desolate surroundings.
  ‘My uncle Joe said sailing out of Ireland’s Eye was the hardest thing he’d ever done, says Bruce Miller, a former crab fisherman who moors his 27 foot tour boat, Rugged Beauty, in the village of New Bonaventure. ‘You’re leaving your dead parents in the cemetery. Those communities were self sufficient. You built your own house, and most everybody kept sheep and horses. Miller, who grew up in the outport village of Kerley’s Harbor, now makes a living taking a dozen visitors at a time on tours of the uninhabited islands, where steeples lie in the grass and saltbox cottages are overgrown with  weeds. ‘Modern technology and greed killed the fishery. The cod didn’t stand a chance. God love the tourism industry. It’s the only thing I ever saw grow around here.’
  While offshore oilrigs bring tax revenue to the province, they don’t provide many jobs. Snow crab and northern shrimp, which  have thrived since cod populations slumped, continue to bring in big money for fishermen and packers, but the seasons are measured in weeks,ratherthan months. Tourism is proving to be one of the mostreliable employers in rural Newfoundland, which is good news  forthose young people who find its beauty irresistible.
  Bonnie Stag is one of the returnees. After working in  mines in the Yukon and Ontario, she’s come back to her native Bonavista named by the Venetian explorerJohn Cabot, said to have exclaimed ‘O buona vista!’ (Oh happy sight) about the view in 1497 where she leads guided tours with her husband, Jordan. She reckons there’s more than enough here to keep visitors coming. On nearby rocks, birdwatchers can get up close to vast colonies of orange beaked puffins schooling their pufflings, or chicks, in the art of cliff diving. The discovery  of 560 million year old fossils, considered the oldest  examples of animals with muscles, is set to make the area a Unesco World Heritage site. Not farfrom where a replica of Cabot’s ship, The Matthew, is moored, a small iceberg can be seen a few dozen yards offshore, just one of the 2,000 or so that wander down from Greenland every spring and summer.
  Bonavista lives up to its name. Impeccably crafted wooden houses crowd coves and inlets, suggesting fishing vessels that have chosen permanent anchorage on a tantalisingly verdant shore. On Church Street, Stag knocks on the door of a wooden two storey shop, and says hello to Peter Burt, president of the Newfoundland Salt Company, who is busy skimming flakes of fleur de sel from a vat of seawater. A former chef at Raymond’s, the St John’s restaurant considered Newfoundland’s surest bet for haute cuisine, Burt and his partner, Robin Crane, gave up the city to pursue a dream they produce an ocean perfumed salt, boiled down from seawater collected from the Arctic current, that has developed a cult following in Canadian kitchens.
  ‘The oddity about Bonavista, marvels Burt, ‘is that  people are moving out here to live, so we’re a growing rural community. The hardest part of being here is finding work. But we’ve created our own work. You can’t go farin Newfoundland without striking.
  on more proof of the native spirit ofresilience and self sufficiency. Nearthe wharf at Port Union, a union built town whose former fish plant is set to become a massive growing operation for cannabis (legalised in Canada last year), a barge is moored; its owner, a former fisherman, transports icebergs inshore to be used in distilling vodka and beer. (In St John’s, the Quidi Vidi brewery uses the 20,000 year old water, frozen before humans started polluting, to make crisp Iceberg Beer, bottled in translucent blue longnecks.)
  Whales, though, can prove more elusive. While 26 species make their home in Newfoundland waters, and superpods of 1,000 or more dolphins and ‘puff pigs’ porpoises take over entire coves in the summer months, spotting marine mammals is hit and miss.
  ‘You should have been here yesterday, says Heather Gordon, the owner of Ida’s Place, a seafront teahouse in the working fishing town of Greenspond that offers a privileged place for spotting cetaceans. ‘The ocean was infested with orcas and humpbacks. They were driving the capelin into the rocks, doing belly flops to stun ’em. Every table was full with people watching. I was so busy Iwas running around like a one armedfiddlerwitha rash.
  It’s at the aptly named Inn at Happy Adventure, though, that Newfoundland delivers a perfect storm of experience. Co owner Chuck Matchim interrupts a dinner of moose burgers and cod tongues fried with scrunchions crisp rinds of pork fat at the inn’s wild-game themed restaurant to say that the wind has died down enough to take a twilight excursion into Bonavista Bay.
  ‘Pull on the life jackets,’ he says. ‘It’s now or never. Half an hourlater, a dorsal fin on a gracefully arched back rears up next to a pontoon of the Zodiac, before plunging beneath the starboard bow. ‘There’s your  whale! Matchim shouts into the wind. ‘A minke, chasing the capelin. We almostran her over Killing the engines, he drifts towards an apparition an iceberg, big as a bungalow. As the setting sun pinks  lichen furred cliffs, the berg’s sheer alabaster walls loom overhead, and it gurgles and lurches as it sheds torrents of fresh meltwaterinto the brine. It’s a sight that calls to mind a joke about the Rock. In heaven, howdo you tellwhich ones are Newfoundlanders They’re the ones who want to go home.

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