Chapter 7.  Labrador

Day 33 – July 1 – Labrador

(Shari) Having glorious sunshine for our morning ferry to Labrador, most of the group stays out on deck to see whales and birds. Everyone is in a festive mood on this July 1 Canada Day and are excited to be making another vacation within a vacation.

(Bert) The ferry ship Apollo is finishing up unloading vehicles while our four cars form a line at the dock. Soon we board and stand on deck, enjoying a warm cloudless day with skies and sea only slightly different in shades of blue. Pelagic birding in especially good on the Strait of Belle Isle this morning, perhaps contributed by the exceptionally calm seas, a rippled mosaic lacking wind to form parallel waves. We watch single gannets, totaling four, small flocks of Common Murres and a handful of Black-legged Kittiwakes. One of the crew tells us of dolphins on the other side of the ship and we hustle down the stairs, across the lounge, out the other side and up a tier of stairs to get a view of the White-sided Dolphins frolicking past the stern, almost out of sight but for water they toss high above the surface. Next the Northern Fulmars begin to appear and continue in sight throughout most of the rest of the trip. One time a fulmar is accompanied by two Greater Shearwaters. I rush to the other side of the ferry when Nancy uses the radio to announce Orca Whales. I see them disappear on the horizon when I arrive and then watch dozens of fulmars attack the remnants of a dolphin apparently killed by the Orcas.

We have been seeing the hedge of fog bordering the Labrador coast throughout our trip. Fortunately, the fog dissipates as we get closer. Now I can see the village of L’Anse aux Clair and the red roof of the hotel where we will be staying tonight. A flock of seven Common Murres flies low over the water, followed by a darker one. I announce Thick-billed Murre for the dark one. Later when examining my fuzzy photos I can see a white band crossing the bill, so instead it is a Razorbill. The pointed tail also shows up better on the photo than we could see in real life.

We are now passing L’Anse aux Clair, Labrador, and in 15 min. will reach the dock in Blanc-Sablon, Quebec. Someone announces a Humpback Whale and this time I get to the other side of the ship in time to photograph it humping, fluking and submerging just off the port side.

(Shari) Ninety minutes later we are driving our four cars off the ferry, entering Quebec for a few miles before we stop to take pictures in front of the Labrador sign. Jim can talk a hair off of a freckle and this time he not only did that but talked some extremely nice people he met on the ferry out of bake-apples, sea trout and caribou. But to receive that bounty he has to drive to Mary’s Harbor, almost 100 mi. from the ferry dock in Labrador. Marlene, Larry and I go along as passengers. As we travel the coastal route, we notice many people gathered around grills at the local fire station. Picnic tables and balloons adorn the parking lot. We wonder if we can eat lunch there. Marlene gets out to check on lunch possibilities and as she munches on a hamburger, motions for us to come out of the car too. By the time we get up to the grills, all the hamburgers are gone. We do have some Canada Day birthday cake and are invited to have grilled capelin. I notice the tiny fish have not been gutted, and head, guts and tail are on the grill. I am told to eat the whole thing. I take a small bite and notice I am eating the eggs. Yuck! I spit the stuff into my napkin to the amusement of the locals. As we say our goodbyes, we are invited to fireworks and free mussels this evening at 10 PM. We stop at a locally owned bakery for lunch before continuing on our marathon drive, bumping on the ill-maintained road.

(Bert) We disembark and drive to the big blue sign for Labrador, “Welcome to the Big Land”. We take a group photo in front of the sign and under three waving flags. Only one coastal road heads north, with a few spurs to seaside villages, and along the route we are treated to countless views of floating icebergs glistening white and deep blue in calm bays. I try to gauge how massive are the icebergs and finally see a speedboat near one of the smaller icebergs. Later, measuring the photo, the iceberg is 58 times longer than the boat. Some of the larger ones must be at least 10 stories high. Nancy finds the first of many Woodchucks we see in Labrador, the only land mammal we encounter.

At another stop we see shriveled capelin drying in the sun, busily exploited by hundreds of house flies. Doug talks to the old man tending the capelin and finds out he is picking off holes in the fish where flies have deposited eggs. After catching the fish–and without removing head, tail or guts–he soaks them in salty water then lays them out to dry in the sun, removing them each evening and replacing them the next morning until the process is complete. I recall eating these at the Viking Feast in St. Anthony, a chewy food somewhat like the consistency of beef jerky but with a strong fish taste highlighted by excess salt. I liked it; others sufficed with a small taste.

What attracted us to the village was not the drying fish but the flock of gulls next to the fish processing plant. Among them is white gull which after study we deduce is a first year Glaucous Gull. A few miles farther we stop again for a white gull amongst a flock resting in shallow water where a stream meets the sea. I’ve set up my spotting scope and go back to my SUV for my specialty book on gulls when I am interrupted by a young newspaper reporter from St. Anthony. He is looking for a story, sees our U.S. license plates and anxious activity and before I know it I’m talking into his tape recorder microphone telling him about our birding adventures. After I finish, he asks if I can suggest another to interview and I call Pat C. over, since she is always bubbling with enthusiasm and never short of words. I exchange business cards with the reporter and he says he will e-mail me the story he writes. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, back to the white gull, this one has snow white plumage throughout, almost entirely black bill except for a bit of flesh at the base, pink legs (although black when shaded from the sun) and not too much larger than the Ring-billed Gulls standing beside it. For added confirmation that this is a first summer Iceland Gull we take note of the head shape, bill thickness and length when compared to the Glaucous Gulls we’ve seen previously. I climb down the embankment and take photos of it standing in the shallow water and then in flight. It’s the first Iceland Gull seen by others besides myself.

(Shari) When we reach the gravel portion of our trip the road smoothes out and we make the last 50 mi. in 60 min. Jim almost forgets the name of the person he talked with. Wouldn’t that be a crock to make the trip for nothing? But then he remembers the name. He is to ask anyone in town and they will direct us to the correct house, since all 450 people know him. Make that 449, since the first person we ask has no idea who we are talking about. Now, none of the houses have the last name of residents on a plague nailed to the shingles but one. You guessed it; it is the last name of the person we are looking for. Jim goes to the door and low and behold it is the man from the ferry. They too just walked into the door from driving the same route we did. We are graciously invited in and offered a cup of tea. Jim says he came for the bake-apples. One thing leads to another and soon Jim has a Styrofoam ice chest of bake-apples, sea trout and caribou.

(Bert) Next stop is Pinware River where I hope to find a hiking trail. Everyone except me dons mosquito netting hats that surround their heads. When I photograph them crossing the bridge they look like infectious disease investigators or else aliens from another planet. The black flies are overwhelming and my head is attacked by hundreds simultaneously, attempting to get into every orifice and square inch of bare skin. I am relieved when the trail is a quick dead end, as I doubt even I–who am almost immune to insects–do not think I could handle this assault. We decide to continue to Red Bay, the end of the paved road. Brisk winds blow off the sea and into the bay. We visit the Basque whaling museum and learn much about the 16th century whaling expeditions that reached a peak of 50 ships annually, each with a crew of 50-75 men. They pursued bowhead and North Atlantic right whales for the blubber which they rendered into oil for the European markets. Most interesting is the underwater archaeological work at Red Bay that recovered what is believed to be the Basque vessel Saun Juan loaded with 800 to 1000 barrels of oil that sunk in the harbor in 1565.

By now it is 5 PM and time to get back to L’Anse aux Clair. The return trip takes an hour and I wait for Shari until 7 PM before joining the others for dinner at the hotel. I’ll let Shari explain why she is so late.

(Shari) We say our goodbyes, thanking them profusely and make our way to the hotel. The others have had a little bit of a concern for us but not much. Bert thinks we may have had car trouble, but does not think to go out to look for us. We find most of the group in the restaurant eating dinner when we arrive at 7 PM. Marlene and I are famished and I gobble down pieces of Bert’s seafood basket and some rolls before my meal arrives. What a day! I am tired and think I will pass on fireworks tonight.

Day 34 – July 2 – Labrador

(Bert) The flock of hundreds of gulls on the beach at L’Anse Amour is engulfed in a wet mist of fog and the cold breeze from the bay makes me pull my jacket tight around me. Across the dirt road I read the tombstones in a small cemetery, especially the newer ones, for the names of the wonderful couple we stayed with at the nearby B&B nine years ago. Not there. Good. Nearby, though, is a grave of a Maritime Archaic child who died about 7500 years ago. Beneath the pile of stones they found a walrus tusk, harpoon head, paint stones and a bone whistle next to the body. The funeral monument is the earliest in the New World.

By the time we round the point and stand at the wreckage of the H.M.S. Raleigh that ran aground 8 August 1922 the fog has lifted and the morning seems warmer. Flocks of hundreds of birds–eiders, murres, White-winged Scoters–fly from where they spent the night to where they will be feeding during the day. Surf Scoters rest in the sea, out just far enough to make identification difficult. Nearer is a pair of Red-throated Loons and a single Common Loon. A flock of Red-throated Loons flies across the water, then another and another. In total, they number over 75: more than I’ve ever seen in a day, much less 10 min.

We stop to watch six fishermen retrieve capelin from long black nets strung along a series of orange buoys. Using a 3-ft diameter dip net attached to a winch, one man scoops up hundreds of fish at a time and dumps them into the hold. We stop at another site for Fox Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow and Blackpoll Warbler and then return to the hotel for lunch. With still two hours before the ferry leaves, we drive past the dock to explore coastal Quebec beyond Blanc-Sablon. A small flock of Pine Siskins flies between dandelions and a high wire, fighting the sea breeze. Sandy beaches stretch for a mile and were it not for the temperature, although in the 60s now, it invites swimming. An offshore island holds hundreds of murres, standing erect like penguins. Humpback whales cavort nearby. I wish we could stay longer, but we need to get to the ferry dock by 2:30, an hour before departure.

The seas of the Strait of Belle Isle are rougher this afternoon, tossing white caps on 3 to 4-ft. swells. We keep moving to different locations on the ferry, trying to avoid the wind. The fulmars and murres are present again in large numbers and among them I pick out a couple of Greater Shearwaters. Through my binoculars I follow the flight of one of the fulmars and see it passing a much smaller black-and-white alcid floating on the sea. By size, coloring, habitat and geography it must be a Dovekie, although I see no details.

(Shari) We pile into Jim’s car about 9:30 AM and start our day of sightseeing. After a delicious breakfast at a local restaurant, I get Jim to take me to a geocache site. We look but do not find anything before the black flies drive us away. I checked the geocache website and notice no one has found the cache since September of last year so do not feel bad about not finding it. We stop at a gift store before going to the lighthouse at L’anse Amour. Another geocache is hidden here and after May gets us close, Larry finds the plastic container of goodies in a bush.

We are to meet at the ferry dock at 2:30. It looks like all have beaten us to the punch and are already in line. I hurry to buy our tickets and then hurry some more to browse the gift shop and to buy scallops for my freezer. We have had a wonderful time in Labrador but look forward to our own beds tonight. Bill and Ginny await our return and we sit outside enjoying the sun and laughing at the funny things that happened on our trip. I notice Pat C.’s lacy long underwear sticking out an inch beyond her slacks. I go inside to retrieve my camera and as I’m taking a photo the others notice the lace as well. We are giddy in laughter about her fancy long johns. Guess we are having a good time!

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