Chapter 7. Labrador
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2000 All rights reserved.
(Shari) Some days have way too many things happening. Today I just do not know where to begin. On our 90-min. ferry trip over to Labrador this morning (cost CN $73 round trip including car) Jean and I promise not to be pessimistic. She thinks she will be worn out by 3 PM just trying so hard. It is foggy, cold and drizzly and our tour book has only 17 good reasons to visit the Labrador Straits. With only 50 miles of paved highway, we figure we will be done by noon and will still have 24 hours to spare. After disembarking from the ferry, we stop at the Gateway to the Straits visitor center, "for complete visitor information." It is closed and we are greeted with more drizzle, fog and now black flies. Jean says, "It could be raining and windy." At Overfall Brook, the black flies are so bad, we do not even get out of the car and we read a book while Bert tries to identify yet another species of gull. At the Labrador Straits Museum, Bert and Don walk around outside while Jean and I read about the women of Labrador and look at artifacts previously housed in attics around the area and donated to the museum. The CN $1.50 fee was too much to pay for this museum. We "ponder the mystery of the L'Anse Amour burial mound" as we look at a hill of grass on top of some sand. Next, we cannot find the wreckage of the British warship HMS Raleigh. Here it is not even noon and we are already on number 8 of 17. The Point Amour Lighthouse is pretty but after our previous experience, we are too cheap to part with the CN $2 fee to climb its steps and visit its rooms. We do find a wonderful gift store on the premises, however, and part with some money there. Things are looking up. The sun is peeking out from the clouds. We pass Lighthouse Cove Bed and Breakfast in L'Anse Amour and decide to take them up on their offer "to experience a traditional way of life in the Labrador Straits, to experience small town hospitality - town of 8 residents, all named Davis - and to relax and to enjoy the peace and tranquility of an evening sunset on the beautiful sandy beach." Also mentioned, in their brochure, is traditional Labrador cooking at its best: homemade and plenty of it. Inquiring about availability and pricing we are told the rooms are CN $40, including continental breakfast, for two people and the meal is CN $13 each. After previewing the clean large rooms with king-sized beds, we book it for the evening. By now we are starved and eat our picnic lunch overlooking the cove of wolves, L'Anse au Loup. Here we spot a whale and follow it in the car until the road runs out. I love having Don along on these outings because he can strike up a conversation with a stick. He finds a really old gentleman to talk with and although we understand only a tenth of the words he says, we gather he used to be a fisherman, his son is the one drying the capelin on the wire screen boxes and the weather is nice. Another man, the town maintenance person, is putting up street signs for the summer that were removed in the winter (useless in 24 feet of snow). Here it is July 4, the snow maybe melted a good two months ago and he is just now putting up the signs. Not being in any big hurry to finish his signs today, he and Don talk city water stuff and Bert is still chasing the whale, now on foot. We stop at the "state of the art" fish processing plant and decide to come back tomorrow for fresh scallops and shrimp to take back with us on the ferry. Because of the black flies, we skip all the hikes included in our list of 17 and by 3:30 we reach the end of the road, Red Bay. Here we spend some time at the museum which depicts the story of 16th century Basque whaling, marvel at an iceberg in the picturesque cove, and peruse all the gift shops in town (four). Realizing it is already past 5:30 we make a beeline for our B&B because we are to have dinner there tonight. Jean and I started the day pessimistic, but it has turned out wonderful. And, the best part by far is yet to come. Our time with Rita and Cecil Davis, our hosts, and his visiting sister Mable and her husband Norval, makes all the dreary skies and biting bugs worth it and is travel at its best. I am sure Bert will relate all we learned from these four wonderful folks while eating delicious Atlantic Salmon, turbot, rhubarb chutney, coleslaw, pasta salad, scalloped potatoes, and bakeapple shortcake with ice cream and tea. We talk during dinner and later into the evening. Sitting in their comfortable living room with the big picture window overlooking L'Anse Amour cove, we too are now part of their unique history.
(Bert) Today is a day of a thousand Kodak moments. Aboard the MVS Apollo, a fulmar floats in frustrating fog too thick for other pelagic sightings during our 90-min. transit to Labrador. Reaching the opposite shore in Blanc Sablon, Quebec, first-winter Black-legged Kittiwakes scissor in and out of the fog. The first sight of land is dimly viewed, but a strip of last winter's snow shows brightly through the gray soup. Fog and light rain continue as we stop for a photo op at the sign welcoming us to Labrador Straits, just a couple miles from the dock. Within the next couple miles the skies begin to break up and the drizzle abates. At Forteau Bay I scan the beach with binoculars. For the last month, I've looked at every gull in every flock, hoping to find an Iceland Gull. Now I think my perseverance is rewarded with the sight of two very white gulls. I double check my old field guide and confirm field marks for second-year Iceland Gulls, except for one disturbing feature - the two white gulls are about the same size as the Great Black-backed Gulls nearby. (Later, using another field guide, I deduce the two gulls were first-year Glaucous Gulls, a new bird for the year, but not a lifer). Our stop at Point Amour gives us a close-up view of the tallest lighthouse in North Atlantic America. Near its base and the adjacent cliff I count ten Woodchucks that give us a good view, but quickly duck into their burrows whenever we point a camera at them. At L'Anse au Loup, Shari shouts, "Whale," and we pile out of the car to watch an enormous Fin-backed Whale feed on capelin very close to shore. Before we exit the little village, we get into conversations with many of its residents: the man replacing the street signs (they take them down for the winter); the man driving the forklift at the seafood processing plant (scallop quotas have been reduced from 2000 lb. to 800 lb.); the man leaning on a shovel (about whales, even though he can't tell me the differences between the various species swimming in the local bay); the elderly gentleman dressed in a coat and tie (explaining how capelin we see drying on large horizontal screens are prepared and that most people eat them head, tail, guts and all); the lady talking to the sign man (directions to the fabric shop). We witness first hand that Labradoreans are very friendly people who love to talk to visitors. We continue our tour along all of the existing 50 miles of Labrador road. Except for the few small fishing villages, the land we see is uninhabited. In fact, the whole population of Labrador is only about 30,000 people, although most people we talk to aren't really sure how many live here. Landscape is breathtaking, but short. Trees and plants are stunted from wind and cold; mountains are worn down by glaciers; seashores are pulverized to miles of sandy beaches. By late afternoon we reach the terminus at Red Bay, clearly named for the color of its surroundings: red granite stains the hills, the gravel roadsides and the sandy shores. In the bay I see a tightly spaced flotilla of fifteen Harbor Seals swim humpbacked along the surface. Although well protected from the sea, this bay nonetheless is the resting ground of many wrecks, including the most famous one, a 16th century Bosque whaling ship found completely preserved, if smashed, and buried in the bottom of the bay. Recently, archeologists measured and placed every board and artifact in order to recreate an identical image of the ship. At the museum we are able to get a clear view of the life and times of the Bosque whalers that crossed the Atlantic annually in the 1550s to exploit the bountiful whales along the Labrador coast. They say the whale oil from Labrador lit the lamps of all of Europe, until the war between England and Spain reassigned the whaling ships to work in the Spanish Armada. At Red Bay we have reached the northernmost point of our Newfoundland adventure, so in a sense, everything is heading home from now on. On our return this late afternoon, we travel on a high road overlooking the Pinware River as it empties into the Labrador Sea in a fan-shaped delta. From our lofty perch, we can see a pair of Minke whales frolic along the shore, even though they must be over a mile away. Through binoculars I can even see their white underbellies turned aqua blue through the clear water. By 6:30 we arrive at our B&B for the evening. Before, during and after a fabulous dinner of Atlantic Salmon and turbot, our hosts, Cecil and Rita Davis, entertain us with stories of Labrador. Cecil, now retired, was a fisherman - his son is the sixth generation of Labrador fishermen descended from the first Davises who came here from Wales - and I finally get a better understanding of the what happened to the cod. The story of the incredible bounty of Labrador cod spread throughout the world. In the late 70s, while fish were being depleted elsewhere, fishermen from the U.S., Portugal, Japan and many other countries descended on Labrador to fill their nets. At first the Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans had little concern over the increased competition; they thought the fish were unlimited. But the new techniques of dragging the ocean and extracting everything edible, no matter what the size or species, starting having an enormous impact. Cecil says, "Within two or three years we started to notice fewer cod." The problem became serious, but nothing was done about it until seven years ago when a moratorium was declared and all fishing was limited to strictly enforced quotas. Slowly, now, it seems that some of the fish are increasing again. But not the Atlantic Salmon. Cecil tells us as a resident, his annual catch is limited to only two fish. Yet, scientists have tagged the fingerlings at their stream birthplace and hoped to measure their return to spawn as adults. Shockingly, the adults do not return from the ocean and no one seems to know what happens to them. Without returning adults, the Atlantic Salmon is rapidly headed to extinction. Stories of ship wrecks in the bay, snooping German submarines during World War II, berry picking, Newfie jokes, snow above the rooftops, caribou hunting, snowmobiling cross country to Goose Bay, and on and on and on, fill the night until we finally end this day, over stimulated by a thousand sights, sounds, smells and tastes.
(Bert) I'm glad I piled on all the clothes I brought along, because they keep me warm on my 5:30 AM walk along the coast. L'Anse Amour is tucked inside the turn of a dull point of land sticking into the Strait of Belle Isle. Here, facing Forteau Bay, the 3-house village is protected from the worst weather. Even today, though, 25-mph winds rush from the mountains and push on my back as I walk toward the point. Only a short walk to the end of the point, the strong cold winds are fiercest and the seas present a much more treacherous position in foul weather. In 1922 the British light cruiser, HMS Raleigh, wrecked on this point. On September 26, 1941, during World War II, two British supply vessels ran aground here. They were part of a convoy headed for England when they encountered a German submarine. Parts of these ships and several others are scattered on the bay floor and the beach where I walk: big hunks of twisted iron, stripped of valuable brass. The shoreline is a flattened jigsaw of huge rocks occupied by gulls. I notice a flock of shorebirds the same size as the gulls and, on closer approach, identify Whimbrels. This is a telltale sign. From the subspecies identification as hudsonicus, I can tell that these birds nest along the Hudson Bay in Nunavut (formerly part of Northwest Territories) and winter along the Gulf Coast, including Texas. These birds are the first sign of the fall migration south: July 5, snow still hiding in crevices, temperatures in the 40s. Where did summer go? We spent our past winter in Mexico, hot in the 80s and 90s. I sure am getting confused about how to tell one season from the other. Rounding the point, I stand on the rocky beach below the Point Amour Lighthouse. These rocks are peculiar. The purple mudstone contains fragments of white calcite in the shapes of archeocyathids, an extinct primitive organism related to sponges. I can see cone-shaped fragments, a side view of the archeocyathid, and donut-shaped slices, presenting an end view. Tens of thousands of these animals are eternalized in the cliffs. I turn for my hike back, but rains come before I reach our B&B and the bottoms of my trousers are soaked. Fortunately, I brought a dry pair. In the rain we drive to the seafood plant in L'Anse au Loup. While the ladies are deciding what to buy, I talk to one of the workers. His company has two large factory ships working the coast of Northern Labrador. Costing CN $25 million each, with a crew of 25, these ships are at sea for 40-70 days. They catch shrimp, boil them live and freeze them on board. Shari buys 1 lb. of headed shrimp and several pounds of Iceland Scallops. By the time our ferry departs Labrador Straits the weather has cleared. Although still overcast, I can see for 10-20 miles. So I stay on deck to search for birds and whales. My bird tally finishes at 15 Black-legged Kittiwakes, 22 Common Murres, 7 Northern Gannets, 5 Arctic Terns, 1 Common Tern, 2 Sooty Shearwaters, 2 Ring-billed Gulls, 1 Parasitic Jaeger and an assortment of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. Plus I am treated to a prolonged, if distant, view of a whale crossing the sea. Off the starboard side, the whale is headed away from the ship. I can see it plunge up and down, blowhole puffing, silvered tail fluking, in a continuous push against the sea. I watch the whale for 5-10 minutes before it disappears over the horizon. Back in R-TENT this evening, we turn on the 6 o'clock news just in time to see the news report about L'Anse aux Meadows with the newscaster standing in front of R-TENT and d'Bus, reciting the same line we heard him record on June 28.
(Shari) We did it just right - we picked the best day to tour Labrador. Yesterday turned out to be a great day and already this morning it is windy, cold and rainy. We continue more conversation around the breakfast table enjoying Rita's homemade bread, partridgeberry muffins, and homemade jams. She was up at 5:30 this morning baking for us. She says she just loves having company. We say our good-byes with big hugs and fond memories of a great family. At the fish processing plant we buy scallops at CN $7.95 per pound and shrimp at CN $3.95 per pound. They throw in a free Styrofoam cooler for us to keep the seafood frozen while on the ferry. I just have room in my freezer for what I bought or I would have bought more. At the ferry we squeeze in a pound of Snow Crab claws, too, for CN $7 per pound. If you remember to take 2/3 of all these figures to convert to US dollars, you can see what great bargain seafood is up here. The ferry ride is uneventful; we eat lunch and read but cannot play cards because Bert has to look for you-know-what. Jean and I have a nice talk with the lady in the gift store and later read our books. The weather looks like it wants to clear by the time we reach Newfoundland, but by 3 PM it is pouring rain again. We will stay another night here in the parking lot before heading to Gros Morne National Park in the morning. Yesterday morning I was not very anxious to even go to Labrador and today I think it was one of the highlights of the trip. The sun had a little to do with my change of attitude, but the Davis' hospitality really made the trip.
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