Heart of the Matter

A 10-day cruise around Newfoundland reveals a rough, soul-stirring beauty-and a few characters too.

It was a perfect October afternoon when Akademik Ioffe anchored off an unoccupied cove called Little Garia Bay on Newfoundland's South Coast. A large day, my father would have called it, warm and virtually cloudless, an endless prairie sky of blue arching past the sea's horizon.

My wife and I, along with 100 other passengers, were on Adventure Canada's circumnavigation of Newfoundland, a 10-day annual undertaking that is equal parts adventure tour, cultural exchange and good-natured goofiness. We started in St. John's and made our way north to Fogo Island, around the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula and south along the West Coast.

At Little Garia Bay we went ashore in Zodiacs-small inflatable boats. There were a handful of cabins across the cove, including one with a satellite dish, but there was no one around that we could see. For miles along the South Coast there wasn't another sign of human presence.

This stop was actually a detour on our expedition. The original plan for today had been a stop in the verdant Codroy Valley on Newfoundland's West Coast. But due to a tragic death in the community, the Ioffe instead steamed around the southwest corner of the island.

We passed Rose Blanche, a community originally named Roche Blanc (White Rock) by French settlers and later anglicized with the typical Newfoundland flair that turned Toulinguet into Twillingate, and shifted the pronunciation of Baie d'Espoir (Bay of Hope) to something closer to Bay Despair. On a bald promontory just west of Rose Blanche we could see the only stone lighthouse still standing in Newfoundland. Beyond that there was nothing but granite cliffs and barrens that stretched endlessly inland.

For years, Holly and I had talked about finding a way to visit Newfoundland's South Coast. Holly has seen most every corner of the province through her job as a wildlife biologist, travelling to some of the most remote communities on the island and as far north as Nachvak Fjord in the Torngat Mountains on the Labrador coast. For my part, I spent a good portion of childhood camping with my family on most every peninsula and coastline of the island. But neither of us had ever managed to et foot on the rugged, almost uninhabited shoreline from Rose Blanche, on the southwest tip, to the Burin Peninsula.

As remote as Newfoundland is, there is hardly an inch of it where you can't track down a bed and a meal and high-speed Internet. But the South Coast is a throwback to another time, at least in terms of travel. There are a handful of communities along this stretch, unlikely fishing villages that have persisted for two or three centuries, despite the odds. Of these, only Burgeo is accessible by road. The remaining settlements along the almost 500 kilometres of coastline can be reached only by sea. There is a ferry that supplies these communities, but it has little in the way of facilities for tourists on board, and the outports themselves have neither hotels nor restaurants.

We had often discussed the possibility of packing a tent and taking the ferry sometime, throwing ourselves on the hospitality of the locals. And then we got wind of Adventure Canada's circumnavigation of Newfoundland.

As with many cruises we had day trips ashore-to remote fishing outports, where we watched the almost-lost art of splitting and salting cod for markets in Europe. We got a hands-on lesson in hooking rugs, we were treated to "times" in community halls that featured traditional Newfoundland music, and a chance to try bottled rabbit and fish cakes and squid.

Themed costume dinners onboard offered prizes for best outfits, there was an optional polar bear dip in the frigid North Atlantic, and late night sing-a-longs in the ship's bar.

The South Coast was the last leg of the trip, and Little Garia Bay was a strange and welcome pocket of quiet in the midst of the expedition's relentless activity. Some passengers sat in their shirtsleeves to enjoy the sun while others hiked into the backcountry. Where we landed the lichen and moss was plush as a feather mattress; alders and dwarf spruce rooted in the fissures of granite rock split by millennia of freezing and thawing. Holly and I made our way up the steep hillside through the thick bramble to the crest where the countryside was bald stone and standing water, the land stripped of topsoil and scraped almost level by retreating glaciers.

Something about the landscape made me want to stay close to Holly, to keep her within arm's reach. Hundreds of erratics-large stones dropped on the landscape as the glaciers moved off-dotted the surface. The only trees in view were in sheltered arms on the south side of bays farther along the coast. There were sightings of ptarmigan, an osprey and a bald eagle, but the hundreds of square kilometres before us gave the impression otherwise of being completely empty. It felt like a glimpse of how the world might have looked a hundred million years ago. Of how it might look a hundred million years on.

We spent three leisurely hours ashore-none of the passengers seemed in a rush to get back to the boat. People gathered quietly in small groups, almost whispering in the day's silence, as if they were wandering inside some massive cathedral.

From Little Garia Bay we steamed overnight to Ramea, a fishing community located among a cluster of small islands just off mainland Newfoundland. The main group of buildings, including school, fire hall, churches and legion, are nestled in a stretch of land surrounded by bald stone outcrops and hills. There's a bank in a shed on the waterfront, open Thursdays and Fridays.

We were greeted on the wharf by the town mascot, waving and welcoming us ashore. The woman in the puffin costume, Joy, was born and raised in Ramea and has lived here almost her entire life. She spent two years in central Newfoundland with her husband in the '80s, but couldn't stand being away. She lives large parts of the year alone in Ramea now while her husband is stationed on the Great Lake ships, and her son works seasonal jobs in Alberta. She cuts grass and shovels snow for local seniors, volunteers on the tourist committee and is an avid online poker player.

The Internet, she tells me, has become a huge part of the lives of many people in Ramea. She maintains friendships with people in the UK and Australia that she met online. Her son carried on a years-long relationship with a woman in Kentucky without ever meeting face to face.

Farther up the dock one of Adventure Canada's staffers-multi-instrumentalist and Newfoundland musicologist Daniel Payne-has taken out his fiddle to join in with a local accordion player. Earlier in the trip Daniel learned he'd been nominated for a national folk music award in recognition of his work col- lecting and preserving traditional Newfoundland music.

"Run through it one more time," he asks the accordion player after a new rendition of a familiar song.

Once we walked up off the dock local volunteers escorted us around the community. Our group was led by Arthur, who was about to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary. "I can't bring you in the house for a cup of tea or anything," he says, "'cause the wife is gone to church."

As a young man he worked on tugboats in Canada and the US before coming home to get married and settle down. He takes us past Clay Hole, the little bay where people dug clay to patch their cast iron stoves years ago, and onto the boardwalk leading to the lighthouse, repainted and refurbished a number of years ago for the intermittent arrival of tourists.

"I got two plastic knees," Arthur tells us. "The second one was put in last May up in Corner Brook. Got to keep moving or the joints will seize up."

Most of the young people work part of the year in Alberta. The fish plant operates a portion of each summer, mostly processing whelks for markets in the US.

Back aboard the Ioffe for lunch, we headed toward Francois,  sailing near the coast, which became more striking and unreal as we went. An aluminum boat passed between us and the shore, a youngster not more than four years old waving from the bow. On a high cliff edge near the harbour entrance was one of the few remaining manned lighthouses in Newfoundland, perched like a sentinel at the entrance to some medieval city.

Tiered on the steep hills at the foot of a magnificent fiord, Francois was first settled in the late 1700s. Fewer than 100 people live there today. The captain anchored outside the entrance and we were ferried through the steep cliffs by Zodiac.

Everyone disembarking was gobsmacked by the towering rock walls that circled the outport. But there was a young fellow on the dock watching us come ashore who rolled his eyes at our wonder. "If I had my way," he said, "I'd have all them hills beat down so we could see something." No more then 20, he was born and raised in Francois, and ready for a change.

"You'll go live away for a while," expedition archeologist and South Coast native Latonia Hartery told him. "And when you come back you'll see what we're talking about."

There are no cars in Francois and no roads, although one paved path was wide enough for ATV traffic. We walked up past the Roman Catholic Church, where a steep boardwalk led to the local cemeteries. Beyond that there was a wide, freshwater pond fed by a waterfall back into the cliffs. From there Holly and I took the path to the lookout built on a hilltop 300 feet above the fiord, yet still far below the highest cliffs. From that height we could look down on the entire community-I counted upwards of 50 houses-and almost all the way to the entrance. 

The Ioffe followed us into the fiord after we landed, and we took the short Zodiac trip back for supper on board just as it was getting dark. A dance and hoolie was planned at the community hall in Francois later in the evening, and for the first time during the voyage a number of passengers opted for an early night instead. It had been a remarkably full 10 days. Still, almost half the expedition ferried back to the dock and found their way to the hall where Newfoundland's Best One Man Band was playing.

It was well after midnight by the time we were back aboard, and the Ioffe underway. Most passengers called it a night and headed for their cabins, but I went above deck where a handful of Adventure Canada staffers stood at the rail as we steamed out the fiord.

They told me that the last two times they left Francois, the ship's bow went underwater in each wave, the spray plowing up over the top decks. But on this night, the air was perfectly still; the sky clear over the cliff tops that loomed above us. Even after we cleared the shelter of the fiord the ocean was as calm as a bathtub, a nearly full moon reflected on the water.

It made me think again of our time in Little Garia Bay, how the implacable wilderness of the place made the intermittent history of settlement on this island seem impossibly fragile and fugitive. And heartbreakingly tenacious.

Late that afternoon we'd returned to the Ioffe for the Hank Williams Memorial Country & Western Dance. Matthew Swann, expedition leader and resident clown, had been plugging this event throughout the trip, reminding us there was cardboard and tinfoil available in the lobby for passengers to make themselves sheriff's stars and, as always, there would be prizes for the best themed costume. It was warm enough that the dance was held outside on the forward deck of the Ioffe.

There were complimentary drinks and ridiculous outfits; lonesome country music played over the sound system. The dancing carried on as the sun dipped into the ocean, the full moon on the opposite side of the ship growing brighter as darkness fell.

Little Garia Bay was starboard, the silence of the South Coast sprawling beyond it. Our unlikely little party was anchored next to that desolate, gorgeous, apocalyptic shoreline.

Michael Crummey is an award-winning poet and novelist living in St. John's.