Barbara here, with a very late and abbreviated version of my Wednesday blog. That’s because I am writing it in a tiny Newfoundland seaside village called Southport, which presents extreme challenges to all things electronic while enticing one outside to explore the extraordinary beauty of nature. Visible through the window of the living room where I am sitting is the little harbour cluttered with fishing boats, the sparkling water of the cove and the soaring cliffs of the points and islands beyond. Southport is at the end of a narrow, twisty road that weaves through the rocky, spruce-covered hills along Trinity Bay. Places to hike, to pick blueberries, to experience the raw power of nature.
Sitting inside, hunched over a recalcitrant computer, just seems wrong.
As if aware of this, cellphones rarely cooperate and the free wireless signal I am picking up from the lady down in the cove fades in and out. I have no idea, in all the miles of spruce and cliffs and ocean, she gets it from anyway.
I am in Newfoundland, along with my sister and three dogs, to research a book on our father’s childhood, and as I sit in the living room here, the island where he was born is visible through the morning mists across the bay. Later today, we will take the twisty little road down the peninsula, along the coast, across the causeway and up the even twistier, narrower road around the island. It’s a distance of about 80 kilometres, which in most places should take an hour but here takes close to twice that. Even if one is tempted to speed around those blind curves, the signs of large menacing moose posted every few miles are an effective deterrent.
I am used to doing much of my research tied to a computer, doing Google searches, hunting down websites, making the occasonal phonecall. But Newfoundland is a place apart, and the information I am seeking is around a hundred years old. In our quest for knowledge, my sister and I have driven into the remote outports where he taught, combed through local archives for names and old photos, walked the old streets of the towns where he lived. But the most exciting research tool is the oldtimer sitting on his porch or fiddling with his truck. Most of them have grown up in the area and have a huge store of inforation about what it was like and where the original old buildings were.
A couple of days ago, we were driving out a barren, windswept spit of land toward a cluster of weathered, salt-stained houses at the end. We were armed with only the smallest bit of a clue – notes from our father, now dead over twenty years, that he had once taught in the one-room schoolhouse in Cat Harbour. Cat Harbour is not on any map, but a bit of investigating revealed that it was now called Lumsden. The lady at the cabin where we’d stayed the night told us she thought there’d been two schools (as there were two Lumsdens, north and south). “One down on the beach there and one up on the hill.”
With no idea which school he might have taught at, we headed down to the beach. Flat, rocky, and pummelled by the merciless North Atlantic, it looked like an unforgiving place to spend a winter. As we eyed the cluster of modest, woodframe houses and sheds, trying to figure out whether any could have been a school at one time, we saw a man on his front porch peering out at the ocean through binoculars. We stopped, rolled down our window and asked if he knew whether there had ever been a school nearby.
What followed was pure serendipity. Not only had there been a school, but it was less than a hundred feet from his house. He invited us inside to show us some old photos and two books about the village, and walked us around the point to show us where the schoolhouse and other buildings had once stood. The old photos clearly showed the village in its heyday, crammed with wharves (called stages), sheds (called stores) and fishing gear. He described daily life as it would have been, including the once-a-ayear visit from the schooner bringing supplies and food staples from St. John’s to all the outports.
Cat Harbour, he told us, was the name given because of all the seals that used to cluster there. Female seals were called cats and male seals dogs. So there was a dog cove and a cat harbour (the females getting the larger, gentler shore). We still weren’t sure whether this was the right school, however, until we happened to find a listing of all the teachers who’d taught in the local school while it existed. There was our father’s name, down in black and white. Official, concrete confirmation of our quest.
We have stopped to ask local villagers all the time, and without exception they are friendly, open and happy to share their unique knowledge. Walking in the footssteps of history, hearing the shriek of gulls and smelling the salty musk of seaweed on the rocks – this feels far more real and vivid than any Googe search could ever be.
So I’ll sign off now, and go outside to look at the fog-shrouded hills. And imagine.