Newfoundland/Labrador Day 19: Got Cod?
Today, my last full day in Twillingate (until I come back for another visit), was another good day. Not kayaking-in-the -icebergs-and-hearing-wonderful-local-music great, but it was a very good day.
The day was cool–about 60 degrees–with a little rain from time to time and wind all the time–30 mph with gusts to 40. Certainly not the good weather I’ve had for about 85% of this trip, but not so bad that I couldn’t get out and go places.
There was one more museum I wanted to see, and if time permitted I wanted to get in a hike along the cliffs and the beach at the northern end of the island. So, trying to dodge the intermittent showers, I took off for a short ride to find the “Prime Berth” museum.
Located at the southern end of the island just before crossing the causeway back to the mainland, the “Prime Berth” museum is the brain-child and labor of love of a local fisherman named Dave who wanted to preserve what is clearly a disappearing (disappeared?) way of life. Dave was off on a family errand returning two grandchildren to their St. John’s home, but I met a friend of his–Bill–who took me on a personal tour of the museum and explained things even the best museums tend to miss. Bill has lived all of his 66 years on Twillingate Island except for a brief time away at university where he studied to be a teacher. But, like nearly everyone else of his generation on this small island on the edge of the large Labrador Sea, he had had his hand in the cod industry before electricity, flash freezing, and factory boats helped to destroy cod fishing by overfishing from the 1960s to the 1990s when the practice was ended by government decree.
To my delight, Bill proved more than willing to talk about his childhood and the life of cod-fishing families who braved the dangers of the deep blue sea and tried to survive the rapacious practices of fish merchants who sold them supplies and bought their fish on terms that kept most of the families broke most of the time. The practice reminded me of share cropping in the south.
Dave’s museum, a collection of seven buildings, thousands of artifacts and dozens of cleverly informative displays, is his way of trying to show the process that all cod-fishing families went through day after day, month after month, year after year. Bill talked me through the exhibits (in his distinctive Newfie patois) which showed various ways of catching cod, from baitless jigging (essentially snagging fish as they swam) to the great cod traps that catch thousands of fish in one haul.
Once caught, the fish were taken to the family’s dock and “stage” where nearly everyone in the family had a hand in heading, gutting, splitting, and salting. And it was done every day weather permitted for about a month. Then they took the salted fish and laid them on wood platforms known as “flakes” to dry. But the drying fish couldn’t get wet or too hot, so the cod would be moved almost every day into another building known as the “store” only to be returned to the flake the next day to dry when the weather was better. At the end of the season, they would load all their salted, dried fish into barrels and take them to the fish merchant who did his best to pay as little as possible for the family’s four to five months of work.
I relate all this because (1) Bill took the time to tell me and (2) as a tribute to Dave who still fishes for a living (crab not cod) but probably spends an equal amount of time preserving and telling the story of his childhood and the daily lives of a dozen generations of Newfoundland cod fishermen. The buildings on the property had belonged to Dave’s father, but they were on an isolated island with no road access. So Dave, with a little help from his friends, floated the buildings for about 20 miles from their original location to his current home on Twillingate Island and started the museum. Some museums are subsidized by state or local governments; Dave’s is subsidized by him.
I don’t expect everyone to hurry to Newfoundland to see Dave’s museum. But when you’re travelling, stop in at some local museums, find a “Bill” or a “Dave” and learn some important lessons that you won’t find in history books or classrooms (even mine).
Other than kayaking yesterday, I had spent most of my Twillingate time in museums and at various entertainments and didn’t want to miss hiking along the rugged coastline. So this afternoon, I headed to the northern tip of the island where some trails had been laid out beginning at the top of the cliffs, winding their way through scrub trees on the gray, rocky soil and down to the rocky beaches (no Florida sand here). Once again, the sights along the precipitous cliffs–especially the icebergs–were awe inspiring and the exercise was good for body and soul. As I strolled down the cliffs and huffed-and-puffed my way back up again several times, I knew I wanted to come back here again.
Twillingate is not touristy like St. Augustine is touristy. Far from it. It’s still a working village in a challenging climate trying to diversify via the tourist industry. But it has a comfortable, don’t-lock-your-doors-at-night feeling to it. Relaxing to the body and refreshing to the soul. The people are friendly, the scenery is beautiful; what’s not to like.
Tomorrow, on to the Avalon area of Newfoundland, which includes the city of St. John’s, more historic sites, the eastern-most point in North America and hopefully a whale and a moose (not at the same time of course).
Think peaceful thoughts and I’ll do the same.