On Saturday the 13th of September, the Marystown Taxi Service took us to Fortune, about 62 km south on the east side of the Burin Peninsula. From there, we took the ferry Cabestan to St. Pierre, one of a pair of islands in Fortune Bay, belonging to France. Under the Peace of Paris in 1783, France gave up all her possessions in the Canadian Maritimes. However, St. Pierre et Miguelon (SPM) were returned to France along with French historic fishing rights. France retained fishing rights on the Saint Georges Bank and in Newfoundland waters until 1904. Today, SPM is a charming tourist mecca, and still an active fishing port.
Coming ashore and clearing customs, it was obvious that we had left North America. Everything was truly French, not Québécois: the buildings, the schools, the stores, the cars, the police, the smells, and, of course, the food. Like so many island towns its size, many of the street names were missing. Even the maps did not bother to list them all. With some difficulty, we found the Hôtel Jacques Cartier where we had booked a night stay from the visitor center. It was a lovely, cozy place in a modern way: small, efficient, and lacking nothing. The prices for the well-stocked refrigerator and bar were comparable to store prices, without the usurious markup that I would have expected.
We walked to the top of the island and surveyed the port. We wandered the town. French students still learn handwriting and the use of the fountain pen, so I was able to replace my lost Parker fountain pen for only €13 at a local school supply store. It even has an appropriate inscription on the side “J’ecris ma vie” (I write my life). I was also delighted to be able to understand everyone, and to be understood. My French is not as rusty as I thought; it is simply not North American.
On Sunday, we made sure we caught the ferry. It took longer to go through Canadian customs than to make the trip back over the water. The customs official seem determined to repeat all the questions on the import questionnaire to each traveler. When Cheryl got her second question, she said simply, “the answers are all there on the form.” That surprised the official, who waved her through and then sped the remaining passengers through the line. I wish Cheryl had gone first!
Some fellow travelers on their way to St. John’s dropped us off in Marystown. We checked back into the hotel, and used the rest of the day to shop for supplies.
Monday morning, we headed North to Bay L’Argent on the east side of the Burin Peninsula. During the night the wind had turned, so we were battling headwinds on Highway 210 to the turnoff for Highway 212.
We had a fairly pleasant ride for the last 15 km into the large cove where Bay L’Argent, Saint Bernard, and Little Bay East huddle near the top of Fortune Bay.
The eastern cliffs plunged straight into the water around the harbor of Bay L’Argent. A narrow coastal road on the cliffs made its way to the other communities, We rode the single main street that wound around the outcrop of land that protected the town and the harbor from the prevailing westerlies. At the end of the road, I asked a passerby where the ferry pier was. He pointed back to an unmarked quay with yellow curbs. On the way back to town, we passed some teenagers in a shack on a pier, welding on an ATV. Tinkering with the all-terrain vehicles, and zipping around the trails in the mountains was obviously the main entertainment for the young men of the village. It seemed healthier to me that many of the activities that their peers in the city were pursuing.
There was no accommodation in the town, but we noticed that there was RV parking at what passed for the city park. It was an open area next to the road into town. We made camp and settled in to wait for the ferry in the morning. I was surprised by the amount of traffic that drove up and down the isthmus during the night, including the teenagers on their ATVs and the various town residents in pickup trucks and cars.
The next morning, we were ready when M/V Northern Seal came around the head of the harbor. Pleasant suprise: half-price for me, and less than five dollars for Cheryl. The ferry stopped in Rencontre East, which boasted a sign at the pier, “isolated and proud of it!” We debarked and walked through town from one general store to the other. We had just passed St. Stephen’s, their all-grade school, on the way back, when a blast from the ferry alerted us to its pending departure. A sprint over the rough, unpaved road got us to the ship on time.
It was a short passage to Pool’s Cove. By 1230, we were pedaling the steep hill out of Pool’s Cove, making our way across the peninsula to Hermitage, 51 km away. Our plan was to catch the last ferry out of Hermitage for Gaultois, another isolated community. Gaultois had the advantage of having a recommended inn, where we had made reservations for two nights.
We had not expected the hills on the peninsula to be so steep. I fell far behind, and Cheryl also reached her cardiac limit on two of the climbs. When I arrived at 1430, she was on the pier, chatting with Spencer, a hitchhiker that both of us had passed halfway across the peninsula, but who had overtaken us by the time we arrived at the pier. He was a personable young man from British Columbia, so he and Cheryl reminisced about beautiful places that they lived and their reasons for traveling.
It was cold, damp, and windy waiting on the pier, and the three of us were becoming chilled. I remembered passing the Anglican rectory on the last downhill to the port, so I walked back up to the house with the sign and knocked on the door. I knew that I could count on hospitality from a fellow churchman. Father Rupert was working on his sermon that week, but he welcomed all three of us into his living room to keep warm while waiting for the ferry. He served us tea, and we learned that as a priest he served the churches in two of the towns that we would be visiting, in addition to Hermitage.
M/V Terra Nova arrived on time. With much grateful good wishing, we took our leave of Father Rupert and walked down to the pier. We sailed at 1930, so it was dark when we docked in Gaultois. The inn was easy to find, though we had to push our loaded bikes on the dirt tracks and boardwalks that constituted the road system of the town. We spent two nights in Gaultois, because Wednesday was the “lay day” for the ferry we needed to take to Burgeo, and there were no accommodations in Hermitage.
We hiked around Gaultois on our one full day in town. The isolated communities of the south shore share several common features, besides (or because of) the lack of land access. The biggest town has only 100 inhabitants. The Provincial Government has a deliberate policy to drive the inhabitants out of the towns and let their homes fade into the sea. The policy includes a carrot (CAD 256,000 resettlement cash) and a stick (refusal to issue fishing licenses). Most of the working age men and women have left town, mainly for the oil fields in Alberta. The oil companies fly them home every three weeks for a week, so men all over Newfoundland are living a monthly commuter lifestyle. The average age in the isolated communities is above 80. Each town has a single all-grade school with only 7 (McCallum) or two dozen students (Francois and Gaultois). Fishing is the only activity in town, and with the dearth of fishing licenses, the old-timers are constrained to watch Nova Scotians (many of them resettled Newfies themselves) fishing off their towns.
Gaultois, like the other towns, is surrounded by unspoiled land of incredible beauty. I should qualify the word “unspoiled”, because the woods are all secondary growth, the island having been deforested in Colonial times. The woods are set off by barren cliffs and mountaintops. Fresh water lakes and ponds dot the mesas of scrubby trees and bushes. Meanwhile, stunning waterfalls crash into the sea just outside of town.
We hiked the trails outside Gaultois, which included boardwalks over bogs and ponds, and two Anglican cemeteries near the dump, on the road back to town. We walked through the graveyard, and noticed that the men had almost all died at two points: early twenties or past 60 years of age. The young men all died in fishing accidents or were lost at sea. Naturally, there were a fair number of graves of babies of both sexes.
On Thursday, we walked down to the ferry, and rode to Hermitage. From there, M/V Marine Voyager took us to McCallum and Francois. The crew told us to leave the bikes on board, because the ferry would be locked up at the pier all night. Our host met us and walked us to her house. Along the way, she flagged down a youth on an ATV, and had our panniers delivered to her house.
She ran a bed-and-breakfast, but she offered us supper as well, considering that we arrived after dark, when the only store was closed. As a matter of pride, the locals pronounce the town’s name “Fransway” and even have ball caps made up with “Fransway, NL” on them.
The next morning, the ferry sailed to Burgeo. The coast never ceased to amaze and please us with its stunning cliffs and countless coves. No wonder smuggling and piracy enjoyed thriving years in these parts once.
The wind and cold drove us into the passenger lounge after a while. We pored over maps of western Newfoundland, and wondered how long it would take us to cover 155 km across the barrens to the Trans-Canadian Highway, and where we would spend the night. The weather forecast was not looking good, and there were no towns, campgrounds, or parks between Burgeo and the T.C.H. Maybe we could stock up on something to eat at a store in Burgeo and find a sheltered place to camp halfway up Highway 480.
Life is a gamble, and you take the tough times when they come. At least we knew that we would not starve or freeze to death.
Next week: how we got off the island.
Smooth roads and tailwinds, Jonathan