Wednesday, 24 August 2011

On being blown to the horizon


We started early, but not so early as to miss a red squirrel picking up and eating a fallen scrap of Alice's chocolate cake. If she was using the standard family recipe which includes a bit of coffee, there was the possibility of the squirrel going hyper on caffeine. This trope has been explored in the movies Hoodwinked and Over the hedge with "hilarious results" to borrow a phrase from old British TV listings.

The wind seemed against us most of the day. Initial and optimistic applications of sunscreen were relatively in vain as bright sunshine gave way to significant cloud cover.

We stopped in Clarenville for lunch as well as some internetting at the tourist information office. The next one in Goobies beside the statue of Morris the moose didn't have wifi. In fact, their computer had a dial up connection. The road out of Clarenville was quite dramatic, almost hacked out of a cliff!

We spent the night at the Tanker Inn which is a blue collar motel in Arnold's Cove. It was built in the early seventies to serve the workers at nearby Come-By-Chance whose refinery has a nicer name than history. In 2009, it was bought by Korean state oil company. At supper, there were two East Asian men at a table near us along with a group of Westerners. My theory is that the Asian men were Koreans from the head office.

The next day saw fog turn quickly to rain and what might have been an interesting crossing of the isthmus to the Avalon Peninsula turn into a wet slog. There were some sightings of dramatic barren landscapes in the fog, but nothing to lift our spirits. At Whitbourne, we stopped at the tourist information office to figure out where we would spend the night. After some discussion, Margo suggested that we call it day and hole up in the nearest motel or similar. Chris and I heartily agreed to this suggestion. Unfortunately, the nearest accommodation proved to be in Broad Cove, 10 km or so off the TCH, between South Dildo and Dildo, towns so rude that their names can't be used in certain Southern States. ;-)

The next morning, we got up late in order to get to a nearby whaling and sealing museum. It was poorly labelled, badly organised and glossed over the fact that whaling in the area had been a short-lived boondoggle. It did have an interesting photo of a two-headed Minke whale foetus that had been cut out of its mother. The museum also spared us the worst of an intense downpour. The day passed fairly drearily until mid-afternoon when a young woman on a lightly laden touring bike passed me out of the fog on a hill. A little later, I came up to here at the turn off the TCH we intended to take. We chatted for a bit as I waited for Margo and Chris and she for her dad. She and her dad had set out from Victoria some nine weeks earlier, after some pleasantries we parted company, they straight to St. John's and we to Witless Bay.

The fog began to lift as we proceeded along route 13, with a stiff tailwind. The landscape was very windswept with few and stunted trees. There also sign saying you should stay off of the road in bad weather. We whizzed along the road.

The Atlantic seemed to lurk just beyond the curve of the Earth, beckoning me, the horizon having been brought. I had the feeling of being blown to the end of the road.

Near the sea we turned South to our efficiency unit where our hostess spoiled us with raisin buns and banana bread. I got to use the phrase "my cup runneth over" in conversation.

The next morning we rode to Bay Bulls, site of an ignominious RCMP operation, but more importantly, the embarkation point for a boat tour to the nearby Witless Bay Ecological reserve, where we could see puffins. I had selected the Gatheralls company for our tour as it used a catamaran boat that was likely to be the most stable for Chris. Puffins are iconic birds but I had never seen one in the feather before, as the little buggers like life out to sea. Hence, it was great fun to go on this trip especially as the guide kept a lively patter, full of bad jokes. "You will also be seeing some common murres, known as guillemots in Britain. Here in Newfoundland, we also call them good with gravy."

The puffins don't have an easy time near land as seagulls lurk near their breeding colonies ready to mug the poor puffin parents as they come into land with food for their chicks. In additions, the gulls will snatch up any chick venturing out of its burrow. Indeed, it is not unknown for the largest gulls to eat adult puffins!

After lunch, we climbed out of Bay Bulls onto relatively level upland with a strong tailwind that made biking very nice. I would use the adjective "pornographic" except that making love isn't pornographic. It was that good. It was easy to maintain speeds over 30, and not hard to break 40 along the flat, well paved surface. All to0 soon we ran out of road as we came into the outskirts of St. John's.

We hung a right to go through Petty Harbour on our way to Cape Spear. I am afraid we didn't do justice to the beautiful village and surrounding area. There was a lovely twisty downhill in a narrow ravine down to Petty Harbour.

There were several tough hills before we got the Eastern-most point which were all the harder as we knew we would have to face them going the other way back to St. John's! Mind you, we also got some damn good downhills in one of which I hit 70.8! That is faster than I had gone before in Newfoundland.

We posed for photographs and Margo waved at Finisterre. I hadn't known that there had been a gun battery there during WWII. It was somewhat ironic that on my first bike trip that I had visited Fort Casey in Washington State. The guns in that battery had intended for use against the British, but these guns were used by the British. The irony comes from the fact the guns at Cape Spear had been lent by the Americans and were of the same type and vintage as the ones in at Fort Casey! It is not impossible that the guns had seen service in both places!

While gazing at the broad Atlantic, a large helicopter belonging to Cougar Helicopters circled and hovered over an oil rig support vessel before lowering a man on cable to the vessel.

We hauled our weary selves over a last hill where St. John's lay wrapped around it's harbour. After an illegally fast descent, we found our hostel. M&C installed themselves in their double room while I chose a bed in a four bed dorm room. There was a big man in the furthest bed. From the widespread belongings, I got the idea he had been there a while. Among his gear was an electric guitar and a laptop from sometimes came third rate recordings of his music. Or possibly recordings of his third rate playing. He left with his guitar in the evening, presumably to busk.

A Brit joined me in my dorm. He was on his way to Labrador and confirmed my suspicion that Mike, the big guy had been there awhile. M, C and I found some very traditional Newfoundland cooking at a nearby restaurant. I had fish and brewis, cod tongues and figgy duff, washed down with some Qidi Vidi 1892.

Unfortunately, I didn't get much sleep that night as Mike snored something fierce. To say his snores were loud would lose the opportunity to use similes along the lines of "he snorted like a congested sperm whale." Around 2 AM, the Brit left with his sleeping bag to sleep in the kitchen. I followed suit.

The next morning C insisted that we back to the same restaurant as it had baked beans. Apparently, he and M are at opposite ends of the baked beans appreciation spectrum. As M runs the kitchen, he doesn't get them often! I had toutons.

After searching for rare and elusive bike boxes, we returned to the hostel where I complained about the company in my dorm: not only Mike and his snores but also a mouse that I saw rummaging in my luggage. The staff kindly moved me to another room, closer to that of M&C.

That afternoon I visited the Railway Coastal Museum. I was rather amused to find out that the "Newfie Bullet" had been so named by American GI's precisely at the time the railway had been at its most useful. With my historian’s eye, I could see the various gaps in the displays' narrative where embarrassing bits had been left out. My take is that Newfoundland's railway shouldn't have gone beyond Corner Brook, which in turn should have been the Gulf Terminus. I didn't see a whole lot of economic activity past or present between Port-Aux-Basques and Corner Brook. That is a lot of needless track mileage and therefore expenditure. This debt meant that the railway was both under-capitalised and probably drained away money from other potential ventures in Newfoundland that might have meant more business for the railway. Another issue for the railway is likely the poor education of Newfoundlanders which meant that its employees probably weren't as good on average as they were elsewhere. The low funding and low education probably led to a cycle of make-and-break and make-do that made the Railway increasingly dysfunctional. There was probably serious political interference as well as one of the reasons for the failure of Newfoundland as a dominion was excessive and corrupt public spending.

When I got back to the hostel, I took apart Leonardo and then joined Margo and Chris for a walk up Signal Hill. We passed some statues of the provincial dog breeds (i.e. Newfoundland dogs and Labrador retrievers). At the top of the hill, I was intrigued by one of the displays which had picture of the first shipload of American GI's arriving on January 29, 1941. Read that date again. Nearly a year before Pearl Harbor. Neutrality, mein arse!

There was a man walking his Newfoundland dog at the top. Schooner the dog attracted many photographers and was quite prepared to pose for them!

We returned to town via a cliff-side path that didn't do much for my acrophobia. Along the way, we had a discussion about the origins of the brightly coloured paint schemes used on the houses in St. John's. I put forward my opinion that the colours are probably a fairly recent phenomenon as until relatively recently bright pigments were relatively expensive. As well, given the relative poverty of Newfoundland, paint was probably something of a luxury for many households.

We tried to find a restaurant that had been recommended to Chris and Margo by a cyclist from Seattle who had befriended us in the hopes of finding a bike box. Unfortunately, either the instructions or Chris' memory of them were inadequate so we ended up at the India Gate restaurant for a fine meal.

The next morning, we went to a record store to buy some Newfoundland music. On the way back, someone stopped me to ask about the shoulder strap fittings I had added to my MEC bike pannier. He owned some and thought it was a great idea! I feel vindicated: my idea has gone viral. Possibly.

Anyway, later that day I caught my flight back to Montreal and here I am.

Since then I have had the following thought. How does one explain the Newfoundland sense of humour testified by the relatively large number of Newfoundland comedians (Rick Mercer, Mary Walsh, Greg Malone, Andy Jones and the guy from the tour boat company in Terra Nova Park to name a few). Here is my theory: given that the island has a harsh climate, a tough surrounding sea and a relatively inhospitable geography, you would need to be able to laugh or you would either go insane or leave. Natural and social selection means that current Newfoundlanders have evolved a very good sense of humour.

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