Tales from the end of the world

The Shipping News, E Annie Proulx's fictional Newfoundland tale, painted an affectionate portrait of a tough way of life. Michael Gray was not convinced
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The Independent Travel
Newfoundland was once the cheapest place in North America to fly to from Britain, because it is the nearest. These days though, people readying themselves to face New York look down from their window-seats at the scarred and watery wastes of Newfoundland far below and thank God they're not going there.

I looked down with special qualms - I was going there - but today's cheapo air-travel jetted me all the way on to Toronto, compelling me to back- track nearly 2,000 miles, first by train across Ontario, Quebec and an aberrant outcrop of Maine, USA, then back into Canada across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (a 29-hour ride). Finally I took the overnight ferry across the Cabot Straits. Landing on the south-west corner of Newfoundland, I was now a mere 14-hour bus ride away from the city of St John's.

From New Brunswick onwards, Canada was a vast and primitive terrain. Thousands of lakes, billions of fir-trees, much evidence of beavers building their messy homes. Somewhere between Sackville, New Brunswick, and Springhill Junction, Nova Scotia, there was a dramatic change. The train stopped at a signal and spread itself out on a high, open plain of vast brown fields, with highland cattle staring at us. No more pine trees, at least for a few hours.

From North Sydney, Nova Scotia, the huge ferry sailed overnight for Newfoundland itself. The boat arrived at dawn, at a port that made the set of Robert Altman's Popeye look like Manhattan.

This was Port aux Basques, at the western end of Newfoundland's comparatively small portion of the Trans-Canada Highway: 500-odd miles, negotiated by a bus on which the driver and his mate actually did discuss the past-time of moose-shooting within minutes of our setting off. The road loops up and around through the pines and hills of shale, terminating at the eastern tip of the Island at the capital, St John's.

The ocean dominates the city and the island: an island the size of Britain which is not just largely uninhabited - its central wastelands are called The Barrens - but on much of which no human foot has ever trod. I don't mean simply no modern foot either; the early tribal peoples and the Inuits (we used to call them eskimos) stayed on the coast, never venturing inland. The same went for the Vikings who stumbled onto the north-eastern tip of Newfoundland - "the new world" - centuries before Columbus.

Reminiscent of a very small dilapidated Dublin, the Newfoundland capital is the oldest town in North America, though architecturally it's a curious patchwork, because most things burned down in the great fire of 1892. A few hilly, tumbling streets of the remaining eighteenth- and nineteenth- century wooden town-houses are gentrified and highly desirable. In the lea of the hills, the city's shabby little granite centre, battered and windswept, is all waterside, Irish bars and cheap shops, where, on a 200- yard stretch of the main street, a few semi-derelicts stagger along in gumboots and ask forlornly for money. How do they survive the winter? I asked this question all over the place; no-one would give an answer.

It's a pleasant city to walk around, in clement weather. I found the women flirtatious in the manner of people from out-of-the-way places. Serious encounters are rare, though. St John's is one per cent darting promise and 99 per cent a sort of protestant-work-ethic headquarters. In and around the grubby, cheap department stores groups of defensive, class-conscious workers wear their overalls as a belligerent uniform; the pram-pushing female poor walk past in threadbare clothes, with weary, pasty faces. These people have cousins the world over.

The harbour is surreally close as you stand in the middle of town. Anchored ships nuzzle between the buildings, the jaunty curves of funnels and pipes picked out in bright-painted iron-work, pressed up against the dour stone blocks. Yet it is the space and the openness of the harbour that saves the city from claustrophobia.

St John's is still a city of sailors, fishermen from the outports, immigrants from Ireland, Britons (Newfoundland was still a British colony, not part of Canada at all, less than fifty years ago), refugees from the 1960s and the Vietnam War, and students from the university out on the edge of town.

Despite this cultural hotch-potch, present-day life in Newfoundland still makes sense of stories and songs about whaling and drowning, emigration and wrecks, snowstorms and logging and starvation, lovers divided by cruel oceans and reunited by God's grace.

Something of that world still applies - even to the young and university- going inhabitants. The city's many Irish lounges, neo-British pubs and live-music venues have thriving folk-club nights not because everything is "behind the times" (though it is) but because even educated young trendies think it makes sense here to explore and enjoy what their "folk culture" offers. It still touches their lives.

There is live music in most of the bars at weekends. One October night in my favourite bar (The Ship Inn, on Duckworth Street) I spoke to a woman of 25 who told me she was soon "heading back home". Where? Goose Bay in Labrador, a thousand-kilometre ferry-ride away on a boat that in winter sometimes has to ice-break to get through (OK, I admit it, she could have flown instead).

Not everyone is so in touch with the splendidly elemental. My host was a local politician who once lived in London as a lefty arts graduate; now he's the lone frontiersman with a macho world-view stylised into huntin'-fishin'-shootin' brusqueness. His son though could have been any Mid-west American teenager: proud to be loudmouthed and ignorant, living in the audio-visual hell of heavy-metal music.

Most native food specialities are, of course, fishy. Cod's tongues are much enjoyed (and what surprisingly large, fleshy tongues they are too). Newfoundlanders have a tradition of a late-late meal, a second supper, begun around 11pm: say, smoked caplin, tomatoes, cheese and jam. They also make awful salads, including a particularly dreadful one called jelly salad.

When the weather falters, the locals buy logs (by the "cord") to get the basement boiler through the winter. Delivered to the front lawn as a lorry-load of long thin poles, people set up their electric saws to cut them into two foot lengths, and then carry them by wheelbarrow and stack them in the basement. It takes two people three days. Before you can use them, you spend another day cleaning out the boiler chimney, de-tarring it so that it won't explode on you later.

In winter, the snow comes suddenly, 10 inches in an hour - and within another hour the fleets of special vehicles are out reclaiming the roads for traffic, commerce and normality. Coming from a country where an inch of the stuff can knock out road and rail transport for days on end, I was exultant at this display of how to conquer snow and ice decisively and fast. Everyone headed for Pippy Park, which looked like a 1950s Perry Como Christmas Show come to life: all orderly pines and wide, smooth white walkways full of people cross-country skiing in brightly-coloured designer arctic-wear.

I finally flew out of Newfoundland just before Christmas. Dirty snow was packed high against the road-sides as the station-wagon drove through the pre-dawn darkness, out to the little frozen airfield. Mild, green England beckoned from across the north Atlantic.

FACT FILE

Getting There

Air Canada offers daily direct flights to St John's (some via Halifax, Nova Scotia) from Heathrow, pounds 700; tel: 0990 247226. To take Michael Gray's route: get a cheap flight to Toronto, the train via Montreal to North Sydney, Nova Scotia, the ferry to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland and the bus to St John's. Air India Heathrow-Toronto is offered by Flightbookers at pounds 250-pounds 415; tel: 0171 757 2000. Charter flights to Toronto start at pounds 199 (from Glasgow, 13 June) rising to pounds 349 plus tax (from Gatwick, 2nd half July and August). Trailfinders: 0171 937 5400.

Staying there

St John's has any number of small hotels and guest-houses, including the antique-furnished Fort William B&B (3 rooms, pounds 45-pounds 80, tel: 001 709 726 2161, fax: 001 709 739-0990) and the ex-PM's house Monroe House B&B (6 rooms, pounds 74-pounds 89, tel: 001 709 754 0610). Canadian Tourism Commission, tel: 0891 715 000.

Things To Do

Anywhere you stay can arrange any of these activities; whale-watching, iceberg viewing, biking, birdwatching, fishing, car-hire. Enquire when booking.

IN ANY other country the wild, weather-beaten terrain of Newfoundland would be considered the back of the back of beyond. In Canada, however, this is not quite the case. By comparison to the rest of the country Newfoundland is positively metropolitan.

Labrador

Although Newfoundland is commonly thought of as a single island the province comprises a much larger piece of mainland, namely Labrador, a vast and remote hunk of land that seems to have been cut into the north-western flank of Quebec province.

One notable feature of Labrador is that it forms part of the so-called Laurentian Shield, said to be one of the earliest geological formations on earth. So old is it that it may pre-date the appearance of life on the planet: though this comes as no surprise to people who have seen it, so wild and unearthly is the landscape.

Four great herds of caribou, each containing hundreds of thousands of animals, migrate across Labrador each year in search of pastures. In the past the only industry was fishing though this has declined dramatically, with fish stocks virtually reduced to zero. Population centres are few and far between, and the largest town in Labrador, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, has a population of just 7,000.

The most interesting way of getting around Labrador is on the coastal ferry which runs from Lewisporte on the island of Newfoundland, bouncing all the way up the coast of Labrador as far as Nain. This is a two-week return trip which runs when the coast is clear of ice, approximately from mid-July to mid-December.

Yukon

This is that north-eastern part of Canada immediately next to Alaska. If you like canoeing or white-water rafting, this is the place, though be brief - the very short, warm summers are followed by interminable bitter winters of unrelenting cold and dark.

The original population groups of this area, the Dene and the Inuit, have maintained a small presence throughout history. No one else used to come here except for fur traders, whalers and the odd prospecter, until gold was discovered in 1896, opening up the famous Yukon gold rush, which created a city of 40,000 people, Dawson City, almost instantaneously. That was perhaps the last time anything exciting happened in Yukon. Today the largest city by far is Whitehorse, which sits on the main highway to Alaska, and contains about 24,000 people. As for Dawson, which also briefly flowered as a 19th-century sin city, it now contains just 2,000 people though many of the older buildings still remain.

Northwest Territories

If Yukon is a trifle crowded for you, how about the the Northwest Territories? At just one person per 40 square miles this is one of the largest, emptiest areas in the world. The tourists who come to this remote region do so for canoeing, fishing and hiking, though campers have to watch out for mosquitos as well as bears and bison. Outside the midsummer months you can come for the aurora borealis.

In the past simply getting up to the Northwest Territories was a huge undertaking but these days you can drive yourself or even travel by bus from Edmonton in Alberta Province. The south-western corner of the area. around Yellowknife in the district of Mackenzie is the most accessible, but it is possible to get as far as Inuvik by road, inside the Arctic circle and just 56 miles south of the Arctic coast.

The eastern part of the Northwest Territories fragments into islands that reach to within 500 miles of the north pole itself; it is seriously cold here, even in summer. Historically, this was where seamen in search of the north-west passage tended to meet icy deaths. Exploring the islands today is mainly a matter of flying in and out as there are no roads to speak of.

Baffin (the largest) and Ellesmere island (the most northerly) are tempting if you can afford the ticket. Baffin even has a town, Iqaluit, of 2,000 inhabitants but Ellesmere is an uninhabited wilderness where only the presence of thermal oases allow a few animals and plants to survive.

Jeremy Atiyah

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