It was 6am.
Welcome to Newfoundland.
We had boarded the Marine Atlantic ferry the previous afternoon in bright sun and 90°F (32C) heat. Some passengers (like us) lugged sacks overflowing with food and blankets to keep us comfie through the long night crossing.
Others seemed fine drinking all night in the cheery, jellybean-colored lounge until they slumped onto the table despite signs that prohibited sleeping there. No one seemed to mind.
After wandering through cabins and up and down random stairways, Julia and I found a darkened theater-style lounge where we deposited our sacks.
And now, after a surprisingly restful night curled in our sleeping bags on the floor between the seats (which everyone else seemed to do as well), we were slipping silently between the misty Newfoundland rocks.
I’d been anticipating this moment for months. The island looked as mysterious and enchanted as I’d imagined.
After the mad dash to leave the ferry, after the frenzied rush to the two-lane road to nowhere, the ferry traffic scattered, and we were alone in the fog picking our way south through miles of green marshy stuff, watery holes, rushing streams, and stunted fir with the Atlantic coast to the west. Driving was neither difficult nor dangerous, but the wild emptiness of the place was unnerving.
Our destination for the night was to end up somewhere within striking distance of Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, which has one of the largest nesting colonies of northern gannets on the continent, along with a few other species thrown in—some 70,000 birds in all.
We drove along the coast, rounded the cape, and stumbled into the Gannet’s Nest at the turnoff to the reserve.
This was a restaurant and local hangout-cum-tiny campground on a windscorched lump of gravel and marsh. This was as authentic as it gets.
We walked into the restaurant, which was busy. I hoped I didn’t look as alien and timid as I felt.
“How much to camp?” I asked the very thin and tired-looking woman behind the register.
“Uh. Pardon? Twenty?” I said hopfully. Twenty would have been a lot.
“She said ‘thirty’, Mom,” muttered Julia.
We set up camp and plugged into the suspicious-looking outlet, and I tried to figure out why the $#@*&%$ refrigerator wasn’t working on propane.
Reefers (that’s the trendy word for a refrigerator in boats and RVs) work very handily on either electricity or on propane (some also run on DC power). Without the ability to run on propane, I’m tethered by the electrical cord to the most expensive sites in the campground, AND I’m unable to pull off the road and camp in out-of-the-way spots, which is what we’ve been doing most of the time throughout Canada.
The wind blew and tongues of mist wrapped themselves around me as I stood outside and prodded the snarl of wires and tubes on the backside of the reefer.
Eventually, I discovered that I could stick a lighted match wa-a-a-ay into the innards of the refrigerator where I guessed the pilot light was located. If I did it at just the right moment in the lighting process, I could hear that tiny, satisfying whoosh of igniting gas.
Yes, it was scary and probably dumb, but that’s the only way I could goose the refrigerator into action in lonely places when it was acting stubborn.
The mist continued to drift in thick clumps. The wind continued to blow. This would be a bad day for bird-watching, so we wandered back to the restaurant.
The place was packed. The same women, looking even more harried, bustled around taking orders. We decided to get something simple to speed things up and to reduce their stress levels: moose stew and fish chowder.
It was, hands down, the best chowder I’d ever tasted.
Later that afternoon, we chatted with Martin, the owner of the “resort,” in the dark, ramshackle basement where we’d gone for showers and wifi–which was slow and balky, but at least existent in this otherworldly place.
“We make all the food here, y’know. Some a those recipes come from our great-great-grandmothers,” said Martin
He was a large man who looked as though he’d weathered many a rough and stormy sea. In fact, he looked like Old Man Weather himself. His accent was so thick and his voice so gravelly, I wasn’t sure we were speaking the same language. The accent was unrecognizable–a gutteral swallowing of vowels and mashup of consonants.
“My family’s been here for 300 years, y’know. First came when there was nuttin’. But I tink some o’em was pirates.” He winked. He could have been a pirate himself.
He began covering the windows with black fabric against the dim lamplight.
“Have to cover ‘em case people tinks ‘ere’s a party. Dese people can party. Piles a shots lying all o’er da place.”
And then the refrain we’d hear all across the island:
“Used to be a lot more people here, but now the young people go to Alberta to work in a oil fields. Come back in December month to visit family.”
We returned to the trailer in the dark and listened to the wind kiss its flanks, hoping the fog would blow off so we could see the birds in the morning.