“Are you a strong swimmer?” my co-passenger asks me. I can barely hear her over the wind.
“Yes?” I venture, the question mark very clear in my voice. I have a feeling I’d be in deep water were I to find myself in the Labrador Sea. She smiles. “Good.”
We’re on the fringes of the North American continent, having just visited its most easterly point, Cape St. Charles. Captain Jim Jones is at the helm of a 23-foot Boston Whaler, adroitly navigating the craggy Labrador coastline, bringing us back to Battle Harbour, a fishing settlement turned national historic district turned weekend getaway situated on a tiny near-shore island. As the V-shaped hull is doing its best to carve through the rollicking, gunmetal-grey waves, the idea of “sea level” seems ludicrous – we’re being thrown around like Ping-Pong balls. (Cormac and Ronan, the 11- and 13-year-old sons of my co-passenger, Mandy, are in the bow of the boat, white-knuckling the railings and loving every second. Then again, so am I.) At the edge of the Atlantic, there’s nothing steady about the sea, something the residents of Battle Harbour know a thing or two about.
In fact, just getting here is half the… well, you know. Nearly 24 hours after landing in Deer Lake – after a late-evening flight, an early-morning drive through Gros Morne National Park, a lunch of pan-fried cod tongues, a two-hour crossing of the Strait of Belle Isle and 200 kilometres (most of them paved) on the Trans-Labrador Highway – my travel buddy and I are aboard the Iceberg Hunter. The small passenger ferry will take us from the town of Mary’s Harbour to our final destination, Battle Island, a thin splotch of land off the Labrador coast, about 100 kilometres due north from St. Anthony, Newfoundland. (All this might call to mind the Fogo Island Inn; while Fogo is far-flung, Battle Harbour is farther-flung – about 300 kilometres northwest, as the cod swims.) It’s cold and windy, but the last rays of the day are skipping across the waves and I daren’t seek shelter. Sitting on a storage box in the stern, I watch the sun and continental North America disappear, putting my hood up to shield myself from the salty spray. “It’s good for your vision. Prevents cataracts,” says Nelson Smith, the twinkle in his eyes making it impossible for me to tell if they’re at all cloudy. I doubt the science though not the sentiment, and besides: Who am I to quarrel with 40-odd years spent on these waters?
Nelson is one of 15 employees – cooks, woodworkers, ferry captains and shopkeepers – of the Battle Harbour Historic Trust, the non-profit that manages this site. Most grew up here, or along one of the nearby coves, and now they spend their summers on the island, when the residential population peaks at around 32. (In the winter, it’s zero, save for a local Arctic fox.) Nelson’s family lived on the island for five generations before being resettled on the mainland in 1968 – you can stay at the Isaac Smith House, a biscuit-box residence built sometime around 1840 by his great-great-grandfather. A former fisherman, Nelson retrained as a heritage carpenter when the restoration began. He’s also a ranger and raconteur, and a natural choice to lead the daily tour of the site.
A dozen visitors follow Nelson through the buildings of the mercantile complex that surrounds the wharf. I meet a pair from Australia, on a tour of the Labrador coast. The rain is doing that horizontal thing it does in the East, so we duck into the Pork Store, the oldest of the buildings, dating from the 1770s. All I can smell is wet wood. “This wood is saturated, it won’t ever dry,” Nelson confirms. It won’t ever rot, either, as what it’s saturated with is brine, which has seeped in over two hundred years of salt-pork storage. These buildings are literally preserved in history.
More typical signs of the times gone by include archival photos. In the attic of the Flour Store – where scores of fishermen, their initials carved in the wood above each station, would have knit their nets and jawed for hours – a visitor from the mainland exclaims, “Hey! That’s me!” She’s pointing to a black and white print featuring a slew of children down by the wharf. (A pint-size Nelson is also in the shot.) The past has a way of coming to life here – though, given that my energetic good-morning wave to what turned out to be a life-size cardboard cut-out went unanswered, perhaps not as fully as during, say, a Night at the Museum.
The next day, we cross a narrow strait to Great Caribou Island, a massive rocky stretch that’s ripe for hiking and berry picking. We traverse the tickle in less time than it takes to stir up a daydream about being a plucky Basque fisherwoman; Ronan and Cormac are already clambering out of the boat and up a steep incline. Their father, Peter Bull, leads our little expedition. “If I could be anything in this life, I’d be a berry picker,” he says. His actual gig – executive director of the Battle Harbour Historic Trust – seems sweet enough to me, but looking out over the subarctic expanse before us, I can see the appeal. We traipse all over the island for about two hours on the lookout for bakeapples, known elsewhere as cloudberries, which the site’s cooks serve in salads, on top of fish and in cobbler. The locals have another name for them still: liquid gold, as a gallon of the orange berries can fetch up to $80. A couple I talk to scoffs at that price. They never sell theirs for more than $50 – the proceeds are sufficient to cover their daughter’s tuition at Memorial University.
We come across one of a pair of cemeteries on the island, and Peter mentions a man buried in both. This leads to speculation as to why, and how. We come up with alternate theories involving either a woman, or debt, or an intermingling of the two. We hike past abandoned homes, vacant since resettlement, round-edged 1960s fridges still sitting inside; up rocky, moss-covered ridges, crowberries crunching under our feet; and by fairy holes, though no sightings are made. “Well, we brought neither spoons nor bread – known fairy bait – so it’s us to blame, not them,” explains Peter. I add fairy tracker to his list of would-be professions.
Soon, we’re back across the tickle, sitting down to a warming bowl of silky cod chowder and fresh salmon scones. I catch a glimpse of my ruddy cheeks in a mirror – they look like a pair of not-quite-ripe bakeapples. Myrtle, who works in the kitchen (and taught me how to make the best rolls I’ve ever had – but don’t tell my father), concurs: “She’s got that Labrador colour in her now.”
Guests, employees and residents gather in the Loft, the cozy lounge above the General Store that serves as my new favourite hotel bar. Newfoundland-centric titles line the bookshelves (The Lure of the Labrador Wild, I Want to Know If I Got to Get Married: A Doctor on the Grenfell Mission). Kevin Blackmore, better known as the front man of Newfoundland legends Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers – Lloyd, a gentle man and one of the site’s carpenters, makes his guitars – played an impromptu gig up here when he stayed last summer, but tonight we’re treated to something even more local. Randy Hopkins and Harold Rumbolt, both of whom grew up here or in one of the nearby coves, take to the makeshift stage under the makeshift name of “Bits and Pieces.” They play songs about waters full of cod, hard work and communities that aren’t there anymore, and I drink a beer as the kids have a scuff. An ugly stick is brandished and mummers appear, and the past seems very present as Randy sings, “I wish that I could visit just like I did years ago.”
But the future has a way of coming too soon. It’s the end of my three-day stint in Battle Harbour, and I’m standing at the wharf waiting for the ferry and looking at the Seal Store, which I now know to be one of the best spots for playing hide-and-go-seek, according to Captain Jim. Myrtle and her fellow cook Daphne are at the door of the dining hall, ready to wave goodbye to guests. It’s a mauzy day, as Nelson would say – foggy and warm. I ask Peter what he thinks makes Battle Harbour so special. “It’s the people,” he answers without missing a beat. He’s right. Natural beauty abounds, and if the timing is right, icebergs and whales will too. And if the stars align, the northern lights or a posse of mummers might come out to dance. But the people, they’re for sure. Come rain, shine, wind or fog (all of it usually in the same day), they’re there, all summer long. It’s these characters that give this community its spark. And for a spit of a place, Battle Harbour sure has a lot of spark.
Book a bunkhouse, constable’s cottage or a room at the Battle Harbour Inn, all recently refurbished by St. John’s interior designer Sarah Parker Charles and re-stored by trained heritage carpenters like Nelson Smith. Share three meals a day – served promptly at 8 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. – with your fellow visitors in the new dining hall, a big, bright space in the former Salmon Store. Battle Harbour is open to guests from June 1 to September 15, and chef Todd Perrin of Mallard Cottage will join Daphne and Myrtle in the kitchen for Fire and Ice, a culinary weekend during the height of ’berg season (June 24–26). (battleharbour.com)