For centuries Newfoundland was primarily a place to maintain and resupply European fishing boats. The best harbors, often nestled deep between the hilly "fingers" that stretch into the sea, were the first places of settlement. The master of the first fishing boat to arrive in spring was called the "admiral" of that port, and was in charge of divvying up the harbor side between the later arrivals. So the living was on the A typical Newfoundland outport sea, fishing for cod, whaling, and sealing. The ships also visited the nearby coast of Labrador where they traded for furs to sell in Europe.
The land had fresh water and game and comparatively few natives, named Beothuks (with the accent on the second syllable). The land also had wood to build fish drying platforms and buildings, and provide firewood. With buildings constructed, it was possible to winter over, and European settlement began, quite slowly, as most of the first Europeans were men. The settlements ringed the island, seldom penetrating far into the interior.
The southeastern part of Newfoundland is the Avalon Peninsula, which itself is divided into four long peninsulas, or fingers, two pointing northeast, two pointing southwest. It is the most densely populated part of the island, filled with historically rich locations. Each of the four fingers has a circumnavigating coastal road. When the sun came out, for two and a half days, we managed to take three of those coastal drives: the Killick Coast, the Baccalieu Trail, and the Irish Loop.
Although St. Johns and the neighboring cities of Mount Pearl and Conception Bay South are thriving modern centers, with all the trappings of comfortable urban A network of old rock walls and suburban life, the outports situated at every good harbor along the coast are reminiscent of the old Newfoundland, in the days when the cod could be scooped out of the water in springtime. The outports are so stunningly beautiful that their inhabitants willingly accept a lower standard of living in order to kep their homes next to the sea. While the center of the Avalon peninsula is well forested, and dotted with freshwater lakes, the rocky tips of the fingers are swept by the sea winds, and provide wide open breathtaking vistas. We drove and drove, oohing and ahhing around each curve and over each hilltop. It's only in the past sixty years that it's been possible to take these day trips from St. John's -- before WW II, a tourist who wanted to visit the outports had to travel by boat.
A sunny day is washing day at all the outports, and clothes are drying in the breeze next to the brightly colored Newfoundland cottages, like pennants flying from a newly launched ship. We were too late in the season for the best wildlife viewing; but we know from our last visit in 2000 that in the late spring humpback and minke whales pour into the bays in search of small fish called capelin, and the caribou move out of the forest to graze on the bare hills. Three million pairs of storm petrels nest on Baccalieu Island, and the charming museum at the nearby outport of Bay De Verde gets our stamp of approval and appreciation.
Newfoundland was discovered first, by the Vikings, and well known to early Archaelogical excavation, Avalon European sailors. John Guy, Master of the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol, England founded a colony in 1610 at the outport of Cupids, on Conception Bay; he kept a diary and traded with the Beothuks. A more famous colony was started a few years later, in 1621, by Sir George Calvert, later Lord Baltimore. It was called Avalon Colony, and was started with a lot of capital. The settlers built solid stone houses and an early forge. Because of the cold winters and the prevalence of pirates, Baltimore abandoned Avalon and obtained a grant of land farther south, on Chesapeake Bay, which his sons Cecil and Leonard settled after his death.
The modern outport at the location of Avalon Colony is called Ferryland, and the local historical society yearned for information about their past. Avalon Colony had been thoroughly sacked by the French in 1696, but the local fishermen knew where the colony had been located, next to the harbor. When they finally convinced a qualified archaeologist to visit the site in the 1950s, he was so stunned that he made the painful decision not to start digging until sufficient money could be raised to excavate the site carefully and provide for the protection of the artifacts which were unearthed. That didn't happen until 1991, when a group led by archaeologists at the Memorial University of Newfoundland began to work. Valuables evidently had been buried and were undiscovered by the pirates and the French, so gold and silver ornaments and china fragments from several countries of Europe and the Orient have been discovered. The archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of the stone walled houses, with carefully laid smooth rock floors and paths, and the dig goes on each Front door with no access summer, watched by curious visitors like us, who also enjoy the very fine museum in which the treasures are displayed.
Historically, each outport had to be self-sufficient, especially through the winter, so the inhabitants made small gardens and kept livestock. At this time of year Newfoundlanders are out in the fields picking the luscious wild berries which will be made into jams for their winter toast. At Grates Cove we saw a network of dry stone walls which subdivided the hillsides near the harbor into small plots, one for each family. At the same time, clearing the stones was necessary to grow things. The scene reminded us of the Yorkshire Dales.
Fishing has not stopped in Newfoundland. There are fishing boats in every outport harbor. Many fish-processing plants are in operation. Cod are caught, and featured on every restaurant menu. Today the principal fishing is for cold water shrimps and crabs. One woman told us that the deepwater crab fisherman are getting very rich -- meaning that they own the biggest houses in town. Crab traps are stacked near houses and piers, nets are laid out and repaired, boats are hauled out and painted. Fishing is still a high-status occupation, in part because of the historical traditions of life in the outports.
The outports remain self-sufficient in some ways. A young couple buys land for a house, usually from a relative at a low price. Then they build their house themselves. The finishing touches are added little by little, long after they have moved in and filled the yard with children. A common sight in the outports is a house with no connection to the beautiful front door -- that will be built later; the important entrance is at the side or back and opens into a coatroom. We counted nine men atop one house, engaged in replacing Amelia Earhart's airstrip the roof quickly before the next rain. Some fisherman build their own boats, and the local communities make their own public buildings, and maintain their own local roads (as evidenced by potholes and patches).
One other business has been associated with Newfoundland -- transatlantic connections. Because of its closeness to Europe (it's much nearer to England than to California) the pioneering transatlantic efforts -- in aviation, in telegraphy, and in radio -- began here. On our drives we visited the site of the first transatlantic flight by naval aircraft, as well as the grass airfield near Harbour Grace used by Amelia Earhart on the first transatlantic flight by a woman. (World War II was the high point for Newfoundland aviation, when nearly one flight a minute took off or landed at Gander, as war supplies and planes were sent to Europe.) We also admired the Cable Station at Heart's Content, just a few kilometers north of Heart's Delight. We had no idea how many unsuccessful efforts there were to lay the transoceanic cable, which kept breaking while being paid out. New York bankers Cables no longer in use led by Cyrus Field raised the capital in the 1850s, and the first cable-laying efforts were in 1858, but a working connection was not established until 1866. The largest steamship in the world at the time was used for the successful effort, and the first cable was quickly joined by a second. Twenty pounds was the price for a telegraph message between London and New York. You can still see the old cables running down to the water's edge, and the equipment in the building is reminiscent of an old-time college physics lab. The entire effort lasted about a century, and then was supplanted by radio, now bounced off satellites.
One of the great pleasures of our travels is revisiting the places we particularly love. On this visit to Newfoundland we have lingered, and we find the island just as romantic as when we first retired and began our travels. We are drawn to the beauty of the land and the warmth and humor of the people. In the words of many a Newfoundland waittress bringing our meals, "there you are, m' darlin."