Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 24, 2006. Gros Morne

Gros Morne National Park is one of the premier sights of Newfoundland, or so they say. The guidebooks all speak of its exceptional landscapes, dramatic vistas, and incredible geology. Perhaps Iíve looked at too many amazing places, but the views didnít seem that special to me. The place did, though.

The park surrounds Bonne Bay, an inlet that cuts some thirty miles inland. On the north side of the bay is a good-sized town (remember, thatís by Newfoundland standards) called Rocky Harbour, with a few motels, campgrounds, several gas stations, and quite a number of restaurants. Thatís pretty big for New-

foundland. Also on the north side is Western Brook Pond, actually a fjord which everyone told me I had to visit via the (expensive) boat ride. On the south side of Bonne Bay is the small and very quaint village of Woody Point, the major National Parks visitor center, and Tablelands, a unique geological formation that Iíd heard was quite amazing. The drive from the main road to the visitor center is some thirty miles, so a detour to pick up some information would be a rather pricey venture, with Newfoundland gas prices and Vanagon gas consumption. Usually I think Parks Canada is great, but not providing visitor information before you need to decide where youíre going is unforgivable, as far as Iím concerned!

Most of the park is on the north side of Bonne Bay, so I headed straight to Rocky Harbour on my way up to Labrador. I dutifully took the boat ride through the fjord, which was fine but not so exciting. Iíd never seen a fjord before, but it doesnít actually look too different from any other long narrow arm of water between steep hills. If youíd told me it was an inlet off Prince William Sound in Alaska, I wouldnít have argued with you. Though the walk from the parking area to the boat was certainly different Ė long boardwalks over bogs full of pitcher plants and grasses and wild blueberries, a wide open landscape under a vast dome of blue sky.

The town of Rocky Point itself had a swimming pool, a wonderful new facility that I canít imagine why they built, since it is only open in summer and the school children donít get to use it for their gym classes. I wasnít complaining, though! They had lap swimming first thing in the morning, so I camped at the pool parking lot so as to be there when they opened. As campsites go, it wasnít exciting, but it turned out to have unexpected charms. The grassy area adjacent to the parking lot seemed to be a major highway for moose heading down the coast. The first night, I drove into the lot and saw a big pair of brown eyes looking into mine, wondering what I was doing there. The next night I heard a funny noise outside my van, and peered into the darkness to see a pair of soft fuzzy antlers bobbing up and down as a moose lumbered by.

One morning I left the pool and headed to the laundromat in town. I saw a familiar face there, someone Iíd met in the locker room a few minutes earlier. Julie was a nurse from Ontario, who had gotten away

from her four teen-aged sons to take a road trip through Newfoundland. She was tired of being a nurse, she told me, and seemed also to be tired of the responsibility of four sons, though they were growing up fast. What she really wanted, she said,

was to travel, to live on the road and see the world. Swimming her laps in the pool, she was thinking through her options, wondering if there was any way she could get away from Ontario and support herself in some way that would let her see more Ė of Canada, of North America, of the whole world.

As I told Julie a bit about my travels, she was sure she had met me for a reason, to show her that her dreams were really possible. Being a nurse is a relatively easy way to travel; picking up work is simple, and it pays pretty well. Better than being a campground host or waiting tables. But Julie didnít have the savings to buy a van she could live in; sheíd have to be able to trade in her car. And of course with her sons dependent on her, she couldnít do anything like this now.

When I meet people like Julie, I am reminded of how lucky I am. Or maybe it isn't only luck. Or maybe Iím not lucky at all. Iím not much interested in money for its own sake, and I donít want a lot of things. But working as a consultant instead of a nurse makes it a lot easier to live on the road Ė not just because my work doesnít tie me down geographically, but also because it pays well enough that I donít have to do that much of it. When I see young people making choices that wonít allow them to earn good money Ė they donít want to go to college, they want to do something that seems fairly easy, they want to earn money sooner Ė I worry about them. Not because they should get rich and buy a big house and a fancy car, but

because they may want the freedom that comes with being able to support themselves without giving up all of their time to do it. Of course most people wouldnít want the life I have chosen, and I suppose I have traded off family and community ties for independence Ė an unthinkable choice for many people. So perhaps I shouldnít worry about people who donít have the choices I have. After all, I canít choose grandchildren, and I have no idea who will care for me when I am old and feeble. But still, I sometimes worry.

Rocky Harbour turned out to be the only source of decent coffee in Newfoundland outside of St. Johnís. Unfortunately Iíd been there a few days before I figured that out, but even as I was leaving, it was a nice discovery. The coffee shop, a couple of blocks north along the seashore from the main road into town (I canít find its name on the web to alert you any better, just in case you get there and need a java fix) is run by a woman who came to Gros Morne as a biologist. She didnít stay in that line of

This view of Tablelands - the flat mountain - isn't actually from the coffee house in Rocky Harbor. Sorry!

work, but by the time she might have moved elsewhere, she had married someone who worked at the park, so she wasnít going anywhere. Now she runs a coffee house that has expanded into a quite nice restaurant, and hires the local kids Ė including her own Ė to work for her. She seemed like someone Iíd want to know, someone Iíd be friends with if I lived in Rocky Harbor. A smart, outspoken, articulate middle aged woman, who likes where she is but is also frustrated by its limitations. Like the lack of good coffee!

I met other people at Gros Morne whom I thought Iíd be friends with if I lived there. When I finally did make it down that thirty-mile detour to Woody Point and the visitor center, I went to a talk about the Viking settlements on the Great Northern Peninsula, the ones Iíd visited up north. The speaker was a former director of the excavations at líAnse aux Meadows, and the audience seemed to be mostly local residents and park staff. The next day I saw some of

them in the visitor center parking lot, particularly a striking woman with two huge furry dogs. (She didnít bring the dogs to the talk.) I'm very fond of dogs as long as they arenít mine, so I stopped to scratch their ears and chat. The woman lives up Bonne Bay in Shoal Brook, another tiny town at the edge of the park. She told me about the yoga classes they run in the early mornings, using the visitor center lobby as a studio since it is the only large enough space in town. We discussed the talk from the night before, and what itís like living there in the winter when the park closes. I donít know much about her, but I liked her, Iíd want to be friends with her if I lived there.

Parks Canada has a broad approach to engaging their visitors in the parks. Yes, they tell you endlessly about geology (a big issue at Gros Morne, and at Tablelands in particular), and about plants and animals and environmental issues and the impacts of global warming and air pollution. But they have also decided to bring art into the park. They have a program of artists in residence, a handful of people who spend a few weeks each summer living in a big house in Woody Point, working on projects related to the park, and engaging the visitors in workshops designed to broaden their perceptions of the natural environment. I saw a wonderful video in the visitor center about a book created by three artists several years before. I wouldnít really say the book is really about Gros Morne. It might better be described as a creative response to the park. The words are by Newfoundland writer Kevin Major, the lithographs by artist Anne Meredith Barry, and the book itself created by Tara

Bryan. Called ďGros Morne Ė Time Lines,Ē the words tell the history of the park at many time scales, from the present to the geological. The words are like poetry Ė which is to say, they didnít do much for me Ė but the prints and the layout and the design of the book are all wonderful. Anne Barry passed away a few years after they completed this book, which everyone who spoke of her mentioned regretfully; I think she must have been a real figure in western Newfoundland. I almost bought one of her prints a few days later at a gallery in Corner Brook. Maybe I should have bought it, it was brilliantly colored and wonderfully evocative of the sharp feel of the Newfoundland air, the scents of the ocean, the sights of the light and the rocks. But I didnít. Heading back to a house where I donít expect to live for long, it didnít seem to make sense to be purchasing original artworks that might have no place to hang.

Another part of the arts in the parks program was a watercolor class that I went to one afternoon, taught by a summer employee at the park (not by a resident artist, though she studies art at university). Iíd been playing with colored pencils and ink, but hadnít tried watercolor, so this was a good chance to expand my horizons. Watercolors are wonderful! Way more complex than pencils, but way more potential, too. After creating a few versions of the water and mountains and trees in front of us, and a rendition of the yogurt container that held water to clean our brushes, I quickly added water colors to my list of art projects for when I get back to living in one place.

Also participating in the painting class was a family of nine whom Iíd already seen that morning, on a Tablelands hike. The Tablelands group was split into English and French, but a lot of us meandered back and forth between the

two languages. The family of nine Ė a couple and their seven young boys Ė were bilingual. The woman was Quebecoise, the man, as I found out later, of Sri Lankan origin. When first I noticed them, I only saw a couple of boys, but as the walk went on I saw more and more. They all looked similar, a mix of their dark-skinned father and their sharp-featured mother. And they all wore the same bright yellow slickers to protect them against the frequent rain showers. Their mother asked endless questions of the park employees leading the walk, about geology, plants, history, hydrology, insects. Their father tried to keep track of his sons, who ran every which way. Some complained that they couldnít understand the French, and would slip off to join the English group. Others didnít want to stay on the path, which had convenient walkways over rivulets coming off the Tablelands, and instead hopped on stones across the many streams that cut across our route. Their familyís progress seemed like a perpetual exercise in herding cats in yellow slickers.

When I saw them in the afternoon, we chatted over our paintings. The oldest boy, who was perhaps twelve, said it was fine having so many brothers, they were fun. And he explained to me that I was being attacked mercilessly by blackflies because I was eating bananas. He had known since he was young that you shouldnít eat bananas in the summer, because they attracted mean little itchy biting flies. Next time Iím in Newfoundland Iím swearing off all bananas, even if there isnít any other fruit worth mentioning in the stores! I goofed around with a boy who was perhaps nine, complaining when he got my water all dirty with his black paint, and catching his paintings when they blew around in the wind. The youngest boy had to be watched constantly, lest he drink the water in which we were cleaning our brushes, or spill it all over the table, the paints, and our artwork.

I ran into them again over dinner. I had gone to a real restaurant in Woody Point, wanting a proper Newfoundland fish dinner for a change. And wanting some calm and quiet. So I was a bit dismayed to see their huge blue van drive up, and the whole family pour out in front of my restaurant. There was only one table big enough for all of them, and it was right next to mine. Sure enough, after the father perused the menu, they decided to eat there, and they quickly filled the dining room with the chatter and the noise of many small children and two adults trying to control them.

By then it was clear that we were on the same path, so we introduced ourselves Ė though I warned them I wasnít going to remember the

This is actually some other folks on the Tablelands walk. Sorry!

names of all those boys. Indeed, I donít even remember the parentsí names, but thatís okay. I wondered how they could afford a nice fish dinner for nine, but it turned out their approach was ďthree orders of this, two of that, weíll share it all.Ē The older boys took the younger ones to wash their hands, and their father led them all in saying grace before they dug in. Then their mother grilled them on what they had learned that day. When I heard her asking so many questions on the morning hike I thought perhaps she was a science teacher. Well, in a way she was, but it was her sons she was teaching! She quizzed them on all the details Ė how the Tablelands were formed, the names of the different rocks, the species of the plants and why so few grow there Ė all in both English and French. I couldnít decide whether I was appalled or impressed. But the boys didnít seem to mind. I think it was part of being in their family, that they had to learn, they had to help with the younger ones, and they all had to work together and get along or theyíd all go nuts. They reminded me of Louisa May Alcottís Little Men, one of the sequels to Little Women, in which Jo March and her professor husband run a school for boys, strict but kind.

They left in a big hurry to get to a campfire program that evening. One of the boys, the one with whom Iíd battled over the water to clean our paint brushes, was disappointed that I wouldnít be there as well. But as I explained to him, I had to leave Newfoundland, and I needed to get on the road that night to head to Corner Brook and points further south. And so I did, driving out of Woody Point as dusk came on, climbing out of the Bonne Bay valley and turning south as the sky got dark.

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