Labrador Caravan

July 13, 2007 Little Bay Island

Canadian Tire couldn’t find any signs of Matilda’s coolant leak, and I finally left Corner Brook for good – after one quick trip back from Deer Lake when I realized I’d forgotten my cameras in the Canatian Tire waiting room. Fed up with what passes for cities in Newfoundland, I scrutinized the map of the north shore in search of a nice place by the sea. The literature showed a ferry running out to a small island called Little Bay Island, so I thought I’d check it out.

After a fair bit of driving down isolated roads, I found my way to the ferry dock. This definitely wasn’t the ferry from North Sidney to Port aux Basques, not even the ferry from Godbout to Matane. There was no terminal, no ticket window, no lines

painted on the pavement for the cars to line up while waiting to board the boat. Just a board with the schedule, a big unpaved parking area, and a ramp where I supposed the cars would drive on and off. It was a Tuesday night, and the schedule for Wednesday was confusing – it said that was the work day, and there would only be a few trips. But it did show a boat arriving that evening, so I pulled Matilda over, popped the top, and settled in with a book.

Only one car drove off the boat when it pulled in an hour later. The three burly men who tied her up settled on a railing to wait for the outgoing vehicles, and I ambled over to chat. Was there much over on the island, if I were to go? Well, not much. Around a hundred people living there, used to be way more before the fish plant closed but the island’s dying now. Not many people going back and forth now, but the ferry still does. If they stopped running the ferry, though, that would be the end of the island, no one could live there any more. Four or five kilometers of road out there, and a mess of hiking trails. Yeah, sure I could go over with my bicycle, head out in the morning and come back in the afternoon. That would set me back four dollars fifty.

It sounded like a plan. I waved them off as they headed back on their last trip of the evening, and got to the business of dinner.

I think the guys were a bit surprised to see me still there when they came in the next morning. A couple of cars were waiting to go to the island, then I rolled my bike on and locked it to a rail so it couldn’t fall over.

The ride was lovely. As we pulled out we cruised past a bald eagle, perched high on a rock watching us. And as we pulled out the narrow arm of the sea that sheltered the ferry landing, we passed a splendid gleaming iceberg. They are lovely things, icebergs. It was warm out, and the surface of this one had melted, giving it the shape of a dish of vanilla ice cream that has begun to drip. Its once sharp edges were rounded and slippery. Running through the brilliant white were veins of color, traces

of cool mint syrup on the sweet ice cream. They move very slowly, shifting slightly with the current and the waves, drifting back and forth with the tides. The boat skirted it very closely – too closely, if you ask me. An hour later it flipped over and great chunks fell into the sea. Fortunately we weren’t there.

Little Bay Island is small and steep, a single hill rising out of the sea. At the top of the hill a trail took off into the forests, so I left my bike and continued on foot. A few hundred meters up I reached a platform with a picnic table and a three hundred sixty degree view of the island, the sea, the icebergs, and in the distance the harbor where I’d left Matilda parked. I stood on the table and let the wind dry my hair and my sweat-soaked t-shirt. Goldfinches and crows flitted among the branches below me, and I considered taking off into the wind like one of them.

Riding down the hill into the village was glorious, even as I realized I was going to have to get back up that hill later in the day. There may only be 100 people living on Little Bay Islands, but there are far more houses than that. The village circles a small sheltered cove, whose mouth was spanned by a one-lane bridge, the now-closed fish processing plant opposite it on the inner

end of the cove. I rode past a church, the town hall, a woman cleaning up a playground while a boy played nearby on his bicycle, and across the bridge. Up a short hill a trail led to the coast and another picnic table. So I stretched out on the table in the sun, read my book, and watched an iceberg just offshore as it bobbed in the water.

Returning to my bike an hour later, I crossed paths with a woman leading a group of four visitors. She looked me up and down and remarked that she didn’t know me.

No, indeed you don’t, I’m not from here.

Ah, well then you’ll have to come round for tea, I live in the purple and white striped house, you can’t miss it. It’s the one painted like a Portuguese fisherman’s house, that’s how they do them over there.

Have you ever been to Portugal? Oh, these visitors are from the United States too, maybe you know each other? Well, yes, it’s a big country.

I did stop by her house later for tea. I turned down lunch, but she insisted on serving me a dish of cake and ice cream. Then sat me down on her porch and told me about growing up on Little Bay Island, moving to Montreal, both of her marriages, how she’d never expected to marry at all, going out with lots of different men in Montreal, the Portuguese friends she’d made working as a nurse and her visits to them in Portugal, returning to the island after her retirement, buying up vacant houses in the village to convert to guest homes for visiting Americans, how the island is dying now that the fish plant has closed.

How much of the overwhelming Newfoundland hospitality is the result of utter desperation for new faces, someone to listen to the stories that everyone else has already heard?

She was nice, outgoing, and friendly. I thoroughly enjoyed the hour I spent gossiping with her.

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