Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Romantic Canada
Chapter VIII Labrador

IN the Newfoundland outports, especially those of the northern bays — Conception, Trinity, Bonavista and Notre Dame conversation with any old-timer is sure to turn sooner or later to experiences on "The Labrador".

Soon these stories accumulate into a magnetizing force, drawing you to explore that wonderful Northern shore of which these old-timers relate such wonderful tales.

Our first trip to the Labrador was decided by an old fellow with a scythe, mowing a pocket-handkerchief of hay at Exploits. He wore at the time a pair of sabots. Upon our remarking on them as unusual footwear in these parts, he looked down with a smile— that pleasant smile that always flits across aged faces at the recollection of an adventure—and said, "Oh, aye, them's my Denmarks. I bought them from a man on a square-rigger, on 'The Labrador'."

Two days after that we were haunting the telegraph office at Twillingate for news of "The Invermore" or "The Kyle" out of Saint John's to the Labrador. The Invermore blew out her tubes somewhere down the coast, and had to put back to Saint John's, and we had to wait several days for her substitute, who finally arrived at Twillingate in the middle of the night, so that we went up the ladder over her side with the bags of mail at two o'clock in the morning, carrying with us a feeling that perhaps we ought not to be going, as two old fellows encountered on the pier the night before, had said, in the face of a rather threatening sky, that it was "too late to go down on the Labrador."

However, we made that voyage safely and have since made another, proving that wiseacres are not always true prophets or their sayings to be heeded.

From Newfoundland to Labrador is but a step across the Straits of Belle Isle. In winter these waters are the hunting grounds of some of the sealers out of Saint John's. In summer they are the hunting ground of some of the "growlers" out of Labrador.

Navigators here in the first instance are happy at the cry of "seals!" from the crow's nest, but the skipper of the mailboat on tins route runs away as fast as may be from the beautiful but treacherous iceberg so like in figure to giant Portuguese Men-o--War "fishing with paralyzing underseas tentacles seeking whom they may devour." Then comes out on deck the figure least expected, the Moving Picture man, reeling off, like one possessed, the bergs that navigation fears. And so we land at Battle Harbour, first of the thirty or more ports of call made by these fine mail-and-passenger boats out of Saint John's.

The charm of the Labrador is hard to define. That it is there all will agree. Some say that it lies in the fact that the slightest miscalculation on the part of those adventuring in these parts may lead to an accident—accident that on so exposed a coast is instantly metamorphosed into irremediable disaster, as in the case of H.M.S. Raleigh. In other words, danger is its charm, the danger that lies so near, around the corner of every bay and tickle; danger of hidden rocks, of sudden gale, of fog, of bergs, washed by some fanciful twist of ocean current out of the beaten track. Romance follows danger as a twin sister. So, on the Labrador, many "figures" strut across the little stage.

There is the little Eskimo that paddles off to the steamer in his kyak, to dance on deck, while the ship rides at anchor off some port. That he ever reaches the ship or the shore again in the little scallop-shell he calls "boat" is a miracle. But he dances away or sings "gospel hymns" learned from missionaries, as free from worry as any child. The words are in Eskimo, but the old tune, sung out here on deck by the flare of the ship's lantern, carries with it a gripping power, the while the faces of strong men—fishermen coming or going, traders, missionaries, even Syrian fur-dealers— are intermittently lighted by the flare of the lantern.

Two old acquaintances, the "fishnet drying from the masthead" and the "pot-a-tilt" among stones of the ice-age, greet one on stepping ashore at a Labrador tickle. Spruce beer is also here to be had, if one has the good fortune to fall in with Liveyer's family up from Newfoundland for the summer-fishing and living in a hut with sodded roof, wherein the blooms of fircplant and live-for-ever make a splash of color against the gray background of sea and rocks.

These little liveyer homes bear a striking resemblance to the pioneer homes of foreigners on the Prairie, with sodded roofs abloom.

Two new characters peculiar to the zone emerge along this northern edge of the 'Longshore road—Eskimos, men, women and children, and Eskimo dogs; both of which Newfoundlanders invariably speak of as "Huskies".

The Eskimo as hunter is the angle from which hunters, trappers, and fur merchants, view these children of the Northland. The missionary sees in them children to be taught; the ordinary voyager merely a new and interesting facet of life — men and women, masters of the secret of living under conditions under which the probabilities are the voyager himself would come a cropper. They fire the imagination for the same reasons as do the children of the Desert—an interesting peculiar people wholly masters of interesting peculiar circumstances.

Some of the features of Eskimo coastal life are portrayed in the pelts brought in to swell the large collections at the several Hudson's Bay Company's posts, and in the evidences of "native art" as shown in ivory and wood carvings brought down to sell to the ship.

These latter articles are of interest from two points of view. They were taken from life and so, have pictorial and story value— little ivory komatiks or sledges drawn by dogs in harness and little wooden dolls with typical Eskimo features of old man or woman dressed in sealskin, cut in the same model always in vogue with these people; the men with trousers and short middy, the women in trousers and middy, short in front but often with a sort of longer rounded effect at the back. These vendors to the ship display in addition seal-skin port-monies for women and tobacco-pouches for men, but these are less interesting because the idea is imitative, caught from things of similar intent in the hand of voyagers from the south and civilization.

Eskimo dogs are not seen to advantage in summer. Only a few appear at each outport, more at some than at others. But under the boardwalk, climbing to the post office, a half dozen roly-poly puppies will snarl and snap under your feet like little wolves. And these "miniatures" of the pack—away at this season on some island out of harm's way and busy foraging for a scant support to life among fishheads cast up by the incoming fishboat—are merely little point-fingers of the road of the great untamed that stretches from here to Hudson's Bay.

Except in the neighbourhood of the Hudson's Bay Posts and the Moravian Missionary settlements, evidences of the native are comparatively few. The many outports of this rugged coast are posts held firmly in the strong capable hand of Newfoundland. It is said that thirty thousand Newfoundlanders yearly fish "The Labrador". And romance lies in the wake of this yearly pilgrimage to the Northern Shrine of Cod.

As the landing mailboat rounds the barren headlands, vistas of schooners and fishboats stretch before, lying at anchor in the harbour or "tickle". And if it be Sunday, as it is sure to be if the schooners are in port, a group of men and women are at the water's edge to pick up news that the boat brings, or eagerly await at the Post Office the letter from home.

The coming of the steamer from Saint John's and the ports of the Northern Bays of Newfoundland, once every ten days or so, is an event in these little settlements of summer-homes, clinging like so many crabs to the rugged shores of this outpost of Newfoundland, lying across Canada's great Northeast and shutting it off from an Atlantic harbour north of Cape Breton.

Missionary work among the Eskimos has been maintained here for several centuries by the Moravians. Trading posts have been maintained for as long by the world-famous Hudson's Bay Company. Sometimes the mission station and the H.B.C. Post occur at the same outoort, as if in this northern land the desire for company had drawn them irresistibly together. But of course the mission must have decided that a fur-purchasing centre would concentrate the natives and they could be more easily reached, since the one sled-journey would answer all needs.

At Hopedale Mission there is a pathetic little greenhouse with a few flowers; and out in a corner of a garden, which is almost comical as gardens go, are seen a few struggling lettuce-plants though last year's snow lies thick on the rising ground scarcely twenty yards away. If the tide of Canadian trade ever sets "full" out of Hudson Bay, who knows but a century from now many gardens will flourish here, descendants of this little pioneer straggler, hardily holding its own, to give the missionary-table vegetables.

To the Moravian Missionaries of early days belongs the credit of reducing the Eskimo tongue to a language. The large, well-bound grammar which the Missionary shows you becomes indeed a character in itself, as it is shown that this is not merely a key to a language but the humble means upon mastery of which hangs the missionary's ability to interpret the "Old, Old Story" to these Nimrods of the North at home in Igloo, Komatik and Kyak.

Herein is the key to the hymn-singing, dancing figure that strikes such a colourful note on deck when the ship first makes this land of the Labrador.

At Hopedale, beside the Mission and the H. B. C. Store, with its simple stock of groceries and its pelt-rooms, sometimes packed and sometimes almost empty, according to the season, there are a few Eskimo wooden houses and a big community kitchen with a score of these short, round men and women gathered in the steam about the pot a-stew.

Here and there an old grandmother attends to coarse socks a-drying and knocks the kinks out of skin boots and komatik harness on a sloping roof concentrating the weak sun from the South, the while she minds the children and keeps a wary eye on the few old dogs that pace wolfishly and unceasingly up and down.

Labrador, like Newfoundland, has an interesting list of place-names. A harbour with two openings, usually made by an island lying close to the mainland or to another island, is called a "tickle". Not the least romantic feature of voyaging along the Labrador coast are these odd and appropriate place-names. Think of sailing by "The White Cockade Islands'', "Run-by-Guess", or "Tumbledown-Dick"! Or of seeing the surf bursting over "Mad Moll's Reef"! Or of steering past "Lord's Arm", "Lady's Arm", and "Caribou Castle!"

Return to our Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.