The power of Salt
Aug 18, 2008
|Battle Harbour - once the Salt Fish Capital of Labrador - Monday, August 18
Today we traveled by boat, the Iceberg Hunter, to an island eleven miles off the mainland in the Labrador Sea. It is the site of a fishing village that was once the ‘salt fish capital of Labrador’. When the cod fishery died the village died with it, and the homes and buildings of a once thriving community were abandoned.
Fortunately a Battle Harbor Historic Trust was formed, and after seven years of hard work, the village today is largely restored. It is now open to the public and it offers a rare look into Labrador’s past. More than just a lesson in history it’s a way to be touched by it. A visit that leaves us richer for the experience, and gives us a renewed admiration and respect for the industry, fortitude and courage of the people who lived and worked here.
On the boat ride over we met Lloyd Luthur, a man who lived on the island as a child. There with his brother and their parents he learned the skills of the sea, and today he is captain of the Iceberg Hunter. While he sometimes left Battle Harbor for other jobs over the years, he always came back to this place he loved. He’s a quiet and observant man, but also friendly and generous in sharing his knowledge and experience. Whether he was talking about the Orcas he saw yesterday on the trip to the island, or about his life as a child growing up on the island, listening to him was a pleasure and a privilege.
The woman who books the trips is Diane. She is a warm and friendly person, generous enough to allow us to camp over night in their parking lot, and thoughtful enough to give us a key to the washroom, and in the morning to let us use her internet connection so we could update our position on the trip journal. She has an Obama sticker on her car, and she is very informed on U.S. politics. We could not have taken this day trip if we’d have had to drive 34 miles north to Port Hope Simpson to camp for the night, so we are doubly grateful to Diane.
The trip to Battle Harbour takes a little over an hour, and when you get there you can see Belle Isle out in the strait. As the boat draws near the dock the village draws you in and invites you to walk it’s grassy paths. The buildings are old and authentic, and finely restored. A number of life sized black and white photographs of the fishermen and women who inhabited the island watch you from the dock. Their faces are rugged and full of life - people you would like to get to know.
A woman who works for the trust greets the boat, and there are men and boys to take the luggage of the people who are staying overnight on the island. They have a number of accommodations that make modern use of the restored old buildings. We opted for lunch and had a good family style meal in the dining room over the General Store. It gave us the opportunity to talk to our boat mates and learn a little about them. One group had a common interest in mushrooms and was there for some sort of meeting having to do with fungi.
After lunch we met for a guided tour. The tour guide was a fifth generation islander named Cyril, and we were so fortunate to have a man who knew the island and it’s history so intimately. He was soft spoken and had a kindly manner, but he told the story of the island with painful honesty. He told of a hard life wringing livelihood from the sea, and of brutally hard winters when the ‘glitter rain’ would cover the island with ice and islanders had to wear ‘creepers’ just to get around. Firewood and drinking water had to be imported, and when the ice was in supplies often ran short.
He talked of the company store, and of the island’s unique credit system that used no cash. He talked of how the company set the prices of everything, of the fish they bought and of the supplies they sold the fishermen, and he talked of how the system was rigged so the best you could hope for was to break even. He said without the free wild game they could not have survived, and he talked of the winter Harp seal hunts and of all the uses they made of the kill.
Cyril took us into building after building, and his history of each made you feel as though you’d been there. In the salt storehouse we touched the pillars and beams still wet with pickling, even though the salt has been gone for years. Outside he showed us the platform where the fish was dried after it was salted. He said the hardest job of all was drying the fish. They needed at least four dry and windy days, something that no one could count on in this climate.
In all Cyril’s reminiscence there was never a tone of bitterness or complaint. There was dignity in his acceptance of hardship, and we found ourselves listening carefully and not wanting to miss a word he said. We thanked him and said, ‘goodbye’ and then paid our bill and boarded the boat.
On the trip back we looked for the Orcas but there were none to be seen. On the way a man came up and told me he’d picked us a pound of bakeapples on the island. His name is Amber and he’s a retired fisherman who lives in the Mary’s Harbour Senior Center. He pointed out the village where he’d lived. It was a small collection of white buildings on a distant shore, and as we looked toward it we could see a rainbow over it.
Ashore we transferred the fruits of Amber’s labor to our own containers, and we thanked him for his kindness. The last we saw of him he was trudging up the hill toward the Senior Center with a token of our gratitude. We said ‘goodbye’ to Diane and Lloyd, and then headed up the bumpy road to Port Hope Simpson.
The 34 mile drive took an hour and a half and it was nearly dark when we got there and found the little RV park on the shore of the inlet. It was overgrown with weeds and there was only one other occupant. The woman said they’ve had it for five years but no one ever comes there to stay. We told her it might be the road. :-)
We took some pictures and settled in for a quite night with some sprinkles on the roof. Tomorrow is the big day, and the thought of driving 125 miles on a dirt road through a wilderness has us both a little apprehensive. But that is something we will deal with tomorrow.