The road gets rougher . .
Aug 17, 2008
|it’s lonelier and tougher! - Sunday, August 17
Frank Sinatra sang those words about ‘the girl that got away’ but he could have been singing about Labrador. At Red Bay we’re at the end of the paved road, and from here on it’s 200 miles of unpaved road to Cartwright. Everyone says it is rough, at least until you get to Mary’s Harbour which is 50 miles up the road. And these are people who are used to rough roads.
Recent rains have been described as ‘torrential’ and that’s never a good thing for a dirt and gravel road. Little road work has been done south of Mary’s Harbour since the rains, and Mary’s Harbour is our destination for tonight. But first we want to visit the Red Bay National Historic Site, so the road will have to wait.
In 16th century Europe, whale oil was nearly as valuable a commodity as petroleum is to us today. It was their cleanest and most brilliant lighting fuel, and it was used in paints and varnishes, for lubrication and in soap, (not that Europeans of the day used all that much soap). Some of the earliest and most successful whale hunters were the Basques, who are credited with inventing whaling. From the 12th to the 15th centuries they hunted whales in the Bay of Biscay, but as that resource dwindled they began to turn their attention to the new world.
They were already engaged in a seasonal cod fishery off the east coast of Canada, so they knew whales were plentiful in the area. By as early as the 1540’s they were organizing whaling expeditions to the Grand Bay, which today is known as the Strait of Belle Isle. Because of it’s deep water and sheltered harbor, Red Bay, known as Butus to the Basques, became one of their largest and most important whaling stations.
At the height of Basque whaling as many as 50 ships a year would cross the Atlantic to hunt here, each carrying a crew of 50 to 75 men. At stations like Red Bay they would set up a base of operations for the 8 month voyages. Here they would cut up the whales, and boil out the oil in tryworks set up on the banks of the harbor. This continued until the early 1600’s when, for a variety of reasons, they left. One of the reasons was probably that they had depleted the local whale population to the point where whaling here was no longer profitable. As one of the museum’s exhibits points out: “If man cannot limit his greed for wealth, then nature will set those limits for him.”
Ironically this was unknown to Canadians until the 1970’s, when an archival researcher named Selma Barkham, studying Basque records in southern France and northern Spain discovered that large scale fishing operations had taken place on the Strait of Belle Isle in the 16th century. Her revelations led to fourteen seasons of archeological research at Red Bay, and to the discovery of thousands of artifacts that paint a vivid picture of the lives and work of the 16th century Basque whalers in eastern Canada.
Among the discoveries were tryworks and cooperages, roofing tiles and building foundations, rock piers and a cemetery. Remains of 140 whalers buried in 60 graves were discovered, and a structure where 12 unburied remains are thought to have died from over wintering. From this site they found artifacts that led to recreations of the whaler’s clothing.
Most exciting of all was discovery of the remains of four 16th century galleons. One of these is believed to be the San Juan, a vessel loaded with over 800 barrels of whale oil, which broke it’s anchor in a storm and sank in Red Bay Harbour in 1565. From these well preserved remains researchers were able to see exactly how the ships were constructed in that day, and they even recovered a chalupa or whale boat from beneath the wreckage. This 400 year old boat is on display in the museum.
While the chalupa and many other artifacts were kept and are displayed, most of the ship’s remains were recorded and then returned to the water for preservation. They lie off Saddle Island near the visible wreck of a more modern iron and steel vessel, the Bernier which went aground during a storm in 1965. For a two dollar fee you can get a boat ride out to Saddle Island where you can walk a 1.5 kilometer path that takes you past the sites of many of the discoveries. We took the ride and spent over an hour walking the island.
We were given a map and then the boat left and we had the island completely to ourselves. Sites of the discoveries are identified with markers that correspond to numbers on the map, and the wreck of the Bernier needs no identification. There are two buoys that mark the site where the San Juan lies submerged, and all the while you’re walking a variety of gulls, guillemots, and arctic terns put on a rowdy show all around you. The ground is littered with the shells of mussels, urchins and whelks they’ve plucked from the tide pools and eaten.
Across the water the fishing village of Red Bay sits silently facing the sea. It bears the scars of the past, in the wrecked buildings of tryworks and processing plants, but it also is a testimony to the courage and fortitude of the people who live here today. The unadorned white church stands at the top of the hill, and below it the modest houses are also mostly painted white. They are scattered over the rocky slope, no two facing the same direction in a show of healthy individuality. No ‘homeowners association’ rears it’s ugly head to spoil the natural beauty here!
On our return we bought Madolyn a pair of silver and labradorite earrings in the gift store, and a Labrador flag pin for our collection. Then we went next door to the Whaler’s restaurant and gift shop where we had another fine cod lunch and I got a Labrador jacket. This is our 17th anniversary, after all!
Now it was time to face the road north, and for the next three hours we bumped and swayed over fifty miles of washboard road to Mary’s Harbour. The country we traveled is stark and to some it would seem barren, but it is rocky and rugged northland with a beauty all it’s own. There were pine forests in some places, but the trees are smaller and more stunted than farther south. This is not from lack of water, for there is water everywhere. But conditions are harsh, and the growing season is short.
Traveling at an average speed of 17mph you get to see and enjoy the scenery, so even the rigors of an unpaved road has it’s advantages. We finally arrived in Mary’s Harbour and drove the unpaved town streets to the ferry terminal for Battle Harbour. This is another historical site we want to visit tomorrow. It was still open, and we asked the woman in the office if she knew of any campgrounds in the area. We already knew there weren’t any, and she immediately said the words we hoped we’d hear, “Why you can stay right here if you want!”
She was so friendly and nice that she even gave us the key to the washrooms. We found a parking place and we leveled our rig, then we settled in for the night. The infamous Labrador black flies live here in Mary’s Harbour too, so it’s not a place you want to sit out and watch the sunset, but with the windows open we had a nice breeze and a great view of the harbor. And on top of that it was free! What more could we possibly ask - except maybe a smoother road to Port Hope Simpson tomorrow!