It’s Boxing Day and a quiet hangs over the harbour. Listen. What do you hear? Not the slapping of waves against the wharf–there’s no swell on. Not the sounds you associate with everyday life in this outport community: chainsaws, cars, quads, power tools; all hushed on this holiday morning.
Here in Best’s Cove, things are quieter than usual. Most of the boats that make their ‘home’ here are tied up; waiting.
They’re not used to that. Those vessels were not made for play and down-time does not suit them well. They’re needy creatures and won’t take well to being left idle.
We’re like that too.
That doesn’t matter right now. A bit of peace and rest can’t hurt.
Climbing one of the little hills that rings in the cove shows the situation is much the same in Southern Harbour beyond. Nothing at all is stirring. No boats heading our or in; no gear in the water. Not even any seabirds. How do THEY know it’s a holiday?
Not everything is stopped. Not everyone is ‘off’ today. Just a bit to the south, at the head of Placentia Bay, the refinery is chugging along. Makes you think of how things can come…and go…just like the fishery.
A Phoenix if ever there was one. Built in the early 1970’s the Come By Chance Oil refinery was one of the biggest construction projects ever undertaken around that time in the province. It was designed to handle cheaper, ‘sour’ crude and ‘resid’ that other refineries could not handle. After only a few years of operation it suddenly went out of business in what was, at that time, one of the biggest bankruptcies Canada had seen. But, from the ashes… After a decade in mothballs, the refinery was reopened under new ownership and has operated profitably since then. It produces around 100,000 barrels a day, mostly gasoline, the vast majority of which (the reselling deal included a stipulation that the product could not be sold in Canada, except for a smidgen of local sales) is exported. The product is of high quality and can be sold anywhere; it meets even the strictest emissions standards. Californians, for example, burn it in their cars. The refinery is a boon to the local economy providing jobs, secondary work (construction, trucking, service) and tax benefits.
Whiffen head is busy too.
Part of the offshore oil infrastructure, Whiffen Head is a transshipment facility. The light, sweet crude, extracted from Newfoundland Labrador’s Grabd Banks, specifically the Terra Nova and Hibernia fields, is brought ashore using a team of shuttle tankers. The tankers hold around 800,000 barrels and the facility can store around 3 million barrels! The fields produce, respectively, around 150,000 and 200,000 barrels a day so deliveries are regular. The high-grade petroleum is sold on the world market.
Come by Chance and Whiffen Head make Placentia Bay (by tonnage) one of the busiest in the world. Strangely, though, even it is quiet. There are two tankers at the Come by Chance refinery and two more at Whiffen Head. Strangely, though, that’s it. Usually you can see several more at the various anchorages, but not today.
Heading back down to the Harbour from the Placentia Bay lookout reveals no further activity in the bay. The road is gravel; soft and very steep. There’s an element of trust involved in getting the van up and down the hill.
The same trust you place in the choices you make. You know they may not be perfect ones but they are the ones you made so you persevere.
Back at the cove you are reminded that, like the refinery, the fishery is something of a phoenix too. In the 1990’s the state of the fish (primarily cod) stocks had gotten so bad–overfishing–that the entire cod fishery was closed. To an outsider that may not seem like much but the damage was profound. It was not just economic; it was a blow to the province’s cultural identity. Newfoundland Labrador (let’s use NL from now on) had begun as a primarily fishing economy. Through the years it had diversified but by far the most visible industry was the fishery. With the closure the local society felt, for a while, as if someone had just turned off the lights. Nothing.
But the residents are nothing if not dogged. We will persevere. Many left the province. Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Fort McMurray–all became honorary parts of NL. Many of those who remained retrained and began careers elswehere. Whiffen Head and Come By Chance–many ex-fishers work there. Those who stayed diversified. There were other species. Not quite the phoenix. Alive, yes. Thriving…who knows?
But still a sense of loss. The big iron buoy is perched at the razor’s edge of a ridge between shore and water. A little to the right and down it goes, over the 15 m cliff, into the water to float again. Rusty, yes, but leaky, no. A little to the left and down the steep hill it goes. It will strike the shed and lodge firmly on land, likely to never see the water again. For now, though, it’s lodged fairly snugly right at the knife point, getting the best of both worlds, land and sea.
But there are always choices. The problem is, you don’t always know what’s beyond the gate. You can climb the hill with hopes for what’s beyond, but you should not expect clear answers.
Even when you pass through the gate the way ahead may not be clear. Land or Sea? Stay or go?
Winter is easing in. We have already had several 10+ cm snowfalls. It’s December, though, and the snow usually does not last. Once through the gate you can see more ‘quiet.’ The summer’s vegetables have all been harvested and stored away in the cellar (it’s just beyond the trees at the top right). Some of the grass is still green! That’s a bit unusual for this time of the year, but we’ve had a much-warmer-than usual summer and fall.
That can change–quickly.
From up in the hill you can look out over more of the harbour beyond. But you still get the same quiet story. No gear, no fish. Not today.
Walking away from Best’s Cove and coming around to the West you come upon the head of Placentia Bay. The picture shows the head of the bay, along with most of the nearby community of Arnold’s Cove. Capt. William Taverner, who was commissioned by the British Admiralty after the Treaty of Utrecht (between 1715-1719) to take stock of the area (in other words to either kick the French out or make them swear allegiance to the British Crown), He referred to Southern Harbour as “Sutte Harbour:” See the excerpt from his second report:30th Wind at W:S:W: fresh Gales, went to Little Sutte Harbour  between those Two places is no harbour, for Ships. Along the Coast, is good hunting for Deer, and ffoxes, at the proper Seasons of the Year, there is neither Good Woodes, nor anything Else, to render it Acceptable, Little Sute harbour which is either good for Ships, or boats, I was oblidgd to Tarry there till the 5th of Novembr by reason of bad Weather. 7th Went to Great Sute harbour which is a place fitt for Boats only, there is no good Woodes in it, nor any sort of ffishing. The ffrench accot it a good place, for Foxes, & Deer, Then returnd back to Little Sute harbour, to take in our provissions, and Tent, which we had left there. 9th Fair Wind and good Weather, we saild for the bay of Carinole, which the English call Come by Chance, at the Bottom of this Bay, the French in the Late Warr, did frequently haul goods over Land, to Bay of Bulls, in Trinity Bay, with which boats they plundred the English, at Hearts Content, New Perlican, Scily Cove, Hans Harbour, Old Perlican, Trinity, Bonavista, and severall other places, it’s about Two Miles over, what plunder they gott of the English they often carried it over Land, from Bay of Bulls , to come by [227v] Chance, and from thence in their boats to Placentia. (source)
Taverner may have used the non-standard spelling of the time but he knew “South.” Today we know one of the Sutte Hr. places as Southern Harbour. Makes you wonder just what was the original French name that got (probably–but this is just a guess) mis-translated as Southern. Perhaps the original name, which Taverner wrote as Sutte was really “souhaiter,” which means “Hope.” It is alive here in this place.
Looking along the Back Cove it’s not hard to envision the boats that once tied up here. Unloading and reloading the precious cod. It’s filled with houses now but in times past John Best and his Ancestors harvested their vegetables there–mostly potatoes but quite a few carrots, turnips and cabbage.
John’s son, John, usually called Alex (his middle name is Alexander) is now in his mid-seventies. Just two days ago he said:We had some good friends in Arnold’s Cove. One day my father asked one of the fellows who normally came by on a regular basis to collect the fish for ‘old Wareham’ to bring him up four sticks of tobacco for him the next time he came by to collect. The next day we were all over in the Back Cove at the potatoes and my mother asked “who’s that rowing up there just past Duck Island?” She could see one fellow in a dory making his way up from Arnold’s Cove. When he got close you could see it was my father’s buddy. He’s rowed all the way up from Arnold’s Cove to bring father his tobacco. He came ashore and he had a yarn (means ‘conversation’) with my father and then they had a good mug-up (snack but in this case he meant meal). After that he put up the sail and went back home.
Hope, yes. But also trust and hard work.
Back in the harbour the water is calm and it’s still quiet. Gear is stored away. The crab pots are sitting neatly next to the ropes and boxes that will eventually hold the creatures. The pots are not used to the quiet. The 40 (…ish) foot boats that carry them steam up the bay and on to St. Pierre bank. The water always has a swell on and it’s generally windy. Over the side they go! After the collapse of the Alaskan King Crab industry in the late ‘eighties the fishers discovered a reasonable substitute in the Atlantic Snow Crab. Just in time–the cod fishery had just collapsed and the fishers were desperate for a substitute.
For a time the fishery was lucrative–extremely so. That soon changed as more and more got in on the cat. Today it still provides a decent source of income for many. But it’s hard, dangerous work.
And the hardy resourceful people around here are well suited to it.
The lobster pots are sitting idle too. The season is very short and nowhere as profitable as it once was. But it is still vital.
The federal government recently upgraded the harbour facilities here so it can’t be over. The new breakwater stretches out…
But like the road ahead, it, too, seems unfinished. Whee will it end up?
Like the boats in Bests Cove, these ones don’t take too kindly to sitting idle.
But you’d never tell, they look so at home with their masts pointing straight up. They’re not at home, though. They need to be out, their masts going to and fro, scraping away at the sky. Too many days like this and they’ll leave on their own…
At the end of the harbour the bottom pond is starting to catch over. In times past it would not be unusual to have as many as three separate hockey games going on if the weather and ice conditions were just right. These days, though, with so many of the young people moving away yo would be lucky to see even one. Not today. The ice is still black and thin.
Down at the park it’s much the same story. Jack’s Pond is starting to ice over but it will be weeks yet before the ice will be safe enough to venture out on.
So the harbour is quiet. Not a soul on the water. Nobody out on the road or in the garden. Are they down in the park–the place where so many go when they are not at work?
There are 30-40 trailers here but most are just in storage, parked here for the winter. A few are in use. Some of the workers at the nearby Offshore Construction Facility make their home here during the workweek.
But not today. Even Ivan’s not at home–probably visiting family up in Arnold’s Cove.
It’s now late afternoon. Back at Whiffen’s Cove (not to be confused with Whiffen Head) it’s still quiet and calm.
Some more gear–again stored away for use later on next summer.
And the boats, tied up.
Resting, perhaps, but not for too long.
The sun is going down now a quiet day is coming to an end. There’s been no fish today.
But tomorrow is another day. The wind is coming up and, as it stirs the flag, the need and longing will stir those who rested today.
Ports are a federal affair so the government of Canada, not the provincial government, has jurisdiction here. The calm is lifting Looking at the flag, now waving in the wind, it’s not hard to feel a sense of pride.
But here in NL we are different; we have salt water in our veins. Ask us who we are and we’ll say, “Newfoundlanders” or “Labradorians.” We have had to work very hard to live here and that hard work instills within us all a great sense of pride and of hope.
There’s no fish today.
But hope remains that we will do our best to make sure that there will be fish tomorrow. A new wind is blowing in…