June 22nd. I am standing in a bleak, gravelled, parking lot beside this vast tin barn. It is extravagantly labelled: "The St Anthony's Olympia."

To the locals, it is simply: "The Arena". The place where everything happens: "Valentine Skating Parties." "Adult Broomball." "Wrestling Extravaganzas," and "The Annual Santa Clause Parade." Tonight it's "Buddy Wasisname and The Other Fellows," icons on the humour and music scene.

Fog rolled into our remote North Western corner of Newfoundland this morning, putting "Iceberg viewing" and "Whale watching" tours on hold.

How remote? Vikings once landed up at L'Anse aux Meadows. Dr Wilfred Grenfell built a hospital here to help The Inuit, way back in the 1800's. Labrador lies just across The Straits of Belle Isle. A return flight to St John's costs $500 - The bus takes 24 hours, if you don't get nailed by a moose on the way!

The line zigs and zags between tradesmen's vans; between trucks piled with crab traps, fishing nets and engine parts. Black leather jackets, baseball caps, plaid shirts, jeans and sneakers are the natural dress code in a place where the weather can oscillate through 4 seasons, while you sip a coffee at Tim Horton's.

After half an hour, the fog begins to bite through my fleece jacket. "When do the tickets go on sale?" I anxiously ask Laura, a lab technician, who has dragged her 12-year-old daughter along for company. "They should open the window in an hour or so," she replies, eyeing my horrified look with a grin.

In Newfoundland, a gathering of more than one person is a social event. Two cars outside a convenience store or an Irving gas station, will soon breed a dozen more. "Can't miss the gossip b'ye!"

Here, they are as interested in me as I am in them. After all I am neither a "townie" nor a "bayman" - I am "from away."

When the cod moratorium of 1992 threw 40,000 people out of a job, Laura's fisherman husband found summer work in Deer Lake.

He returns in winter to shovel snow and chop firewood. It takes six cords to keep the woodstove blazing until spring. Emergency supplies are piled somewhere beside the highway, ready to be hauled by sleigh and skidoo should the freeze last too long.

He is lucky. Many have been forced out of tight-knit communities to work in Fort MacMurray or Labrador, becoming strangers to their families.

There are around 50 people ahead of us. Dust and gravel fly as a steady stream of pickups wheel into the lot. Soon, like a rising spring tide, the line-up fills every remaining crack, crevice and pore, before overflowing into the street.

Sean O'Connor, today a crabber, (maybe tomorrow he'll fish for Halibut or Yellowfin depending on the openings?), has readied his gill-netter for a gap in the fog. "Gotta stay loose b'ye. Gotta pick up them stamps for the EI, see." He explains in a brogue as dense as an Irish peat bog. "I'm here for the woif, see. She really loves Buddy!"

An hour has elapsed. A buzz of anticipation is fomenting. Seems like the whole town has turned out to freeze in this parking lot.

"In winter, I rides my bike to the library and I reads, see. I likes reading," explains Laura's bright-eyed daughter. "Never 'ad no time fer arckey or 'opping the clampers" (Jumping the ice-pans, which finally receded from the harbour last week) "When the snow drifts too high against the 'ouse, I gits outta the upstairs winda and hikes to the bus. They closes the school at 45 below". Her West Country brogue is a gift from Cornish ancestors.

There is muttering among the crowd. A door opens. We are finally moving. The hour has shot by. I understand a little more about a people whose very survival, whether at sea, through harsh winters, or facing financial ruin, has always depended on mutual trust.

Over a thousand folks have shelled out $29 to sit on an odd assortment of school chairs. (Not bad from a population of 2500). Thankfully the ice has gone but "keep your cap and coat on b'ye, you can still see your breath!" Oh and don't run into the Plexiglas.

Two screens hang beside the stage. A couple of rows of spotlights are screwed to the ceiling. The announcer tests his mike. The pandemonium from chat, cell-phones and chair legs scraping against the bare concrete floor, slows for a brief moment - Then "Give a loud welcome to Buddy Wasisname and The Other Fellows!!!"

In rural Newfoundland, great performances happen in arenas, church basements, parish halls, motel bars and even kitchens. Catch a play at Cow Head and you might find an actor or two from Stratford. Tiny, Woody Point Theatre, will host George Bowering, Linden MacIntyre and Donna Morrissey this August.

On your way down the Northern Peninsular, save time for a few days hiking in Gros Morne National Park. Soaring cliffs and roaring waterfalls seem odd in a place they call The Rock.

So you left your boots at home? At least take the spectacular boat trip around Western Brook Pond. Your driver might be Reg Williams, accordionist and clown in "Anchors Aweigh," playing nightly to sold-out crowds at The Oceanview Motel in Rocky Harbour. He owns the boats - Used to own the motel too. Like the crabber said, "Gotta stay loose b'ye!"

The west coast has seen little of the Hibernia oil money, which keeps the pubs of St Johns hopping a world away. Empty harbours. Abandoned root cellars. Fish boats, hauled, blocked, and forgotten. Boarded-up homes in picture-perfect outports. Yet it is the stark, rugged, beauty of the area and a strong spirit of survival by those who remain, which is so appealing.

I have been on the island for 3 weeks and it has grabbed my soul. It is a unique foreign land, filled with openhearted generous people so used to trust that they feel vulnerable away from home. Are they, as a fellow tourist observed, the last real people?




DRIVING: With limited time the best way to drive to Western Newfoundland is to take the ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port-aux-Basques. (The distance between St Johns and St Anthony is 1100 Km's without deviation).

FLYING: WestJet now flies from Western Canada into Deer Lake via Toronto. Watch for seat sales - Especially in spring and fall.

GETTING AROUND: The bus system is useless for tourists. Rent a car in Deer Lake. Try to minimise extra mileage charges.

WHEN TO GO: I went in mid-June inspired by a seat sale. The weather was volatile! Fog, rain, sunny and hot. A good time to view icebergs, whale watch and avoid crowds.

ACCOMMODATION: Most accommodation in Western Newfoundland is provided by B&B operators and the occasional motel. Expect to pay around $100 a night or $45-$60 share bath.
Book ahead in high season.

FOOD: A lobster dinner costs around $25. Cods tongues. Cod and Scrunchins (Deep-fried pork fat). A Jigs dinner (Corned beef and cabbage). All are local fare and should be tried!

WHY GO?: Newfoundland seems as close to Belfast as it is to Ottawa - and it shows in the landscape and humour. I spent 10 days in the West including a day in Labrador - Barely enough.



Copyright © 2007 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.