We are tucked into a little cove with stern lines out, tied Chilean style to the shore and protected by a high hill from the nor'easterly forecast to come roaring through tonight with gusts to 40 knots. The town of Burgeo lies a short dinghy ride south of us, across Short Reach, the inlet where the schooners used to come to offload their catch. A fish plant still operates at the head of Short Reach, but it no longer processes cod as all cod fishing has been banned in Newfoundland waters since 1992 when the Atlantic fishery collapsed. It now produces fish meal from whatever the few trawlers left still bring in, a sad ghost of its former self. Over our bow we can see the short channel connecting Short Reach to Long Reach, the narrow inlet some two miles long surrounded by knobby hills covered by scrub pines large enough to hold a hundred boats.
Newfoundlanders call their island "The Rock" with equal parts pride and humility. Their ancestors carved tiny communities out of hard granite at the feet of towering bald-headed cliffs connected to the rest of the world only by sea. They chose tiny coves at the seaward end of long fjords so they could row their solid dinghies out to the open sea to fish and made it possible for the sailing schooners that called to collect the cod to reach them. These outports were completely isolated for entire seasons; their residents totally dependent on one another and what they could eke out of the hard land and the fruitful waters for their sustenance and their lives. Whole communities could and did starve over the winter, only to be discovered in the spring by the first boat to put in to the harbor. Those early settlers braved fog, gales, winter storms, short summers and pounding rain, and somehow they clung to their rock and survived.
The gasoline engine allowed fishing communities to move inland to more protected locations. Rough dirt roads cut through the muskeg and granite between the largest outports evolved into a network of roads that tied the province to the rest of Canada. The Canadian government began a forced resettlement of many of the remaining outport communities in order to create larger communities that could be modernized with schools, hospitals, electricity and telephones. Today the south coast of Newfoundland is littered with abandoned outports, anywhere from a few dozen to sixty small wooden houses left clinging precariously to the rocky shore - paint peeling, roofs caving in - a fading reminder of the indomitable people who first carved out a precarious existence on this unforgiving shore.
Today a half dozen or so outports still remain, their inhabitants struggling to preserve a way of life despite the collapse of the fishery and the lack of economic opportunity. The battle may be a losing one - last year the people of Grand Bruit voted their town into oblivion and left the only home most of them had known for a lifetime. The OCC crews that visited it spoke of a town deserted as if in panic - houses filled with furniture, curtains hanging in windows, personal belongings abandoned.
Burgeo was an outport until 1979 when a spur of the Trans-Canada highway that crosses Newfoundland was pushed through the muskeg and glacier-carved granite to reach the community of a couple thousand people. The road has not stopped the gradual eroding of the population, and the town's future remains uncertain. But its inhabitants have not forgotten the lessons learned during the long years of isolation. As Farley Mowat wrote about its inhabitants:
"They were truly a people out of time Being a people for whom adversity was natural, they had retained a remarkable capacity for tolerance of other human beings, together with qualities of generosity toward one another and toward strangers in their midst which surpassed anything I had ever known except, perhaps, among the Eskimos."
The OCC Newfoundland fleet is gathering here for a big party in town tomorrow night where with a buffet dinner of Newfoundland delicacies like fishcakes, moose soup, mooseburgers and desserts made from partridgeberries and bakeapples. The community has already shown their generosity to the OCC fleet in dozens of ways. A couple of people are taking the visitors on car tours of the area, another has brought spring water because the water on the dock is questionable for drinking, one has organized a fuel delivery. Two boats are being serviced at the Marine Services Center; one has been hauled out on the 70-ton Travelift. For the brief time we are here, we are being welcomed as honored guests and taken in like long lost relatives.
The outports may be dying, but the outport mentality burns bright in the inhabitants that still persevere on this ironbound coast.