Here I recount the story of a trip to Newfoundland, out of season, with that rather fine photographer and good guy, Joe Cornish. Published in Outdoor Photography. © Niall Benvie 2003.
February. Sea fog embraces Newfoundland’s Avalon peninsula like a comfort blanket: grey with antiquity, it’s never far away and is almost impossible to be rid of. Looking landward, sombre hillslopes darkened by meltwater are speckled in their cold recesses by stubborn, crusty snow. Lower down, dense spruce forest roots in a carrot’s depth of soil, the trees seeking support from one another as they cling on between a rock and a gale. In the cove where we stand, spray-slicked pebbles the colour of the sea reflect the hopeless sky. But there is a change underway; the horizon is becoming visible, albeit smudged by fog. A wind has barged into the cove spoiling for a fight with anything that stands up to it. Waves lap anxiously along the hulls of moored boats; the flag above the war memorial is flustered. As a solitary gull arcs wildly past us I recall some lines from the novel I’ve just started – Edward Riche’s “Rare Birds”; “What nature of demented traveller would visit Newfoundland during the 6 months of the year it’s held in winter’s icy grasp…?” Well, Joe Cornish and I would, for different reasons but in a common cause; to produce photography of one of the less-well covered parts of the north Atlantic rim – and to do so at a time it is visited by few other photographers.
I had another purpose to the trip – to write a story about how Newfoundlanders have coped with their fisheries crisis – something with a resonance closer to home in light of the EU whitefish quota cuts imposed earlier in the year. For almost 500 years, the fishery in the deep waters off Newfoundland was worked as if it was inexhaustible. Money from cod built the first city in North America – Newfoundland’s capital, St John’s – and dried salted cod fed European voyages of exploration in the New World. But in 1992, after years of ignoring warning signs, the Canadian government was forced to impose a moratorium on the commercial cod fishery. Forty thousand people lost their jobs, the breath was knocked out of the Newfoundland economy and communities went into terminal decline. Best known of the fishing areas are the Grand Banks, a complex of vast, nutrient-rich shoals fringing Atlantic Canada’s continental shelf, created when glaciers moved soil from land to sea. Crucially, this is also the place where warm currents travelling up from the Gulf of Mexico collide with cold ones moving down from Greenland. Fog is not the only result: in the ocean, the agitation stirs up nitrates in the sediment, nourishing phytoplankton, which feeds zooplankton and up through the food chain to the cod. It was this combination of natural phenomena that created the conditions for the most productive cod fishery ever known. As recently as the 1970’s, three men in a dory could, with baited hand-lines, pull up 5-6000lbs of cod in a morning during the spring migration. From Cape Cod, MA, to St John’s, Newfoundland, cod was king. But for now, it’s a monarch in exile. An estimated 50 000 people – many of them youngsters – have left the island altogether in the last 12 years, many heading to the tar-sand town of Fort McMurray in Alberta, wryly referred to as Newfoundland’s third city. About 85 % of the population is from here.
For the first part of the visit we based ourselves at Petty Harbour, 20 minutes down the Avalon peninsula from St John’s. The Petty Harbour Protected Area is a model of fishery conservation and I was anxious to interview some of the people behind it. It was also conveniently sited for visiting Cape Spear, the most easterly point of land on the North American landmass. Indeed, so far east is this 400 000 square kilometre island ( until 1949 a British protectorate) that the time difference in winter between St John’s and London is just 3.5 hours. There was a familiarity in the names on Bed and Breakfast signs too: Ethel and Ernie; Archie and Marie; Reg and Mildred. The accents we heard, though deferring to Canadian, had heavy inflections of Irish and West Country.
There were few other visitors about in early February. Most come in the summer months to watch hump-backed whales, to view the house sized icebergs that are delivered on cold currents from Greenland or to visit the island’s huge sea bird colonies. Others go to the west of the island to walk in the fjord landscapes of the Gros Morne National Park where encounters with moose, an introduction to the island, are almost guaranteed. Neither of us had any preconceived ideas of what the island would look like though the fog and all-round rain that dogged the first part of the trip could have been anticipated. My writing done, we decided to move north, to try to get out of the fog and find other attractive coastal features. Joe identified the Bonavista Peninsula – the site of John Cabot’s landing in 1497 – as a possible alternative and with a change in venue came one in the weather too. On the map, this finger of rocked hacked by cold north Atlantic waves was appealing because of its north-south orientation, allowing us to work dusk and dawn locations with ease from our base in the crabbing port of Bonavista. On viewing, its combination of ice, sea stacks and rugged rocks, was compelling.
We were excited on arrival to see pressure ridges of sea ice packed along the shore and cliffs coated in ice where sea water had splashed them. But the sea was the colour of trouble and the wind sounded like bad news; it looked like another storm was coming. That night, the wind reached over 100 kmph. Though it had abated a little by the following day, it was still strong enough to create problems for Joe who was stoically shooting everything on 5 x 4. The Weather Channel’s promise of minus 9 degrees Celsius was to be qualified by a wind that lowered the effective temperature to about minus 20 degrees, enough to turn hands the colour of skimmed milk during film changes. Nevertheless, wild, icy coastlines and bruised skies at dawn and dusk seemed to raise the pain threshold. In these conditions I valued the speed of shooting 35 mm and being able to use all my lenses (except the 500 mm). But although Joe was largely restricted to wide angles because of the wind, I envied his ability to produce “purer” photographs – where verticals were corrected and foreground to background sharpness could be properly accommodated – than was possible in the miniature format.
The remainder of the trip was an exercise in avoiding snow storms – two bad ones came through on days we were not travelling far – watching out for “ambush ice” (sheet ice with a thin covering of snow) and relishing the opportunity each day to work in coastal conditions rarely experienced at home. Wildlife was, perhaps understandably, elusive and apart from slate coloured juncos at a bird table, the wildlife highlights were a roadside red fox and bald eagle.
A summer or autumn visit to Newfoundland has a strong appeal – not least because of the promise of fabulous colours in September on the maritime heaths around Cape Spear; even in deep winter they retained their mix of hues. Landward, it is not the most dramatic of landscapes but this is more than compensated for by the richness and diversity of it coastlines- and generosity of the Newfoundlanders.