Sunday, January 29, 2012

Living the Tradition

One of my favorite annual events took place on Sunday afternoon. Young Folk at the Hall is a musical concert sponsored by the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Arts Society to foster and encourage a love of traditional music in the province's younger residents. It's organized by a man who has the status of musical legend in NL, Fergus O'Byrne, who came here in the 1970s as a member of the Irish band Ryan's Fancy. This was the eleventh year that YFATH has taken place, and each year's crop of young performers seems to be better than the last. The thirty or so participants get together on two successive Saturdays to form a number of smaller groups, then choose repertoire and rehearse. They have literally only a few hours in each other's company to put together a set featuring the musical talents of the group's members.
The "Young Folk" involved range in age from seven to seventeen, and there are a wide range of skill levels present. That's the idea; kids mentoring other kids and helping one another learn more about the traditional songs and tunes of Newfoundland. One of the most heartening facets of the program is that for the last several years, young people who have graduated from the program have returned to facilitate the experience for the new, younger participants. The smiles on their faces during the performances -- and during the standing ovation at the end of the concert -- are a clear indicator that these young people are having a great time, and it's a great time that doesn't involve video games, computers, TV or a trip to the mall.
The choice of material is surprisingly varied, with traditional and contemporary songs, instrumental tunes, and a wide range of instruments from fiddles and tin whistles to cello and mandolin. Songs are often arranged so that each member of the group contributes a verse, so every participant is featured at least briefly. It's inspiring to watch the spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that's demonstrated by these young people. It's also wonderful to watch them develop polish and professionalism year by year as they take part in Young Folk; seeing the shy seven-year-old becoming a poised and confident nine- or ten-year-old and stepping in to mentor younger participants. Young Folk at the Hall not only encourages an appreciation of the traditional music of the province, it provides an opportunity for young people to stretch their wings as performers, and to develop a passion for the musical heritage that sets Newfoundland and Labrador apart.
Photos: 1) Hayleigh McGrath; 2) The Pull Hair Dummies (William Corbett, Leslie Amminson, Bryan Snow, Victoria Smith, Chelsea Parsons) 3) Ellen Power 4) Finale with all participants performing "Mussels in the Corner".

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Embracing the Fog

A lifetime of Atlantic Canadian summers have taught me a very important lesson: sometimes there's fog. The scientific explanation, of course, is that the fog is created by the temperature differential between the warm land and the cold sea water. As the summer progresses, foggy days become less frequent because the water is warming up; June, though, is a time when an occasional foggy day just has to be expected. Since it's a natural phenomenon that just can't be controlled by the likes of me, the only thing to do is to find a way to embrace it and appreciate it. By the boatload I know it can be a disappointment to encounter fog at a vacation destination, and I don't particularly want to sound like Pollyanna, but accepting the fact that fog happens can help to take some of the sting out of reduced visibility. In other words, it's good to find some Zen. To me, fog is almost like a living thing; it swirls and sweeps and eddies, forming almost instantly on a changing breeze and disappearing almost as quickly. It creates an air of mystery and seems to change the contours of the familiar. It can form an all-encompassing blanket or drift in wisps on a sunlit shore. It's perhaps at is most playful around icebergs, forming and dissipating almost on a whim. Fogbound My camera is almost always at hand, and foggy days are often the ones when the camera gets the most use. There's something so fleeting and elusive about a bank of fog flowing like a wave over a headland or softening the contours of a rocky outcrop that it's hard to resist the urge to capture its unique and arresting beauty. The fog really is part of the adventure! Pure Newfoundland

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Following the Caribou

What's the difference between a caribou and a reindeer? The truth is, it depends which side of the fence it's on. They're the same species, Rangifer tarandus; a reindeer is simply a domesticated caribou. The caribou is a member of the deer family that is found in Arctic and Subarctic regions, and can be either migratory or resident. Although caribou were once common as far south as the state of Maine, where efforts to reintroduce them have been unsuccessful, Newfoundland is now home to the world's southernmost remaining wild herd of these animals.
In my travels on the Avalon Peninsula, I frequently see small groups of caribou, up to 20 or 25 animals, on the barrens near Trepassey and St. Shott's, and also near St. Bride's. These two areas are part of the Eastern Hyper-Oceanic Barrens, and provide great opportunities for viewing since there are few trees apart from small clumps of tuckamore. In the spring, the caribou are easy to spot since their pale winter coats and stand out against the landscape even at a distance.
Both males and females produce antlers, but those of the males' antlers are more robust and graceful. As the summer progresses, the animals' coats go through a stage of shedding and regrowth when they can look decidedly disreputable, like the stag pictured below. The small grazing groups we see at this time of year usually consist of a large male and several females and immature males. The females often have calves with them, although these young animals are especially vulnerable to coyote predation. Caribou are relatively docile and don't spook easily. We sometimes encounter them on the road and they aren't inclined to either startle or get out of the way. If there's a caribou in the road, motorists often stop for pictures and the animals seem more than willing to pose for a snapshot. They'll wander along the center line of the road contentedly, ignoring any threat from passing traffic. Fortunately, most motorists are willing to stop and enjoy the event instead of pushing to get past.
By late summer, the caribou start to look their best; their dark summer coats have grown in completely and all traces of the pale winter coats are gone. The males' antlers are at their most spectacular, just in time to attract attention and fend off competition during mating season. They can be more difficult to spot at this time of year, since their coats blend in against the changing colours of the landscape. In early summer the barrens are green, but as the year progresses the vegetation begins to take on golden and reddish tones. This change enhances the outlines of the sweeping hills and streambeds, creating dramatic fields of warm colour broken by rocky outcrops and highlighting the sapphire-blue ponds.
There are still places in Newfoundland and Labrador where it's possible to see caribou by the thousands -- the George River herd, for example, is estimated to contain about 50,000 animals. This is a drastic reduction from the last census, however; the herd has declined from 380,000 animals in 2001. Once plentiful in Newfoundland and Labrador, the caribou is now under pressure from increasing settlement, more human presence on the land, and a growing coyote population. In addition, an older problem resurfaces in cycles: a disease commonly known as brain worm and caused by the nematode Elaphostrongylus rangiferi. The introduction of this nematode was the unintended consequence of an attempt to improve the Newfoundland caribou herd: in 1908 a herd of 300 reindeer was brought from Norway to St. Anthony and small groups of them were herded to various parts of the island. The native caribou population at the time was actively hunted for food, and numbers had declined significantly. It was believed that the introduction of these Norwegian caribou would not only help to increase those numbers but improve the quality of the stock; instead, the introduced animals were hosts to the brain worm nematode and its effects spread across the island in the areas the new animals crossed. The native caribou population has never fully recovered from this accidental introduction.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Notes from Iceberg Alley

Icebergs. I love the variety of shapes, sizes and colours of these great mountains of ice that drift past Newfoundland's coast in the spring. Most are calved from the glaciers of Greenland, with a few coming from the islands of Canada's eastern Arctic, often spending a year or more reaching the Davis Strait before drifting into Newfoundland waters via the Labrador current. The ice in these bergs is ancient, some of it formed more than 15,000 years ago. Spotting an iceberg in the distance, on its slow, majestic journey, is always a thrill. Sunlight on the white surface of a berg can make it visible miles away on the horizon -- and illuminates the underwater shelves of the berg with an intense, otherworldly glow.
The white or pale blue appearance of most icebergs comes from the fact that the ice is full of air bubbles, but the ice has been formed under tremendous pressure. The dramatic blue streaks that often appear in icebergs are meltwater streaks, or areas where melted ice has re-frozen without bubbles. These darker streaks not only stand out against this pale surface, their rates of melt can be different so as the iceberg melts they may stand out from the surface or appear as deep grooves. Occasional dirty streaks are visible as well, the result of dust or other natural impurities that have settled on the glacier's surface as it was being formed. Bergs are so large that they can create their own micro-climates, causing swirls of mist to form and eddy gracefully around them on the hottest summer day.
It's the shapes, though, that fascinate me. Harsh, jagged surfaces of newly broken ice are sculpted by seawater into soft, fluid forms. Textures may be smooth, pitted, deeply grooved or pebbly, and each surface texture plays new tricks with the light to create unusual effects. A bit of imagination is all it takes to see dragons, griffons, skyscrapers and spaceships. Iceberg season is just around the corner -- they'll start to appear along Newfoundland's coast in April, just as one particular berg did a hundred years ago, for a date with destiny in the form of the Titanic. The season will last, depending on the section of the Newfoundland and Labrador coastline, until sometime in August on average. In 2011, though, there were so many icebergs of massive size that they lingered far longer, right into October. Here's to a good iceberg season. I think a toast is in order -- with an Iceberg beer, of course.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Magic at the Cape

Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve lies at the southwest corner of the Avalon Peninsula, near the mouth of Placentia Bay. It's roughly a two-hour drive from St. John's, across wide-open rocky barrens, through forested regions, and alongside some beautiful coastal scenery. The last few kilometres of the trip are on an access road that travels across eastern hyper-oceanic barrens, an eco-region that has almost no tree cover apart from small stands of stunted balsam fir locally referred to as "tuckamore" -- this is one of the worlds most southerly examples of sub-arctic tundra. There's a visitor centre with restrooms and a well-stocked gift shop, and a staff of knowledgeable on-site interpreters from the Parks and Natural Areas division of Newfoundland's Department of Environment and Conservation. A twenty-minute walk from this visitor centre leads to the site's principal attraction, Bird Rock. On this 100-metre tall sandstone sea stack, thousands of northern gannets or Morus bassanus occupy precarious-looking nesting sites from early spring through autumn. Early in the season, through the month of June, cool temperatures and fog often dominate the weather at the Cape; it might not be the conventional view, but a foggy day is my favourite way to experience this remarkable spot.
Visiting the Cape in the fog is an act of faith: there are days when it's so thick that the visitor centre is barely visible from its parking lot, yet even on those days it's possible to get excellent views on gannets at their nesting site. The walk along the well-marked trail becomes an epic journey straight out of Tolkien, up hill and down dale, the air filled with the raucous cries of murres and razorbills. The seabirds' voices fade out as the trail passes behind a large rounded hill, then suddenly the harsh "grrah, grrah, grrah" of the gannets. They're still not visible, mind you, but their calls are reassuring -- there's definitely something out there! A few more metres down the trail, through a brief rocky section, and the shape of Bird Rock begins to resolve itself through the mist. The bright white bodies, black wingtips, and golden heads of the birds stand out against the surrounding grey. The viewing area is so close to the nesting rock, a mere 15 metres away, that the views are excellent even in the thickest of fog. Every inch of the stack's rugged dome seems to be occupied, with nesting pairs of gannets and their young.
Sometimes Nature is kind and rewards this foggy trek with a few minutes of sunshine; in fact, depending upon the wind direction there may not be a trace of fog. Whatever the conditions, though, this observation area near Bird Rock is a place to remain and enjoy the proximity of these beautiful, graceful creatures. They wheel overhead on the breeze, dropping suddenly onto their nests before exchanging greetings with their mates. The partners touch beaks in a behavior called fencing, the "honey, I'm home" of the gannet world. Shortly after one partner's return, the other leaves on a foraging mission. Watching the newly-returned partner closely will sometimes provide an opportunity to see one of the rock's more interesting sights, the feeding of the pair's chick. The hardest part of a visit to Cape St. Mary's, for me, is tearing myself away from the spectacle of Bird Rock to start back up the trail. I never tire of this place and its magic.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ireland's Eye Encounter

In the deepwater trenches of Newfoundland's Trinity and Bonavista Bays, there is a population of sperm whales that can be seen during the summer months. They're males; female sperm whales have the great good sense to stay in water that's warmer than 15 degrees Celsius (59F), considerably warmer than the water around Newfoundland. These whales are deep water feeders; they inhabit all the oceans of the world, but we're fortunate enough to be able to spot them just offshore. Sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whales, or odontocetes, and the males can reach 16 metres (52 feet) in length, and they have the largest brain of any animal. But enough about the science -- the thing that makes seeing these whales so exciting is their elusiveness. They tend to dive so deep that they're often submerged for 45 minutes or more at a time. When they return to the surface, their single blowholes create a spout that angles close above the water, rather than the tall vertical spouts of many other species. This is a mixed blessing, since it makes them more difficult to spot but easy to identify. Because of this long, deep diving habit they tend to spend a lot of time at the surface between dives: about eight minutes on average, instead of the diving-and-surfacing cycle of baleen whales like humpbacks. It's at the end of this surfacing period, the whale will begin to signal its preparation for a deep dive by arching its back. After a final, deep inhalation, it raises its massive tail vertically out of the water before slowly, gracefully slipping beneath the surface. What a show! Thanks to Kris and Shawna Prince of Sea of Whales Adventures for their knowledge and expertise.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Port Union's decaying heritage, and hope for rebuilding

Port Union, Trinity Bay North, is North America's only union-built town. It began in a flurry of hope and promise in 1916, a project of the Fishermen's Protective Union spearheaded by Sir William Ford Coaker, union leader and visionary. The organization was established to break the merchants' stranglehold not only on salt fish prices but on all aspects of the fishery and trade. By the 1920s the community included the publishing offices of The Fishermen's Advocate, the union's weekly newspaper, and Congress Hall, site of the union's annual convention, a hotel, a school, a woodworking factory and a power generating plant. A devastating fire in the 1940s renewed interest and efforts behind the community, as the damaged buildings were replaced. Over the years, though, interest in the union waned and the bustling community began to slow down and fall into disrepair. By the 1990s, the cod moratorium brought an end to the activities of the FPU and the buildings were in a state of neglect.
A local group, the Sir William Ford Coaker Heritage Foundation, has been formed to resurrect this historic district of the town, though, and work is under way to restore a portion of the town. It's now possible to tour the site during the summer season. The bulk of the restoration is taking place along the waterfront. Much of the row housing provided for working-class families is in a serious state of disrepair and may be beyond salvaging. The buildings show the years of care that predates this neglect, though, with their many layers of paint from successive "sprucing up". Learn more about the Fishermen's Protective Union and the Heritage Foundation here.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Might as well face it, I'm addicted to puffins

It's official: I'm addicted to puffins. 95% of these little seabirds here in North America, nest around the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. There are several spots along the course of my regular Newfoundland Adventure tour where it's possible to get close-up views of them, but the best place for dry-land spotting is Elliston, near Bonavista. When conditions are right and luck is with us, we sometimes experience the thrill of several puffins landing on the mainland side of the tickle, or narrow channel between the headland and the puffins' nesting area. When this happens, the photo opportunities are remarkable. There's a sense of wonder that comes with having wild birds like these choose to alight nearby; lowered voices and slow, easy movement are in order then. If the puffins don't feel threatened they'll stay, almost fearlessly, in close proximity to the people who have come to see them. A visit to Elliston can provide a truly memorable opportunity to experience nature's wonders.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Homeward Bound.

Little Juno is at home with her new family after a travel adventure yesterday. She was born in Nova Scotia, and was headed for her new home in Newfoundland. Since my travel dates happened to coincide nicely with hers, I was entrusted with the considerable responsibility of being her courier. I met her breeder at the airport and transferred my furry charge into a soft-sided kennel that met airline regulations, then checked in with our airline. At security, a well-trained employee made scanning work as smoothly as possible; there was no rush as she instructed me to get all my other gear ready, then remove Juno from her kennel and walk through with her; she placed the kennel on the belt first, so that it would be the first item through the scanner, ready for Juno's return. The little pup was unfailingly cheerful and curious, even when she decided to demonstrate her projectile vomiting skills through the end of the kennel. The airport cleaner who assisted with the resulting mess was courteous and sympathetic, thank goodness. After a quick cleanup in the ladies' room, Juno and I were on our way again. Both in the departure lounge and on the plane, she was as good as gold, even during a landing that saw us buffeted by strong winds. Her new owner was waiting at the airport, ready to take her home to her new family. Good luck, little one, and have a wonderful time!

Friday, January 13, 2012

You never know what you'll find.

Beach walks turn into beachcombing. It's a natural progression. Stopping for a look at what the tide has just washed in feels like the right thing to do. I've seen many beach walkers who are there for the exercise; who hit their stride and keep walking no matter what treasures lie half-hidden in the sand. I'm not one of those beach walkers. I've got to investigate that lost glove or crab shell or bit of sea-etched glass, and probably take time for a picture. I don't know how this three-legged table for splitting fish found its way to Daniel's Head Beach on Cape Sable Island, but I'm glad it did.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A blast of winter

A blast of winter arrived today, bringing snow and wind. Typical of this coastal climate, though, it's already begun to turn to rain -- tomorrow the snow will be a memory. I love the spur-of-the-moment changes from snow to rain, from sun to fog, from thundershowers to rock-splitting sun. Maritime weather is full of surprises, but the one thing that can be said for it is that it's never boring!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Evening light, low tide

Evening light, low tide by Jean Knowles
Evening light, low tide, a photo by Jean Knowles on Flickr.

Living on the edge

Living on the eastern edge of North America means being in love with the region and its moods.  Guilty.  Today is a beautiful, clear, sunny winter day but no matter what tomorrow brings there will be beauty for those who are willing to see it.