Monday, March 26, 2012

A Night to Remember

Coming up in just over two weeks is an extremely poignant anniversary; on the evening of April 14, 1912, the luxury liner Titanic struck an iceberg some 365 miles from St. John's, Newfoundland. The liner, built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast for the prestigious White Star Line, was launched on May 31, 1911. She was fitted out with state-of-the-art technology, including a series of sixteen watertight compartments that could be closed by the captain's mere flipping of a switch on the bridge. By Monday, April 1, of 1912 she came under the command of Captain Edward John Smith, who had served with the White Star Line for some thirty-two years. By April 10 she began to take on junior crew members, passengers, and the all-important coal to fire her massive boilers. Among the passengers were Thomas Andrews, Harland and Wolff's managing director, and White Star chairman Bruce Ismay, there to oversee the great ship's maiden voyage.

During her travel from Southampton, Titanic's two radio operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, received a number of warnings of a huge field of ice ahead of them, some of those warnings arriving as early as April 11. Standard procedure was that these warnings would have been logged as received and passed along to the officers on the bridge. Neither Phillips nor Bride was an employee of White Star; instead, they were employed by the Marconi Company and their function on board was primarily to send and receive private messages for paying passengers. On the night of April 14 as warnings continued to arrive, Phillips was busy sending messages to the Marconi station at Cape Race, Newfoundland. Out of frustration at being interrupted at his task by the wireless operator on the SS Californian sending yet another ice warning, he replied via Morse Code, "Shut up, shut up! I am busy; I am working Cape Race!" This message would be quoted later as an example of one of the factors that led to the Titanic disaster -- just fifteen minutes after Phillips sent it, Titanic struck an iceberg in that great icefield. Within hours, Titanic had slipped below the surface taking more than 1500 of her passengers and crew to a watery grave. Incompetence, unpreparedness, and arrogance had combined to create a tragedy that ranks among the worst marine disasters in history and arguably the most famous.

A number of events are planned to commemorate this landmark event; information about those taking place in Newfoundland can be found through Receiving Titanic; events begin on April 1st and carry on through the evening of April 14th, 2012.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Exploring on the South Shore

Wednesday dawned bright and clear with promise of record-high temperatures -- alarming from an environmental point of view but subversively attractive in the lean, cold, hungry month of March. It was definitely time for a road trip. I set out for Kejimkujik National Park's Seaside Adjunct at Port Joli. The area was set aside in 1988 to preserve a large section of Nova Scotia's coastal barrens; it consists of spruce and fir forests and bogs where orchids like Dragon's Mouth(Arethusa bulbosa) and Grass Pink (Calapogon tuberosus) and carnivorous Pitcher
plants (Sarracenia purpurea) can be found alongside the trail. A beautiful crescent-shaped beach of sparkling white sand lies approximately 2.2 km from the parking lot, accessible by a well-maintained walking trail. It was a beautiful day for the walk, with the temperature near 31° and sunny skies. The park is not yet officially open for the season, but the main trail to the beach was open; the longer, more scenic route, however, remains closed.

After my visit to the Seaside Adjunct I headed back toward the southwest, then turned down the
road along the east side of the Sable River to Jones Harbour, where two lobster boats were tied up at the wharf while another unloaded its newly caught lobsters into a car or storage unit floating just offshore. A bit of movement over the water caught my eye as I turned to the left, and I was delighted to see an adult bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) take flight from a low ledge. It flew low over the water toward the shore, then angled sharply upward to land in the top branches of a bare tree -- next to another adult, which I hadn't noticed before. The two were almost certainly a mated pair, since these birds tend to be very territorial during breeding season. After a quick word of thanks to the eagles for making my day, it was time to hit the road for Shag Harbour. What a great way to spend a beautiful day in sou'west Nova Scotia!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Waiting for the Sunrise -- Doctor's Cove, NS

Just a few kilometres down the road (toward Barrington Passage, not up the road toward Shag Harbour), the road bends wide around a broad cove that makes a perfect reflective surface for some pretty dramatic sunrises. The community is Doctor's Cove, and of course so is the body of water. The causeway to Cape Sable Island lies to the east just below the horizon, and provides definition for it. The land that encircles the cove almost completely helps to shelter it from the breeze, so the water is often glassy calm, and there are ledges of rock in the cove that make it difficult to
navigate in anything other than a very small boat, but certainly make interesting accents against the reflected colours of the sky. There's a nice, wide shoulder on the road through Doctor's Cove and a couple of places to park; all these factors add up to a great place to wait for the sunrise, and to enjoy its full scope over the water. Cold mornings even have the added attraction of mist or "seasmoke" rising from the still water.

In 2009, my sister Sally Van Natta rented a cottage in Doctor's Cove -- check out her image of the village with morning sun peeping through the fog here, and while you're at it, stay around long enough to explore her wonderful photos.

This morning was exceptionally mild for March, the second day in a row when southwestern Nova Scotia awoke to clear skies and temperatures well above freezing, a combination not usually seen until sometime in May. The air was filled with birdsong, and light clouds formed a delicate tracery in the eastern sky.
As the light intensified they began to glow orange; I waited in a likely spot overlooking the cove and the sunrise began to shape up into an especially nice one. The trees on a small point of land jutting out into the cove were perfectly reflected in the still water, and the sun burnished its calm surface. With a beautiful spring day on its way, I'm off to explore more of the South Shore and enjoy this wonderful weather!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Silver Thaw or Shelagh's Brush?

It's all in the timing, I suppose. In Newfoundland and Labrador, there's a belief that St. Patrick's Day brings with it a storm, usually one of the last significant storms of the winter. It's a deep-rooted tradition within the Irish-descended population in particular. The occurrence of a storm within a day or two of March 17 was so common that the storm came to be known as "St. Patrick's Storm". A lighter, less snow-laden storm occurring soon after the St. Patrick's storm soon became "Shelagh's Brush" -- the identity of Shelagh (or Sheila) has become a bit murky over the years, with some people referring to her as St. Patrick's wife while others think of her as his mother or even his housekeeper. The light snow of Shelagh's Brush was said to be the result of Shelagh taking a birch broom to the corners of the heavens in a spring-cleaning frenzy. Somehow, through the passing years, the two storms have merged in the collective psyche of Newfoundland and Labrador and now, the big storm on or about St. Patrick's Day has taken on the name of the later, less severe storm. This year, whether it belongs
to Shelagh or to the Saint himself, has packed a punch and created havoc with airline schedules. Instead of a few hours of snow, St. John's received several hours of freezing rain that glazed every surface in sight. Streets, sidewalks and parking lots became skating rinks early this morning, and the city echoed with the sound of windshields being scraped clean of their thick coatings of ice. The streets are clear now, and as the temperature rises the glittering burdens of trees and shrubs are clattering to the ground. One of the most common sights around town at this stage is a throng of intrepid
photographers bundled against the cold and rain, capturing the effects of the storm before they melt away. Whether it's the work of St. Patrick or Shelagh, whoever she might be, or just a "silver thaw" provided by Mother Nature, it's certainly beautiful in its own way; and in a place where the weather is often the first topic of conversation, it's certainly given everyone something to talk about!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Road Trip!

A long-postponed business trip on a March afternoon had an unexpected benefit: an opportunity to explore the southern reaches of Conception Bay on my way back. I've been wanting to visit the community of Conception Harbour for what seems like ages, but the opportunity didn't present itself until Wednesday. There are two scenes in this little community that have captured my attention; the first is a pair of tidy white houses and a row of red outbuildings associated with them, sometimes glimpsed from the main road across a small cove. They can also be seen, among other places, in the delightful blog posts of Vicky Taylor-Hood. The other is
a derelict steel-hulled ship run aground on a rocky point. The original plan had been to scuttle this vessel, the SS Sposa, along with four other disused whaling ships in the mid-1960s. While the others were sunk in deep water, the Sposa broke free during a storm and ran aground where she now lies. Whaling no longer takes place here, of course, but there are reminders of those days here and there along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Loving the Light

Winter can seem to last forever here in Atlantic Canada, but it brings with it an unexpected beauty; the angle of the sun at this time of year can create beautiful golden light in the early morning and late afternoon. It can give depth and definition to a scene that's otherwise fairly mundane, like a scrap of icy snow on the timbers of a wharf.

St. Patrick's Church, located at the western end of downtown St. John's, is situated in a spot that catches the light -- no tall buildings overshadow it, so the last rays of the winter sun find the church's tall spire and highlight it with rich, warm tones.
Late afternoon sun enriches the terracotta color of the Yellowbelly Brewery on George Street, and sparkles on a row of icicles on the railing.

The colourful name of this business harkens back to the times when Irish immigrants from the counties of Waterford and Wexford were arriving in St. John's. The Wexford men were nicknamed "Yellowbellies" after a hurling team from that county sported yellow sashes when they soundly defeated a team from Cornwall in a challenge match. The nickname followed them to Newfoundland; since Wexford men gathered in this area, the intersection of Water and George Streets became known as Yellowbelly Corner, a St. John's landmark.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Exploring the Port au Port Peninsula

On the west coast of Newfoundland lies a small, triangular peninsula connected to the island by a narrow isthmus. Accessed via Stephenville on Route 460, the Port au Port Peninsula is a little gem of beautiful coastal scenery and Acadian heritage. It divides Port au Port Bay, to the north, and St. George's Bay to the south. Stephenville itself, named after early resident Stephen LeBlanc, was the site of an American military base, Harmon Air Force Base, from the time of World War II until 1966. Today, the town is the service centre for the peninsula, with hotels, restaurants and shopping --
during July and August it's home to the popular Stephenville Theatre Festival. Route 460 continues along the southern coast of the peninsula past Felix Cove, Campbell's Creek and Jerry's Nose (was there ever a better place name?) to Sheaves Cove where a small side road leads to a seaside park with an impressive waterfall and some beautiful wave-sculpted rock formations. Another scenic park can be found at the tip of Cape St. George, where a distinctively-shaped rocky headland called The Boot stands amid tall red cliffs. At this point a turn onto Route 463 leads to the community of Mainland, where Red Island lies offshore. The island was named by Captain James Cook during his exploration of the region in 1767. The settlements in this area, like Three Rock Cove, Salmon Cove and Lourdes, lie on a broad coastal plateau. From Lourdes, a side trip to Long Point provides an opportunity to see a little-visited part of the province. The point extends over 20 km to the northeast, marked by sand dunes and summer cabins. The road to Long Point leads through Black Duck Brook, the home of fiddler and composer Emile Benoit, whose unique
style made him one of Newfoundland's most beloved musicians. Listen to one of his best-known compositions here. Back on Route 463, the village of Piccadilly is the site of Piccadilly Head Park, a camping and picnic park with white sand beaches and woodland walking trails. The Port au Port/Bay St. George area has a very active Folk Arts Council, which hosts a Folk Night on the last Saturday of every month in Stephenville as well as several instrumental sessions per week. There are accommodations in both Stephenville and Cape St. George and restaurants in several communities around the peninsula. The Newfoundland and Labrador tourism information website and local tourist bureaus can provide more information.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

What Lies Beyond

I'm intrigued by doors, or rather what lies beyond them. Battered and weather-beaten or freshly painted, they're all portals to a different world. Barn doors, shed doors, doors of well-kept houses or abandoned fishing stages; give me a door to photograph and I'm happy. I don't need to open the door and investigate what's on the other side -- in fact, the mystery is far more attractive than that knowledge would be.

I like those doors best when they're closed, because a closed door allows the imagination to create a separate world, forever unexplored. It holds the promise of things new and different and implies secrets that can't be guessed at. Windows are fine for looking through, for letting the sun flood in, for flinging open to catch a gentle spring breeze that carries the scent of wildflowers and salt water. Doors, on the other hand, are better for defining limits and creating boundaries -- for keeping the cat in and the dog out, or vice versa. What is beyond the door is not unapproachable or unattainable, instead, the closed door embodies endless potential for discovery and enlightenment.

I can't imagine how boring the world would be if all the doors were open.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Peggy's Cove -- Off Season

March decided to come in like a lion in some parts Nova Scotia, bringing with it a nor'easter that made travel conditions miserable and dumped the winter's first real load of snow on the southwestern corner of the province. Typically, the northeasterly winds that give these storms their name bring with them temperatures close to the freezing point; ironically these relatively mild temperatures are what can make a nor'easter deadlier than a storm that brings colder conditions. When it's near the freezing point, snow is heavy and wet. It doesn't stop at coating the ground in slippery white, it
clings to vertical surfaces obscuring road signs, weighing down power lines and trees, and it's so wet that it can saturate clothing instead of falling away as dry snow would. It's heavy and treacherous to walk through, it reduces visibility, and it's difficult to shovel, too -- emergency room workers call it "heart-attack snow".

This early March nor'easter was followed by a warm front -- again, typical -- that brought with it lashing rains and high wind. A spur-of-the-moment side trip to Peggy's Cove revealed a whole new side of the village's personality. On a soft summer day, the winding road into the village is busy with cars, and
curious visitors walk along the roadside taking photos or visiting the gift shops. On a day in early March when it's barely above freezing and raining sideways, there's a bit more elbow room. There are still a few hardy souls who make their way to the Sou'Wester Restaurant for a bowl of chowder or some warm gingerbread; the restaurant is open every day except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and there are almost always cars in the parking lot. That soft summer day certainly has its appeal, but there's definitely something to be said for a visit on a bracing day in March when you can see the bones of the place -- the simple, stark beauty that made this such a popular tourist attraction.

Friday, March 02, 2012

There's Nothing Like a Good Oxymoron

I love a good oxymoron -- an expression that seems to contradict itself. One of my favorite examples is personified by gannets; they're tremendously elegant and graceful in the air yet remarkably awkward and clumsy on land, so I tend to think of them in terms of awkward grace.

Their broad wings carry them effortlessly through the air; they sweep and wheel and plummet toward the sea with wings folded, knifing into the water in pursuit of fish with the grace of Olympic divers. They rise again into the air, returning to their nests to feed their young, and it's then that everything goes pear-shaped.

Just look at those splayed feet as this gannet puts on the brakes, flaring for landing. Could anything be more awkward than those big, black paddles set so far back on the body? They're useful for propulsion under water or when paddling on the surface, but when it's time to set them on the ground they've got all the delicacy and finesse of clown shoes.

It's small wonder, then that the gannet's raucous cry of grrr-aaah grr-aaah sounds for all the world like a warning cry of "Look out! Look out!"