Winter descends on a frigid landscape

Winter 2009 has come in with a vengeance.  Outside, I hear the whine and growl of snowmobiles, see the snow swept along by the wind or falling like feathers to the ground; I smell wood smoke as it curls from chimneys, feel the chill in my bones as the wind freshens and the mercury spikes and then plummets like a gannet.  The White Hills are laden with snow and trees along the highways are bending under its weight.  Moose stand silent at the perimeter of the woods; snowmobiles snake through trees pulling sleds behind; finishing touches are put on smelting shacks as ponds and bays harden and the promise of ice fishing looms.  Snowploughs roar by, shedding snow along the roadsides in giant arcs.

Just a few evenings ago my daughter and I were out driving.  She begged to be allowed to drive, but I have not had the courage yet to relinquish the wheel on these snow-covered roads.  To be sure, her eyesight is superior, and her enthusiasm out-distances mine by a long shot, but as the Grey Power commercial says, those over 50 have experience, and in my opinion that has to count for something and, sure enough, it did.

Night had fallen and snow lay like a white quilt over roads and ditches as we drove along.  Out of nowhere two white bunnies zigzagged helter-skelter across the road in front of the car, testing my driving skills to the limit. Not once, not twice, but three times I swerved and braked to miss them, but they were determined to die.  Add to that scene a 16 year-old passenger shrieking, “You are going to kill the bunnies!  Stop!” and you have a pretty good idea why she is not driving at night on snow-covered roads.  I do not know how the rabbits managed to avoid the wheels of the car, but they did, and they are still out there waiting to test someone else’s driving skills.  Consider yourself warned.

I grew up in south-western British Columbia, just east of Vancouver.  One winter we moved out to the country and what made that winter so memorable was that it snowed, and we had our first brush with a mountain lion, or cougar.  For anyone born and raised in that area of B.C., snow was as unexpected as a Sasquatch in Newfoundland.  A west-coaster knows very well how to cope with a deluge of rain, but has no frame of reference to deal with snow.  Nor did the province possess any real snow-removal equipment, so when the big snow arrived in the winter of 1968-1969, everything came to a standstill.

We missed a month of school because we lived six kilometers off the main highway and buses could not make it up the steep hills.  My brother Peter set up his telescope in the middle of the road each morning to spy out the bus situation; his reports were more accurate than any radio announcement and far more interesting.  The paper girl delivered the newspaper by horse and sleigh, which was quite a sight.  When the imported snow removal equipment finally came down our road, the snow was well above the height of any vehicle. When the road was finally opened, we lay on top of the snow banks and looked down at the cars and trucks passing on the road beneath us.

That winter, the cougars came.  We were out walking along a back country road, and our mom was explaining that it was a hard year for wildlife because of deep snow.  My Siamese kitten strained ahead on a leash when suddenly she stopped; the hairs on her back and her tail stood straight up.  Mom whispered, “Cougar tracks,” and pointed.  Each paw print was the size of a saucer.  I tell you, nobody needed to tell us to start walking in reverse.  A cougar is a big cat, and you might be interested to know that it is capable of killing a 270 kg (600 lb) moose.  Even the big cats were having a hard winter, prowling around the farms looking for a quick meal.

So, whenever I hear the whine and growl of snow machines here on the Northern Peninsula I consider that, even though we live in a world of light and power and noise, there is another silent world that exists right on the perimeter of our lives.

You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t really take the city out of the girl.


Who’s Counting?

Up ahead of me, legs hammering the road like pistons, antlers like tree branches raking the air, the morning sun shining off his burnished coat, his beard swinging back and forth with each toss of his head, and a rogue eye glancing back at me over his shoulder as he trots along the yellow line, Mr. Moose is on the loose, and he has no plans to share the road with me, or to let me drive by.  Could it be that he’s waiting for me to turn on my signal light before he lets me pass?

One of the most common questions directed at me since I moved to the northern peninsula is, “Seen ‘ere moose today?”  It’s not a hard question for me to answer; I just don’t see why it matters how many moose are out there, and I don’t understand the Newfoundlander’s fascination with an animal that can pester the wits out of people by trotting up the center of the road and defying drivers to pass.  Perhaps it has everything to do with something I heard someone say not long ago.  “He’ll be a great one to get in the fall.”  Is it possible that, when people are counting, they’re actually counting moose steaks rather than moose?

I’ve discovered that many Newfoundlanders take their moose sightings very seriously and that the whole tide of a conversation can be diverted in the blink of an eye by calmly stating, “I saw 87 moose today.”  Guaranteed, Buddy saw at least a dozen more than that, even though he was one car-length behind me at the time.

So, when it comes to moose, I know people are counting, but the question that begs to be answered is, why are they counting, and why does it matter?

In the early 1960s, my dad drove a 1952 Chevy 4-door sedan, and every summer our family took a vacation across the prairies.  Back then, the old car seemed as big as a boat; I know, because my parents, plus all six kids, a dog, and two cats fit nicely inside.  My favourite spot in the old blue Chevy was up on the ledge by the back window, where I could lie for hours watching the dust clouds behind us and the clouds of grasshoppers in front.  When boredom struck, as it occasionally did, one of us would ask, “How many more minutes till we get there?” And my dad would say, “There are 300 miles to go, and 26 telephone poles per mile.  Just count the telephone poles and that should give you some idea of how long it will take.”  Dad was just giving us something to divert our attention from the long hours that lay ahead because, other than the occasional sighting of a herd of antelope, there was very little to speculate about while crossing the prairies.

So, we counted telephone poles and became very good at it.

The way I see it, this moose-counting thing has got to be more fiction than fact.  I’ve lived on the island three years, and I have yet to see the sheer numbers of moose that are supposed to be out there along the side of the road.  I’ve traveled along the roads at dawn, at dusk, and times in between, and the most moose I’ve seen on any trip is a couple dozen.  I’m beginning to think people claiming to see large numbers of moose are really counting legs instead of the number of animals, and really, who can blame them?  One moose on a slippery road, propelling itself out of the way of an oncoming vehicle, legs flailing like chunks of wood falling off the back end of a truck, is sure to make a person think he or she is seeing more than one moose; I know; it happened to me.  One second a collision was imminent, the next, Mr. Moose was gone in a mad flurry of hooves and legs and ugly snout, tearing off through the brush like a scalded cat.

So, when it comes to counting, here’s my advice (although I know no self-respecting Newfoundlander will ever heed it).  Count telephone poles.  I guarantee you’ll get the numbers right every time and, because telephone poles ‘stay where they’re to,’ you won’t have to share the road with them, or tell lies to outdo Buddy.

You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t expect her to swallow all the ‘moose tales’ circulating in outport Newfoundland.  At least, not yet.

Recollections of loading wood and a high speed chase

I’m a city girl.  The day I left home in Vancouver, my mother said, “Don’t marry an easterner.”  I’m sure my mother didn’t have any real prejudice against easterners; she just wanted me to live a little closer to home, but I disobeyed her; I married a boy from Ship Cove.

If you consult a map of Canada you can see that the community of Ship Cove, on Cape Onion, is as far removed from Vancouver as possible, and outport life is as far removed from city life as you can get.  That’s where the culture shock comes in; I just haven’t managed, yet, to cross the cultural bridge from city to rural life.

A view from the front yard at Ship Cove
A view from the front yard at Ship Cove

And that brings to my remembrance a high-speed chase on Route 437 last fall.

That November morning dawned crisp, clear, and cold.  “It’s a perfect day to haul our wood home,” said Len, as he finished his morning tea (he should have had his wood home last summer, but he was away in St. John’s working).

Len doesn’t have a truck, but one of his brothers has a truck and one has a tow-behind.  Both brothers were willing to help, so they picked Len up and drove to the gravel pit near Shoal Arm Hill on Raleigh Road to bring the wood home.  A few hours later, two loads of wood were stacked in our back yard.  Meanwhile, Eliza Colbourne, Len’s sister in L’Anse aux Meadows, put her spyglass to the window, looked across Sacred Bay, and noted that Len and the boys were hauling wood.  “Winston!” she called, “Len’s hauling wood!  Let’s go and help.”

I had some errands to run in St. Anthony and knew nothing of Winston & Eliza’s plans.  Just before I left the house, the phone rang but, before I could pick it up, it disconnected.  I noticed it was the Colbourne’s number and called back, but there was no answer.

A pile of split wood, ready for the fireplace come winter.
A pile of split wood, ready for the fireplace come winter.

Minutes later, I was on the road to St. Anthony.  At Pistolet Bay Park I met Len and his brothers returning with a truckload full of wood.  A short while later, I crested Fox Head Hill on Raleigh Road and noticed a vehicle driving ahead of me, and it looked remarkably like the Colbourne’s truck.

“Can’t be,” I said, dismissing the possibility, “they only just phoned me before I left, and there’s no way they’d be driving away from Ship Cove.  If that were Eliza or Winston, they’d be driving toward me.”  (What I didn’t know then, was that they had been up and down the road searching for Len’s pile of wood, and had just made a U-turn)

The truck slowed down right near the gravel pit where Len’s pile of wood lay and, as I drove past, I thought again how much it looked like Winston and Eliza’s truck, but with the afternoon sun in my eyes, I couldn’t see the occupants.  It seemed to me they must be ‘scoping out’ our pile of wood.   Immediately, my ‘city thinking’ kicked in, and I thought, “That might be somebody looking to steal a load of wood; I’d better warn Len as soon as I get to town.”

Moments later, looking in my rear view mirror, I noticed the same truck speeding up behind me, headlights on, four-ways flashing.  “What are those people up to?” I wondered.  “They’re in a powerful hurry; I guess I’d better speed up.”  The faster I drove, the faster they drove.  In Toronto, you wouldn’t stop for people who drove their cars like that; you’d get out of their way as fast as possible.  To my way of thinking, that was the only thing I could do.

At the branch road to St. Anthony, I rounded the corner on two wheels, barely stopping at the sign, and checked my rear-view mirror again.  Ah!  They were doing a U-turn and heading back down the road.  What strange people, I thought.  I’m glad they’re off my back…

Hours later, when I returned to Ship Cove and saw the black and white truck in our back yard, and Eliza and Winston unloading and stacking wood with Len and Rick and Bob—I knew I’d really messed up.

Five faces turned my way, and five people shook their heads in disappointment.

“Mary,” said Winston.  “We chased you down the road to try to get you to stop. We only wanted to ask you which pile of wood was Len’s.”


It just goes to show, you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl; at least not that quickly!