Rounding the Rock: Newfoundland’s rocky coastline, up close and in the round
words :: Ned Morgan photos :: Craig Minielly.
Instead of referring to Newfoundland by well-worn epithet “The Rock”, I suggest a rethink. After visiting last June, and experiencing an awful lot of rock, it would be more accurate—though decidedly less pithy—to refer to Newfoundland as “The Three Geologic Zones”: Avalon (East), Dunnage/Gander (Central), and Humber (West).
My expedition cruise around Newfoundland took up the first half of June aboard the 137-metre Ocean Endeavour, a 1B ice-class passenger ship operated by Adventure Canada. The voyage felt Odyssey-like—a quest to uncover distant realms of mist and myth. Place-names like Avalon, Isle Aux Morts and Lourdes reinforced this impression. The fact that the Paleoeskimo, Thule, Norse, and other now-vanished peoples passed along these shores, further reinforced this impression. While many of the peoples who travelled here have come and gone, the rock remains—largely unchanged through our comparatively short human epoch.
The many varieties of rock on offer in Newfoundland are worthy of many volumes and even a small library of interpretation. Due to space constraints I can offer but a brief impression of one of The Rock’s geologic zones.
Newfoundland’s Humber Geologic Zone: Cox’s and Brake’s Cove
As we approach Cox’s Cove—roughly a quarter of the way up Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, in the Bay of Islands—I notice a staircase leading up a steep headland just west of the harbour. After we disembark for the day, I walk to the edge of Cox’s Cove and find the staircase, which plunges from a small overgrown park to a rocky beach far below. Up close, the staircase looks more like a ladder nailed to the rock. And had the builders attached newer stairs to the weathered, ancient set of predecessor stairs visible underneath?
Stepping down slowly, I keep my arm tight to the railing and try not to picture the stairs collapsing, throwing me out into space and onto the jagged rocks below. (I see the grim headline the next day: “Stairs collapse beneath tourist… Injuries severe.” But the stairs do not budge as I climb down and then stroll along the beach, which is backed by a hulking grey-black cliff. (Humber Zone geology, according to the extremely detailed Geological Map of Newfoundland available here, is characterized by: stratified rock of the Cambrian to middle Ordovician period: including sandstone, shale, chert, volcanic and metamorphic types.)
Even with the decline of the fishery and the emptying of outports like Brake’s Cove, life today on the “French Shore” seems enviable in many ways.
After I climb back up the stairs, I encounter Joe Park, who is about to climb down. I had met Joe earlier during our tour of the tiny outport of Brake’s Cove just a kilometre or so to the west, where he was born. It turns out these stairs are a shortcut for residents to walk at low tide along the beach and up the headland between Brake’s and Cox’s Cove.
In 1966 when Joe was 25 the government resettled him and his family and the 15 other families to the larger, road-accessible Cox’s Cove. Brake’s is not a ghost town, however, and the pale-pastel or whitewashed buildings serve as cottages and fishing sheds. Led by Joe and other former cove dwellers, our tour takes us up a hill above the beach where, amid the spruce and fir trees sheltering us from the salt breeze, lie two cemeteries. One is fenced and maintained, and the other isn’t: washed out and damaged in a flood untold years ago, this older cemetery continues to erode into the sea below and is almost indistinguishable from the forest reclaiming it.
In the old cemetery I can make out several headstones lying recessed in the grassy soil—including those of the cove’s eponymous Brakes, Joe’s ancestors, who were part English and part Mi’kmaq. One stone marks the resting place of Benjamin Brake, Joe’s great-grandfather. According to Joe, Benjamin spent several years in prison for killing a man who either slept with or mistreated his wife—I couldn’t make out which. (Joe: “Ben took his gun and went in and said he couldn’t’ve taken no better shot at a caribou.”)
Newfoundland’s “French Shore”
The meagre newspaper records I later find confirm that in 1876 Benjamin Brake indeed murdered a trader from Nova Scotia named Carter. A Newfoundland Express report commented that the “French Shore”—the western coastline of the island, where France retained fishing rights until 1904—was a place where “lawlessness rules instead of British authority on this British soil.”
Even with the decline of the fishery and the emptying of outports like Brake’s Cove, life today on the “French Shore” seems not only lawful but enviable in many ways. A serenity hangs over this place that I can’t quite pinpoint, but could be due to a combination of the surf surging on the beach, the luminous green of the surrounding forest, and the unaffected demeanor of cove people like Joe. Though I’m a day tripper and can’t see deeply into the life of this place, it seems to exist somehow outside the accepted and familiar boundaries of time. I’m accustomed to living in an increasingly urbanized culture where everything—buildings, lives, even landscapes—are remodelled and upgraded ceaselessly; we seem to demand constant upheaval. In Brake’s Cove, as the old cemetery slowly erodes into the sea, the upheaval has come and gone.
It is a fitting goodbye to the coves as spry 78-year-old Joe Park calls me “m’son” and flies down the vertiginous stairs without even holding on. A lifetime of sea air agrees with him.