A Trip off the Old Rock

The Washington Post Sunday - - Travel - By Paula Stone

A Screech-In sounds like some­thing a frus­trated or­nithol­o­gist might in­dulge in, or a Belt­way rit­ual for stressed-out driv­ers. But in New­found­land, it’s a tra­di­tional cer­e­mony to in­duct CFAs (“come-from-aways,” Newfese for tourists) into the Royal Or­der of Screech­ers and thus make them hon­orary New­fies. I find one in a pub on Ge­orge Street in the cap­i­tal, St. John’s.

I do not take my de­ci­sion to be here lightly. To get screeched, I will have to pass sev­eral tests that chal- lenge the dex­ter­ity of the tongue, the strength of the stom­ach and the ca­pac­ity to be grossed out. Not the least will be to gulp down a shot of the po­tent rum af­fec­tion­ately known as Screech, and also to kiss a dead fish. Dur­ing my two-week stay in New­found­land, I keep mulling: Will I? Should I? How badly do I want to be­come an hon­orary cit­i­zen of this hunk of rock?

New­found­land (rhymes with “un­der­stand”), an is­land about the size of Vir­ginia at the east­ern end of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is nick­named The Rock by its in­hab­i­tants, and for good rea­son: The coast­line is a jagged crag­gi­ness of cliffs, and the in­te­rior is an unin- hab­it­able rock plateau of al­ter­nat­ing ridges and wa­ter­logged troughs. The weather is ruled by the un­for­giv­ing North At­lantic and is fre­quently mauzy (wet and foggy) and logy (op­pres­sively hu­mid), with bonechilling win­ters. The pop­u­la­tion — con­cen­trated in a few cities and oth­er­wise strung out along the coast in small fish­ing vil­lages — is about 600,000, of which 120,000 are moose.

So is this a place I want to call my hon­orary home? To find out, I plan to im­merse my­self in some of the

best that New­found­land has to of­fer: St. John’s, one of the old­est and pret­ti­est cities in North Amer­ica, with its har­bor set­ting and steeply ris­ing streets; the Avalon Penin­sula with its whales, birds, his­toric sites and fish­ing vil­lages; the his­toric town of Trin­ity; and Gros Morne Na­tional Park, which has been des­ig­nated a UNESCO World Her­itage Site for its raw beauty and unique ge­ol­ogy.

My goal: to be­come so en­am­ored of the place that I dare to get screeched.

How’s She Cut­ting?

I get my first inkling of what’s to come soon af­ter I ar­rive in St. John’s in late June. I am hik­ing on the cliff­side trail on Sig­nal Hill — the gran­ite sen­tinel that watches over the city’s har­bor en­trance — when 60-mph gusts nearly lift me off my feet. I drop to the ground, wedg­ing against boul­ders for se­cu­rity. Howl­ing head­winds scour my face like sand­pa­per. Sud­denly a jog­ger runs by. He is hold­ing tightly onto his bal­loon­ing shorts, which have half flown off. He grins at me, “How’s she cut­ting, me cock?” Ex­cuse me?

New­found­land English, as I am rapidly dis­cov­er­ing, is a tongue-twist­ing, color­ful blend of Ir­ish and English di­alects and sea-lore ex­pres­sions. The lan­guage, which de­vel­oped as a re­sult of New­found­land’s his­tory as one of Bri­tain’s first set­tle­ments in the New World as well as its ge­o­graph­i­cal iso­la­tion, even boasts a dic­tionary of more than 700 pages.

I am not the first Mary­lan­der who ever con­tem­plated call­ing New­found­land home. Ge­orge Calvert, a.k.a. Lord Bal­ti­more I, tried, too. He gave up. He had founded the Colony of Avalon at Fer­ry­land, New­found­land, in the 1620s. Un­til then, Euro­peans came to th­ese wa­ters only dur­ing the fish­ing sea­son. Lord Bal­ti­more tried to spend the win­ter here. He hated it. So much so that he pe­ti­tioned King Charles I to grant him a colony in warmer climes, and he was granted what he named “Mary­land.”

I spend an af­ter­noon at Avalon’s im­pres­sive ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site and mu­seum. Along the bat­tered head­lands, a light­house stands de­fi­antly against a mack­erel sky. Her­ring gulls squab­ble in high-pitched ca­coph­ony. A whale’s blow sprouts from the sea. I try to imag­ine the win­ter here. Iso­la­tion. Dark­ness. The con­stant threat of star­va­tion. How sooth­ing it must have been to warm the cock­les with some fiery rum.

Screech was in­tro­duced to New­found­land in colo­nial days, when salt cod was traded to the West Indies in ex­change for what was then a no-name rum. The nick­name ap­par­ently is of World War II vin­tage: It seems that an Amer­i­can of­fi­cer downed a shot of this New­found­land hos­pi­tal­ity in one gulp and let out a screech­ing howl when his throat ig­nited.

Just off­shore, the frigid south­bound Labrador Cur­rent meets with the warmer north­bound Gulf Stream. This con­ver­gence re­sults in one of the rich­est ocean brews of nu­tri­ents on the planet and, in turn, one of the largest con­cen­tra­tions any­where of whales, breed­ing seabirds and, in years past, cod. For cen­turies, New­found­land’s way of life and econ­omy were based on cod, un­til the in­dus­try col­lapsed in 1992 from high-tech over­fish­ing.

Rem­nants of the tra­di­tional way of life can be found in rural fish­ing vil­lages. The road map reads like Gray’s Anatomy, with place names fea­tur­ing heads, necks, noses, arms and other body parts. I fo­cus on Heart’s De­light, Heart’s De­sire and the fas­ci­nat­ing vil­lage of Heart’s Con­tent, the ter­mi­nus for the first transat­lantic cable, which was com­pleted be­tween North Amer­ica and Ire­land in 1866.

Th­ese pic­turesque vil­lages are tucked inside shel­tered coves where gritty fish­ing boats bob. Salt-en­crusted fish­er­men, with chipped teeth and miss­ing dig­its, mend nets to­gether and talk to me about the weather, chang­ing times and whether the cod will ever come back. Th­ese are re­silient men, who take noth­ing for granted and are sur­pris­ingly good-na­tured, given that fish­ing is one of North Amer­ica’s most dan­ger­ous oc­cu­pa­tions.

Then there’s the vil­lage of Dildo. Lo­cated across from Spread Ea­gle on Con­cep­tion Bay near Come By Chance, Dildo en­tices me to in­ves­ti­gate. I stop first at the lo­cal con­ve­nience store. The clerk fumes, hates that peo­ple come here only to learn why Dildo has its name and not to see the town. Seems that folks tried to change the name a few years back, but the res­o­lu­tion was de­feated. Some towns­folk now are try­ing to build civic pride: “D” stands for Dig­nity, “I” for . . . .

Mmm, Flip­per Pie

Crea­tures that make their home in New­found­land’s for­bid­ding en­vi­ron­ment need spe­cial adap­ta­tions. Take the New­found­land dog: It has webbed feet. Or the north­ern gan­net. This seabird with­stands the im­pact of its spec­tac­u­lar 90-foot plunge-dives for fish with a crash-hel­met-like skull and in­flat­able cells that cush­ion its body like bub­ble wrap.

The af­ter­noon I visit Cape St. Mary’s Eco­log­i­cal Re­serve— home to one of the largest and most ac­ces­si­ble breed­ing colonies of gan­nets in North Amer­ica — I am lucky. The fog has lifted for the first time in 14 days. I sit 30 feet from the main nurs­ery. It is a rau­cous, swirling bliz­zard of daz­zling white birds with ice-blue eyes, blue bills and saf­fron heads.

One adap­ta­tion that I will need in or­der to call this place home is a cast-iron stom­ach. I fig­ure that my abil­ity to sur­vive is­land cui­sine will for­tify my re­solve to be­come an hon­orary New­fie. Dur­ing my trav­els I keep a lookout for lo­cal gro­cery stores and pe­ruse their shelves for tra­di­tional fare. Cod tongues. Cari­bou pie. Bot­tled rab­bit. Moose salami.

Fi­nally, stop­ping in a gro­cery on my way to Cape St. Mary’s, I spot the ob­ject of my quest: flip­per pie. I’ve read about this renowned lo­cal dish. The first step calls for soak­ing seal flip­pers in bak­ing soda, which turns the fat white for easy re­moval; next, you roast the things for two to three hours. Sounds rea­son­able enough.

The pie looks okaaaay. I carry the golden pas­try to the in-store cafe, where the cook heats it up for me. It smells okaaaay. Lo­cal pa­trons nudge me on. I nib­ble at the edges. It seems to taste okaaaay. A bit fishy, though. Pa­trons hold back snick­ers, re­as­sure me that it’s an ac­quired taste. I take a fork­ful, slowly chew. Sort of like pot roast. Or the dark meat of blue­fish. No mat­ter: Swal­low­ing does me in. I gag, be­queath the pie amid laugh­ter and dash to the car to chase the beast down with gobs of peanut but­ter.

Sad­ness and Grief

Dur­ing my search for the heart of New­found­land, I un­ex­pect­edly find a bit of its soul, on a coastal hik­ing trail near Trin­ity, 160 miles north­west of St. John’s by car. The trail is a squishy moss car­pet with root stair­cases. Peat­land ponds are tea-col­ored, dot­ted with bul­bous yel­low wa­terlilies. A meadow blooms with wild iris and gal­ax­ies of but­ter­cups. The air is scented with spruce. By the time I reach the green-blue wa­ters of Ker­ley’s Har­bour, I am con­vinced I am in par­adise.

Then I see the sign — “Ker­ley’s Har­bour, Re­set­tled 1963” — which in­di­cates when the town had been aban­doned and its pop­u­la­tion dis­persed.

From 1954 to 1975, more than 28,000 New­found­lan­ders aban­doned about 300 re­mote out­ports (vil­lages in­ac­ces­si­ble by road), in­clud­ing Ker­ley’s Har­bour, be­cause the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment could not pro­vide them with ba­sic ser­vices and urged res­i­dents to move, of­fer­ing them some com­pen­sa­tion. With lit­tle money, 27 or so fam­i­lies from Ker­ley’s Har­bour scat­tered to “growth cen­ters,” in­clud­ing the nearby town of New Bon­aven­ture.

I walk the aban­doned hill­sides, now lit­tered with rot­ting planks, and stop at a soli­tary vacation home that sits at the head of the cove. The house was built by the now-grown son of a re­set­tled fam­ily that re­fused pay­ment from the gov­ern­ment and thus re­tained claim to its land. Build­ing ma­te­ri­als for the house were brought by boat.

The oc­cu­pant, an out­go­ing wo­man in her 30s, in­vites me in and reads me a poem writ­ten by the daugh­ter of a wo­man who had re­cently re­turned to Ker­ley’s Har­bour for the first time since be­ing re­set­tled with her fam­ily 40 years ear­lier. The verses ex­press the wo­man’s sad­ness and grief about be­ing re­set­tled. But they also re­call mem­o­ries of love for the land and fam­ily, of a lit­tle girl’s dreams and of her grat­i­tude, fi­nally, to come home again.

I step back out­side. On the breeze, five ea­gles cir­cle and rise, and I swear I can hear the laugh­ter of chil­dren play­ing.

Fam­ily, friend­ship and com­mu­nity — th­ese are what mat­ter most here. De­spite, or per­haps be­cause of, a her­itage of hard­ship, spon­ta­neous acts of kind­ness are a way of life. New­fies are gen­er­ous, hos­pitable, fun-lov­ing. Just go to any “dance up,” where “leather hits the lum­ber.” New­fies take squaredanc­ing to a new level: en­er­getic, cel­e­bra­tory, grace­ful. I find one at a pub in Trin­ity, where ta­bles are pushed back, liquor loosens the legs and lo­cals do-sido with vis­i­tors. The fid­dler is a fiend. Feet tap, hands clap, hips sway. Cells I never knew had rhythm dance inside me.

My fate is sealed. As I laugh and whirl with new­found friends, I feel wel­come and at home.

The Mas­ter at Mid­night

Screech-In cer­e­monies prob­a­bly started in colo­nial times as seal­ers’ pranks, or were rit­u­als per­formed when sailors crossed the equa­tor. The con­tem­po­rary in­car­na­tion of the cer­e­mony as silly en­ter­tain­ment is about 25 years old. While it has its lo­cal de­trac­tors, I dare say any­one who has slogged the grog and smacked a fish corpse will ne’er for­get it. Tonight, in my St. John’s pub, the Screech Mas­ter ar­rives at mid­night, dressed in full sea­far­ing re­galia. Four­teen of us CFAs wait to be in­ducted into the Royal Or­der of Screech­ers.

He be­gins the rit­ual in­can­ta­tions in lilt­ing, ever-quick­en­ing Newfese. He teaches us a silly song. We re­peat a silly say­ing. I get down on my knucks (knees). Wrap me chops ’round some prog (food — in this case, cer­e­mo­nial bologna). He then pushes the face of a two-foot-long dead cod into my face and I kiss it on the lips — can’t be no New­fie with­out pay­ing homage to this noble fish.

Fi­nally, I must chug a shot, straight up, of de Screech. Gulp. Singed gul­let. Face flushes. That’s mighty strong stuff, ’tis. Head reels. The Mas­ter dubs me on me shoul­ders with a ca­noe pad­dle. I stand, woozy, but proud t’ claim me new foun’ her-tage. Chair spins. Is I a New­fie yet? Knucks buckle. ’Deed I is, me old cock, an’ long may your big jib draw.


New­found­land’s his­toric cap­i­tal, St. John’s, is among the best that the is­land has to of­fer — and that’s not even count­ing the flip­per pie.


The Cape St. Mary’s Eco­log­i­cal Re­serve of­fers an up-close view of a large breed­ing colony of north­ern gan­nets.


A new St. John’s land­mark is The Rooms, at top, a cul­tural cen­ter hous­ing a mu­seum, art gallery and archives.

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