Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

September 7

We left Gros Morne at 3 AM, hoping to make a weather window down the Newfoundland coast and across the Cabot Strait to Cape Breton. The gambit worked out — no really bad wind, sometimes favorable, a few rainstorms but also some clear skies and stars at night. After two long days and one overnight (40 hours) we made it to Ingonish on the Cape Breton coast. It was a bouncy ride across Cabot Strait, but a safe one. Winds were never over 20 knots. It is tiring to constantly brace oneself against being thrown against the boat first one way and then the other. Sleeping while sloshing is hard. So I was delighted to be out of heavy seas, and my seasoned colleagues admited to that also.

We anchored next to a rugged looking steel-hulled sailing vessel named Iron Bark. Tim knows the owner well. His idea of a good time is to find a remote bay in Greenland, freeze the boat in, and spend the winter on it. He’s done this twice, and once more in Antarctica! Whatever floats your boat. Still I can’t help but be respectful. I’d think it would be rather colder than an igloo, though I understand it (the igloo) is a cozy place once you get used to it. One thing that struck Finley when visiting the remote Inuit settlements in northern Hudson Bay is that for us it’s a dramatic adventure to go north, but for them it’s home. They like it and they want to be there and they know how to be comfortable.

A full day of easy sailing brought us home to Baddeck.  And Finley is relieved to have made a safe and very successful journey. Even though I made only half the trip, it felt as if I’d done the whole two months when “home port” came into view. What was it like for whalers returning after two years?

The vegetative coating of Cape Breton is real trees, both broad-leaf and evergreen. As impressive as that seems, the organic soil is still just a thin coating, a foot or so thick at most. This is utterly clear at the cliff faces, where the soil/tree layer is dwarfed by the rock below. So it’s not so different from tundra — a few feet instead of a few centimeters, but still just a skim coat, and not very old. I love the idea of all that vegetative material coming from the air in the form of transformed CO2. Again, the tundra makes it obvious: the 4-inch mat of lichens, mosses, and miniature plants spread across the arctic rock world can’t have come from anywhere except the air.

What an interconnected planet! The air connects everything, the oceans connect everything.

What a fascinating planet! By visiting other ecosystems I realize how much more carefully I could notice my own.

On that note, signing off. Voyage over. Home to the wife and kids and grandkids and Concord Consortium.

Another day in Bonne Bay

September 3-4

Two days in a snug enough harbor while it blows 20-30 knots in the wrong direction. Tonight we’ll take off for Nova Scotia while there seems to be a favorable two-day weather window. Two overnights and we’re home, with any luck. But no guarantees, and there are ports of refuge along the way. Finley and Tim glue themselves to multiple sources of weather reports whenever Wi-Fi is available.

Labrador seems far behind. We’re certainly in the same zone — arctic tundra in the highlands, caribou, coastal community, fishing — but there are roads and cellphone service and wi-fi in every gift shop and a public library and even a restaurant where we had supper. Such a different feeling. Too connected! But it’s still Newfoundland, with Newfie friendliness and jokes and accents.

Now that we’re down south we keep running into other sailors, each with a story; a couple from Savannah returning from Greenland, on their way back to Georgia; another couple just now from the Netherlands returning from a trip around Newfoundland on their way back to the Caribbean! Two people running these boats seems pretty light when you’re doing overnights. As Finley asked, where do you find these women? The Savannah couple was great. He was Polish, she was American. They went north in Greenland to see the town where Rockwell Kent (the painter, and Sally Kent’s grandfather) spent the winter. His book, Salamina, describes it. They rowed their zodiac over to visit us, one on each oar.  What a sight.

Gros Morne National Park, which surrounds us here, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because the geology is special. Newfoundland is this crazy place: half of it is the American continental plate, the other half is from Africa. Gros Morne in particular has many different kinds and ages of rock all slammed together and dramatically visible. I won’t go into detail, I can’t keep it straight anyway, but it’s fun to try to comprehend. One large set of hills, called Tablelands, is undersea mantle rock (peridotite) that is black but weathers red. It has various toxic heavy metals that suppress most plants so that it’s utterly barren except for a few tolerant species. Not only are they tolerant, they have no competitors here. Pitcher plants in the middle of gravel beds, no bog in sight! Weird. It has that glowing red appearance of the Southwest sandstone but nothing in common geologically.

There are trees here, maybe as much as 20′ tall! Mostly black spruce and balsam fir, with continuous moss beds beneath. It is so green compared to Labrador, but they still work hard for a living. I found a 3″ stump that was 60 years old. Around the houses are some planted broad-leaf trees. Poplars seem happy, maples seem miserable. I heard leaves rustling in the wind for the first time in three weeks. What a gentle, comforting, magical sound! How we take it for granted, even though it goes away for half the year. Listen! Notice! Delight!

Bonne Bay

September 1-2

One item I forgot in the Red Bay account (Aug 31). Approaching the harbor we saw clusters of terms circling, calling and dive-bombing as they do when they’re on a school of fish. They were tracking schools of dolphins who were also circling, surfacing, and driving the fish to the surface. There were maybe a half-dozen such pods in the space of a mile. That’s the arctic: nothing, more nothing, then a brief frenzy of activity, then nothing again. Though of course the “nothing” is an endless play of ever-changing waves, clouds and light, seen through the lens of a boat in motion, driven by the wind.

On September 1 we crossed the Strait of Belle Isle in drizzle but with a fair wind. We were glad to reach Port au Choix on the west Newfoundland coast, light the oil heater, and dry out the boat. We were on a public wharf along with numerous fishing boats. Shrimp is done, they’re waiting for mackerel. The fishing boats are quite amazing. There’s a government length limit of 65′, so they’re uniformly 64.9′ and built upward like skyscrapers to accommodate all the gear — a tangle, to my eyes of ropes, hoists, hydraulic tubing, valves, and motors that somehow, working together, drag vast nets through the sea and haul them in, fish-full. I expect these boats rock and roll a lot, and I can’t imagine how one works heavy equipment while the deck heaves unpredictably. I have enough trouble with heavy equipment when both it and I stationary. As usual, a man appeared on the dock as well came in and helped with the lines. As usual, he and Tim discussed the weather and fishing. As usual, there were jokes about government regulations and fish prices. As usual, he’d been fishing for fifty years. His son would be going out tomorrow to look for cod, which had a small quota and whose price has plummeted here for unknown reasons, making it hardly worth the bother.

On September 2 we needed to make it to Bonne Bay (80 miles = 16 hours) before the wind shifted to the south and increased. The thirty-knot north wind failed to materialize so we had a comfortable time of it. We expect to sit here for two days waiting for a favorable window to make the final dash to Nova Scotia (40 hours of sailing). But it’s a great choice: a good harbor, fascinating geology, possible hikes, a few stores. We’ve been so lucky with the weather so far!

Last stop in Labrador

August 31

This is our last stop in Labrador before crossing the Strait of Belle Isle, something you want to do only under favorable conditions, which are predicted for tomorrow. Red Bay has an actual road to the outside — our first such port since we began. The story of Red Bay is again — you guessed it — the story of cod, which dates back to  Basque fishermen in the 1500’s. I keep feeling we’re way south, though from most people’s point of view we’re way north. There are trees in sheltered dips but it’s still mostly low, though much greener, tundra along the coast, which is still being swept by the Labrador current; the water temperature still hovers below 50 °F.

I’m a bit sad to say good-by to Labrador (the golden arm!). I wonder if I’ll ever be back.

Physics everwhere!

August 30

We spent a very pleasant day here, waiting for the wind to become favorable. The story of Battle Harbour and the cod fisheries is too much for a blog, so I’ll leave that as an independent study project. Suffice it to say that it’s a wonderful snapshot of local culture and history on many levels. Nelson, our tour guide for the buildings, was born here, moved to Mary’s Harbor (on the mainland nearby), and has worked on the site’s restoration since it became a Trust in 1989. He used to return here to help his father during the summer fishing season, leaving school a month early and returning a month late. His accent is on the edge of incomprehensible, authentic to say the least. His account of the history came from first-hand knowledge and from the heart.  As for the ladies running the restaurant, you might as well be in a Newfoundland kitchen. Imagine a Plimoth Plantation where the interpreters’ parents and grandparents had lived there, built the houses, spoken the language, and lived in the style that is being “re-created”.

The geology on the island is a real smorgasbord, at last explained in detail with an academic brochure. Layers, folds, faults and intrusions, all metamorphic, are directly visible under your feet when not hidden by lichen. And it’s all the result of events that occurred between 1800 and 1000 million years  ago. The youngest rock on the island is a basaltic intrusion about 600 million years old. I struggle with the multiple time scales, here so visible and so extreme.

Last night it continued to blow hard from the south, which is why we stayed in port. It turns out Finley has a singing mast. It’s a hollow aluminum tube which allows the mainsail to be furled or reefed by rolling it up inside. The open slot acts like a coke bottle. I was annoyed and then fascinated. The pitch changes with wind speed (like a coke bottle), but the mast length is such that it’s way above the fundamental so the steps between pitches are whole and half steps like a regular scale. But it had the modal quality of Arabic or Persian music, with pitches slightly pushed from our boring tempered version, giving the melody great drama and feeling as the wind came and went.  Physics everywhere!

Battle Harbour

August 29

Today we left early and made a push for Battle Harbour before the south winds built up, since they were in our face. Finley’s careful planning paid off as usual;  only the last few hours were tough. Waves on the bow are tough — the boat shudders, slows from six knots to four, and only slowly regains its momentum before it slams into a new one. But it was a beautiful sparkling day, the water was up to 50°, the face full of spray was only occasional, and we made it to Battle Harbour in time for “hot” showers and supper in the dining room.

Battle Harbour is a special and beautiful place. It has been the gateway to Labrador for 200 years, the supply point for salt, gear, and supplies to the Newfoundland fishermen who came up to the Labrador coast for the summer season. When cod fishing was closed in 1989, the few functioning outports that remained were doomed, Battle Harbour among them. The merchant there gave all the buildings to a conservation trust, which has saved some and reconstructed others. So coming into the wharf here is like touching on a bygone era.  Quite different from Makkovik (previous described)! The trust made some of the buildings into a museum, one into a general store and dining room, and others into guest cottages. It’s open from July to the middle of September. Make it your destination on your next visit to Newfoundland!  A tour group of about 35 people from California (elderly — not like me!) are here for the night. Finley is on the board of directors, so we received a royal welcome from Katherine, the tall effusive youthful director from St. Johns, including hugs and a bottle of wine with supper. Katherine knows what the sailors want: a hot shower, laundry, dinner off the boat (roast beef, not fish), and an internet connection.

After the other guests had left and we were sitting around chatting, in came a piece of cake with a candle on it — for my birthday, which was today! Talk about timing. It couldn’t have been more congenial. Sitting in this old wooden building, looking out over the tundra-covered rock at south winds blowing twenty knots and fog coming in, I felt the full import of this adventure — the sea, the landscape, the northern ruggedness, the companionship of people who endure it, the comfort of returning to port. The Inuit portion of the trip (Hudson Bay) had a different flavor from this Labrador portion.

Small remote fishing settlements

August 28

After an overnight with rain and low clouds but favorable NE winds, we anchored in a place called Punchbowl in time for supper and a brief walk ashore.  Picture a perfectly round cove about 1/4 mile across with a small entrance, surrounded by gently sloping treeless hills, so that there’s relentless wind but no sea. Sprinkled along the shoreline are numerous abandoned gray shacks, heaved at comic cartoon-like angles by frost. The largest feature is a substantial wharf, also abandoned but still perfectly vertical. Tim was last here in 1998, so he knows the story of this place. In the eighties there were a fish plant and hotel here. Newfoundlanders would come up here in the summer, stay in the shacks, fish from small boats, and sell their catch to the fish plant for processing. The government built the wharf, and a few years later cod fishing collapsed and they closed everything down. When Tim came by in 1998, the fish plant and the hotel were still there but the locals had already started scavenging. Now nothing is left but the wharf and the weathered gray particleboard shacks.

Such is the story of many Newfoundland and Labrador outports — small remote fishing settlements with no road access. A basic element of this coastal culture for more than 200 years, they have been systematically depopulated by a “resettlement” policy to make it easier to provide schools, health care, and other services. The end of cod fishing finished them off for good. If you have any interest in this, read “Galore” by Michael Crummey — well researched historical fiction. It’s a great book.

The coast here is endless rounded barren islands, brutally exposed, giving a feeling of places farther north. The outer faces of the shoreline are typically bare, scoured by ice from twenty to forty feet vertically. Tim says the sea ice is driven up into great piles by the wind. Above that level every square inch has vegetation. That’s the magic of this landscape: the rock surfaces are an exquisite patchworks of lichens; the exposed crevasses are moss-filled; and once they produce a bit a soil (carbon drawn from the air!), in come the crowberries and other creeping plants to complete the dense patchwork. No bare earth, no sand, no gravel. The mosses and low plants form a soft resilient cushion that gives beneath the feet, making walking a sensual delight.

Finally, it cleared tonight and the wind dropped. We had a glimpse of Venus at sunset. The stars were brilliant. Tomorrow an early start to avoid battling the building south wind.

Labrador Inuit communities

August 27

We’re heading into another over nighter while decent weather holds (at sea, wind = weather), having spent the afternoon and night on the wharf at Makkovik. We left Ken off at the airport but the clouds were so low that he may still be there. It’s three of us for the rest of the trip.

It was nice to have a chance to see a current Labrador fishing outpost. Historically, Newfoundland fishermen came north to fish the Labrador coast in the summer, formerly for cod but now for other things — scallops, shrimp, and in this case turbot.

I got a great snapshot. Here you go:
– No roads in so everything comes by air or coastal ferry. The  Northern Ranger arrived while we were there. It goes up and down the coast as far as Nain all summer; in winter the coast is iced in. It looked pretty comfy, a good way to see the Labrador coast. They unloaded a brand-new black skidoo as I watched; someone must be pretty excited. After all, in winter you can go everywhere fast.
– While we were there three fishing boats came in. I saw the first one unload 18,000 pounds of turbot, a rather ugly fish about 2 feet long. They’re really ugly piled up in huge plastic bins, which are hustled around by forklift. The driver was a madman. The captain and crew were all Newfies. They’d been up here since July. They were making one more trip and then were heading home, and glad of it. The Newfoundland accent is extraordinary. There are free showers (warmish water) and a washer/dryer for fishermen to use, which we did as well. Rather grungy!
– The fish plant, right at the wharf, springs into action when the boats come in but is dead otherwise — frantic action or lethargy. The workers are mainly Inuit; the owners and managers seem to be White. They unload the turbot, cut off the heads and tails, flash freeze it, and ship it to China for processing! And apparently it then comes back, as fish sticks etc.!!! Don’t ask me, I’m just reporting.
– It’s all rubber boots, gloves, etc. in the fish plant. I went in to use the bathroom and accidentally stepped into the welcome mat: a three-foot-square well of disinfectant. One sneaker is now sterilized. The lunchroom upstairs was barren but had wi-fi.
– Above the town are many large oil tanks. Everything here runs on fuel: the town electric generator, the fishing boats, the ferry, the freezers, the heating, the ATVs and snowmobiles, the airplanes. It’s all about fish and fuel, more of the latter than the former I’d say. I felt surrounded by big noisy machines. Welcome to the modern Arctic. Probably Boston is just the same but with mufflers and other camouflage.
– There’s a post office that shares a building with the infirmary, Inuit administrative offices, a grocery/hardware/everything store, a RCMP office, and otherwise small houses.
– Makkovik won the “Tidy Towns” award in 2010.
– There were dozens and dozens of large (3′ square) heavy plastic sacks filled with something mysterious. Can you guess? Sand and gravel for the new playing field, brought in by ship.
– Makkovik is a dry town, as are many up here. But you can pay to fly in your own supply if you have enough money. We passed some very drunk guys in the evening.

I’m struck by how different the Labrador Inuit communities are from their northern Quebec counterparts (such as Kuujjuaq) — same latitude, just on opposite sides of the same peninsula. On the Quebec side, the traditional Inuit settlements were around Hudson Bay, and what was there to exploit (furs) depended on the natives. Now the Inuit community seems reasonably dominant and vibrant. On the Labrador side, it was all about cod which was a European project, and there weren’t native settlements to start with; so the Inuit role was to be workers in fish plants.  Or something like that. But in both cases, local Inuit control is new.

One last thing: we were joined by one other yacht, an Austrian couple who have been cruising the world for the last 15 years or so, more or less full time, much of it in the South Sea Islands. They were very congenial. Their home port was Slovenia, now Italy. This was their first Arctic experience; next year they hope to go to Greenland. They write books and give lectures about their adventures to finance further adventures. The book title says it all: Frei wie der Wind. It’s pretty strange picturing the same boat in Labrador and Tahiti. I guess that’s what gets ocean travelers excited.

Blueberries for all!

Aug 25 was sparkling weather all day. We saw our first other sailboat (actually, first any boat in two weeks), an Austrian couple who had spent the summer cruising the Labrador coast and were heading back to Newfoundland on a parallel track, planning to leave their boat in Lewiston, NFLD. What a deal — cruise in some new place, leave your boat in a boatyard wherever you end up, come back the next summer and continue. They and Finley chatted by radio. We almost spent the night in the same harbor but they decided it was too small for two boats and continued on. We’ll probably see them tonight in Makkovik, since he said they were out of beer. Austrians out of beer!

Our anchorage was in a small protected cove on a small island. No more polar bears to worry about! A well-kept fishing cabin stood solidly on the shore. There were piles of whelk shells (big — 2″ long) behind it, presumably the product of several feasts. We had a feast of our own the next morning: blueberry pancakes. The island was loaded, and no berry branch was more than 1″ above the ground, spread out flat against the rock.  Talk about hunkering down.

The island was granitic, with great vertical slots like saw cuts running in every direction. The exposed rounded upper surfaces had a coating of blueberries, crowberries, mosses and lichens. At the bottom of each “saw cut” was an entirely different ecosystem: a blanket of foot-tall flowers, twisted alders several feet high, ferns galore. It was like dropping from above the treelike directly into a tropical jungle, except the distance was twenty feet. I suppose it’s no more dramatic, ecologically, than the transition from dry meadow to swamp. Here the change is due to protection from cold and drying winds rather than soil moisture. And the plant communities are old and undisturbed, due to differences of conditions rather than history. So much of New England is a direct result of disturbance — clearing, mowing, logging, tilling, grazing — which effects the plant community for dozens of years afterward.

Another treat: the bay was loaded comb jellies drifting gently past the boat with the tidal current. I’d seen them before: an egg-shaped body with two very long streamers, so beautiful in their element. We could see them fluoresce. I took a water sample with my plankton net but the result was disappointing, modest quantities of needle-shaped phytoplankton. Do the jellies eat much smaller stuff?

This coast is all about rock, so we wish we were geologists at this moment. So much variety, all of it visible, like the American West but two billion years older, as I’ve said. What we see seems hard to interpret without much more knowledge. The language of rocks is complex. Appearances are insufficient. For example, the same mineral combination (quartz, feldspar, mica) has two forms: granite, if formed by intrusion; and rhyolite if formed by extrusion (volcanoes). Then it metamorphoses (remelts), presumably changing crystal structure in some way. Somehow geologists know that the rock around Makkovik is metamorphosed rhyolite, whereas the Torngat Mountains are metamorphosed granite. In the process it gets banded and twisted and acquires jet-black intrusions, typically gabbro or diabase, which are the same minerals as basalt but they’re formed by intrusion and basalt by extrusion. Got that? Then somehow this metamorphosed form stays around for over a billion years without being eroded away or re-subducted and now appears on the surface as if it’s always been that way. The entire glacial period is just the blink of an eye for these rocks.  What’s more, the whole lot of them is silicates, but each with slightly different amounts of various other elements, all formed at enormous temperature and pressure, and coming out looking very different. What a stew pot. And what a time scale.

Speaking of eye-blinks, we’re used to ocean level being a strong determinant of shoreline appearance — beaches, cliffs, etc. — and being fixed in time. Here that fragile illusion is summarily shattered. It’s all rock, shaped the Ice Sheet and glaciers, mostly indifferent to the effects of mere waves the way sand. The water level could go up or down 60′ and the coastline would look about the same. The islands would just be in different places. Which is exactly what has happened since the last ice age.

Cape Harrigan

Aug 24

We’re anchored in a nice cove of an island after a comfortable overnight passage of 180 miles. The geology is very different from northern Labrador, which is all ancient gneiss (2.8 billion years), tall and dramatic, towering headlands and sharp-sided fjords. Now it’s dozens of rounded rock islands (only one billion years old), light in color but utterly gray because of the lichen, and not so high. And in the protected niches — trees! Our first in two weeks. Still, however, soil is rare; the fundamental landscape is bedrock. The Labrador coast is all about rock, really old rock. We should have brought geology, not botany, books. It’s like the American West, but two billion years older. More about that later.

Today we observed a neat optical effect peculiar to the arctic. On a desert a hotter air layer forms just above the land, bending the sky down and creating mirages. Here the opposite is true. The air layer above the water is colder and denser than the air above, so the result is like an optical fiber: you can see over the horizon. We could see icebergs that were forty miles away, well below our line of sight. Furthermore, the object is inverted. A conical island becomes an hourglass, with its summit meeting an upside-down copy. Jim took pictures of this: an hourglass island, an iceberg twice its real height, even one with a copy of itself displaced sideways. Apparently early explorers were fooled into mapping non-existent mountain ranges.