bonavista to twillingate

[Saturday, June 21]

Saturday morning, and most of the day, was chilly and drizzly. Everyone here talks about the weather all the time. Even taking into account the usual small-talk, this seems unusual. I imagine when you live in a place where the weather is constantly changing, and where a warm, sunny day is a minor event, and then throw in the influence of a maritime culture, where weather could mean life or death, it makes sense.

And everyone has been complaining about the weather, too. It hasn't seemed so bad to me - we've usually been comfortable with a light jacket, and only once had to really bundle up - but when you consider that it's late June, perhaps they've got a point. It was only when fellow guests at the B&B complained that it bothered me. Hell, you don't come to Newfoundland for the weather. And if sunny weather is that important to you, then wait for July and put up with the crowds. Grumble, grumble.

This mild irritation is the perfect lead-in to our breakfast on Saturday. On Friday morning we ate with our hosts, but this morning the table is full - us, a couple from BC, the couple from northern Ontario we met the night before and Teddy-Bear Guy.

TBG is declaiming loudly, holding court, making speechlets. He has a bad case of look-at-me-ism. Plus several disgusting personal habits that make it very difficult to look at him at all. Plus I haven't had my first cup of coffee. I can tell Allan is quietly gritting his teeth.

When TBG finally leaves - he had finished his breakfast a long time ago, and is just hanging around to make speeches - the atmosphere in my head improves considerably. But even making travel small-talk with the other couples (who are perfectly nice people) reminds me why we usually don't prefer B&Bs.

We settle up our ridiculously tiny bill, and thank Albert and Florence profusely. They see us off with directions and well-wishes as if we are family.

The plan is to drive down the Bonavista Peninsula to Clarenville, back to the Trans-Canada Highway to Gander, then turn off towards Twillingate. But first we want to stop at Port Union. Port Union represents a fascinating piece of history, and our stop there leads to one of our funniest travel moments, ever.

Port Union bills itself as Canada's only union-made town. It was founded in 1916 by William Ford Coaker, who began Canada's first fisherman's union, the Fisherman's Protective Union. Through Coaker's FPU, fishers and their families challenged the "merchant system," which was the maritime equivalent of sharecropping. The merchant - the big boss - owned everything. Fishers paid for all their essentials - tools, flour, anything - out of their catch and lived on credit. The system was designed to keep fishers in a constant state of poverty and debt.

Coaker encouraged community self-sufficiency, and unionism, and under his methods fisher communities lifted themselves out of poverty and began to thrive. The union motto was "To each his own".

The FPU formed a political party, and in 1912 ran on a platform of radical social change. In 1913, the FPU held eight seats in Newfoundland's House of Assembly. The FPU morphed into several different unions, but to this day, most fishers and fish-processing workers in Newfoundland are unionized.

It's a fascinating piece of labour - and of course, Newfoundland and Canadian - history. As its home is just down the road from Bonavista, we wanted to stop by. In Port Union, there's a small museum about Coaker, who was knighted in 1923, along with his home and grave. There's also an exhibit about the Fisherman's Advocate, the union newspaper that was an integral part of its organizing. Sounds perfect for us, eh? That's what we thought.

We purchased tickets, and the women hanging about introduced us to our guide. We'll call him Unintentionally Hilarious Tour Guide.

Now, Allan and I have taken guided tours or ranger talks on our travels together for more than 20 years, and I've been in this habit all my life, first from travel with my parents, then then on my own. Almost without exception, guides are very knowledgeable about their subject, offering context that illuminates whatever we're seeing, whether that is natural wonders or political history.

UHTG was in his 20s, and most likely intellectually disabled. Please know that we were nothing but polite and friendly to him. I'm certain no one else in Port Union knew what we were thinking.

As soon as UHTG started his talk, I knew something was wrong. He told a short story, probably memorized by rote, that was disjointed and out of context. The opening sentence: "We don't know what the workers earned, but after the strike, they made fifty cents an hour." What workers? What strike? What year is his? Then the Fisherman's Protective Union is formed. "On November 2, they held their first meeting." I asked, "Excuse me, what year is that?" He didn't know, but thought about it for a minute and decided on 1908. This was strange, but not yet ridiculous.

A few minutes later, UHTG told a story about the fishermen's opposition to the war, and how Coaker voted for the war anyway. (I haven't verified that.) The story had jumped around a lot, and we didn't know what year we were in, or even what war he was referring to. Allan asked, "Which war?" UHTG drew a blank. Allan said politely, "Was it World War I, or World War II?" UHTG: "Either World War I or World War II. One of those. World War I would have come first, then World War II would have been later." From the exhibit, we later saw that Coaker died in 1938. Oh boy. That's when I decided not to ask any more questions, so as not to possibly embarrass him.

We followed UHTG around, trying to read the printed material as he chattered. The tour included a walk around the old printing machinery used to create The Advocate, guided by a former pressman. He had a very strong accent, spoke very quickly, and although I have no doubt he was an excellent printer, he possessed no skill as a tour guide. But at least it was a break from UHTG.

After the press room, things really deteriorated. Upstairs in the woodworking area, UHTG read the labels on the display cases. "Here we have some saws, here are some nails, here are some hooks. This is a really big hook." He walked quickly through the room, reading the signs to us. "This table used to be over here, and this one was over here. We had to switch them around. It was really hard to do, the tables are very heavy!"

At this point, I feel a fit of giggles coming on, and I'm afraid that if I start to laugh, I will be completely out of control. (I'm laughing as I type this!) Allan and I had exchanged looks behind TG's back a few times, but now I have to stop looking at Allan altogether. I start biting my lip, and occasionally coughing into my hand when laughter threatens to become audible.

We follow UHTG outside, for a stroll past Sir Coaker's house, small bungalows were workers lived, Coaker's grave, and a walk near the bay, from which you can see the boarded-up fish processing plant and the small, active plant where shrimp is now processed. (The Port Union fish-processing plant was the huge employer of our lovely guide in Bonavista, along with everyone else in the area.)

Outside, UHTG seems to lose all memory of what he's supposed to be doing. It's like we're walking around with some guy we met. I am struggling not to burst out in an uncontrollable laughing fit. It's drizzly, so I use that as an excuse to pull the hood of my windbreaker tightly around my head, and I hang back a few steps, so I can't hear anything. It's the only way.

When I do catch some of the "tour", UHTG is pointing out the overgrown grass - "They really should do something about this" - or the poor condition of the town's sad-looking playground. By the time we're back at the bay, he's pointing to pieces of trash and musing on what happens when you feed seagulls.

On our way back to the gift shop, we pass the small Coaker museum without a word, like it's not even there!

Finally we return. I hope I don't need to say that we had no intentions of telling anyone what just happened. I think the rest of the staff doesn't know what goes on on these tours. Allan disagrees, and is convinced that they must know, and not realize how inappropriate it is. Either way is strange, and kind of sad. This is not an official historic site that gets funding from Parks Canada. The entrance fee is steep, but they're never going to attract more visitors like this.

At the gift shop, I want to get something with the FPU logo, a big red U surrounding a fish. There is nothing, not a pin or a keychain or a postcard. There's not even a pamphlet about the FPU, just stuffed puffins and other generic Newfoundland gifts. When I asked about something with the logo on it, a gift-shop employee said other people have asked about it, and she agrees that they ought to sell those.

We talked a little about the union - her husband was a member for 30 years - and how it changed the lives of so many people. She says, "We did well around here. People owned their own homes, and could even save a bit of money. Who ever heard of a fisherman able to save money? The union was everything to us."

Finally we said goodbye, thanking UHTG, shaking his hand, and managing to drive away before we exploded. The whole way down the Bonavista Peninsula, we couldn't stop talking about, alternating between hilarity and incredulity. We didn't learn very much, but as Allan said, we got plenty of material.

We drove to Clarenville, where my cell phone worked, and called a few places to stay in Twillingate. Our first priority was internet access. Being offline for a short time can be refreshing, but being cut off from our dogwalker, my blog and the Red Sox for days was stressful! A few B&Bs were fully booked, but after some phone calls, we found a room at a larger motel. And after our irritating breakfast that morning, the anonymity and privacy of a motel seems like a plus.

Back on the Trans-Canada, we drive on steep hills, past rock outcroppings and scrubby pine forests. The highway cuts through Terra Nova National Park. Every so often the trees give way to a view of a lake, pond, bay or inlet. There is water everywhere.

We exit the highway at Gander, where, surprisingly, I again don't have cell service, so good job we booked our room from Clarenville. The road out to Twillingate is rutted and slow, but the scenery is amazing. There are dozens of ponds and quiet bays, small white houses perched on the water's edge, a more gentle landscape then we had seen before. The road eventually branches out into causeways, as the end of the peninsula is an archipelago of large and small islands.

Towards Twillingate, the land becomes rugged again, with jagged cliffs and spectacular views. Twillingate calls itself the iceberg capital of Newfoundland. There are tour boat companies out here that are supposed to know where all the icebergs and whales have been spotted. As we approach Twillingate, the sun comes out, and suddenly it's summer again.

We find our hotel, and hooray, we're back online! We managed to pull ourselves away from our computers long enough to eat amazing seafood chowder and admire the sun-drenched scenery, then back inside to write more.

Random note: my feet don't hurt! I have had zero foot pain. It was this trip that pushed me to see a podiatrist and get orthotics, and it's really paying off. There's no way I could be doing this otherwise.

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