Just over a month ago our expedition was confirmed. Contracts were signed, negotiations were concluded positively and we set ourselves to the next task. There were several at hand but one of the most important was to visit the Ocean Endeavour and the different destinations in Newfoundland and Labrador that comprise our trip.
The Ocean Endeavour coincidentally happened to be scheduled to dock at port in St. John’s at the beginning of this month. We sent a small team up to St. John’s that boarded the Ocean Endeavour, spoke with some of the staff aboard, took some pictures of the facilities and later drive around the province to visit as many of our expedition’s destinations as time would allow. In coming newsletters we will provide detailed reports focusing on each individual destination.
While in St. John’s we met with Latonia Hartery one of the special guests of our expedition, we visited the colorful houses of Jellybean Row and Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America. We also made an effort throughout our trip to taste as many of the regions more peculiar and emblematic culinary benefactions as possible, these included cod tongues, hay ice cream, Jiggs Dinner, Newfie Steak and of course, at almost every meal, the ever-present fish cakes. St. John’s truth be told, is an open, vibrant city, proud of its idiosyncrasy, and full of life.
From St. John’s we drove up the entire island and across the Strait of Belle Isle which separates it from Labrador, all the way to Red Bay where the Nao San Juan lies underwater. We met there with representatives of the Basque Whaling Station inscribed on the list of World Heritage sites by UNESCO in 2013. Though the museums they have up there had already closed for the season, the folks were kind enough to open them up for a tour and then sit down with us to plan out what an official reception might look like.
When finished with this meeting, we hit the road again (We drove over 2,000 miles in a week!) towards Gros Morne National Park, an enormous expanse of cliffs, fjords, and mountains overlooking forests full of wildlife. As we drove through we kept commenting to ourselves that it looked sort of like if the landscape of New England or upstate New York had been transposed on the topography of the Grand Canyon. A paradise for nature photographers.
Twelve hours after having left Red Bay we arrived at the tiny town of Fortune on the southern coast of Newfoundland. Fortune is where “Le Cabestan”, the tiny passenger boat that ferries people over to the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon departs from. Le Cabestan might be a tiny catamaran but the crossing is serious. Before boarding and once you disembark there are customs offices to pass through, passports must be shown, and the reason for your visit must be declared. The islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon are legally part of France and the European Union, and the procedure for entering is the same as if you had just landed in Paris on a 747. Once on the island and past the customs office, we were received very warmly by our friend David, treasurer of the Euskal Etxea of St. Pierre. It was wonderful to see him and plan out the details of the “petit fete” we plan on throwing at their beautiful fronton -one of the oldest in North America- when our expedition arrives next year. After lunch David gave us a tour of the island; we gazed out across the water towards the ghost town at L’Île-aux-Marins, an island whose last residents abandoned it for St. Pierre fifty years ago. We visited the Musée de l’Arche and the downtown where we spent our few Euros. It was a special visit to a very curious place; a French island with an outsize Basque presence smack in the middle of Canadian waters.
We retraced our steps back through customs and Le Cabestan to the parking lot in Fortune where we had left our car. We had one stop left to go.
Placentia sits on the Avalon Peninsula opposite St. John’s. Here we found not just a wealth of Basque vestiges including the oldest original Canadian civil document (The will of a Basque sailor who requested to be buried there.) but also a beautiful town and some wonderful folks in the persons of Tom O’ Keefe, President of the Placentia Area Historical Society and Charlotte Hickey, Chief Administrative Officer of the town. We were able to sit down with them and talk about the future town twinning being planned between their town and Plentzia in Bizkaia and the celebration we plan to set up in Placentia during our trip which will coincide with the signing of the document that will make the towns of Placentia and Plentzia officially twins. We visited the boardwalk and museum, the cemetery and local monuments. Most importantly we were able to see firsthand the depth of connection the town has with its Basque heritage and the importance it has there. In coming newsletters we plan on preparing detailed reports focusing individually on each of the destinations at which our expedition will stop. Today, back in New York we can declare that we have seen something very special: an enormous, beautiful province linked through its history to the Basque Country across the ocean, and a wonderful group of people and places that await us.