July 20, 2004
On a recent visit to Newfoundland, I drove up to Twillingate, one of the oldest and most remote settlements on the island’s north shore. Like many Newfoundland names that sound so whimsically English, this one is a corruption of its original 18th century French name, "Toulinquet."
Twillingate is part of a complex archipelago of small islands in Notre Dame Bay. It sits in the middle of "Iceberg Alley," the local name for the Labrador Current which brings hundreds of large icebergs down from Greenland and Northern Labrador each spring. The town was finally connected to the mainland by road about 30 years ago, and since then it has become one of Newfoundland’s more popular tourist attractions. Local boats now take visitors out to view icebergs and whales in the summer months, a scene which has been cleverly captured in a computer-generated poster depicting breaching leviathans against a backdrop of majestic icebergs and labeled "The Humpbacks of Notre Dame." Though it was now early August, I had come hoping to see one of this summer’s crop of bergs.
I stopped at a restaurant in the center of town for a cup of tea about three in the afternoon. In front of the establishment, three bearded men got off their motorcycles and went inside to a table. They turned out to be a land surveyor, an architect, and a doctor on holiday from Conception Bay. At another table sat a large, barrel-chested man, clean-shaven, about 45, with a crew cut. He ordered by saying to the waitress, "I’d really love a soda pop and—oh, the hell with my doctor, one of those, what do you call them, bakeapple tarts."
Though we all sat at separate tables, the man struck up a friendly and inquisitive conversation with everyone. It was somehow obvious that he was far from home and in need of company. He told us that he ran a hotel with a native Inuit partner in Yellowknife. He was down here buying supplies to ship back home and to recruit Newfoundlanders to work up in Yellowknife.
"The ones who haven’t been on welfare are helluva good workers," he said. "I was on Fogo Island last week, bought a used stone crusher from Sam Rowe in Seldom-Come-By. He and his seven brothers have a combined I.Q. that’s less than room temperature, but they’re helluva good carpenters."
He was outgoing, friendly, and, like so many people who come from a frontier setting, loved to tell stories about himself. He said he had served in Vietnam in the special Canadian SEAL forces "when we were young and killing Orientals—fine specimens of human beings we were. Hey, don’t get me wrong, better them than us." Of Americans, he said, "They’re a strange people—very generous and kind when they want to be, but with a violent streak in them. They’ll nuke your cities, then come in with chocolate bars, just like a big brother, you know, who you know loves you but might just swat you if he feels like it. I don’t think they like themselves very much, always cutting themselves short."
He likes American music, which he first heard in Nam, from a black battalion that used to come down from the hills and play at night. "Best goddam music I ever heard. I go down to Chicago now and then and those black bastards still glare at me when I walk into one of their clubs. I take two white friends with me, real mean fuckers—fine specimens of human beings."
He had only sporadic and oblique knowledge of musicians and bands. He didn’t know The Grateful Dead, but liked "Lips, you know, ‘Satisfaction,’ and who’s the other guy that died?"
"Naw, they made a movie about him. Died in Paris. Not all that music was good. ‘California Dreamin’—horrible song—and the girl who starved herself . . . but God, we took it all over there."
He claimed to speak fluent Vietnamese, Chinese, and Malay, and to read some of them, though he said he didn’t learn to read until he was 19. His father was a Mountie who "had the grace to marry an aboriginal girl before it was politically correct to do so. Then he got another girl pregnant—or my uncle did, I was never sure—anyway, I was raised in a goddam Genuine Canadian Multi-Cultural Family!"
He gave me a running history of the RCMP and of what he called the "real" Rebellion, where he obviously sympathized with the native side and their fighting ability—"all fine specimens they were. Did you know that Charles Dickens’ son was an officer in the Northwest Mounted Police?"
He has a 12-year-old son by his Ukrainian wife, whom he clearly dotes on. "Very smart, a computer whiz." He told us that many of the inhabitants of Yellowknife are descendants of Russian and Ukrainian priests who were abandoned there in 1917 after the Revolution, and who married Inuit and Innu. He also speaks Cree and some Denai.
He told us the story of a "runaway Harvard professor" who showed up in Yellowknife a few years ago to "lead the simple life."
"We took him out on dogsleds a few times until he turned blue with hypothermia, then we got him under the caribou pelts and set up a Nunavut shelter as a deflector so the wind wouldn’t burn him, and got him thawed out. People like him, though; he’s good at fixing two-cycle engines. There’s a beautiful, striking 25-year-old Inuit girl who has decided that she wants him, so he’s going to be a pap next spring. Of course he wanted to ‘do the decent Christian thing’ and marry her, but she said, first, she wasn’t Christian, and second, she wouldn’t marry him because he was too old and would die too soon. If she married, she wanted it to be someone she could spend the rest of her life with. Course, he was choked up for about a week, but he came to accept it. And you know, this is her first, real . . . well, she really wants him, wants to learn everything from him, for when she becomes the first woman president of Nunavut."
Much of this and more I almost missed. The three biker professionals left after he told about his Vietnam experiences. When I started to leave he said there was a large iceberg at the end of the road to Herring Neck on New World Island and he could give me a lift if I wanted to see it. I thanked him but said I had a car and had to be getting on to the ferry to Fogo, which wasn’t true. He had a boyish, somewhat shy and self-effacing manner, but you felt he could snap your neck like a birch twig.
"Well," he said, somewhat crest-fallen, "it was just an offer out of politeness."
I drove about a mile down the road with increasing regret, reminding myself that you have to take what the day offers you, and then turned back with little hope that he would still be there. I asked at the desk, describing him.
"Oh, that would be John Burke, in #1."
When he let me in he had Arctic clothing spread out all over the bed. "I went to Greenland last winter to get warm," he said. "Hell, it was -50° in Yellowknife."
He accepted my return without comment and as the kind of apology it was. During the drive out to Herring Neck, he told me these and other stories about himself. Herring Neck sits along a marvelously convoluted, long, narrow arm of the sea. Its little clusters of houses are architecturally pure: traditional two-story, flat-roofed or "salt-box" dwellings, with a few older peak-roofed houses. One house had an entire carved miniature reproduction of the village in its yard.
We came up over a rise, and there it was, just outside the arm, about 300 yards off: a massive three-peaked berg, like a floating ice cathedral, steeply spired, roughly 150 feet high and 500 feet long, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a ship under sail. It was an utterly alien object, as though it had been dropped here from another world. It seemed to contain and glow with colors that bore no relation to what was around it: a soft, almost Caribbean blue accenting a Styrofoam white. Icebergs morph overnight, not breaking up so much as transforming their shapes, rolling over, and sending out probes toward the rocky shore. This one hovered offshore, as if awaiting further instructions.
We drove down to the end of the road and climbed a hill for a better look, but it was blocked. He was out of breath after the climb, saying his lungs had not been good the past year. He apologized for not getting me a better look at the iceberg, and on the way back we stopped at a convenience store where he went in and came back a few minutes later, telling me that he had arranged for someone to take me out to it for $30 if I wanted.
When we got back to the hotel I signed and gave him a copy of one of my books. He asked me if I liked soapstone carvings. "We’ve got some of the best carvers in the world up in Yellow-knife. They’re making good money, too. Some earn over $100,000 a year. We had one of the best, a 20-year-old boy, but he committed suicide last year. Give me an address and I’ll send you something from the North."
I’ve never heard from him again, but when I got home, I checked out his story about Charles Dickens’ son. It was true.
Robert Finch is the author of Death of a Hornet and other Cape Cod Essays and has been a year-round Cape Cod resident since 1971. His other books include Common Ground, The Primal Place, Outlands, and The Cape Itself, as well as The Norton Book of Nature Writing, which he co-edited. Finch won the Boston Public Library New England Literary Lights Award in 1999.
He is currently finishing a book about Newfoundland. Contact him at email@example.com