Monday, June 22, 2015

Wolf Quest Part XIII: Sanctuary

The drive from Happy Valley to the coast of Labrador was uneventful. The fact I picked up the two hitchhikers made me feel responsible for at least getting them to some spot near civilization from which they could get rides south and that spot was the turn off for Mary’s Harbour. My history of hitchhiking leaves a soft spot for travelers on the side of the road and once they get in the vehicle I have to accept some sacrifices. The two young men were starved for rock n roll and for some reason Kiss was making a Canadian Tour with a stop in central New Foundland. “Good evening, New Foundland! Are you ready to Rock?” and like twenty people clap their hands and think, “I thought this had something to do with kissing.” I had spent about a week in Happy Valley trying to find a sponsor to take me north to Ellesmere Island and that week demonstrated the utter bleakness of that area. If Levelland, Texas is a Baptist amusement park where a tractor is considered a ride then Happy Valley, Labrador is…I don’t know…it’s an Army base. I think there is a high school. I didn’t see any source of amusement other than my van. In the summer the mosquitoes make any outdoor activity miserable. I saw a few ATVs running around but with gas at around $7 a gallon, who can afford to ride an ATV? So the winter is the only time people enjoy outside activities. And those probably involve ski-mobiles, skis, snowshoes. There is one park/playground, but who would be eaten by mosquitoes to play on a swing? My point is that if you spend more than a few days in Happy Valley in the summer then you have exhausted all the amusement opportunities so hitchhiking around 1000 miles, across the St. Lawrence Strait to the middle of New Foundland for a music concert of has-been lips-stick rock stars prancing around with battle axe guitars starts to sound reasonable.

I’d read that a place loaned satellite phones but this was the season for RV jockeys and they’d all been loaned out. I was really not thinking too much about safety considering the van only had two gears so I left without it. Turns out, I didn’t need it. We rolled down the coast in a pouring rain, the dirt road was pretty much perfect for my twin I-beam suspension. The van rolls like a luxury Lincoln Town Car on smooth dirt road. The b’ys bought me lunch and I really did want to investigate Mary’s Harbour and felt the two kids had a moderate chance of getting a ride to the Ferry the next morning. I mean, I wasn’t ditching them, but I also didn’t want to give them a ride another 400 miles south and basically skip every single scenic exhibit. And I’d been reading about Mary’s Harbour for nearly a month as a ‘unique experience’. I don’t usually pay much attention to things like that because my life is generally unique enough, but in this case it was an excuse to turn off the road, to probably camp in town, to buy some crackers, walk around the coast…etc.

I drove the short distance to the actual coast and there wasn’t much to see in that town except the ferry port, where there is a crab processing plant on another wharf across the inlet. I walked into the Battle Harbour Ferry Landing to investigate and escape the mosquitoes. I’d been reading about Battle Harbour for three weeks off and on in tourist brochures and such. I hadn’t paid any attention so I vaguely thought that Mary’s Harbour and Battle Harbour were the same thing. I thought this little building next to the water was the attraction. And it is actually an attraction. Believe me, there are exhibits up and down the Labrador and New Foundland coast that really stretch the definition of exhibit. There’s one exhibit that is nothing more than a single plant, a weed. Another is a house where someone was killed about 100 years ago. At some point in the recent past a tourist blitz was organized and anything that could conceivably get someone to come to Labrador or New Foundland became an exhibit. Anything. A Ditch. A Rock. A tree. A deer skull. So, when I say that I thought this one room building on the edge of a wharf was the exhibit I’m not joking. It had photos and a few artifacts and a slide show. On the coast of Labrador, that is a pretty good exhibit. But this building at Mary’s Harbour was not the exhibit. It was the building where you wait for the ferry to take you to the exhibit. I asked about the rates and learned it was something like $25 for the Ferry and another $25 for a night in the bunkhouse. That was about $50 more than I could afford.

This is when an amazing coincidence happened that was definitely the highlight of this entire journey. No, someone did not open the door and ask, “Are there any time traveling gypsies who want to deck hand on my wolf research vessel. I’m going to Ellesmere Island and we really need someone to wash dishes and play guitar…” That would’ve been awesome but that didn’t happen. What really did happen was the volunteer coordinator who actually lived in St. John’s New Foundland but was on site for a few days happened to be in the ferry building because she was using the internet between the time the 1st Ferry dropped her off in the morning and when the Ferry returned in the evening to pick up the last visitors to the Island. See, Battle Harbour is an Island. I guess I hadn’t grasped that detail from the brochures. And the coordinator asked me if I was going and I hesitated because I don’t think I even had $50 in cash. The gas prices were killing me and I was thinking I’d need every penny to get to Ellesmere Island. I had this plan that involved going to St. Anthony, on the main Island of New Foundland, where I thought there would be more research vessels and I would need all my money if that came true. I hemmed and hawed and the coordinator said, “Well, our volunteers cancelled and we need someone to help around the Island, in exchange for a bed in the bunkhouse. Is that something you’d be interested in?”

A few hours later I got on the Ferry and we motored between icebergs to the Harbour. Seeing Battle Harbour for the first time was like coming home. Every detail had been preserved from about 1912 and I finally felt comfortable in my surroundings. It’s easy to say, “I was born in the wrong time period.” But it’s very hard to actually find the correct time period and I’m pretty sure I found it in the historical Battle Harbour village. I found the time period from 1870 to 1920 flawless. I had become a time traveler from the future only to come back to the present and then to drive about 5000 miles to go even further back in time to a time of whale oil lamps, salted cod and steam ships.

So began my resident naturalist gig on Battle Harbour Island, and so ended my masquerade as Oggy Bleacher, traveler from the future who is voyaging to Ellesmere Island to save the wolf. I did have to say something to explain my presence on the Island and I used the part about Wolf Awareness and Climate Change and trying to get to Ellesmere Island but I left out the part about being Oggy Bleacher from the future. After a few days the coordinator offered me a Battle Harbour sweatshirt as a uniform and said I could stay a month or more if I kept up my scraping work on the weather beaten warehouse/store/dining hall and split firewood and other assorted chores. Because I would be a representative of the Battle Harbour Trust I could not look like a ragged Mountain Man who had been hiding out from the law for 20 years. It simply would not work. And I was working in the kitchen and they don’t make beard nets big enough to keep my hair out of the food. You see the issue? Something had to change in order for me to avoid scaring the guests, so I shaved my face. The beard was merely part of the costume of the gypsy from the future, as was the odd ‘70s Bell Bottoms and polyester Disco shirts. And they had no place on Battle Harbour Island where I wore a different hat as resident Naturalist and wood splitter and evening entertainment.

Traveling without agenda can lead to some unpleasant scenarios as it reflects a deeper refusal to bend to conventional wisdom, and that’s a sure way to suffer in today’s commoditized world. Buy, sell, fuck, consume, shit, eat. We’re going to progress ourselves directly into the path of an environmental apocalypse and then people will say the problem is “lack of progress”. Like, we didn’t progress fast enough, so we need to double our efforts. All of this is bullshit. The climate is far from stable with or without human influence but one of the details I learned in my stay on Battle Harbour was how mankind definitely is prone to hysterical blindness on a massive scale.

Cod fish isn’t something most people think about. Even Arctic Wolves don’t care too much about the fate of codfish. But Battle Harbour’s chief existence as a populated Island was because of plentiful Cod Fish off the continental shelf and the closest possible land location was Battle Harbour. It took 300 years to totally deplete the cod fish of the north Atlantic and I will bet that for 299 years no one thought it was possible to overfish that area. I know it. I know that humanity will collectively ignore common sense and even obvious physical evidence when it comes to the Status Quo. There’s even a psychological malfunction called The Status Quo Bias, which basically says that if the status quo includes X then X must be find indefinitely or else X never would’ve become the status quo to begin with. In the case of Cod Fishing off Battle Harbour, not one but several countries blindly attacked all swimming life as though the Earth would spin off its axis if any cod were left alive. They believed that since fishing had gone of for so long that it would continue forever. There’s an argument that with the 1890 style of manual fishing and processing the cod could’ve survived in the North Atlantic and there might be some truth to that. The status quo, in that case, was ignored in favor of ‘progress’ in the form of Norwegian ‘Floating Factories’ that fished year round, during breeding season, etc, and the fish never had a chance to repopulate. So, we have to fallacies: status quo bias followed by ‘progress’ bias. The floating factories took the status quo and simply ‘improved’ it by economizing effort. Pretty clever! And even that was sustainable for a decade or two but the laws of biology were inescapable: “The cod catch peaked in 1968 at 810,000 tons, approximately three times more than the maximum yearly catch achieved before the super-trawlers. Approximately 8 million tons of cod were caught between 1647 and 1750, a period encompassing 25 to 40 cod generations. The factory trawlers took the same amount in 15 years.[5]

These are identical statistics to the ones I’m seeing in the climate topic, the amount of Carbon Dioxide emissions between pre-history and the Industrial Revolution is right around the amount that is emitted in one year currently. And we know that this Co2 level is critical to stabilizing the climate, but even when faces with obvious statistical evidence of an imminent collapse, not to mention common fucking sense that the status quo is pure poison, I’m seeing a lot of foot dragging on the renewable energy front. And reducing CO2 emissions to zero doesn’t actually prevent a catastrophic 6 degree temperature rise according to some models. No, we’re going to need a negative effect, an active cleansing of the atmosphere, giant scrubbers or super-trees to balance out the damage done in the recent past. 8-10 Billion people by 2100? Holy Shit! The planet can sustain 100 Million in the same way that the cod fish population can sustain one nearby island with a small army of fishermen with manual nets physically scooping each fish out of the ocean. Yes, no problem. But bring in a super-trawler and we’ve got problems. Likewise, the earth can probably sustain one coal power plant that generates power for 1 bicycle manufacturing factory. 1 Steel refinery. 1 Nuclear Power plant. Sure. Not 200!

Well, the Cod fish you eat now is probably not cod fish or else it’s from a fish farm or caught in some remote location in the ocean. The Newfoundland cod fish will not recover in your lifetime, if they recover at all, and they will probably not recover because competing fish have usurped their domain. We really want biology to be simple until we realize, too late, that it’s complex and doesn’t really care about our status quo bias.

Battle Harbour had many lessons to teach me and I had a pleasant month on the Island sanctuary. The Island is populated by a handful (8) residents in addition to the staff of the dining room and the tour guides and maintenance crew, who tolerated my clumsy efforts at swinging a hammer. It’s remoteness attracts the hardcore traveler. Casual wanderers will probably not find themselves on the coast of Labrador with an extra $50 to spend on a night in a restored cod fishing village. So the people I met were people who planned to come to Battle Harbour, mostly Candians, people who desired the remoteness, the simplicity, the few locals, the one trail, the whales, the icebergs. It’s easy to make the place sound like paradise and, for me, it is. Why didn’t I stay forever? Well, first of all, I’m poisoned by modern culture and remaining there would forever taint the authentic culture with my Hollywood corruption. I want to fit into a community like that and maybe at one point in my life I could’ve, but now that I’ve been to dirty Mexican whore houses and Las Vegas and Taco Bell burrito eating contests and judged women by their cellulite and watched movies with multiple mutilations and decapitations and dogs eating men’s genitals without even blinking, I believe that I’m corrupted beyond hope. The locals of Mary’s Harbour have never even seen a Cosmopolitan magazine and I’ve cut pictures out of that magazine and made collages representing a twisted culture. See, I no longer belong among uncorrupted people because my worldview has been influenced by experiences no one should have while theirs has remained unblemished by corporate body image nonsense. I could fake it for a while but I would eventually tell an anecdote that would haunt everyone who heard it. An anthropologist can visit a place and trade worldviews to a point but he runs the risk of distorting the community he’s observing simply by his proximity to the community and I take that likelihood seriously. It’s the Oggy Paradox, searching forever for paradise and when I find it I can’t stay because I’ve been too poisoned by the search, and I’ll corrupt the paradise with my disease. The locals are pure and I am obviously not, so where would I fit? It’s enough to visit and know that such a place still exists in a pristine state, no vehicles. No phones (a Marconi Wireless station was once on the island) no poisonous media debates by pundits with distorted agendas and hideous egos. But I’m one of those poisoned pundits with a hideous ego, and merely because I accept that doesn’t mean I would be any less corrupting to a pristine culture. It’s like I’ve adopted the Star Trek directive of not corrupting the cultures I encounter. Maybe I’ll find a place that is not completely pristine and also not completely poisoned and I can stay there. It’s possible. The second reason I couldn’t stay at Battle Harbour was because it completely closed in the Fall and was uninhabitable, surrounded by pack ice and polar bears.

Instead of pulling weeds out of the small garden, I decided I would make a little promotional video for the Battle Harbour and I spent some time getting footage of whales and icebergs and also learning a bunch of Labrador fishing melodies to perform at the evening meal. I edited that footage and recorded the songs in a small room overlooking a windblown bluff. In the morning I would split wood and stock the wood piles in the office. I would not have joined up with a Norwegian super-trawler but in the year 1890 I would’ve happily rowed miles into the ocean to capture cod in nets and then gutted them and cut them up for the salt stacks. I’d shoot seals and polar bears in the winter and run a sled dog team to trapping lines. I think that would suit me and I suspected that years ago when I went to Alaska but a curiosity about the world drew me to dark places and now there’s no going back, there’s no unlearning what I have learned and my pretending I didn't learn it is obviously inauthentic.

It was here I finally read Dillon Wallace’s book, “The Lure of The Labrador Wild” the retelling of his journey to the interior. It’s fitting that Battle Harbour should have a copy of this book since he and Hubbard passed through Battle Harbour going to and from Northwest River so I was really traveling in the footsteps of history. Arctic explorer Robert Peary had a whole room devoted to his North Pole expedition. The room was above the historic salt chamber where I split wood and where I poked my eye with my safety goggles that I wore when I chopped wood. Then I was rubbing my eye and that caused an infection. But I thought the pain was because I had poked my eye. Finally I couldn’t see and light was unbearable, so I went to the Grenfell Memorial Hospital on the mainland and got treatment for conjunctivitis in a humane fashion. In the United States I’d probably still be in debt from that incident but in Canada the bill was $8. Not long after that some other volunteers were scheduled to arrive (so I was told, though they might’ve wanted to move me along before I took root) and I continued driving south on the coast.

Battle Harbour is epic, authentic beyond measure. It’s funny the most authentic place I’ve been is a restored village, basically a theme park, but the restoration part merely made the building habitable. They had strict guidelines to keep the place ‘historic’ and that included single pane glass, which caused all kinds of havoc with condensation and paint. So, the island buildings are restored to 1910 status, and the only other theme was the fishermen who gave guided tours to the visitors, to explain the history of the buildings and the process of fishing for cod. But the charm factor was off the charts and I find myself day dreaming of Battle Harbour often.

Oggy's Paradise: A look back at Battle Harbour Island from Great Caribou Island

Referring to Labrador requires a specification: either you are inland or on the coast. The Coast of Labrador is the most populated area, the most original to the long history of that land. Fishermen came from Europe and some stayed with hospitable Inuit women. The interior of Labrador was exclusively Innu tribes basically until mid 20th century. Even today it’s unpopulated except for Labrador City (mining town) Churchill Falls (hydroelectric plant) and Happy Valley (Army Base/port). Without the energy resources and strategic locations, the interior of Labrador would never change. But the coast of Labrador has a lived in look, a feel of tradition. The charm factor was noticeably lower as I left Mary’s Harbour and continued south down the coast. I made a point to stop at every tourist attraction to stretch my legs. The mosquitoes are villainous and the tiny no-see-um flies could even navigate the tight mesh of my mosquito hat/shirt. But my Mexican mosquito net in the van did protect me at night although I had to wear ear plugs because the buzzing of the insects never ceased.

I won’t go into detail about the drive to Blanc Sablon, where a ferry to New Foundland can be boarded. I think there’s a way to take a ferry down the St. Lawrence River back toward Quebec City, but I was aiming across the strait to New Foundland. I seem to remember getting sea sick on the ferry but there’s nothing like vomiting into a ship’s toilet to make one really appreciate land.

New Foundland is a big island so I figured everyone who was leaving was on a boat…and that increased my chances of finding someone going to Ellesmere Island or maybe Baffin Island or Greenland. The main port of Western New Foundland seemed to be St. Anthony, which I had learned was the headquarters of Grenfell Hospitals and I felt I owed the doctor a pilgrimage due to the fact he had established the hospital on Battle Harbour, where I stayed, and also the hospital at Mary’s Harbour, where my eyesight had been preserved.

So, I drove north visiting each attraction of plants or living rocks or sand or other odd geologic features. I hadn’t really looked at a map of this area until I was already there but I learned there was something called “L’anse Aux Meadows” that sounded a step above the normal dusty book behind a pane of glass exhibit. It turned out to be an excavated Viking village, evidence of the first Europeans to land on North America, beating Columbus by about 400 years. The Vikings stayed long enough to train some Canadian re-enactors to smelt ore from bog dirt and make nails before they repaired their boats and headed back to Norseland, or wherever they came from. It was part of ancient Viking Lore that a crew had indeed landed on the tip of some great land but decided it was asking too much to stay there so they left. If they’d decided to stay we all might know more about Viking Lore but today we have political pundits.

Then I drove to St. Anthony, where I met two sailors who needed a ride back to their sailboat because they had lost all motor power somewhere on the west side of New Foundland and had truly sailed to a little cove and were going to try to sail to St. Anthony in the morning. I saw the boat and was hesitant because I had been horribly sick on a huge vehicle ferry that was only underway for a few hours and those sailboat was maybe 28 feet long, a hull made of concrete and the sea looked violent. But I foolishly thought I could help them and spent about 8 hours puking overboard. I puked until I was hoarse and could not support my own weight. The wind didn’t cooperate but it was too late to turn back so we tacked for hours into the bitter south wind, waves lashing the puke back into my face. It was horrible and I ended up causing more problems because I needed them to help me put my own coat on though they needed to work the sail lines. Boy was I a big help!

I hitchhiked back to the van and vowed to never get on another boat. Here I was trying to get to Ellesmere Island and I nearly died from dehydration after 8 hours on a sailboat. How was I ever going to get to Ellesmere Island, buried above the Arctic Circle, surrounded by inhospitable seas? Never. It would never happen. No one was going there, although I had actually met some sailors on Battle Harbour who were on a Smithsonian Research ship which had sailed some of the distance toward Ellesmere, but even they told me it was too late in the season to go there and, they weren’t going there, and they had never gone there.

Basically, I’d be lucky to get the van to Nova Scotia so Ellesmere Island was out of the question. But the sailboat owner told me there were Arctic Wolves in a Nova Scotia wildlife park…so I made a note of that and spent the next week or two pondering what the problem was with my transmission, enjoying the company of several travelers, paying my respects to Grenfell at his headquarters and also his personal house on the hill which is now a museum.  Driving a vintage vehicle long distances into the remote wilderness should either be done with the intent of abandoning the vehicle or else IT SHOULDN’T BE DONE. The stress of this trip would’ve been sufficient without added problems involving a 42 year old transmission and the fact I wasn’t ready to abandon this van. It truly suits me like no other vehicle. I have a community of owners and Econoline historians who can keep this van running until fossil fuels are totally depleted and even then they could convert it to electric. Heck, the heaviest part of this van is the V8 motor.

I will pause here with me in St. Anthony trying to decide what to do about the gear that was skipping in the transmission. I could use the wharf shower, there was a Grenfell cooperative market nearby, a library, a few museums, icebergs, sea lions. St. Anthony is not as pure as Battle Harbour but I felt it was conceivable I could live there. It was not poisoned by modern culture by a long shot and there was a Tim Hortons. It was homogenous, but it worked. I could be an electrician or mechanic there. Maybe a volunteer fireman. It’s that kind of place. Teach piano. It was just poisoned enough to let me feel comfortable with how corrupt I’ve become. So I became a temporary resident of St. Anthony, picked up trash, took pictures, watched softball games, flirted with cashiers at the market. It was windy there so the mosquitoes were not too bad.

Here are links to the installments of the Wolf Quest

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.