The origin of fog

Hans Rollmann
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Staring impatiently out of the window into the thick fog of Makkovik Harbour, I wished fervently that the grey blanket would lift so planes could land on the gravel airstrip. For several days, the fog taunted us, lifting ever so slightly, only to descend once more as a shroud over the silent harbour.

After wind and sea, fog is perhaps the most distinctive identity marker of our province's climate and environment.

So, it is not surprising that Sir William Vaughan, one of the early 17th-century colonizers and propagandists, speaks of Newfoundland's "icy and cold foggy air, which in some seasons of the year molests and damnifies the inhabitants."

Travel diaries of missionaries, clergy and other travellers abound with observations of "foggy mists" and fog "thick," "dense" and "heavy."

Favourable fog

The only thoroughly positive appreciation of the Newfoundland fog that I have found aside from the name for the St. John's Fog Devils comes from the pen of Prince William Henry.

On the way from St. John's to Placentia, this future sailor king, William IV, had encountered in 1786 impenetrable fog, which matched the mental state of the then love-sick commander of the 28-gun frigate Pegasus.

In a letter to his brother, the Prince of Wales and future King George IV, the prince contrasted the superficial gaiety of Halifax with Newfoundland.

"I wished myself back," he wrote, "to the inhospitable shores, foggy atmosphere and rugged barren cliffs of Newfoundland," presumably to mourn further his loss of Sarah Martin, the daughter of Plymouth's port commissioner, whom his family did not consider a suitable match for a royal.

Inuit legend

Aside from analogies in sermons, fog featured religiously as a divine sign when a wall of fog prevented access to Cape Ailik and led Moravian missionaries to establish their settler station in Makkovik instead of Ailik.

But the most distinctive mythological narrative about fog is preserved in a Labrador Inuit legend about the origin of fog.

Labrador Inuit shared this legend with other Inuit groups in one form or another and explained in a dynamic and dramatic way the origin of this ever-present natural phenomenon.

While many Inuit legends, handed down orally, have been lost, this one was recorded by the Moravian superintendent Albert Martin and printed in a 19th-century German mission magazine for children, from which I translate it now into English.

"Once a man went into the forest to get firewood. While he was working in the forest, he was attacked by a black bear, who wounded him badly, so that the man fell to the ground as if dead. The bear sniffed him to determine whether he was still alive, but the man held his breath, so that the bear believed him to be dead and put him on his back to carry him off into his cave. On the way, the bear came with his load through thick bushes. Intending to escape, the man grasped the twigs of the bushes so that it might appear to the bear that his burden had been caught by and left behind in the bushes. The bear, of course, looked around, and the man quickly let go of the twigs and would almost have fallen from the bear's back. The man could not find any propitious moment to escape and the bear happily brought his prey into his cave.

"The exertion had made the bear tired ... so that he fell asleep. The little bears that cavorted in the cave thought that their father was still awake. When they saw that the human, whom the bear had deposited in the cave, opened his eyes, they called out to the sleeping bear, 'Father! Father! Look, the one you just brought us is opening his eyes!' Drowsy, the old bear replied, 'Even if he now opens his eyes forever, he has already given me enough trouble today,' and continued to sleep.

"Then the man jumped to his feet, pushed the little playing bears aside and escaped from the cave. The bear mother, standing outside cooking, was also thrown to the ground by the fleeing man. He came to a river, which he waded across. Now he was safe.

"In the meantime father bear, awakened by his family, ran angrily after the escapee. He came to the river and saw the hunted man on the other side. 'How have you been able to cross the river?' asked the bear. 'I have drunk it all up,' the man answered. The bear immediately started to do the same. He drank and drank and drank, until he burst. Then, for the first time, thick fog covered the land."

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by e-mail at

Geographic location: Newfoundland, St. John's, Cape Ailik Makkovik

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