We loved those hard, hard times

Paul Sparkes
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“It is a glorious sight to see, this arrival of the fish. Overhead, the marvellous transparent sky; below, the glassy surface of the dark blue ocean; here and there the fantastic shapes of great mountains of ice, dazzling the eye with a whiteness which far exceeds that of the whitest marble. Behind are the mighty cliffs, their jagged faces telling the story of their endless battles at first with fire, and then with frost and furious seas. Along the shores is the great host of eager fishermen.”

Wilfred Grenfell wrote these words more than a century ago as he described the summertime activity off the Labrador coasts he knew so well. It was the season of the Labrador fishery which brought so many crews from Newfoundland — the time when the caplin heralded the pursuing cod, and in pursuit of them in turn, the fisherman with debts to meet and mouths to feed.

Short sentences before this, Grenfell described the ending of the spring seal hunt when, if that did not make Newfoundland outport men busy enough, their work really accelerated:

“After the sealery comes the really busy time. The schooner has to be scraped and caulked over and painted, and the nets overhauled and put on board. All the things for the summer-house in Labrador have to be stowed and finally the people shipped and made as comfortable as possible … usually we are away, at the very latest, by early June.”

Grenfell, as author in his 1905 book “The Harvest of the Sea,” puts himself in the place of several fishermen and, using the first person, tells a many-faceted story.

It is all brutally hard work, this Labrador fishery (especially by today’s standards), but you sense the excitement and the energy. Some years ago (in the 1970s and ’80s) we knew an older woman in Conception Bay who had gone to Labrador for the seasonal fishery as (perhaps) a teenager. She went along with people she knew and her duty was to cook. She often remarked — and often “out of the blue” — that those trips were the happiest times of her life.

If you think that prosecuting the seal hunt, coming home and preparing boats, gear and people for the hike to Labrador were not enough in any given year, consider that when you returned from Labrador, the next obligation was to go into the woods and cut and haul a huge fuel supply for the coming winter. But it was healthy labour and a person likely revelled in his energy: “what pride I used to take in seeing our wood-pile grow under my hand!” Before that, however. …

“We had always a few sheep to feed and tend. As soon as we returned from the fishery in Labrador, we had to go up in the bay and cut wild hay for them; this we heaped up and covered with boughs till we were ready to haul it home in winter.”

Small wonder that Grenfell puts into the mouth of his hardworking, storytelling fisherman a few words about how welcome was the chance to sleep for as long as one wished.

With eastern Newfoundland bays and coves long-settled and well-populated, and the stock offshore under assault from more and more boats, cod-seekers in the mid-1700s began moving north in early summer. Along the Labrador coast, they found the harbours they needed and a plentiful supply of cod.

“By the late 1700s,” he says in “The Fishery of Newfoundland and Labrador” (1980, LeMessurier and Sherk), “the Labrador fishery had become very important. … By the early 20th century the Labrador fishery had reached its peak and was responsible for a major portion of the fish produced. But by the 1930s, it was already declining.”

Nevertheless, that book goes on to show that it was not until the late 1950s or early 1960s “that the stocks became seriously depleted.”

Like a migratory tribe, the fishermen moved out of small coves along Newfoundland’s coast in late spring/early summer contending with ice as they progressed northwards. As Grenfell records, they were “carrying down not only the men and boys, but the women and children as well, and all the household utensils, furniture, bedding and food and every requisite for the long summer’s fishing.

“All these are to be dropped at some natural harbour on the Labrador coast where there is a rude tilt and probably a small fishing stage left from the previous year. … Here one crew, or it may be a dozen, will form a small settlement and fish from that place in boats which they leave here from year to year. A single crew remains on the schooner and goes on a fishing trip farther north.”  

Grenfell’s storytellers show that when they started the season in Labrador, the catch was salmon, caught in long nets from the headlands. The salmon were split down the back, salted, packed in large tierces “and sent to the United States to be washed, smoked and sold as smoked salmon.” (Secondary manufacturing done elsewhere, you will notice.)

After the salmon, there was the seafood parade — caplin, cod (in “great wallowing masses”), then seabirds, “flying and diving,” with seals and porpoises, sharks and whales. “Ashore, even, the wild animals are expecting them and dogs and bears, otters and mink are hurrying to the landwash to share in the great annual feast.”

Much of this frenzy is generated by the appetizer, caplin; the main course was the cod. How fortunate for our cod stocks that man was the one and only animal with the intelligence to fashion nets and traps and to sink great lines of hooks!

I especially liked Grenfell’s description of looking down over the side of a boat and tracing the “bulto” (I have also seen this written bull-tow):

“On a fine, calm day as you haul up the bulto you can look over the side far down into the deep water and see great white things every few yards down, getting smaller and smaller till you can see them no more. They are all swirling to and fro and make one think of Jacob’s ladder with the angels on it, though they are really the great cod — which are only taken in deep water — coming up on the hooks.”


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Conception Bay, United States

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