It was last July when my wife and I, along with another couple from Gander, headed down the Burgeo Highway to spend a few, all-too-brief days exploring the southwest coast. Being one of the world’s worst procrastinators, however, it is only now, as promised, that I’m finally getting around to writing about it.
What follows, of necessity, are just a few of the rather disjointed impressions I would have jotted down in my notebook, had I been on the ball enough at the time to carry one with me.
Those used to boarding luxury cruise ships in Miami or Tampa can perhaps be forgiven for some slight feeling of trepidation at their first glimpse of the Marine Voyager along side the government wharf in Burgeo. Rather than staring up at thousands of gleaming portholes, you’re looking down at a few square metres of rusting deck space and a rubber life raft lashed to the railings.
Despite initial misgivings, however, she proves to be a surprisingly seaworthy craft, if somewhat prone to rolling in a following sea. And with a one-way ticket to our destination of choice costing just $5.13, she’s definitely an economical means of transportation.
Overhead, gannets circle lazily in the hot afternoon thermals, patiently scanning the waves for the schools of baitfish which draw them annually to these northerly latitudes.
Someone spots another summer visitor basking on the surface. It’s an ocean sunfish, instantly recognizable (so the books tell us — at first I thought it was one of Jaws’ relatives, out for revenge) by its strangely truncated posterior and high dorsal and anal fins.
Our course runs parallel to towering granite and sandstone cliffs thrusting upwards a thousand feet or more from the depths of the cold, North Atlantic. In almost every direction, treacherous shoals and sunkers bear grim witness to the many poor sailors who over the centuries have fallen victim to “the primal hungers of a reef” described by E.J. Pratt.
Later, we would learn that an American yachtsman and his wife had run aground on one of these hidden hazards that very morning. Luckily for them, a Cormorant Search and Rescue helicopter and an auxiliary coast guard craft were quickly called in to lend assistance.
It is with a sense of relief, if not disbelief, that after abruptly changing course and heading straight towards the rocks, the Marine Voyager slips silently through a narrow cleft in the cliffs and enters the steep-walled fiord leading to Francois, (pronounced Fransway, so I’m told).
That first view of the tiny community nestled at the base of the surrounding hills is breathtaking, as is the sudden transition from open ocean to the unexpected tranquility of this secluded haven.
A few of the residents, along with a scattering of excited children and curious dogs are awaiting the ferry’s arrival at the government wharf. It’s an iconic scene, one which has been recurring in hundreds of isolated outports for generations. How much longer it will go on remains to be seen.
After supper, we wander along the network of concrete pathways running through the village and then climb a steeply sloping boardwalk leading to a viewing platform on a promontory overlooking the harbour.
On our way back down, we meet a woman coming up by herself. A widow, she visits the small graveyard every evening before dark. We wonder how she will fare if the community should ever be abandoned.
Early the next morning, it’s back to Grey River, where we’ll spend the night after stopping there briefly on our way to Francois. Then it’s on to Ramea aboard the MV Gallipoli the following day.
This, by the way, is but one small example of why travel arrangements for the south coast should be made well in advance. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to realize that you didn’t read the ferry schedule carefully enough and that the boat you thought you’d be catching in one place on a Thursday isn’t the same boat that actually leaves from somewhere else on a Wednesday … or is it the other way around? (Luckily, one of our party is a logistical genius, but not everyone has a Harry to rely on.)
In any event, I seem to be running out of space a lot faster than I thought, so I may have to save the rest of the trip for another column.
But there is one particular memory from our stay in Francois that deserves mention here. We had stopped in front of the post office and, in the way of tourists everywhere, asked a young girl who happened to be passing by to take a picture of the four of us together.
Turns out she had just completed Grade 10 with top honours and was eventually planning to enlist in the Canadian Forces in the hopes of obtaining her MD. Given her manner, I’m sure that she will ultimately reach her goal, and that her success will be due in large measure to her upbringing in Francois. It seems a shame, somehow, that Francois’ future, the future of her home, isn’t equally assured.
Tony Collins lives and writes in Gander.
He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
His column returns March 15.