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Paul Sparkes: The lure of the Straits

Fishermen come out from West St. Modeste in the Straits of Belle Isle to welcome the coasting vessel Virginia Lake. Note the dressy hats (possibly bowlers) on some of the men. Several hefty schooners, likely participants in the summer fishery, are moored near the cluster of houses and sheds. Photo taken c.1906.
Fishermen come out from West St. Modeste in the Straits of Belle Isle to welcome the coasting vessel Virginia Lake. Note the dressy hats (possibly bowlers) on some of the men. Several hefty schooners, likely participants in the summer fishery, are moored near the cluster of houses and sheds. Photo taken c.1906.

We do not often get a tourist publication with a style that conveys heartfelt feelings for the area being promoted. The “All About The Labrador Straits Book,” published first in 1982 and  then again in 1986, is an exception to the rule.

“Over the years the Straits has become an exciting place to visit. With its rugged, wild, open spaces, beautiful bays and rivers it has become a journey within itself. The Labrador Straits is a place to explore, to travel the wilderness, enjoy the quietness and experience for yourself the unknown.”

The booklet sets the atmosphere when, in noting that the Straits follows Newfoundland time, it quietly adds “the tourist will discover that in Labrador, time is of little importance.”

It is a fairly ordinary publication visually, commencing unfortunately with two full pages of ministers’ messages (the obligatory political shouts). One page is from Robert Aylward as Minister of Rural, Agricultural and Northern Development, and the other, from Hal Barrett as Minister of Tourism.  While the ministers’ departments would have thereby contributed to the cost of the venture, credit for the rest of the content must go to The Tourism Association of the Labrador Straits under president (the well-known) Shirley Letto.

Pictures are black and white, grainy, and in some instances, quite poor. But they’re still better than no pictures. But the curiosity of the would-be visitor is surely piqued by “clips” of fact and data such as:

Tides along the Labrador coast raise and lower water levels by about two metres, although this varies in large inlets. Strong, dangerous inshore currents, flowing at rates up to 143 kilometres an hour make navigation tricky for anyone unfamiliar with local conditions.

Near Pinware on the south Labrador coast there is a small brook called Black Rock Brook. At a certain a large rock at the mouth of this brook resembles a foot. The early French settlers therefore called the community “Pied Noir’ (Black Foot). English-speaking residents, however, pronounced it “Pinware” and hence the community’s present name.


Pestilential flies

I don’t believe I have ever before come across a positive statement about black flies, a pest for which Labrador is (sadly) renowned. For a typical viewpoint, I’m going to call on Hesketh Prichard, the English hiker who made his first visit to Labrador in 1903. Prichard  and companions lived largely off the land as this extract (from “Through Trackless Labrador”) in reference to caribou meat and fliest- shows:

“The scanty amount that remained over, we dried in a rough and ready fashion upon the flat rocks by the river, but if we left the meat for a single instant or ceased waving branches of leafy birch above it, every piece became black with blowflies, blackflies and mosquitoes.”

Here is the Labrador Straits tourism book’s take on the problem: “Some  insect repellents would be good insurance against black flies. Although they can be bothersome  at certain times of the year, Labradorians take heart in the fact that authorities claim one of the best indicators of a non-polluted environment is the presence of black flies. Light breezes, which are often prevalent, do discourage them of course.”

Certain “rod holes” still found in rocks in many places along the Labrador coast are believed to be the work of Vikings. The tourism booklet tells us Vikings are thought to have driven iron rods into the rocks near the shore as part of fittings for ship moorings. The holes are usually eight to nine inches deep and about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. They slant slightly away from the sea as though to keep lines from slipping. Two can be found at each end of St. Modeste Island, others are near Schooner Cove at L’Anse au Loup. Intrigued by the holes, livyers of old apparently attributed them to fairies.


My introduction, and so far only experience of Labrador occurred in the mid-1970s when I had reason to drive up the Great Northern Peninsula and take the ferry from St. Barbe to Blanc Sablon. I had not driven very far on the good gravel road from Blanc Sablon towards L’Anse au Loup before I had a sense of being alone in the world. The weather was good and I stopped the car and stood outside. Somewhere in the distance I could hear a waterfall. It was a surprisingly long time before I came upon it at Overfalls Brook, near Forteau. And incidentally, the sound of the car was a constant intrusion upon the palpable quiet.


A fur buyer’s diary           

We can thank anthropologist Philip E.L. Smith for another Straits scenario. Dr. Smith resurrected the diary of a fur buyer from early in the 20th century. In 1909 William O.K. Ross travelled overland from his home in Quebec along the North Shore of the St. Lawrence into southern Labrador and across the Strait of Belle Isle to the west coast of Newfoundland. Here is an extract from Smith’s book in reference to Ross’s diary entries:

“We see Ross and his two companions resting on an ice floe in the middle of the Strait of Belle Isle, unsure if they would ever get to land alive and calmly enjoying their lunch of cheese, buns, biscuits and chocolate ‘with some good, fresh water from our jar to wash it down’ ...  Ross tells us how you get your sled down a steep hill without killing your dogs or yourself. Then there are the dogs themselves, often mentioned by name; poor Teddy the collie that disliked pulling the sled and preferred riding on it; the big Rover that growled savagely at him after a beating so that he kept his revolver ready ... and the vicious unnamed one that bit him in Labrador and was shot.”

“In Quest of Fur” was published by Creative Publishers, St. John’s, in 2003. Amazon still has it at around $40; shipping extra.


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:


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