An ode to the splitting knife

Published on October 19, 2013

Saltfish is why we settled on this rocky island, a windswept land that deflects the flow of the cold Labrador current, an icy river from the Arctic, bounded by an unforgiving and often inhospitable North Atlantic Ocean.

The weather here is not always pleasant.

Our forefathers did not stake land here for vacation cottages.

There was a time when salt cod was absolute king in the world of international trade and commerce. There are families in England still reaping the benefits of the saltfish trade, living on luxurious estates, paid for and maintained with profit from the Newfoundland cod fishery.

The world was hungry for cured cod and the potential for profit was astronomical. It could be compared in many ways to the oil industry today — big demand and massive profits.

In the early days of the Newfoundland cod fishery, there were no freezers. The only way to transport and sell cod was to salt and cure it on shore before loading it in the holds of ocean-going vessels for export to market.

Newfoundland fishermen didn’t invent the process of drying fish for purposes of preservation.

This technology had been developed and practised in the Old World for centuries. Drying is known to seal in nutrients and extend the shelf life of many foods.

Originally, cod was sun-cured without salt and still is today in some of the Scandinavian countries, and I believe by some folks in Labrador, as well.

This is a tricky process and can only be carried out successfully in exactly the right set of favourable environmental conditions. I’ve eaten unsalted sun-dried cod in Iceland. They sell it in gas stations as a snack food.

It’s better than Doritos.

At around the same time that famous explorers discovered Newfoundland and its cod-rich waters, cheap salt became available to maritime economic powers like England, France, Spain and Portugal.

Salt made the curing and preserving of cod much easier and less susceptible to spoiling. It made it tastier, as well — at least I think so.

Salt and cod beckoned hardy fisherfolk in wooden sailing ships to face the challenge of the stormy Atlantic to supply protein to a hungry world. Lots of money was made, many lives were lost in the bargain, financial backers became rich, and the die was cast for the settling of Newfoundland and Labrador, along with the construction of its capital, St. John’s, the oldest city in North America, because of salt cod.

The making of saltfish and the skills, tools and infrastructure associated with the process is interwoven into the tapestry, culture and tradition of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The splitting knife symbolizes our past better, I think, than any other item held in the hands of our ancestors. It’s a shame that so few people now possess the skill to use one.

I made a decision in the summer of 1979 that I’d had enough of construction work.

On a blistering hot day in July, I was sweeping up fireproofing on the fifth floor of Beothuk Building, then under renovation for use by the government, I believe.

I was cleaning up debris, after electricians and plumbers had finished their work in the ceiling. The damn stuff was clogging my throat and nose. I wondered about the long-term effect on my lungs. Actually, I still do, since, to this day, I’m not really sure what was in the stuff.

On my 10 o’clock break, I chatted with a man from Trinity Bay who slung gyprock all day for a living, but built boats of wood in his spare time. I’d been questioning him for weeks about boatbuilding. I was sick of my summer job situation and wanted to go fishing. He explained to me how to install a garboard plank, the trickiest one in the whole process. I figured I could do it. I would build a boat starting that autumn and I would fish for cod the next summer.

I’d be breathing no more dusty, filthy construction air.

Another die was cast; I’d learn to use a splitting knife.

I took to the woods, cut timbers, planks, stem and keel. I laid the keel in late August, ahead of schedule, and blew on my freezing fingers while spiling plank in December.

I installed the thwarts on New Year’s Day. It’s not easy to caulk and paint a boat in winter, but I wanted to launch my new craft in February, in time for a murre hunt.

My father discouraged me, but at 19 and anxious to shoot seabirds, I was relentless.

He gave in and helped me. We built a shelter over the boat and rented an oil fired commercial heater.

In warmth and coziness I hammered oakum in seams and sealed them with a mixture of white lead and putty. I painted the gunwales bright red in early February.

I was studying at MUN, and all this work I had to squeeze in between math and physics assignments. It hadn’t been easy and I must have been the proudest teenager on planet Earth.

I shot murres near Bell Island on a frosty day with way too much wind gusting from the southwest. My father was not happy that day, but that is a story for another time.

In the spring of 1980, I bought myself a bunch of commercial fishing gear and became a self-employed commercial fisherman. I felt connected to my roots and the folks who had braved the sea to settle our land.

I learned many things that summer, stuff they never taught at MUN.

My father taught me to splice rope, scull a boat and tie a proper clove hitch.

Really, I had no idea how to do anything commercial-fishing related. I figured out how to handle long-line trawls, cast caplin for bait and set gillnets.

Things went well and I started to catch fish. At first, I drove around town and sold them door to door. I caught more fish, too many to sell locally; my father suggested I salt my fish and sell them at a bigger profit come fall.

On a foggy morning in June 1980 on Greenhead Wharf in Spaniard’s Bay, I took an odd-shaped knife in my hand and split my very first codfish.

It took me a while and I messed up a few fine cod, but eventually I got the hang of it, thanks to a wee bit of coaching from a few older fishermen who were more than happy to help out a young fella with a boat.

I ended up salting and curing 5,000 pounds of cod that summer. At a dollar per pound, I made enough money to pay for two years at MUN.

I spent several summers fishing and they were amongst the best of my life.

There are many days when I wish that I’d stayed fishing, but what I loved most about that life is lost in the mists of time.

Working on the deck of a crab boat, surrounded by hydraulics and deck machines is a far cry from the stage and splitting knife.

I still salt my own fish for winter. I don’t save any money, but it makes me feel good.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted