Fogo Island: a story of survival

John Crosbie
Published on August 31, 2013

First in a two-part series

On Aug. 12, Jane and I drove from Eastport to Fogo Island. To get there, you go to Gander and then drive to Gander Bay, where you can take the ferry from that port to Change Islands and Fogo Island.

While I was lieutenant-governor, I attended a June 2010 sod-turning — which, in this particular area of Fogo Island, meant a rock-turning — for the planned development of the Fogo Island Inn, which is now fully operational.

Fogo Island is a large island containing 11 separate communities which include Joe Batt’s Arm, Fogo, Shoal Bay, Seldom, Little Seldom and Stag Harbour, where the ferry from Farewell arrives. The separate municipalities agreed to amalgamate and Fogo Island is now one municipality comprising 11 communities.

Under the leadership of Zita Cobb and her brother, Alan Cobb, and with immense effort and expenditure of funds, an economic revival is underway on Fogo Island.

The fact it’s led by a woman is not surprising, since women today have pushed to the fore in all spheres of life and economic activity in Canada and elsewhere, certainly in Newfoundland.

Jane likes to quote a story about an English professor who once wrote on a blackboard that “Woman, without her man is nothing,” and asked others in the class to write about women as well.

A man wrote, “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

A woman made a change writing, “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.”

This is certainly accurate and is illustrated by the interesting and encouraging activities on Fogo Island today.

One of Cobb’s first initiatives when she moved back to her old home of Fogo Island was to initiate an event now known as the Great Fogo Island Punt Race. She had discovered that punts were becoming rare there, and wanted to see them revived, both to encourage boat-building and participation in the inshore fishery.

The first punt race occurred in 2005 and, as a result of its success, the building of punts on the island has been revived.

The Cobb family and their associated enterprises have constructed at least 19 punts, with many others  being produced in Fogo, as well. What had nearly reached oblivion has been revived.

The punt race took a year’s hiatus while the inn was being built, but was back again this year, as popular as ever.

About 90 people work at the Fogo Island Inn — local employees, with Cobb as innkeeper.

One of the early steps taken by the Cobbs was to ensure that a first-class restaurant was established on the island.

The inn’s architect is Todd Saunders, a Newfoundlander, and there were three or four architectural assistants involved, including Newfoundlander Nick Herder, who designed the magnificent hall wallpapers, as he is both an artist and an architect.

During August, there are usually four or five artists based on Fogo Island, for up to six months of the year, using studios provided by the Cobb enterprises and living in houses on the island.

Brimstone Head, of volcanic origins and located in Fogo, is one of the four corners of the world, as recognized by the Flat Earth Society. A second is located in the Bermuda Triangle, the third in Greece and the fourth in Australia.

If you visit Fogo Island, you will gain an understanding of the marine environment and key species and how they relate to each other, and of how the Atlantic Ocean has shaped the community and economy.

The best cod in the world can be tasted at a traditional fisherman’s stage. Through interpretive material, you can learn how the landscape is shaped by the geologic forces, the power of ice and our part within this ecosystem.

Entertaining walks around the island illuminate the hidden world of volcanoes, magma and rock-shaping ice, as well as the culture and folklore that surrounds the oldest residents of Fogo Island — the rocks.

Knowledgeable guides can help you learn how to “read” a landscape, identify which animals are using the trails — there are 450 or 500 caribou on the island, at least — and where to catch the tastiest trout. There are more than 10 delicious kinds of wild berries to pick as you walk about.

In the 1960s, the provincial government encouraged the resettlement of people from Fogo Island, but that was resisted vigorously, a movement that was documented by the National Film Board. The initiative to help the communities come together was known as the “Fogo Process.”

A recently announced imaginative initiative of the Fogo Island Inn is that they are inviting two adults from each household in Fogo Island and Change Islands to spend a night in the incredibly handsome inn. They will have supper, stay overnight and have breakfast the next morning. It’s an example of the positive relationship the Cobbs want to encourage with local residents.

What has been described to me as the Achilles heel of the Fogo Island Inn operation, as well as of the tourism industry and the potential export of fishery products from Fogo Island, is the ferry service. It is not adequate to meet the increasing demands driven by the improvements in tourism and the export of fishery products. There are not enough trips made during a 24-hour period to meet the demand.

Those interested in visiting the Fogo Island Inn, as its fame increases, can fly there from Gander by helicopter or small plane, or even from St. John’s, or use their own air transportation if they are wealthy — as many of them will be as word gets out about its unique architecture and contents.

There is an airstrip that was provided by the government of Newfoundland, but it is a dirt strip only 3,000 feet long and 75 feet wide, built to provide for emergency backup when patients might need to be moved while the ferry was not operating. But there is space available on both front and back to extend the strip to the needed 5,000 feet, which would be able to handle aircraft, including small jets, when required.

This is a serious problem, not for  just the people of Fogo Island, but for all those trying to improve economic activity there.   

In my view, it should be a great priority of the provincial government to provide this badly needed airstrip, an essential transportation link that is vital if the economic revival of Fogo Island is to continue.

Next week: the renaissance

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