Terre Neuve Part Three, Gros Morne

August 10, 2010
Safely off the MV Atlantic Vision at Port-aux-Basques, we headed northward to Gros Morne National Park. I would love to wax poetic about the scenery, but the fact is that we saw precious little of it due to the tardy arrival of the ferry. Instead, we spent most of the drive on high moose alert, as those none too clever beasts wander out onto the highway with alarming regularity, to the detriment of moose and human alike. If you hit a deer while driving at speed, it is likely to do some damage to your car, to be sure, but the deer is usually bounced off to the side and you and your passengers have a good chance of escaping with minor injuries. An encounter with a moose, by contrast, often ends up with serious injury or death to the inhabitants of the offending car. A moose is quite tall, about six feet at the shoulder, so a car will hit it in the legs, rather than the body; at that point, the moose is launched onto the sloped hood of your car, propelled toward the windshield and passenger compartment, antlers first, at warp speed. There are some 700 moose-car accidents in Newfoundland every year, most of which occur between dusk and dawn (understandably, as these are a) Bullwinkle’s waking hours, and b) the hours of least visibility for the driver), and I was determined not to add to those statistics, hence the high moose alert and low velocity.

We rolled into Gros Morne well after dark (and bear in mind that it gets dark quite late in the summer that far north). We had a cabin reserved at Burnt Hill Cottages in Norris Point, and it was illuminated brightly upon our arrival. About a block from the water, two bedrooms, with all the mod-cons, and clean as a whistle; all for $95 a night. Bright and early in the morning we were up and about, having made reservations for the 10am departure of the Western Brook Pond boat tour, a 2.5 hour voyage up an enclosed fjord, largely unmolested since the ice age. The pond was carved out by glaciers, but after the ice melted, the land at the ocean end, which had been covered by the ice sheet, rose enough to close off the outlet to the sea. Over time the pond filled in with fresh water, including the runoff from the highest waterfall in eastern North America, the giggle-inducing Pissing Mare Falls. The man who named the falls may well have been responsible for the naming of the eastern Newfoundland town of Dildo (no kidding, look it up! Every year they host a festival called Dildo Days, which I plan to attend next year, possibly in costume).

Gros Morne is of major interest to geologists, palaeontologists and numerous other such  –ists as it offers one of the finest examples of continental drift, with areas of deep ocean crust and mantle exposed to the sky. For the rest of us, what this means is that huge variations in terrain can be found in a comparatively small area (desert, ocean, fjords, mountains, forests, plateaus, rock fields, bays, meadows, cliffs, and more), most of which are accessible by car or by foot trails. It is one of the most pristine and beautiful natural destinations I have ever had the pleasure of visiting; I think you’ll have to agree when you see the pics:

Welcome to Gros Morne

Western Brook Pond


Usually the bridge holds me up...

Suppertime at Mooseport

Where marine adventures begin, and apparently end...

Why does this make me think of Sarah Palin?

Tablelands, off in the distance...

Tablelands, up close

Aarrgh, me hearties...

This pretty much says it all...

Haiku Hai-jinks

August 9, 2010

Over the years, I have become quite taken with haiku, the Japanese poetry form. Often attributed to the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, the haiku (singular or plural, it’s just “haiku”) was in fact already a well-regarded variety of poem by the time Basho turned his hand to verse in the late 1600s. There is no question, however, that Basho brought the form into prominence, and four hundred years on, he is still the undisputed master (a couple of examples: Another year is gone / a traveler’s shade on my head / straw sandals at my feetAn ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the splash of water).

Haiku is set to a rigid meter: three lines, the first of which is comprised of seven syllables, the second containing five, and the third reverting once again to seven (observant readers will likely notice that Basho’s haiku, above, don’t quite follow that form; in the original Japanese, however, they did). Haiku are zenlike in their original iteration, evocative of nature and tranquility, compassion and peace. So, in other words, just ripe for parody.

One website, http://cad.ece.ut.ac.ir/~sohail/Fun/Funny%20Haikus.htm, reports that Microsoft Japan is considering replacing computer error messages with haiku, thus conveying a certain gentle spirituality to an otherwise irksome experience; for example:

Your file was so big / it might be very useful / but now it is gone…

The website you seek / cannot be located, but / countless more exist…

Three things are certain / death, taxes and lost data / guess which has occurred…

Having been erased / the document you’re seeking / must be retyped

You step in the stream / but the water has moved on / this page is not here

Yesterday it worked /today it is not working / Windows is like that

Another website, http://www.allowe.com/Humor/book/Redneck%20Haiku.htm, offers a look at Redneck Haiku, a hitherto unheralded variation on a theme:

Seeking solitude / Carl’s ex-wife Tammy files for / a restraining order…

Naked in repose / silvery silhouette girls / adorn my mudflaps…

In early morning mist / Mama searches Circle K for / Moon Pies and Red Man…

Here is one a friend turned up, which I know will resonate with many of you: Eat the goddam thing / and put an end to those lame / Geico commercials…

How about a dog haiku: Dig under fence, why? / because it’s there, because it’s / there, because it’s there…

Or a Star Trek haiku: Precious green liquid / pooling upon alien soil / Bones says, “He’s dead, Jim.”

An entire website, sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (http://mit.edu/jync/www/spam),  is devoted to haiku about SPAM. Not the computer variety, but Spam, the ham-oid canned meat:

Empathize with them / cut your finger on Spam top / pigs must feel that too…

In my dream, a room / four tin walls, rounded corners / I wake up screaming…

There is even a haiku website dedicated to seventies’ icon Mr. T (http://www.infinitefish.com/haiku/). Hooda thunk it?

Mohawk and gold chains / the best bouncer in the business / my prediction: pain…

And finally, in the time-honored tradition of saving the best for last, here’s one from mystery writer John Lescroart (I bet you didn’t know his last name is pronounces “Less-kwah”); this haiku is perhaps the be-all and end-all of haiku-dom, and deserves a place in the poetry hall of fame:

Haikus are easy / But sometimes they don’t make sense / Refrigerator…

Terre Neuve, Part 2, Embarkation (after a fashion)

August 8, 2010

A company called Marine Atlantic runs the ferry service from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port-aux-Basques and Argentia, Newfoundland. The Port-aux-Basques run is by far the shorter, at about five hours, as compared to the Argentia run, which takes fourteen or more. Naturally, the Argentia ferry is more expensive, but it makes a good deal of sense for those traveling to the capital, St. John’s, as it is much closer and it saves a 900km road trip across the island. Back in the day, I am told, if you wanted to go to Newfoundland you simply drove to the ferry terminal, paid for a ticket and waited until there was a ferry with sufficient room for you and your party. Now, thanks to the advent of modern technology, online or telephone reservations are available (and required), and therein lies the rub. After half an hour or so messing about unsuccessfully with the website, it took me thirty-two phone calls (really!) to connect with a live person, only to find out that a) there were no reservations to be had for the next two weeks, and b) if I wanted to be wait-listed for a space resulting from a cancellation, well, that was not possible. I would have to check back repeatedly on the website, and if a space opened up, book it quickly (and irrevocably). “Irrevocably” presented something of a problem, as it was also not possible to book the round trip at one go; therefore, I had to commit to an outbound journey not knowing if I would be able to get back in the available time frame. On top of that, the kind folks in Newfoundland who offer temporary lodging are well aware of the vagaries of the ferry system, so they too make their deposits irrevocable. Still, I soldiered on. After perhaps two dozen refreshings of the Marine Atlantic web page, I finally found a cancellation that would work for me; I hurriedly booked the outbound leg of the trip before a) someone else did, or b) I lost my courage altogether. I was sternly admonished to present myself at the terminal, along with government-issued picture identification, one and one-half hours before the scheduled departure time.

So, now that I had my outbound reservation firmly in hand, I set about booking leg two. There was still no space to be had, according to the website, but at least I didn’t have to waste all the phone time once again; I simply had to keep refreshing the web page until a cancellation materialized. On the bright side, a cancellation did indeed turn up; on the dark side (literally), it was for a 12:30am sailing. In the event, neither scheduled departure time had anything whatsoever to do with reality, so it really didn’t matter in the slightest what time I chose to leave. My outbound ferry, scheduled for 9:30am, finally steamed underway a bit after noon, and the return ferry, the aforementioned 12:30am one, set sail (figuratively) somewhere around 3:30am. Judging by the horror stories I heard from other passengers, we were lucky to be sailing at all. One told of having been delayed 24 hours, not allowed to leave the staging area where cars were parked awaiting the signal to be loaded onto the ferry.

The reservation system seems to be the culprit, and everyone agreed that the old first-come first-served method was far superior in operation. Unbelievably, there was actually empty deck space on my outbound ferry, as the “stand-by” customers were not sufficient in numbers to fill the spaces of the cancellations or no-shows. On top of that, the “stand-by” customers who did make it were folks who were booked on a later sailing the same day; if you don’t hold a confirmed reservation, you are not allowed into the staging area, and thus cannot even find out if space is available (without running the online or phone gauntlet referenced above). Unless you happen to be hovering somewhere near Port-aux-Basques in hopes of scoring a space, you are, as the Brits say, well and truly stuffed.

By some stroke of good fortune, I was able to secure what must surely have been the last motel room available in North Sydney on the night prior to the outbound ferry departure. As I walked from my car to the motel check-in area, a clearly disgruntled traveler sitting on the hood of his SUV informed me that I’d better just turn around unless I had a reservation. “I do,” I replied brightly, waving my printed confirmation slip in the air. He muttered something under his breath, got into his Explorer and drove off. The desk clerk told me that the fellow was hoping against hope that I would be delayed past check-in time (and indeed, I cut it close, checking in about fifteen minutes before the deadline), biding his time in the parking lot and presumably praying for a traffic jam, a mechanical breakdown, or worse. The motel was a scant seven minutes from the ferry terminal (I measured, just in case…) and so, after a quick seafood supper at a local restaurant, I settled myself in for the duration, ready (eager, even) to board the 9:30 ferry. Only then did I think to do a status check on the Marine Atlantic website: DELAYED.


Terre Neuve, Part One, the Trip Northeast

August 7, 2010

In an odd confluence of circumstances, as of early this summer I had visited forty-nine of the fifty US states, and nine of the ten Canadian provinces. I had had every intention of picking off the remaining state, North Dakota, twenty-some years ago while on a cross-country trip with my daughter Jenifer. She really wanted to see Mt. Rushmore, though, and our time was growing short, so we diverted southward, skirting North Dakota altogether. I haven’t had the occasion to be back in that part of the country since. On the Canadian side, I had made the trip from British Columbia to Prince Edward Island on a couple of occasions, which takes in eight of the ten provinces, and I had visited (my) number nine, Nova Scotia, countless times over the years. Newfoundland, however, requires a commitment. It is the easternmost of the provinces, and it is not really on the way to anywhere. It is a destination unto itself, and one that for some reason had not resonated with me until reading The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx’ 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which is set in a small Newfoundland village. The barren water’s edge landscapes depicted in the book (and later in the film of the same name) are a homing beacon to anyone born an islander.

As I said, it takes a bit of dedication to visit Newfoundland. There are basically three ways to get there: by air, and by one of two car ferries. I investigated all three (1: air, hugely expensive, and requiring a rental car at a whopping $140 per day, plus a kilometer charge, and get this, that price is for a mid-size Buick!; 2: ferry to Argentia, on the east coast, fourteen hours each way, also pricey, after which there is a long road trip across the island’s interior), finally settling upon 3: driving from Prince Edward Island to North Sydney, Nova Scotia, and then taking the shorter (five hours, more or less) of the two ferries to Port-aux-Basques, on the southwest coast of Newfoundland. From there I would drive several hundred kilometers north to Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It is said that getting there is half the fun, and nowhere does that ring truer than in the Maritime Provinces. Leaving PEI by ferry on a sunny day is an experience not to be missed. The seventy-five minute-long boat trip to Caribou, Nova Scotia is just long enough to avail oneself of the homemade (well, ship-made) breakfast in the deck-level cafeteria, then to go topside for immense lungfuls (lungsful?) of fresh salt air. Heading eastward through Nova Scotia, you pass through the college town of Antigonish, home of St. Francis Xavier University, and the oldest continuous highland games in North America. Cross the Canso Causeway, and you are on Cape Breton Island, the only place I have found in North America where the road signs are bilingual, in English and Gaelic!

The scenic highway winds its way alongside Lake Bras d’Or, passing through the impossibly charming village of Baddeck, where I had the pleasure of meeting Tucker, the Flying Black Lab. Tucker was capable of repeatedly launching himself from a wooden dock into the chilly waters of Lake Bras d’Or to retrieve a rope toy he had fetched in similar fashion only moments before. (In the background can be seen the uber-spendy yacht belonging to the owner of the Tim Horton donut shop chain, a staple of every town in Canada, and making inroads into the US as well.)

Baddeck is also the home of the Alexander Graham Bell museum; Bell retired nearby at the end of an illustrious career which included not just the invention of the telephone, but also the metal detector, the development of a practical hydrofoil boat, and the aileron (a means of controlling the roll of an airplane, which is still in use in contemporary aircraft).

An hour or so northeast of Baddeck is the port city of North Sydney, where we would wait (and wait and wait and wait) for the ferry, a very common occurrence, as I would come to find out. But first we would pass through someplace that no red-blooded man should miss; I believe the sign just about says it all:

Note: as is often the case, thanks to Saki-chan for the great pix; any blurry ones are undoubtedly mine, and the good ones are hers!

Hiroshima Day

August 7, 2010

Today in downtown Charlottetown, a small but dedicated group of peace-loving folks gathered outside Province House to memorialize one of the defining moments of the 20th century, the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. I was not quite the baby of the group, but judging by appearances, most of the people in attendance had at least been born by the time the B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay released its deadly payload over the unsuspecting denizens of Hiroshima. Many in the ranks carried signs, some protesting the current Canadian involvement in Afghanistan; a trio of elderly men hefted a large poster-board with a picture of the Hiroshima devastation, underscored by a quote from recently deceased activist Howard Zinn: “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people…”  The final part of the quote was omitted, whether from space limitations or ideological differences, I couldn’t tell: “…for a purpose which is unattainable.” Whatever else one might say, however, the purpose was not unattainable; the intent of the bomb was to speed the Pacific front of the war to a close, to bring the Japanese government to its knees, and it did exactly that with the utmost dispatch.

I have had two tenuous connections with Hiroshima over the past several years, one firsthand and one a very near second-hand. My first-person experience with the city was as a member of a Japanese bus tour to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial; I was the only non-Japanese aboard the bus, and feeling distinctly like a koi out of water, as you might imagine. Never mind that I am Canadian (the Canadian armed forces did most of their fighting in the European Theatre), and born well after that fateful day, I was still the closest available representation of the hand of destruction, and more than a little aware of that fact. When I took my turn to strike the large bronze peace bell, the ice began to break. It melted completely when my leaky eyes betrayed me in front of the statue of Sadako Sasaki, a young Japanese girl who survived the bombing, only to contract the “atom bomb disease”, leukemia, a few years later. Believing in the old Japanese legend that one who folds 1000 origami cranes will be granted a wish, she embarked on the task, succumbing after completing only 644. As the story goes, her friends completed the 1000 cranes, and they were buried with her. Even now, Japanese school children fold origami cranes in her memory, and the colorful creations can be found throughout Hiroshima. I challenge even the crustiest of curmudgeons to remain unmoved in the face of Sadako’s statue.

My other Hiroshima connection actually dates from a few years earlier, to perhaps 2000-ish, at which point I attended the fifty-something reunion of the engineers who worked on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. My stepfather, John Carroll (Jack) Pennock, was one of that august group, a young officer with little notion of the magnitude of his assignment, just that if it worked, it could in some form or fashion dramatically affect the outcome of the war. Over the years, we had had our differences (occasionally loud ones) regarding the use of nuclear weapons, with Jack taking the position that the early end of the war actually saved countless Japanese lives (and American lives as well, of course), while I championed the “Give Peace a Chance” stance, firmly asserting that Pandora’s box should have forever remained unopened. Now that it has been opened, however, I have a huge difficulty seeing how it can ever be closed again, despite the fact that a nuclear weapon-free world is a laudable goal, at least in the abstract. One problem: if the US were to give up its nukes, how do we all ensure that some rogue fundamentalist faction plays by the same rules? I’d like to be optimistic, truly I would, but history seems to side with the pessimists at every turn.

I read a great story, probably apocryphal, sometime back, about a CNN reporter who was sent to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to interview an elderly rabbi who unfailingly said his prayers there on a twice-daily basis. He had been engaged in this ritual for some fifty years, and was quite the legend in the holy city.

“What do you pray for?” the reporter asked, holding the microphone toward the rabbi to catch his reply.

“Well,” he said, considering, “peace between the Jews and the Arabs, a safe environment for our children to grow up in, an end to the hatred and hostility that has plagued our people for generations…”

“And how do you feel it is working?” the reporter asked.

The rabbi gave her a resigned look and said, “It’s like I’m talking to a #%@%# wall.”

Still, human frailties notwithstanding, we have managed to go sixty-five years without detonating another atomic weapon in anger. Let’s raise a glass to the notion of another sixty-five, shall we?