From One Island to Another

Two weeks ago, I walk out of a hotel in St. John’s, Newfoundland, to find the ground covered in wet snow. today, I’m standing on my mother’s deck on Vancouver Island in sun and twenty-seven degrees. It’s not just the difference in weather that strikes me. There’s a fundamental difference in the people and landscapes on these opposite sides of the country.
I’ve come to think of Vancouver Island as a second home. I first came here as a boy in the 70s, brought here by my parents with my brother and sister on a family holiday. My father was a steam engineer, which meant little to me as a kid. He worked hard, every week of every year, save the three-week holiday in the summer. My mother would pack enough boxed and canned food to last the trip, and off we would go, with a tent trailer in tow. We camped and drove, drove and camped, getting as far as Regina one summer and all the way to Long Beach the next.
I never thought about those trips from my dad’s perspective. He had to drive most days, fight with the trailer, listen to squabbling kids, and put up with us asking him to buy expensive junk he couldn’t afford. But he took us—and we saw the mountains, bighorn sheep perched at the edge of cliffs, ravens that were bigger and blacker than the crows back home, and finally long sandy beaches, where we explored over the rocks, discovered sand-dollars, and gathered shells that stank of the life they once housed.
Now, four decades later, I’m a regular on this island—I could become an islander, if I wanted, just by moving here, something I couldn’t do on that opposite coast. Once, in a store out here, I said I was from Alberta. Flat-lander, said the clerk. It took me a moment to decide if I was being insulted or not. I decided not—teased, maybe, but in a relaxed sort of way. These islanders are perhaps more relaxed than their east coast cousins, but they aren’t wedded to place in the same way: for one thing, most people here come from somewhere else.
I love both these coasts, but the wash of prairie that runs down from the Rocky Mountains until it spills over the Canadian Shield has always been my home, the place where I grew up and where my roots go deep into the glaciated soil. But if you ratchet back the clock far enough, the prairie, too, was once a sea—the vast inland Bearpaw Sea where lived the stuff of nightmare and textbook. You can still find them there. Just take a drive down to the royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller and you’ll get your fill of those creatures who once inhabited what we call the prairies.
I think about these places I visit and the ways in which they alter over time. People move away; people die—something of which I’m reminded every time I walk by the tiny Brethour Family cemetery that stands beside the Victoria airport. I used to walk here with my brother, Don. He would read the inscriptions on the stones, and we would talk about who these people were and what they were like. He died here last March, after a long struggle to overcome cancer. And now when I come to this island, I think of him, how he brought Christmas to this little street, with his endless strings of lights and blow-up Christmas characters. He lies out here in a quiet cemetery outside of Victoria, a lovely natural area planted with trees and wild shrubs. And when I think of my brother, I also think of my father, whose ashes we left a thousand kilometres inland, in another cemetery just outside of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, amid the flat, expanse of the prairie and far from the sound of the sea.

Visiting The Rock

Driving up from the ferry terminal, we are quickly surrounded by rocky hills, some still covered in snow. We finally feel as though we have left the land we know and have entered something foreign. Halifax and Nova Scotia felt familiar; Cape Breton was important to us because of the stories of Alistair MacLeod. But there’s something imposing about Newfoundland—maybe it’s the distances neither of us were expecting, and maybe it’s this landscape that’s like and unlike anything either of us has encountered.
It’s a two-hour drive to Corner Brook. We have a hotel, a room with two double beds squeezed into a small space. I need to smoke, so I find my way downstairs—down a spiral staircase to the lobby. The staircase is an odd feature for such a basic hotel. I stand outside and smoke, listening to the hum of neon as I text my children. This is what we do whenever we stop for the day—text those at home, keeping open a thin line of communication with those thousands of miles away.
In the morning, we pack hurriedly and check out. We want to get to our next destination. We have to make a decision at Deer Lake. It’s a Tim Horton’s where we stop. Snow is in the forecast. Before leaving Sydney, we were asked several times why we were visiting so early in the year. Now we understand. This place feels more northern than anything I’m used to. It’s the landscape, but it’s also the incessant wind that bites my face and dries my hands.
In the Tim Horton’s over coffee and breakfast sandwiches, we talk about what to do. It’s four hours up the northern peninsula to our original destination—the Viking site at L’Anse aux Meadows. If we turn east to try and outrun the snow, it’s almost seven hundred kilometres to St. John’s. Tom’s the driver; I’m the passenger. We make the decision to outrun the snow.
***
Three days of driving across Newfoundland. We are never far from the sea. We climb to the summit of Blue Hill, only to find the distances shrouded in fog. We drive through Terra Nova national park and take note of the signs to watch for moose. We spend the night in cabins facing Bonavista Bay, the sea pounding and pounding against the shore. We are off again the next morning. We drive, we talk, we stop for coffee, talk to as many people as we can.
The snow catches up to us in St. John’s. But we make it to our hotel, where we will stay for three days, exploring the city and area. We drive then walk up to the Amherst Lighthouse in a screaming wind, and we drive to Pouch Cove, where an iceberg sits in the distance. Icebergs are few this year—that’s what they tell us. The iceberg in Pouch Cove breaks up after another day.
We arrive at Cape Spear on our last full day in Newfoundland. This place has impressed itself on us. We have driven across this island, we have talked to its people, we have wandered the streets of some of its towns. But we are still foreigners here—we always have to be. We are “from away,” which sets us apart.
We climb the wooden stairs from the parking lot towards the lighthouse. There are two of them—the old lighthouse that one family for nine generations tended, and the new, automated lighthouse that stands lower down the headland. The stairs are uneven, and we climb and climb.
At the top, we come to the end of the headland that looks out over the North Atlantic. This is the most eastern point of North America. the water heaves and swells three-hundred feet below; the wind tears over the headland from the sea. We wonder at the people who first came here, four-hundred years ago—fisherman, trappers, seekers after adventure. And standing here, exposed on the headland, we can feel ourselves being altered by the wind. It strips our faces and hands, peeling away flecks of who we are to scatter behind us and down over the landscape. We are going to leave something of ourselves here on this island, flecks of DNA that will find their way into the water and soil, picked up by plants or mussels that cling to rocks or outcroppings of stone. This landscape has become part of our imaginations, but we are becoming part of it, too, even if only a little.