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First Person On a whim, we turned and made a mad dash for the Fogo Island ferry

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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It was a bit of a stretch maybe, but after several summers of road tripping across Canada, we were starting to consider ourselves ferry connoisseurs. We were about to embark on our longest ferry ride ever — the six-hour sail from North Sydney, N.S., to Port aux Basques, Nfld., – a family of five, packed efficiently into a silver minivan, moving slowly up the loading ramp that extended from the ship’s bow.

Islands, and islands off of islands, held a constant draw for us. The ferry ride was part of the appeal – and we’d been developing a list of favourites. The ferry to Labrador for instance. It lacked the modern, slick appeal of newer ships, and maybe for that reason, caught our attention. This was a ship from another era, preserved like a floating museum. We spent our precious hour and a half combing its interior for unusual discoveries: taking photos inside the ship rather than spotting wildlife from the deck.

On this drive through Newfoundland our intention was to stay on the main road and explore one of the peninsulas. We’d had a full day of activity already and our roof box held damp tents from last night’s weather. Then we saw the familiar blue road sign with a white boat symbol, “Fogo Island, Exit 500 m.

I glanced over at my husband, the light from the half-open window catching his unshaven profile. “Maybe we should go to Fogo instead.”

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The sign had called up instant images of our visit there two years earlier. Fogo Island had been the topic of many stories back home. It was a place of tucked-away possibilities – like the discovery of a lady selling homemade jam (and sand dollars) in a renovated shed by the ocean. The lonely hiking trail, endorsed by the Flat Earth Society, winding its way up above the ocean through expanses of jagged rocks. The single bench planted – divinely it seemed – along a grassy shoreline providing open views of the sea and occasional whale spouts.

I realized in a split second I needed to see this place one more time.

“All right,” he said.

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But it was an unnecessary assent, because I was already turning, pulling into the parking lot at the corner. Someone inside the grocery store would know the schedule, plus we would need some cash for the fare.

A thirtysomething woman took the bag of English muffins from my hand – a strategic purchase to get some cashback and ask a couple of questions. Our enthusiasm over this reckless adventure spilled out as my husband and I overlapped sentences.

One of us finally got it out. “When exactly would the ferry be leaving? Did we stand a chance?” It was already late in the day.

“I’m not sure… it’s sometime around now that the last one takes off for the island.”

She had every right to consider us crazy: pulling up at the end of the day with no schedule, no money and expecting to get on a ferry still many kilometres up the road. She didn’t even know about the three kids squeezed in our van, butted up against a homemade travel cabinet, open books on their laps. But our enthusiasm seemed to spark something in her. She stood grinning as I inserted my card in the machine and asked what she would recommend doing while we were there.

She paused, and I tried to hide my shock at her answer, “Oh, I’ve never been. Is it worth going?”

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We pulled out of the parking lot and down the winding road toward the ferry. On an average day, the drive felt like flying through a painting: the kind you’d find on a large white wall in a museum, pulling you in — the curves in the road, the sea to the right, the trees’ impossible green. Today’s blue sky and promises of an adventure topped even that image. My foot pressed on the gas pedal turning the colours into smudges of an impressionist’s brush.

Then, at least 10 kilometres before the terminal, cars began to appear on the other side of the almost empty road, slowly at first, until eventually they hummed steadily past us. Ferry traffic. The passengers who’d left the island were now back on mainland, and the ship that carried them would soon be leaving the shore. Our ferry. All went quiet; the whiz of each passing car adding to the tension in the van.

We’d come this far, all we could do now was drive – and hope that we might still sneak on somehow. I started calculating the lost time if we didn’t – an hour at least, to get back on the main road, and then another hour to get to the campground. Not to mention the lost adventures on the island.

As we pulled around the last corner, the canopy of trees gave way to water, and we saw our ferry several yards from the shore – on its way to Fogo. A loud blast from the ship’s horn filled the air. Farewell.

We felt sheepish – and just a little devastated – pulling up to the small booth: the last stop before the boarding deck.

“Looks like we missed it.” I tried for some small talk from the man in the booth.

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He glanced at our Ontario plates.

No, we don’t belong here.

A smile spread over his face. He leaned his head out from the booth’s window. “Were you hoping to go to Fogo?”

“Yes.” I nodded and gave a halting laugh.

I watched the curly black cord of the CB radio stretch as he pulled it up to his mouth. “Skipper,” he barked into the black plastic square, “bring her back. We’ve got one more.”

We didn’t notice his extended hand at first, palm open waiting for the fare. Our eyes were fixed on the ferry as the engines reversed and it made its way back to shore. We handed him a $20, called out a thank you, and pulled up onto the ramp, claiming a spot in the parking area below deck.The silence in our van abruptly shifted to a noisy rush of energy. We climbed out and laced our way through parked cars, bounding up the stairs to the deck.

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Good thing they were on a different time here.

Rebecca Koop lives in Niagara Falls, Ont.

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