Goodbye spirits!" yelled Mike Earle over the roar of the boat engine as we sped out of Cape St. Charles, a deserted fishing village on the coast of southeastern Labrador. This tiny community, picturesquely perched around a rocky harbour, was Earle's home until 1992, when the federal government declared a moratorium on cod fishing. Until then, Earle had planned to fish his whole life, as his ancestors had done since their arrival from Poole, England in the 1770s.
Many lives were shattered, but Earle simply changed course, trading his cod traps for a hammer. That year, Earle, along with other local fishermen, began work restoring Battle Harbour, an 18th-century salt fishery just a short boat ride away.
By the 1980s, Battle Harbour's 20 mercantile buildings were largely boarded up and left to the elements. What Earle and dozens of other former fishermen have achieved at Battle Harbour is nothing short of breathtaking: the complete restoration of an entire salt fishery, and its transformation into a prime tourist destination.
I had discovered Battle Harbour halfway along the greatest Canadian road trip you've probably never heard of. The Labrador Coastal Drive snakes along a rocky shoreline of pink granite, through quiet out-ports, over high barrens, around capes and coves, and past fabled salmon rivers. Along the way are three National Historic Sites, Atlantic Canada's tallest lighthouse, a string of villages where you can dine on fresh crab and caribou burgers, and a profusion of seabirds and whales that draw naturalists from around the world.
As I drove this marvellous stretch of road, I felt like the only person on it. To this day I'm baffled by the lack of visitors. It was easy enough to get there on a car ferry from St. Barbe on Newfoundland's West Coast to Blanc Sablon, where Quebec meets Labrador. The ferry takes just 90 minutes to cross the Strait of Belle Isle. Roll off on the other side, and this approximately 400-kilometre highway is all yours.
I settled into the Grenfell Louie A. Hall Bed and Breakfast in Forteau, a few kilometres from the ferry, and got my first taste of local history. For decades it was the Forteau Nursing Station, so owner Peggy Hancock has filled the house with medical artifacts and photographs from its colourful past. "Be sure to go to the ghost walk tonight," she said as I headed out the next morning. "My daughter's in it this year."
In a mood for exploring, I contemplated three local hikes: the Battery for its spectacular views of the Strait, Schooner Cove for its interesting plant life and views over L'Anse aux Loup, and Overfall Brook trail, which rewards hikers with a pure Labrador stream cascading 30 metres over rocky cliffs.
x Keen to spot bakeapples - delicious orange berries that were at their peak during my August visit - I chose Schooner Cove, an easy ramble across fog-swept barrens. Covered with a wealth of wildflowers, mushrooms, berries, lichen and rock, the barrens were anything but. After filling my baseball cap with bakeapples, I headed to the first National Historic Site along the route: the burial mound at L'Anse Amour.
Today there's just a plaque marking the oldest known burial site in North America, but 7,500 years ago, a Maritime Archaic Indian boy was buried here with considerable ceremony. Fires were lit on either side of his body, which had been smeared in ochre and wrapped in skins and birch bark. Spearheads, painted stones, a harpoon head, a walrus tusk and an antler pendant surrounded his head. Though researchers have uncovered several burial mounds up and down the coast, this teen's elaborate burial remains a mystery.
I found more information on the site at the Labrador Straits Museum, which brings together displays on early native groups, geology and early pioneer life along the coast. Cherished old relics, including carved chests, snowshoes, tools, hooked mats, and wedding dresses all attest to the simple yet civilized lives people led here. Summer student Trent O'Brien showed me a komatik, an old wooden dogsled unique to Labrador made without a single nail. He pointed out the snowmobile highway that until recently was the only winter road along the coast, and told me about taking Skidoos to school each day.
That very morning he'd seen moose "footings" by the Pinware River, and it reminded me that Labradoreans are living on the fringes of one of Canada's last great wildernesses. Inland, wildlife roam in spectacular numbers. The George River Caribou Herd, 450,000 strong, lives here along with moose, wolves, lynx, porcupines, and, farther north, giant arctic hares. Most kids in Labrador still grow up hunting and fishing. But once in a while, culture calls. And tonight everything was happening at the lighthouse.
With the sun dipping low over the straits, I headed over to the Point Amour Lighthouse, the second tallest in Canada, where the ghost walk would begin. Built with walls three metres thick - to withstand 260 kilometre-an-hour winds - it felt as sturdy as a castle, with a spectacular view across the straits to Newfoundland. Downstairs in the lighthouse keeper's quarters, I joined a crowd of locals for a cod boil-up - a rich fish and potato stew that fortified us for the moveable theatrical feast that followed.
The drama began amid the rusty wreckage of the HMS Raleigh, where a troupe of local actors re-enacted the ship's 1912 sinking. Several shrouded "ghosts" led us wordlessly along a shoreline trail, among them Hancock's daughter Meghan, who waved cheerily at me from under her gloomy make-up and bed sheet. In scenes set only steps away from where they had originally taken place, actors described how the captain's desire to go salmon fishing turned into a naval disaster, and ended with his court martial. The ghost walk ended in front of the Davis family home, where furniture and the piano from the Raleigh still sit in the living room. The furniture, along with the parcel of land the house sits on, was given to the Davis's by King George V in exchange for helping to shelter and feed the ship's 700 men. In true Labrador style, the entire crowd was invited in to have a look.
On the drive to Red Bay the next day, the route twists and turns around capes and through coves, and then through Pinware Provincial Park where the salmon-rich Pinware River spills down from the highlands into the ocean. After a hilly climb the road suddenly rounds a bend and Red Bay comes into view.
Today it's a sleepy little village, but in the 16th century Red Bay boomed with the sound of a thousand or more Basque whalers. They would venture across the Atlantic each summer in huge galleons, and from their base in Red Bay they would set off in small boats, called chalupas, to hunt for whales. The factory they set up on Saddle Island in the middle of Red Bay was the New World's first major industrial complex. Men worked around the clock here, rendering whale oil and loading it into barrels for the trip back home to Europe in the autumn.
The visitor's centre showcases the continuing archaeological work, along with metal, textile and wooden artifacts found on-site. But to feel the history of the place, I took the short boat launch over to Saddle Island, where foundations of the shanties, ship works and cooperages can be seen, along with a cemetery where 140 Basque whalers were buried. Most fascinating are the piles of 500-year-old red clay roof tiles, still visible on the island. For Dr. Selma Barkham, the historian who located Red Bay using old Spanish maps, finding the tiles was a "eureka" moment when she knew definitively that Basques had been here.
Among the most spectacular finds was the San Juan, a galleon that sank in 1565 not more than 50 metres from Saddle Island. After being raised piece-by-piece and examined by Parks Canada officials in Ottawa, it was reburied in the harbour beside four other wrecks. Considered to be the best-preserved example of a galleon from this period, the San Juan is used as the symbol for heritage shipwrecks by the United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. And discoveries continue to be made. During my visit, Parks Canada divers found yet another galleon thought to be even older than the San Juan.
After Red Bay came Mary's Harbour, the end of my journey (and the tail of the most popular portion of the road). I parked my rental car and boarded a small boat that shuttles visitors out to Battle Harbour. Soon we were skirting the long flank of Great Caribou Island, spotting humpback whales in the distance and marvelling at the bird life that swooped over us. As we turned into the small, peaceful harbour I had to catch my breath: Stretching across the hillside were more than 20 enormous sheds and houses, a general store and a church.
Battle Harbour was the de facto capital of Labrador in the 18th and 19th centuries, when dozens of European schooners would jam its small harbour, packed to the gunnels with the highest quality salt cod, known around the world as Labrador Cure. By the mid-1800s, Battle Harbour grew to become a year-round settlement, where famed humanitarian Sir Wilfred Grenfell established Labrador's first hospital, and Labrador's oldest Anglican church still stands.
The community's amenities also made Battle Harbour a port of call for polar explorers. Commander Robert E. Peary was a familiar figure in Battle Harbour, and it was from the Marconi station in Battle Harbour in 1909 that the explorer wired his account of reaching the North Pole to the outside world. It was also where two press conferences, attended by news correspondents from as far away as New York, touched off the great controversy between Peary and Dr. Frederick Cook as to who exactly had reached the pole first, if at all.
The community and its history were impressive, but I couldn't help wondering, where were all the people? After showing a handful of visitors to our accommodations, manager Mike Earle explained: "We get the small luxury cruises, and the yachts coming up from New York City and beyond, but we need more independent travellers who'll stay for a night or two, to make this whole thing work."
Indeed, the biggest joy of visiting Battle Harbour is staying overnight - from a fancy bed at the Inn to the Isaac Smith Cottage, lit by gaslight, warmed by a wood stove and furnished with antiques. There's the bunkhouse, which sleeps 20, the RCMP station, and the more formal Grenfell Cottage. With a well-stocked general store on-site, visitors can prepare their own meals, spending days exploring the island and touring nearby out-ports.
At lunch in the communal dining room I met Wilfred and Margreta Woodford, whose connection to Battle Harbour is part of family lore. In the 1920s, Wilfred's grandmother had come "down to the Labrador" from Newfoundland with her father and his fishing crew to be "the girl" on his fishing boat. Though she was only 12 years old, she spent the five-month season cooking for a crew of 10, and helped out "making" the cod - splitting and cleaning the fish, salting them and spreading them out to dry on the "flake," an enormous platform of silvered logs. "She used to say, 'I've been around the world, I have. I've been to the Labrador,'." recalled Woodford.
After lunch, Cyril Lunnen, a fifth-generation fisherman from Battle Harbour, toured us around the site and explained the process of making salt cod. We scrambled over the flake and leafed through old ledgers from the 1960s in the hardware store. He told us how tools like a balance and jig were used to weigh the cod, and about the notorious "truck," or credit system, which ensured fishermen were kept in debt to the merchants their whole lives. "People here were born and died and never saw any paper money," Lunnen said ruefully. "Seems that cod was the Labrador currency in them days."
After exploring the 20 restored buildings that make up the site, I spent most of the afternoon hiking up spongy hillsides covered with carpets of moss, lichen and sub-Arctic plants, my eyes scouting the skies for birds. I visited the church and cemetery, and spotted the ruined wreck of a plane that crashed one foggy day in the 1960s. I stood on the foundation of the Marconi station, where Captain Pearce broadcast his famous words "The Pole is ours" to the world, and imagined Battle Habour bustling with activity.
I ran into Joan Hutchison, an avid birder from Cambridge, Mass., who had returned for a second day of exploring the rugged shores of the island. She pointed out puffins, gannets, storm petrels, razorbills, jaegers and murres, and we marvelled at Labrador's impossibly bright pink rocks. Dating back 1.5 billion years, they're also some of the oldest you'll ever see.
We headed back to the Inn, where on many nights a kitchen party has broken out. But that night, all was quiet as I sat by my window, watching kittiwakes dance over the Labrador Sea.!
Special to The Globe and Mail