"The middle or end of June comes the capling, a small sweet fish and the best bait, and when they come we have the best fishing, the cods pursuing them so eager that both have run ashore."
-- From the journal of James Yonge, kept from 1663 to 1670
He was just a little boy in 1940, too young to fight, too young to fish, but old enough to catch and set bait. It was a child's job, back then, nothing to it: Just wait for the caplin to roll in with the summer tides and scoop their tiny silver bodies up by the net-full. Sometimes the cod rolled in right after them and you could catch them slippery, open-mouthed, with your bare hands, right there on the shore. This is a memory to make an old man laugh.
His name is Melvin, an old man's name. His last name, Horwood, sounds like "Oar-wood" in the local dialect, the rules of which are summarized by the nonsense phrase: "From H'october to H'april it's 'ockey, 'ockey, 'ockey." His card, which he distributes freely to the open-mouthed tourists who are now the only life form rolling onto the isolated shores of Twillingate, Nfld., proclaims: Melvin J. Horwood (Retired Fisherman).
He is the fourth and final generation of Horwood fishermen; his great-grandfather came from Poole, on England's south coast, 165 years ago, when Twillingate was the most active and prosperous community in northern Newfoundland. When Melvin was about eight years old, he started working alongside his father, John; by 13, he was spending part of every day from May to December in a fishing boat. He left school after Grade 9; in time, he raised a family, and supported them through fishing. Saltwater runs in his veins.
He did not retire by choice. His father had predicted, 30 years before it came to pass, "that there would come a day when we'd fish the last one." In 1992, when he had already been forced to turn in his salmon licence, the cod fishery shut down. "It's like telling a farmer he can't work the land. Nothing comes to fill the void." Still, when a man has set bait for so many years, when he has waited so long and watched so carefully for favourable tides and weather, he cannot easily unhook himself from his habits. And so Melvin J. Horwood did not stop fishing; he simply changed his bait.
The white punt is trimmed red now, but her mast and gunnels were blue when I first spied her a few summers ago. It was a cool August day, the moody skies threatening but never quite delivering a downpour. Brad and I, honeymooners again after 22 years of marriage, had just made the long drive to Twillingate from "town" -- the shambling seaport of St. John's, 443 kilometres to the southeast. It does not matter where they live in this vast and lonely province: When Newfoundlanders say they are "going to town," they mean they are going to the capital, even if it is two days' drive away.
In the road atlas, Twillingate looked to be one place, a single destination, but it turned out to be a clutch of loosely connected outport communities on two islands that together form a splodge on the map of Newfoundland. Once accessible only by boat, Twillingate's north and south islands are now linked to the mainland by a series of causeways. Each tiny inlet along the rugged shoreline shelters a few dozen families, many of whom share the same last name. Fifty years ago, 5,000 people lived in places such as Dumpling Cove and Paradise; now, it's about half that number.
We drove from hamlet to hamlet, our conversation quieted by the stark beauty of the moss-green headlands. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived in the village of Durrell. The road hugged the winding shoreline, slowing our speed, sharpening our focus. On the right side of the road were small, carefully tended homes, angled on their lots in ways that suggested lax -- or non-existent -- municipal building codes. On the left was a line of fishing stages, stretching like arthritic fingers into an arm of water that would eventually shake hands with the Atlantic. These maritime workstations, where once the ocean's bounty was landed and processed, now stood derelict. Suddenly, it seemed urgent that I take a picture of these melancholy icons. Like Manitoba's grain elevators, they might be gone the next time I came to visit.
Melvin's stage is the pride of the neighbourhood, painted fresh each year in shades of salmon, pearl and aquamarine -- a palette he describes rather more prosaically as "red, white and blue." The others have clearly let themselves go, but Melvin's stage hardly looks its age.
Built in 1983, when Melvin and his wife, Marjorie, still fished together, it looks like a long wooden wharf with a small suburban garage parked on the end. Across the street -- a narrow bit of tarmac with a faded centre line and ragged shoulders -- is the wood-frame house where he and Marjorie raised their three children. They now have seven grandchildren.
In front of his stage, near the road, Melvin has placed a bit of eye candy: a banana-shaped punt built almost 50 years ago. Bluebell doesn't get out much any more, but she's a charming little thing, tilted coyly to one side, ready for her close-up. She's postcard-pretty, and Melvin knows it.
We had already passed the little boat before I really saw it. "Wait!" I cried to my husband. "Stop!"
Dutifully, he backed up and tucked into the side of the road opposite the pretty blue-and-white dinghy.
It had started to spit rain. I grabbed my camera. "Don't bother getting out. Just give me two minutes."
Melvin thinks tourism has been good for Twillingate. The fishery is still the biggest economic force in Newfoundland even with the cod moratorium, but he knows the snow crab and shrimp fishers had trouble filling their quotas this year. Tourism is the No. 2 industry -- for the time being, anyway.
Come June, he never has to wait long. The visitors stream past his stage in a more or less constant flow all the way into September. He just keeps a steady eye out his front window, watching for that first nibble. A car will slow, then stop. Sometimes it backs up. The people inside rummage around a bit, searching for a camera. Eventually they will get out and cross the street and walk to his stage. Sometimes one of them will stand beside Bluebell for a photograph.
Melvin doesn't rush out the door. He knows it's all in the timing.
I took half a roll of film and the heavens finally opened. I ran back to the car to find a lean old man bending into the driver's side window. "This is the owner of the shed," said Brad, making introductions. I thanked him for giving us such a wonderful photo opportunity.
"You're welcome, ma'am," he said, his voice deep, his accent broad. "I like to keep it nice for the visitors. Would you like to look inside? There's no charge for the tour."
Melvin floats effortlessly on the tide of human conversation, slipping seal-like into the storied shadows of other people's lives. Like his mother before him, he has "never met a stranger." He spoke to us quickly and quietly, with an accent that turns the words "horse and buggy" into "arse 'n' boogie."
The inside of his shed was fastidiously neat, like a carpenter's shop, all the idle tools cleaned and carefully sorted. There were nets and hooks and tackle and twine. There were benches and worktables, rain gear, and an assortment of knives. There was the mild odour of salt and damp and something else not quite identifiable: sweat, perhaps, or fish guts.
There were photographs on the walls; grainy, faded, mostly family. And there were glass canning jars lined up on a wooden shelf, filled not with fruits of the sea but dark rocks and pale shells and an intensely blue liquid. Melvin likes to make these decorations to give away as gifts.
Although he is curious about the world and the people in it, Melvin is not much for travelling. He is pleased that in his senior years -- he will soon turn 70 -- the world seems willing to come to him. He keeps a guest book, and last year it was signed by more than 600 visitors from as far away as Denmark, Austria and the Czech Republic. He doesn't ask his guests for anything except to remember him with a postcard from their hometown or perhaps a Christmas card, and most oblige. He keeps the cards in half a dozen scrapbooks, and on long dark winter nights he sometimes flips through them for entertainment.
He does not look on those other places with the least bit of envy. He has no desire to live anywhere but where he does. In Twillingate, Melvin has found his "haven of rest, where you can go to any church you want and not have to worry about someone driving up with a load of bombs." It is a place where he can go to bed with his front door unlocked and his bedroom windows wide open to a view of sea birds and whales and icebergs.
He doesn't dwell on it, but he thinks perhaps Newfoundland should never have joined Canada in 1949. He didn't regret that decision as a young man, but he does now. What could the suits in Ottawa have possibly known about managing a fishery anyway? "We could have made it on our own if we'd just hung in there. We would have been a very rich island."
It was almost an hour before Bluebell hooked the next open-mouthed couple. Two middle-aged women, damp and dowdy, approached the open shed door, hesitating on the threshold and blinking into the darkness. Melvin brayed a greeting and waved them in. It was our cue. We signed the guest book and promised a postcard. He shook our hands and wished us well, and then turned his solemn face toward the future.
Pack your bags
Twillingate is 443 kilometres from St. John's and 113 kilometres from Gander.
Newfoundland-owned Maxxim Vacations offers value-priced fly-drive packages across Newfoundland. The most popular 10-night itinerary includes a stop in the Twillingate area. From $1,499 to $2,239 a person (depending on departure city), including air, accommodation, and car rental: 1-800-567-6666 or .
Bunk at a B & B and make the most of your host's intimate knowledge of the area.
Crewe's Heritage B & B: 33 Main St.; 1-866-884-2723 or (709) 884-2723; . Three rooms, all with private baths. Open May 25-Sept. 30; $60-$80 a night.
Hillside B & B: 5A Young's Lane; (709) 884-5761; . Three rooms, all with private baths. Open June 1-Sept. 30; $60-70 a night.
Harbour Lights Inn B & B: 189 Main St.; 1-877-884-2763 (709) 884-2763; . Nine rooms, some with private baths. Open May 1-Sept. 30; $60-$109 a night.
WHERE TO EAT
Twillingate has a limited selection of restaurants, and most menus lean heavily to fried foods. Try R & J Restaurant (709-884-2212) or the Anchor Inn (709-884-2777).
Tourism Newfoundland: 1-800-563-6353 or .
Twillingate Islands Tourism Association: .
Kittiwake Coast Tourism Association: (click on the Road to the Isles link.)