Nine miles from Normal- the website states. battleharbour.com
“A tickle is a…..between…. .” Our tour-guide Nelson, rhythms off the meaning without pausing to take a breath. “Wait, what was that? I say almost cross-eyed trying to piece the words back together to make sense of what he just said. “A tickle is a narrow salt water channel or strait between two lands masses,” he recites again and cracks a smile obviously getting a kick out of me trying to decipher the fishing trade lingo. “Right, I got it- maybe” A few others in the group giggle too. It is a description of what surrounds us, or maybe what the boat drove through to get us onto this island.
Until I came on this tour, I don’t really think I grasped the fact that those Omega 3 supplements called Cod-liver-oil, were actually squeezed from real cod livers. Yup, true story. According to Nelson and the information on the newspaper article shellacked to a plaque, men would be elbow to elbow lined up around a rectangular tables with a cod in one hand and a fillet knife in the other. They would skillfully slit the bellies open, remove the guts and head, tossing them to the side, but they carefully set-aside the valuable cod livers for the oil they rendered.
The newly flayed and cleaned cod would be moved by wheelbarrows to another place, where it was stacked and salted and left to cure for 21 days. At this stage the product was called green fish. From there it was moved outside to the broad flake, which, at the height of fishing industry, was the largest fish-drying flake in Labrador. From what I see in the pictures, and what they are currently reproducing out by the dock, it is a framed, walkable platform over an area of a cool bog, Slender tree poles are laid across the framework to form this fish drying rack. Following the gutting, washing salting and green curing, it was laid out on this flake to dry in the sun. Prior to sundown the men would gather up the drying fish and stack them in piles. Come the morning, the fish was unstacked, flipped and laid out once again. Depending on the weather, this stacking, flipping and drying was done from one to four days.
The Battle Harbour summer sun and sea breezes made ideal conditions for the curing of semi-dry fish and thus created the gold standard, known as Labrador cure. If the rain or the damp fog pushed in, as it often does in Newfoundland, the fisherman had to scramble to stack the fish face-down in what is called a faggot, to prevent it from spoiling – known as the dreaded dun.
The terminology used in this craft is so integrated into the language of the Labrador’s residences that l have to take a picture of a glossary of words and their definitions to use as a reference.
As cute as the words are, I can hear a tone change in Nelson’s voice as he tells the story. Obviously a topic close to his heart, he explains how the fisherman were always set up to fail: The floaters, (migratory fisherman) stationers (migratory families) and livyers, (inhabitants of the area) were extended credit and outfitted by the merchants at start of the season. No cash was exchanged. The fisherman would labour and grind through bad weather and fierce competition for choice fishing locations, bringing their catch in at the end of the season, only to have it priced in favour of the merchants.
Even after the fisherman’s extended credit was paid back, they generally remained in debt with interest added, which carried over to the following year. It reminded me of the stories of coal miners from Glace Bay in Nova Scotia to Butchers Hollow in Kentucky, and echoed in the words sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford: “… Sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper debt. St Peters don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”
We hear of hardships but also camaraderie and sea shanties – songs that were sung as men worked. Nelson points out names etched in beams hidden away on the third floor of one of storage buildings, former residents of Battle Harbour, their legacies left as an “I was here.” There is also a haunting old photograph hung up on the side of the building of a group of men, probably at start or end of a season.
There are flour stores, and salt stores. Dr. Grenfell’s home and St Paul’s Church are given a plaque identifying them, and the community as a whole, as a National Historic District. Twenty of the buildings have been restored with minimal intervention to keep them authentic to the time period.
Besides the fishing trade, Battle Harbour was made famous in 1909 when American Arctic explorer Robert Edwin Peary used the island’s Marconi wireless station. With the help of operator Mr. Gordon Spracklin, his detailed account of his 1908-1909 Arctic exploration was transmitted to the world. From this very station his report was relayed to the senior copy editor of the New York Times news paper.
I sneak away from the tour to jot down some notes. I am pretty sure I read a post about a hike up Peary-Mountain in Maine. My blogging friend from hiking in Maine. wrote the post and I am just putting two and two together, that it is the same man. I have learned so much in such a short time. I think I will pause the serious learning for the rest of the day. It is a warm and sunny afternoon and I want to go explore the island and take some pictures before I have to dress for dinner. I met some lovely people at lunch and I am sure I will meet more new people at the pub tonight which starts at 7 pm in the loft..
Please join me again for a good time on this picturesque island off the coast of Labrador.
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