By Erin Woodrow
“Regardless of how far I travelled or how long I stayed away, the friendly shores of Newfoundland always welcome me back with wide and open arms…”
In a humid, overcast and foggy Friday night I threw my line into the ocean. We were situated just off the easterly shores of Newfoundland in a quaint coastal town called Portugal Cove. It was only a matter of minutes before my jigger hit the ocean floor.
Creatures of the Sea
It felt like forever, but soon with a hypothetical ‘thud’, the courting would begin. I was all too familiar with this lure, that now these unsuspecting cod were about to endure. There was nothing overly fancy about this process – a large weighted three-pronged barrel tied to a line and thrown into the ocean with not a morsel of bait on the end.
Still though, the cod would bite, time and time again. So why then, were these bait-less, simplistic hooks so appealing to the cod who frequented these shores? I could identify with these creatures of the sea. I couldn’t always rationalize the draw and deep connection I had to the rock – but something my heart could always so deeply comprehend.
Over the years my head and heart have battled since my departure, very much like this act of what we Newfoundlanders call ‘jigging’. Since leaving there has always been an internal battle flickering inside, an unsettled score that has lingered in my subconscious; gently coaxing me back to our salty shores.
Regardless of how far I travelled or how long I stayed away, the friendly shores of Newfoundland always welcomed me back with wide and open arms, the people relentlessly smiled and greeted me warmly, the connections remained deep and hung tightly to my heart.
A New Chapter
During my university years, I was lucky enough to have spent some time studying and working abroad. My worldly travels triggered an itch that I needed to scratch and so when I graduated I bid our isolated island adieu to seek out new adventures.
With a great job opportunity on the table and a new city and province to explore, I packed my bags and booked a one-way ticket to the west and set out to begin a new chapter of my life.
At the time, I hadn’t fully realized just how special Newfoundland and its charming culture truly was. I still told myself however, that I’d be back in a few years to make Newfoundland my home once again. The ebbs and flows that life brought would keep rerouting and delaying my plan but from a distance my love for Newfoundland grew and my growing comprehension of why I struggled with the lure of that three-pronged, bait-less barrel hook became more and more clear.
On the surface, Newfoundland is a massive rock lifted up from the ocean depths with spectacular beetling cliffs, rocky shores and pebbled beaches, situated right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Being a Newfoundlander
This particular coastal location brings rough waters, high winds, dreadful weather and frequent storms. Needless to say, it is a less than desirable place to live (from this perspective).
The provinces weather, isolated structure and rugged exterior tells a story of survival, of our people, and why the culture that took root and blossomed here is one where we care for our neighbors, we openly welcome strangers and are forever bonded to each other because of the weight we tie to what the meaning of being a Newfoundlander is.
Our first European part time inhabitants came in the late 1400’s. Rugged Norseman from Greenland whose perspective of the curiously proclaimed ‘vinland’ was that of a place of beauty where they could settle.
However, this was the exact opposite of approximately 100 years later when Cartier, the French explorer, described it as ‘the land God gave Cain’. Nonetheless, it took a hardy type – a type similar to our friends in the north to make this island a home.
It also required a community, courage and hope that this land would provide a better life than the one previous. And so, as the story of our abundant fishing resources spread, the story of this ‘new founde land’ did as well, and more and more people chose to settle and call Newfoundland home.
I was lucky enough to be several generations down the line of my ancestors who chose to settle on the island. It wasn’t long before Newfoundland began to develop an identity distinct from their colonial country, and a sense of pride and honor to call this unique and rugged isle their home. Most of my parents’ generation, those prior and many since have considered themselves Newfoundlanders first and Canadians second, as we could all recall that many Newfoundlanders fought very hard to remain standing on our own two feet as a country and nation unto itself.
Newfoundland is and has always been a little different – a bit behind the trends of the time. We are not necessarily the ugly duckling or a black sheep, just an authentic people and place being true to who we are with little to no regard for what others have to say.
Although there was nothing remotely glamorous about growing up on the island, it suited me just fine and I had every opportunity that I could of wished for, and considered myself one of those generations that got to have the ‘better life’ which our forefathers had so selflessly worked for.
The lines that divided social classes were blurred in those days, as money amongst most families seemed rare, crime levels were low as only the most desperate would bear to steal from their ‘neighbor’.
Good times and bad
Kids played in the woods, families and communities huddled close together to keep each other warm and spirits remained lifted with hearty laughs – true in both good times and bad.
Both the island and its people weren’t without their wounds, but the struggle that has been endured over the years speaks to the fight that is ingrained in our people.
There is a silent code amongst Newfoundlanders that only we understand. Like glue, we find each other under the most unforeseen circumstances, like a magnetic force which binds us together, no matter the nature of the relationship.
We exchange inconspicuous nods upon our serendipitous meetings as if to warmly accept and acknowledge that, although ‘strangers’, we know who each other are. It is a culture of connection, of acceptance and warmth where you are made to feel at home in each other presence no matter the logistical distance from the island.
I have, and likely will for at least some time, continue to endure the struggle of what it means to be a Newfoundlander and not live there.
The salt-less air I now breathe brings a different type of comfort that for now I’m happy to fill my lungs with. I can set my struggle quietly to the side, yet never forget or fully let go.
For many Newfoundlanders, including myself, being from this place is one of life’s greatest gifts that we identify with the most and hold on to the tightest. It is a place that’s hard to leave and impossible to forget and its meaning is tattooed into our very existence.
And so, I will continue to go on identifying with these creatures of the sea we call codfish that was the very appeal to our early beginnings as a colony and nation. The draw of Newfoundland is not always so easy to perceive on the surface, similar to the bait-less hooks we ‘jig’ these creatures with.
But, if you peel off just a couple of layers, it becomes clear why I, and many others keep biting, time and time again.