Prologue My Journey

TemplateAccordion music, fiddles and spoons connected us all on the Lower North Shore of Quebec. Perhaps that was all that connected us, that and the misery of trying to survive the elements, raging snowstorms, heavy seas, andstarvation. From Kegaska to Blanc Sablon andSouthern Labrador, most went hungry in the early part of the century, during long winter months before seals were spotted on the ice and there was meat to eat again. Men would lashed canoes or flats on Komaticks (sleds) and make their way across dangerous pack ice to hunt. Sometimes, with the shifting tides, they became stranded, some lost their lives.

When summer arrived, the whole two months of it, food was more bountiful, providing that cod fishing was good and even then, men brave death each time they went offshore to fish in their tiny wooden boats. Everyone participated in fishing, including women and children. The long hard struggle of catching, and drying enough cod to trade with the merchants for food, so they could feed their families the following winter, was always a challenge. It was never a sure thing with icebergs destroying their nets or the lack of herring, capelinand cod, yet at times, fish was like gold dust shimmering on top of the water.

When fishing season was over, people picked bakeapples that peppered the marshlands beneath the mountains. Those soft yellow berries much like a raspberry, known as cloudberries, ripen on individual stocks. Having enough bakeapples for the winter was almost as important as having enough salt cod. Migratory ducks, geese, seals, caribou, and bear, like wild berries, were all a part of a coasters diet, and still is. Not much have changed in fifty years, certainly not much have changed since I left the coast in 1963.

The misery that went along with the struggle to survive was seldom known to others outside our world, such as water pulps, (blisters) around wrists of men and boys alike, blistered bleeding hands from hauling in the traps, trawl line or hand lines. Enduring pain shooting up their arms into the shoulders, and necks from long hours with their hands plunged in cold sea water, yet seldom anyone complained. Nine rounds of worsted wrapped around swollen wrists became a remedy to stop chafing. Whether it helped or not, most men wore their worsted wrist bands every time they left the dock to go out to the fishing grounds. Most men became old before their time and very few would know any other way of life.

Leaving the dock at dawn to haul cod traps and set trawls, getting there and backbefore the ever present gales battering the coastline, gathered strength and forced them ashore, was always a gamble. When the fog rolled in precious days were lost out on the fishing grounds. Cod meant the difference between barely surviving and having enough to carry over when winter came down in all its fury. Having enough cod and capelin dried and stored for the long winter ahead, was a chore that could not be ignored by any family when fish were plentiful. There was no guarantee when winter arrived there be caribou to eat, as the men in the villages had to travel great distances over mountainous terrainbydog team to hunt.

Men, woman and children worked long and hard both summer and winter, and my family was no exception, during those early years when my father had seen fit to stay at home to catch, salt and dry, cod. Like my brothers, I became accustomed to having my arms full of blood and gore right up to my arm pits. Removing the guts from the fish was my job, right after Parmenas slit the throat and gutted it down the middle, then slid it across the splittingtable to me to remove the guts and head before passing it on to Ronald who wheedled the splitting knife with the expertise of a surgeon. All of us scrawny runts, eight, nine and ten years old, were not much higher than the splitting table. Liver was separated and kept in puncheon barrels and stored on the stage head while awaiting the schooner to come to Basin Island in September to buy the fish. Like juniper berries, liver was boiled and drank as a tonic for ailments. The rest of the gore was slid down a hole in the splitting table, into the water beneath the stage head, where tommy cods swam and gulls screeched and fought each other for the innards floating on top of the water. Flatfish camouflaged themselves in the silt at the bottom, visible from the stage head and hid from all the commotion above.

TemplateIt did not end there, we all had to take turns piling it on the salt bulk, after it was wheeled from the end of the wharf, protruding out in the Basin, in a wooden wheel barrow, so heavy, so tricky to maneuver over the two or three planks leading to the stage. Sometimes, wheel barrow and fish landed upside down in the water while my father brought down, upon the culprits head a mountain of Jesus oaths that would curl the whiskers on the headless cod.

As the bulk grew higher, Daid, as we had always called him, taught us how to place the split cod, tail to shoulder fins, shoulder fins to tail, split side up, touching, until the row was complete, then shovel the course salt, from the salt bulk, and beginning from the inside, throw it all over the fish until it came to the outer edge, then it would start all over again. It was something to see though, split cod so perfectly fitted on the bulk, no space wasted, and no part uncovered by salt. I remember the quietness inside the stage still, with water dripping of the fish bulk and the sea slapping the uprights below the wooden plank floor, on a Sunday afternoon when there was no one but me inside the stage. Everyone rested on the Sabbath day. It was my time to escape, to comb the island, in search of wine bottles in cork that sometimes washed upon the shore. The fish bulk stayed in the stage until September, and then came the tedious task of washing the fish, one by one, before spreading it out on flakes or rocks to dry on sunny days. Sometimes, the task was hardly finished when down came the rain and we all had to gaffle (gather) it in faggots (bundles) and stack it as high as a puncheon barrel, then tie it down with a tarpaulin. Unlike the fish today, it was big fish we handled sometimes they were as long as we were tall.

Herring and sound bones were pickled and kept in wooden barrels and stored in the cellar when we moved from the island to our winter home in the bottom of the bay. All parts of the cod were eaten except for the eyes and fins. Cheeks, tongues, and heads of codfish, fresh from the water, fried in pork fat, was a delicious smell that stretched from one end of Basin Island to the other, in the summer time. In winter, herring was a delicacy served at breakfast, mainly by my father during those rare times when he was at home, as was pothead, a meat dish made from a caribou head during the Christmas holidays. After several hours of boiling the head on the wood stove, along with a piece of pickled beef, onions, salt and pepper, the brains were removed from the skull and transferred to a roaster or shallow pan and put in the cold pantry to set. We always had pothead for breakfast on Christmas morning. I do not remember my mother ever putting herring on to boil for a supper meal, perhaps it was the bones she did not like, nor do I remember eating seal flippers like all the rest in the village, or flatfish, mussels or clams, when food was scarce. Yet, it was there, right on our shoreline. Homemade bread, molasses, and salt herring for breakfast were tasty treats, along with a cup of steep black tea.Those are the memories I have of happier times when we all sat and ate salt herring and pothead for breakfast with my father at the square wooden table in our winter home in the bottom of Bradore bay.