The generator blew again. No electricity. No hot water in my room. Wind was howling and the waves were pounding to my left and right. Clouds darkened. This was the best all-inclusive I’d ever been to by a mile. Oh, and the tickle was wild.
Let me set this up properly. It’s Covid Summer 2021. Now a time of our life and a pandemic in one new word. I felt trapped and needed an adventure. A real Canadian one. I was born and still live in Toronto. It’s known for lots of great things but not really adventure. I love to travel, and if you ask my boys, I love taking high-octane trips vs. vacations. And from time to time, I jump into a solo adventure. My last one was to Hell’s Half Acre, Wyoming, to see the 2016 total solar eclipse. I am not a real backcountry outdoor “brush your teeth with birch sap after sleeping on moist moss” kinda guy. I need a good bed. Thank you very much.
One day researching cool places to go in Canada, I stumbled across a short passage and photo of Battle Harbour. I stored it away in my adventure cortex. Miraculously, a 9-day window opened up at the end of last August. Both my boys were away and I desperately needed a break from the pandemic pandemonium.
I typed Battle Harbour into Google Maps. You know how it zeros in on that location? Well, I see an island.
I hit the minus button to pan out and another bigger island appears next to the first one but I still don’t have a reference point. I get rather aggressive with that minus sign until I see all of Labrador and the northern tip of Newfoundland. Battle Harbour looks to be the most easterly mass in Labrador, and to my eyes it is north, really north. Draw a line from St.John’s to Fogo Island and keep going.
And wow did it ever sound cool. Rolls off the tongue with ease as I talked to friends in that stealth brag voice that you use as you talk about your upcoming trip. “Ya, I decided to go to Battle Harbour,” I said in my best James Earl Jones impression.
Rather impulsively, about 10 days before my travel window, I jumped on their website, battleharbour.com. Covid numbers are down but rising in Canada. It almost feels like my last chance for a long time. The site looks professional enough. The slogan hit the mark: “There’s off the beaten path. Then there’s this place.” I searched the available accommodation options and found a range of private cottages and nice suites in a lodge.
I pick a cottage that suits me, Constable Forward’s residence, and book it for 5 nights. It says breakfast, lunch and dinner are all included in the price, as are the two-way ferry crossings from Mary’s Harbour, Labrador. That would give me 2 days to get there and the same to get back.
Annette, head of reservations, called me back to confirm. “Five nights. That’d tie our record,” she said. It’s possible a slight cautionary note popped to mind, but who doesn’t like to set a record. I was all in. And I had no idea how to get there.
A more seasoned traveller might look at routing before booking, but where is the fun in that!
Deer Lake, Newfoundland, seemed like my most direct option from Toronto (a nonstop flight), then 6 hours of driving, a 2-hour ferry crossing from St. Barbe, Newfoundland, across the Strait of Belle Isle to Blanc-Sablon, Quebec (3 km from the Labrador border), then up the coast and inland to Mary’s Harbour, where I could catch the once-a-day ferry to Battle Harbour. Easy. Note the typical Torontonian accent there.
I booked ferry No. 1 and a hotel near the port in Forteau, Labrador, which would allow me to get to Mary’s Harbour for ferry No. 2 at 10 a.m. the next morning.
On the day of my flight to Newfoundland, as I try desperately to get everything done, a call from Mary’s Harbour flashes on my phone. It’s Annette. “Sorry about this, but the generator broke down the other day and the new part has been delayed, so we will have to shorten your stay by 1 night.” She offered one suggestion on where I could stay for the now-open night. I called immediately and got the last room in Red Bay, at the Whaler’s Cafe and Rooms.
Back up a sec… Generator?
Hmmmm. So, they have no electricity if it goes down? That trivial matter washed away quickly. The deep disappointment of missing my chance at a record-length stay took over.
Toronto to Deer Lake, Newfoundland (By Air)
I got into Deer Lake at 1 a.m. (don’t take this flight…it arrives at 1 a.m.), and rental car agencies close at
9 p.m. and only open up at 8 a.m., so I booked a room at the local Holiday Inn. Note: If you try this trip and Covid is still a thing, check the Province of Newfoundland website to see if you need to register your vaccine status. Oh, and make sure if you forget to check the provincial website that you have all your vaccine receipts on your phone so you don’t have to wake up your son so he can send you pictures of said receipts, delaying your arrival to your hotel to 2:30 a.m. knowing that you booked a long hike in Gros Morne National Park in the morning that would require you to get your car at 8 a.m. Also note the Toronto accent there. When I got to the rental agency with coffee in hand, the agent greeted me with an “I’ve upgraded your car for you.” (Reader, the “upgrade” was a Toyota Camry with a big dent in it.) I split my drive to the ferry over 2 days. Day 1’s drive was north on Route 430, the Viking Trail to Gros Morne, to meet my guide for the day. I hiked the Tablelands and sat by the edge of the fjords and ate my seafood chowder. This place deserves more than a day and a night and few words here, so make it a part of your trip to Battle Harbour.
Rocky Harbour (Inside Gros Morne) to Blanc-Sablon, Quebec (via Land and Water)
The next day, I was finally off to Labrador. I left Rocky Harbour inside Gros Morne early so I could grab a hike and lunch on the way north and still make it into St. Barbe 1 hour before sail at 3 p.m. My stop at Port au Choix Anchor Café (sadly closing forever, days after my visit) for lunch and a hike around the national historic Viking site took a bit longer than expected, so I rolled into St. Barbe Ferry Terminal at a couple minutes to 2 p.m. The nice woman at the desk let me know that I was “just in the nick of time” and schooled me that missing the reservation would put me last on the standby list. Phew, dodged a bullet there.
I parked my upgrade in Lane 5 as directed and moseyed over to the dock to await the ferry. It was so windy that within a minute of my standing there, my cap found its way off my head and right into the Strait of Belle Isle. Three o’clock came and went and no sign of a ferry. I heard a couple of guys who looked like locals (actually that was everyone but me) (damn car gave me away) talking about the ferry and I nuzzled in to listen. Unease rushed through me as I caught up to the conversation.
Basically, they were convincing themselves and me that the ferry was not going to sail. “Whoa, that sea is almost pure white. There’s no way she’s going to be able to make that turn around the pier in these winds. Better start thinking about a room for tonight.” What??!! This was the last crossing of the day.
I scrambled. I called the ferry company to inquire about what happens if they can’t do the crossing. The reply upped my anxiety. Everyone goes on standby for the morning ferry, which is currently full. In fact, all ferries for the next 4 days were full. OK. Hope and a prayer there. Three hundred people, all looking for a hotel in this very sparsely populated part of the province. That’s going to be rough. I pull out my phone to check hotels and find one bar LTE. I move around like a crazy man to get to two. Got it. Called a hotel in St. Anthony an hour away. They had four rooms left. I had them ready on speed dial.
An hour later, the ferry makes the turn into the harbour, an incredibly skilled turn I might add. The captain used the corner of the pier as a fulcrum to rotate around as the wind pushed the back end of the big boat.
I am waiting in my car as the cars on the ferry are off-loaded. I watch as an official-looking guy walks off the boat and talks to an official-looking woman in the staging area. They are pointing to the sky and the boat. My heart quickens. Just then, the row next to me starts their engines and the first cars begin to move. Wooohooo. She’s going to sail and I’m going to get to do this ferry crossing after all. With gale-force winds, whitecaps and big rollers for 2 hours.
1 Night in Forteau and 1 Night in Red Bay
I got there; I was now in Labrador. (The closest I’d ever been was drinking Molson Brador beer back in university.) As I checked in at the Florian Hotel, the guy at the desk said, “You’re in luck, it’s wings night,” but after learning that Chef Ange, a Basque-trained chef, was curating the culinary experience at the hotel, I selected the blackened salmon with gooseberry sauce instead. It was delicious.
That originally unplanned stay in Red Bay turned out to be a stunning find. Basque whalers picked it for its shelter in the 1700s. Stories of buried treasure under the pond on the big hill caught my attention, so I hiked to the top. The wind howled. The 360 view of Labrador was spectacular. (In one word, vast.) So many shades of green and grey next to the dark blue of the Strait of Belle Isle. On the stairs that lead up to the top, there were random affirmations posted on a few risers. One read “There is no time to be bored in a world as beautiful as this.” “Yes,” I said under my breath.
Newfoundlanders (and Labradorians, I assume) are known as very friendly folk. Not one person I’d met so far changed that impression, including the women running the Whaler’s Cafe and Rooms. I gladly sat down to my third cod meal and fourth bowl of seafood chowder since I began my journey. Yummy.
I woke early the next morning. This was the day I was going to get to Battle Harbour. To give you a sense of the Labrador vastness, I had a 70-minute drive to Mary’s Harbour on a Sunday in August. Peak tourist season. I did not see another car, human, animal, bird the whole way. No insect hit the windscreen either. Vast.
I arrived at the ferry at Mary’s Harbour ready for departure. Now picture a ferry in your mind. Does it look like Theodore Tugboat from the children’s series Thomas the Tank Engine? The Trinity Pride in her bright green bow and white top sat at the ready. This was not a car ferry. It was basically the size of a stretch limo.
As I stood by waiting for the captain to signal boarding, an elderly gentleman named Alf started talking to me. He was talking about Battle Harbour for sure. However, I was retaining about one word in 10. His accent was as thick as partridgeberry jam. He really would notletmegetawordinandhehad lots to say. I searched for a translator but none surfaced. Then the horn sounded. Time to board!
Capacity on the boat was about 30. Did that mean the capacity of Battle Harbour was 30? Where am I going?
There was no announcement, but word got out that we were taking the long way round to Battle Harbour. Seas were rough. I took my place outside, sitting on the life-jacket bins. We had one bit of open water
to get through. The captain sure knew what he was doing. I swear some swales were as deep as the boat was high (two limos stacked). But as we turned the corner around a spit of land, we started to get some protection. The 1:10 trip was going to last 1:40. We swung around Assizes Island and Hare, and then someone pointed to Great Caribou Island and yelled that Battle Harbour was on the other side.
It gave some time for a bit of nervous chatter, muted by the deep diesel engine and constant wind.
Two other Torontonians next to me. The cook Daphne, a somewhat famous Newfoundland musician (who I’d passed on the Red Bay trail the day before), and a family from around Mary’s Harbour were all hanging out in the stern with me.
This place was barren. There was not a tree in sight. Subarctic. Some abandoned houses dotted the shores of the islands we passed. The two Ontarians beside me shared stories of being “stuck” in New Zealand as Covid hit. Semiretired and a world tour planned, they refocused on Canadian adventures instead. Everyone was on the run from Covid, it seemed.
Another hard left very close to the Big Caribou Island cliffs. Overtop of the waves, I caught a glimpse of some freshly painted red-and-white buildings. We were close. I just could not figure out where this island finished and Battle Harbour started. Then the boat slowed and rocked side to side in the open ocean waves. I saw the gap. Maybe 20 to 25 metres wide. As soon as we passed through, the water calmed at the same rate as my heart. The blue sky got bluer and the sun got brighter. Really, it did. Till that point, my mind was preoccupied with the journey. Now I felt I could just let it soak in.
Arrived! 3 Days in Battle Harbour
We docked and disembarked with some relief. Peter Bull introduces himself as the executive director
of Battle Harbour Historic Trust (not captain of the ship or GM of the resort). For the first time, it sunk
in that this place was actually a charity. It had a purpose beyond the all-you-can-eat buffet. Peter gave
us a very quick lowdown on what’s happening with the generator (seems to be working) and when to gather for our meals (8 o’clock breakfast, 12:30 lunch, 6 o’clock dinner) every day. He let us know that the loft above the general store was also the bar, and with no cell coverage for miles, it was the only spot on the island with Wi- Fi. This definitely felt like we were off the grid. Peter closed by inviting us on a historical tour after lunch.
Then, after a quick trip to the general store, I got my key and I was off to Constable Forward’s place. Truth be told, I’d forgotten what I’d booked. The first thing I saw as I opened the door was the wood stove in the corner and then the beautiful red-and-white quilt and then the yellow-painted horizontal wood-slat walls. The rocking chair invited me. It just felt warm in every sense of the word.
Our lunch — yes, you guessed it — seafood chowder, with freshly baked lunch rolls and molasses cookies, was made by the wonderful Daphne and served around large tables. There were about 20 of us spread out across tables that in non-Covid times would seat six to eight people. Max capacity was about 50, I figured, so you can really get to know the other adventurers. I was seated with the engineers.
Interesting places attract interesting people. Matt and Gilbert were both engineers heading into some version of retirement — active retirement. They found the perfect truck and designed a platform that could support a tent. Then they would ship the truck to their chosen destination — New Zealand was their last stop — and explore for months and then ship it back.
I also sat with Annie and Ludwig from Baie-Comeau, Quebec, and their dog, Lancelot. Annie was
a family doctor and Ludwig an engineer. We talked about youth mental health and amazing backcountry skiing in Quebec at a mountain I’d never heard of. I pegged them to be in their 30s. Also from Quebec was Hugo and Pricilla (not engineers), who had met at a ukulele club.
Time for the tour. Everyone who comes to Battle Harbour starts off with a historical tour. I am not a history buff. I had a flashback to a required tour I once took of some condo development that enabled access to the premises. Cheesy video opening and distasteful sales pitch for the hour that followed. This was totally different.
Nelson, our guide, had a quiet, genuine voice. Labradorian accent for sure, but his methodical pace allowed all of us to clearly understand. Nelson had us at “I was born here at Battle Harbour.” We leaned in. Cod, and specifically salted cod, was the business and trade. Seal oil too. Nelson toured us through the buildings at the port, one by one, re-enacting the work that had been done in that very spot for a couple hundred years. This was no touring installation at the Royal Ontario Museum. It was all real and preserved, and most importantly, in place. You could smell it!
Nelson had some great surprises on this tour, which included the second-oldest church in Newfoundland and Labrador and the still-standing Marconi telephone and telegraph towers. I will let you be as surprised as I was when you take the tour. I will give you one teaser. We were just about to leave the Salt House. I was looking up at the old stencilled numbers on one of the beams. “Salt seeped into every part of this building,” said Nelson, “as you can smell. Have a look at the floor. See those white rings around every nail. Salt. Give it a little lick if you’d like.” So I… No, I didn’t. I trusted him.
Like many other urbanites, I’ve walked a lot during Covid. I got moderately obsessed with that 10,000-step thing. It was kind of like the Gen-X version of the Snapchat streak. Anyway, after the tour, I did my own circumnavigation of the whole island on the marked trail. I scanned for whales as I looked out at the North Atlantic and just let the feeling of this island sink in.
Up and down the granite rocks and past the old cemetery I scampered. I sat on all the bright white benches scattered along the way to peer out in all directions. I got back to Constable Forward’s place. 3,221 steps. For the millennials and Gen-Zers out there, that’s about 2 km all around.
After a fresh cod dinner and a piece of partridgeberry pie and another round of wildly ranging chit-chat, I made my way to the Loft. It was on the top floor above the general store, and that is where the bar was. There is screech if you want to have a go and a nice selection of local and not-so-local beer and lots in between. A mishmash of couches and big comfy armchairs with no matching pairs fill the space. A big wood stove added to its warmth.
I grabbed a can of Iron Rock Prospector APA and sink into one of those armchairs just as that locally famous singer-songwriter starts up. He plays a 2-hour straight set of stories and music for all 20 of us, as if we were his friends and family just sitting around. It just felt so easy and effortless here at Battle Harbour.
It was a cool clear night as I headed back to Constable Forward’s for the night. Not much light pollution here. This would be an ideal place to see a summer meteor shower. Day 1 was done and I hopped into my very comfortable bed for a quiet Labrador night.
I woke up as the sun rose around 6 a.m. and felt the chill. “I must not have turned the heat on properly,” I thought. I lumbered to flick the light on in my bathroom and nothing happened. I checked my phone that was plugged in. No lightning bolt. No power. Hmmm. I peered outmy windows and there was no real activity and no lights on that I could see.
Then I spotted a crowd of men huddled around the generator building that sat between me and the water. I could faintly hear what sounded like false starts. I may have heard some yelling, but I was hoping it was actually cheering.
It was a beautiful morning and breakfast was not until 8 o’clock,so off I went on a walk around the island, searching for whatever would come. On the other side of the island the wind is still brisk and the waves continue to boom into the cliffs. No whales greeted me on this day. As I circled back into “town,” I came across a hurried Peter Bull. “The generator went down again last night. We have it running again, but we are getting a low-voltage warning. I’ll update everyone at breakfast.” That update did come. The new part had not done the trick with the generator. It was functioning at a level that could power one building at a time. The plan involved rotating blackouts. Power to the kitchen for meals and then to the Loft at night. I would get a new supply of wood for my fireplace. I certainly felt for Peter and crew, but all I could think about after the update was, “This is so cool.”
The next couple days were spent exploring this little nook in more detail. I talked to the locals a bit to get a sense of it. Flora and fauna abound but somewhat invisibly in this subarctic paradise. The odd polar bear shows up in the late spring. There are some shrieks as whales are sighted off the shores — humpbacks, orcas and others. The yet-to-be-named arctic fox with the most mesmerizing eyes may give you a look. The gulls, in many varieties, will be in your sound cloud. Cloudberry (also known locally as bakeapple), blueberry and partridgeberry all grow naturally around the island, depending on what month it is. Most importantly, it’s all random and unscripted. No guarantee. No excursion lineup. Totally unique. Battle Habour is a living museum that just keeps generating stories — generator or no generator.
The next couple nights had an energetic pattern to them. After dinner, I would start a fire in my wood stove. Head to the Loft for some great conversation. Hugo was the main attraction with his guitar, with Pricilla assisting with song choices. One song sticks out. They had both learned a famous Newfoundland song. I was sitting at the bar as they started, and Peter (also the bartender) immediately laughed. “Wait till you hear the third verse of this one.” There it was. Hugo and Pricilla with their rather thick Québécois accents belting out the lyrics that make fun of Quebecers.
Each night, I would take a break between rounds and run up to add to my fire. Stoke it once more before bed and jump under my quilt to feel the toasty warmth. I’d wake up around 5 a.m. and start the fire again for some morning chill time before heading for breakfast. Do you know how calm and relaxed I felt hanging out next to my little wood stove? The smell alone did the trick.
I woke early on my last day and peered through my window to find the flags. They fluttered inconsistently, signalling a light wind. “Seas are calmer today,” Peter confirmed as he breezed by me, running from the generator to the general store.
My final breakfast was waffle pancakes. Daphne with her humble smile popped by our table. “We couldn’t get the waffle makers to go, so we had to make pancakes with the batter.” Someone at another table jumped in: “If everything went right, where’s the story in that?” It was delicious!
The 10 a.m. ferry was ready to depart. The bow pointed to Mary’s Harbour. Fast route today. We settled into our spots. Three nights not five. Just a light touch of this wildly remote island. It gave me a sense of the uneasy lives lived here for 200 years and how that hardship was matched by ingenuity and also brought people together in song and drink and laughter. There was no disappointment at my reduced stay. The generator will be fixed. I knew I’d be back to claim my record another time. I’ll be sitting at the head of the table regaling the newbies with stories of adventure from this trip. Next time, I am definitely going jiggin’ for cod.
Peter smiles down at us from the pier. “Maybe you will see my friend as you leave. I was walking down along the shore this morning and a beautiful pilot whale swam past me right down the middle of the tickle.”
Robert Barnard is the father of two independent boys, an author, a social entrepreneur, and a champion of youth and youthful adventure. Find him on Instagram at @rnbarnard.