The Newfoundland Ferry. I would be lying if I said I ever got used to it. The first time I boarded it was December 31st, 1974. We had been living in Pickering Ontario where my father had worked for a couple of years for Ontario Hydro after leaving the Canadian Air Force. Never one to be content in one place for long, he set his sights eastward, accepting a job with Eastern Provincial Airways in Gander, Newfoundland. The fall of 1974 was full of anxious conversations between my mother and father, in the kitchen, on the phone, in their bedroom, in the basement. My mother was not a happy camper. She did not want to leave her province of birth or her brothers. At 15, I was the oldest of 3. None of us wanted to go either.
We moved a great deal when I was a child. Dad had a strategy. Since he always moved first and we followed several months later, he would under-promise and over-deliver in terms of describing quality of life. In pre-internet days, all we had was Dad’s first-person descriptors. When we arrived we were always so relieved, even joyful, that things were so much better than we imagined. Somehow, pre-move we always forgot he did this. Did Gander have a library? Yes, my father said, but it consists of books sent in cardboard boxes by plane once a month (not true, Gander had a lovely library). My mother’s face blanched at this. She read a book a day. Books were her oxygen. What were the people like? Friendly, but you could hardly understand them. They speak a strange language (a tiny element of truth). Mom’s brow furrowed. That didn’t seem right, everyone in Canada spoke English or French. How do you get there? By boat, but sometimes it takes weeks (only in the rare winter when the weather terrible) . I despaired at this. Always one to get motion sickness at the slightest of rocking motions, I envisioned days with my head in a bucket for days on end. Dad also had a flair for the dramatic. January 1st would be the day we began our new life in Newfoundland he declared. Numbly, we packed up our big red pickup truck and hit the road a few days after Christmas. Most of the furniture went by company moving trucks. We took ourselves, some luggage, my mother’s copious collection of houseplants and the budgie, Bluebird. How that budgie survived that frigid trip is beyond me.
We boarded a small ferry on New Year’s Eve. We had a cabin with 4 bunks and crammed ourselves into them. All of us were either scared or cranky. The boat was small, unlike the big, comfortable ferries they have nowadays. The crossing was rough and we envisioned being engulfed in our sleep in dark, salty water. I was pretty convinced I was going to die. No vomiting occurred because my mother very wisely doped us all up with gravol. She was probably more grateful for the sleep-inducing effects than anything else. When we awoke, the sun was just coming up and the ferry was slowly gliding into Port Aux Basque. I peeped out of the window and observed the pinkest sunrise I had ever seen. The tiny town of Port Aux Basque was covered in fresh snow, pink, iridescent, warm, magical. This was a new land unlike anything we had seen or imagined. Snowy rocks perched upon snowy rocks. We climbed downstairs and took our place in the truck. A couple of hundred feet off of the ramp, we saw a man in thick coveralls walking along the road. Dad stopped to ask directions. To our mainlander ears, he did speak a different language. Part Irish, part English, part Lord of the Rings. Directions collected, Dad drove us to the Irving Station where all who have ever endured the ferry land to eat hot stacks of pancakes and gulp down coffee whitened with canned milk for the long Trans-Canada highway trek to Gander.
How did we make out? Gander is famous for its warm, 9-11 hospitality extended without question to stranded travellers. It is immortalized in the Broadway play “Come From Away.” All I will say here is that hospitality is a way of being in coast-bound Newfoundland; the young town of Gander is no exception. After 34 years of living away from Newfoundland, I still consider it my “home.” That tells you something about how we were welcomed and embedded. The warm coals of that early morning welcome still burn.
We go back every year because Carl’s family live in Deer Lake. Every single time we cross on the ferry I am reminded of that first sunrise of ’75. There is a tourist chalet just outside of Port Aux Basques where I need to get out of the vehicle to touch my hand on the land in gratitude, to feel its energy go into me and to breathe the always crisp air. Every single time something in my soul meets the soul of the land. Your soul needs to go there.
If you are travelling by camper or RV to Gros Morne National Park, you will need to take the ferry to Port Aux Basques. Rest assured, they are new, big and less inclined to make you motion sick than in the olden days. There are lovely reclining chairs in rooms where televisions abound with movies playing. There is an area where you can rent special, very comfy reclining chairs for ten dollars. Most people don’t rent them, so there are few people in that lovely room of cool air and wide windows. There is also a cafeteria, a gift shop, and a few food kiosks. You can rent a cabin if travel overnight, which many do because it means less travel in the dark. This is not just a matter of convenience as MOOSE abound in the night. The chances are pretty good that you will hit one if you travel long enough in the dark. The cardinal rule is, in an argument between a vehicle and a moose, both will come out damaged and someone usually dies. So, travel in the light. Finally, this is REALLY important: you must make your reservations months in advance. Do not expect to just show up and be able to cross.
Gros Morne National Park is about a five to six-hour drive from the ferry. Take your time. The people are hospitable, with a penchant for self-deprecating humour. The scenery is astonishing with a Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings kind of epic adventure beauty.