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What it’s really like living in rural Canada

Dispatches from McCallum, Newfoundland, in David Ward's Bay of Hope

David Ward

cover_Bay of Hope“Your address?” she asks. We’re talking on the telephone.

“Post Office Box 3, McCallum, Newfoundland, A0H 2J0,” I reply. “Would you like me to spell McCallum
for you?”

“I need your street address, sir.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t have one.”

“I need the street name and number on the building you want us to send your parcel to,” she repeats in that odd way that is neither offensive nor friendly. It’s just—there. The kind of voice that sounds more like an automated answering machine than it does a breathing human being.

“Yes, I understand what you’re asking for,” I say. “It’s just that I live in an isolated Newfoundland outport, where there are no streets, resulting in no street names or house numbers. I’m a ninety-minute boat ride from the nearest road.”

“I need a street address or the courier won’t be able to find your home,” she insists.

I stifle a laugh. Sort of. “No courier will be coming here, my dear. I can guarantee you that. Plus, my neighbours and I have ordered many couriered packages previously, using nothing more than the PO Boxes that Canada Post provides, and the items we order always arrive.”

“Sir, our system only allows us to enter a street name and house number.”

“Okay, that’s another story—that’s more about insufficient software than it is your resistance to new knowledge, so I’ll give you a fake address. It will implicate us both in federal mail fraud, but I’ll gladly lie to you if that’s your employer’s preference.”

Silence.

My move. “Oh, look at that! I’ve got an address right here: 23 Jas Rose Point [or 16 Long Shore Road, or . . .], McCallum, Newfoundland A0H 2J0.”

“Spell McCallum please.”

Fact is, you can send mail to “The Feller from Away, A0H 2J0,” and it will reach me. There are seventy-nine people at this postal code. None live more than a kilometre from everyone else. I’m sure our postmistress, Sharon Feaver, can figure it out.

Despite government efforts to kill us off, Canada is a big country that still contains a considerable rural population. It’s easy to forget this when you live in a large urban centre, where services are readily available and geared to meet the needs of the majority.

Try taking out home insurance when you live where I do, when the service provider needs to know if your foundation is full-height poured cement or a cinderblock crawl space. My house doesn’t have a foundation, I say. It sits on sticks. What I don’t tell them is, when my washing machine is on spin, a few of those pillars shake like loose shingles in an Ontario tornado. I don’t point out, “That’s my kettle on the stove that you hear rattling right now.”

It’s impossible to find a technician who can fix the faulty appliance that you purchased new the previous week. And good luck getting a mortgage when the lender asks how far you are from the nearest fire station. Even the federal gun registry isn’t set up to serve you, but I don’t recommend you use the word “fraud” with those guys.

None of these inconveniences is the end of the world, of course, but the lack of support regarding essential services can wear a person down after a while. All rural Canadians are marginalized in one way or another. They feel insignificant when the system is unaware of their plight and unworthy when others aren’t motivated to think outside the box on the rural resident’s behalf.

While far from perfect, I try to be aware of the day-to-day damage that results from my resistance to seeing the world in new and equitable ways, and I occasionally make an effort to initiate personal behavioural modifications in response. I say that “I occasionally make an effort” to change because doing so is always ultra-difficult. That’s why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, because I find them too hard to keep. I think that recognizing the end of one year and the start of another helps me to count my blessings and consider my future, but if I wish to implement meaningful change, I don’t see the good in starting such a rigorous journey on a culturally assigned day. I believe that the best time for me to act on my ambitions should be based on my needs, not some calendar date that coincidentally arrives on one of the darkest days of the year, after a lengthy period of time when many of us have consumed insane amounts of food and alcohol and thrown away any semblance of healthy sleeping habits. I’ve learned that by establishing January 1 as the day to begin important projects, I won’t be in a good position to face the real possibility of needing to get on and off the wagon several times throughout the process. The date I set to spark change has to help me find all the stick-to-it toughness that I can assemble, if I hope to have any success at all.

I do, however, use the changing of the calendar year to reflect on my Newfoundland lifestyle, like how much I enjoy the many hours I spend alone reading and writing in my little McCallum home. I recall the fear that came with moving here, and I smile at the thought of all the supportive calls and emails I receive from those I care about on the mainland. I remember the McCallum folks who frequently feed me, and I dream of further travelling Newfoundland, continuing to use this community as my basecamp. From Stephenville to St. John’s, up and down the Northern Peninsula, all along the northeast shore, and south to St. Pierre, I’d never have seen what I have without the stability that McCallum provides.

More than anything though, I smile at the thought of all the days I spend at sea, because that’s a large part of what my Newfoundland life is. I love the open ocean. As physically punishing as ocean excursions are, they bring me extreme joy. A rough and tough boat ride makes me feel very much awake in this world. I’m convinced that my time on the North Atlantic Ocean will be one of the more satisfying things that I think about while lying on my deathbed one day.

But with an awareness that I won’t always be able to take the beating that comes with life on the sea comes the conscious knowledge that I’m nowhere near willing to give this adventurous world up. So while I resist New Year’s resolutions, I do believe in recurring commitments, including one that I have to consistently maintain and continuously improve upon—the need to take care of myself. It’s always been day-to-day for me. I’m an excessively greedy eater. If there is fat, salt, or sugar in my home, I’ll inhale it. Yet taking the pounding that comes with life at sea requires a strong back, a healthy heart, loose limbs, and an alert brain. Achieving these qualities requires regular exercise, good food choices, and a curious mind — a way of living worth nurturing because I dream of participating in bodily challenging adventures for as long as life will let me.

In fog thick as motor oil, no one knows where we are. I ask the man who does the driving why we aren’t carrying a compass. “The man who does the driving” is Junior Feaver, husband of Sharon, McCallum’s previously noted postmistress. Junior and Sharon are not thrilled at the thought of seeing their name in print, so I do what I can to respect their concerns, without it costing me my story. This modesty that the two of them demonstrate is not uncommon in McCallum. Lloyd and Linda Durnford share a similar refrain, as does Sarah Fudge’s husband, Matt. So, know that despite my occasional underuse of certain individuals’ names, these people are incredibly important players in my narrative.

“The swell is always from the sou’west, so I know where we are,” Junior patiently points out. “I just don’t know where we are.” I take this to mean he could easily find land if he had to, but he can’t guarantee where along that coastline we currently are. So, as we move through fog towards unidentified terra firma, no one knows what dangers sit below the surface. Given the seriousness of the situation, I decide not to ask how anyone can possibly read what direction the swell is coming from this morn, because with the sea so incredibly calm, the roll of the ocean is unreadable.

Junior cuts the engine and signals for quiet. He wants to see if he can hear water flowing against or over any rocks that might be too close for comfort. He can. But that critical realization is temporarily shelved when he spots me peering into the fog beyond the port side. “See something, Dave?” he asks.

“I thought I did,” I reply. “But perhaps I am wrong . . .”

Then it resurfaces—a forty-ton humpback whale, its hump a whole lot higher than me. Its massive tail, as it gives us a great wave, is a stunning mosaic of whites and greys. I dream of such sightings, and I’m excited that I’m the guy who spotted it first, because both events are rare; I simply don’t understand aquatic ecology like the rest of this gang does. They know so much more than me about where to look for action.

“Whoo-hoo!” I scream, and throw my arms in the air. But my quick-thinking, fast-acting, early forties skipper isn’t so thrilled. These fifty-foot marine mammals and the way they so suddenly fill the surface of the sea can easily flip a twenty-two-foot fibreglass boat and everybody in it. “You won’t be whoo-hooing if we hit her,” Junior firmly informs me as he efficiently works to move our vulnerable vessel out of harm’s way. “No sir, you won’t be so happy if we hit her.”

Then another appears. Another humpback. This one astern of the starboard. It is Junior who first sees the second one. Slightly smaller, but right alongside our boat, the possibility of disaster is no less unsettling. We’re surrounded. If I didn’t have great confidence in my captain, I’d have good reason to worry. Instead I am having fun watching sea monsters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Opening day was another eye-opener. It felt like I was staring down the devil. The roar of the sea was thunderous, and the suck of the landwash awful. It was the worst weather I’d ever been in. As one veteran seaman from another crew kindly told me at the time, “You probably won’t see worse unless you get caught in something, because we don’t go out in worse than that.” In fact, if it hadn’t been opening day, I don’t believe we would have gone at all. We had a lot of pots to put in, and catching lobsters is competitive. So much so that if we fall behind, we’ll even work the occasional Sunday, an otherwise blasphemous act.

People from away don’t realize how small our boats are. They think we steam around in large longliners instead of little open motorboats. When it’s really rough, we travel in pairs—two boats keeping an eye on each other, just in case. That’s when I see what we’re up against, when I look over at our neighbour’s boat beside us and note that the only components touching the sea are their two heavy outboards and a couple feet of fibreglass while the rest of their vessel hangs ten off a fifteen-foot wave. So it’s easy to imagine that our boat is doing the same.

The wave action throws me around like I’m a tiny bag of lobster bait. But I’m not scared. Not that I’m not careful or aware of what could happen. Just that I think there is something that occurs in a physical crisis where my mind recognizes that panic is not going to be of any assistance and tells my body to get down to business. It’s only when I reflect a week or two later that I allow myself to realize what a wild time I’ve just lived through.

It is quite an operation—a father, four sons, and a mainlander, while Mom makes sure there is pea soup waiting when we get home. Or, as the old folks say about eating pea soup on Saturdays, we celebrate the devil’s birthday — a tenet I don’t trust, because I saw the devil that day, and he had no interest in partying. All he wanted to do was stir up trouble on thunderous seas and introduce me to a new level of danger.

There was a time in my Ontario life when I climbed trees for a living, carrying a running chainsaw with me as I went. I’ve assisted with the recovery of avalanche victims in Alberta and lowered skiers from dangling wires and tall towers when their gondola blew off in big winds. I worked at Ground Zero, New York, after the World Trade Center fell and everyone was still sensitive to the potential of another terrorist attack. Still, I believe commercial fishing is the most dangerous job in the world.

Police and firefighters have their moments where they see some horrible things, and, according to injury compensation claims, stevedores and demolition workers are frequently hurt at work. But braving the open ocean is clearly the riskiest job I’ve ever come across. For men and women to take on tasks that don’t pay enough to buy the best boats, technology, or safety wear is ambitious and brave. To go out in unpredictable weather over water so cold that, even if the fishers could swim, would kill them quite quickly is courageous.

I tell Junior, when he crawls out over our outboard motor to remove an errant rope from the propeller, “If you slip overboard, don’t worry, because I’ll have a gaff stuck in you before you know you’re wet. I’ll jam that sharp hook in your neck, kidney, or crotch,” I insist, “and I’ll pull you back on this boat before anyone notices you’re gone. So don’t you be afraid, old buddy you’ve got the feller from away watching out for you.”


Excerpted from Bay of Hope: Five Years in Newfoundland © David Ward, 2018. Published by ECW Press, ecwpress.com.

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