While most of us no longer have to worry about pack ice and the idea of travel being restricted by season is foreign to us, there still are territories yet where elements come in to play and the route is not delayed by hours and a few deicing run-throughs but by days or weeks as tugboats smash paths in deep oceanic ice or violent storms come barreling down from the north or suddenly arrive from the south. Such is the crossing to Newfoundland by ferry.
While we endured the two hour inconvenience of waiting in our car to board, we heard that there were communities far up in Labrador that had yet to see a ferry this year and that these ferries bring provisions as they do travelers and tourists. Newfoundland is a large enough island that the ferry does not serve as the sole means to transporting goods, and there is an airport on the island so the crossing no longer is the only passenger service, but it was very obvious that these crossings remain an important link and that this link is severed at times by flowing ice, storms, or ice bergs… which just seems archaic if not a bit of creative anachronism.
This blogger has been on a few ferries over the decades. The ferry to Tangiers from Spain, an old smoke belching lurching monster that took hours to cross the channel, a tourist ferry in Honduras that went out to an island and once colony of England and passed by the hulk of its burned out sister ship upon leaving the berth, the vacationer ferry between the islands of Long and Fire, of course the 1950s artifact Staten Island Ferry, and the commuter East River Ferry that darts about the East River linking trendy Long Island City, Hipster Williamsburg to digital Mecca DUMBO and serving two points on Manhattan, as well as the ferry from the Cree Nation village on the mainland to the Isle of St. George, a now abandoned Cree Nation Village linked only by a decrepit machine (which when we got there broken for a day and we had to return) operated by Dave, who had made this his employ for over two decades and had never in that time seen a Dodge 600 convertible in James Bay. Of these the crossing on the Marine Atlantic Ferry from North Sydney to Channel-Port aux Basques was the longest aboard a ship of this nature (had we taken it to Argentina, NL it would have been not seven but approximately 11-12 hours).
The ship, the Highlander, was not what I expected. I expected some ferry of lost SOVIET era vintage, a basic proletarian utility transport filled with planks to sleep and barrels of water, or a rotting once grand hulk that had been in its day a place of playboys and women who dressed up with pearls for dinner but now had succumb to mildew in the velvet curtains and stains on the linoleum tiles which no Bon Amie could remove. While it was not the glamour of the early 1960s, the boat was in fine condition and the little room we rented, while it did not have a window, was more comfortable than I had expected and for a moment I wished we were going to Argentina (NL) in order to take full advantage of the accommodations. Being a late night crossing, we availed ourselves of the bar (the Woo Woo cocktail perhaps the only 1960s reference in the entire place) and went to bed. Thankfully there was no pack ice, storms, nor icebergs dead ahead to prevent our crossing or delay our appointed rounds and promptly at soon after daybreak, we disembarked in order to start our new adventure on the isle of Newfoundland.
This was not the same experience aboard our next ferry, the Apollo. While the vintage 1980sness of the ship and terminal of Marine Atlantic held up over time, the vintage 1980sness of the Apollo ship and terminal had not withstood the tests of time nor was there a hint of former glory at the booking office, a squalid add-on to a hotel staffed by apparently surly Canadians (by their standards nor our Amerikan ones) and an inexplicable stack of books and VHS tapes for sale (kids “VHS” stands for Video Home System.. this was before CDs which are those round record-like objects with reflective surface one side you can’t scratch and bad art on the other with copyright notices in three languages… and a record is… ask your parents). The Apollo is the ship to the north that connects Newfoundland to Labrador. This was once the first stop on a ship that would once travel up the coast visiting all points up to Happy Valley Goose Bay, a voyage of 36 to 48 hours depending on traffic… that is… storms, ice, icebergs. Now the Apollo tends to a shorter course, the 2-3 hour crossing from Newfoundland to Quebec (border with Labrador).
Taking this ferry is like entering a multi-generational space ship – think The Black Hole or Flight of Exiles or Marathon (the FPS game) that has been abandoned. There is an abandoned Duty Free shop with dusty display cases (something out of Damnation Alley perhaps). A bar with a dance floor that has not seen action in over a decade – even a dance floor do to the electric slide lays in one uncarpeted corner. There is a restaurant that has been shuttered. Again, perhaps for years, perhaps a decade the place has been shuttered. Then there are the signs. Signs abound in Swedish give directions for I hope things that are not too important since only in a few places are they also in English and French. This ship indeed is actually a decommissioned ferry from Europe built in the 1970s, hence the “modern” look of the galley and need for a Duty Free shop and so while it was not SOVIET, it did have some of the stains and mildew smell I had expected on The Highlander. Nothing much has been changed in its life as a ferry in Canada, the cabins for overnight passengers remain unused and some doors list open as if in a haunted house… or ghost ship, perhaps a better analogy. The entire ship was supposed to be scuttled in 2013 when the company’s contract expired, but Canada, like the US of A, is having trouble investing in infrastructure too.
The voyage was uneventful. There remained a cafeteria and from there we had breakfast of toast and coffee. The truckers had full breakfasts and smaller families bought random snacks. As the only current way to cross to the mainland – pending the completion of a tunnel – the ship serves a much smaller population than that of the Marine Atlantic and is more work-a-day than those tourists of the south. This short trip was but a small glimpse into what had been the regular commute of old Newfoundland and Labrador, prior to the construction of the Trans-Labrador highway or Newfoundland Route 1 when people had to line up travel in advance, be on time, wait to load and unload, give ample time to travel, and arrive according to the whim of nature and variances of the salty crew. While I enjoyed the crossing, and we kept lookout for icebergs and whales, I can see why folks from that region continue to welcome progress, the construction of roads to replace the waterways and former railways, since they have yet to see the drawbacks to highways and their eventual lead to the Geography of Nowhere.
For now, the hills remain rugged, the people friendly, and the crossings often blocked with snow and ice. Perhaps this is worth doing while these ships yet remain more than a vacationer’s tic on a bucket list.