We scream around the final corner of the twisting road, catching air on one particularly nasty bump, and screech to a stop in the ferry terminal parking lot. But we are too late. The Capt. Earl W. Winsor is already belching smoke as it heads for Fogo Island, N.L. We have sped four hours north from St. John’s to Farewell in hopes of making the 5 p.m. crossing. It’s 5:01. “I can’t believe we missed it,” Jayson, my travelling companion, gasps to the man in the ticket booth. “Now we have to wait for three more hours!”
Just then, the ferry’s mournful horn groans and we look toward the water. For a split second, it appears motionless, as if caught between the pull of the island that beckons just off the coast and the need to come back for stragglers. We come from Halifax, where bus drivers seem to take immense pleasure in watching stragglers run for the bus, only to pull away just before they reach it. So the sight of a ferry loaded with passengers and vehicles returning to land after its lines have been cast renders us nearly speechless.
“It can’t be coming back, can it?” Jayson blurts out, then turns to the guy in the ticket booth. “It’s coming back for us? Seriously?”
But it is, and we watch, incredulously, as the vessel slowly changes direction and inches its way back to the concrete slip. The ramp is lowered and we are waved on board, swallowed into the noisy belly of the ship.
We grin like fools as the ferry pulls away once again and makes for Change Islands and then Fogo Island. The tiny gems are part of an archipelago chipped off the edge of the continent by long-ago glaciers and cast adrift from the northeast corner of mainland Newfoundland. So ancient the landscape, so remote the outport, one can only agree with the Flat Earth Society’s declaration that Brimstone Head, an imposing promontory that stands guard over the town of Fogo, is one of the four corners of the Earth.
The island is the last stop before hitting the vastness of the North Atlantic, and beyond that, Europe. To visitors, Fogo Island may seem like the end of the Earth, but to 2,300 inhabitants, it is home.
We are still on a high from our adventure as we head up to the ferry’s lounge area, away from the noise of the engines and smell of fuel. Small clutches of people sit, chatting and laughing and occasionally casting wary glances at us. “That’s a stranger,” one mom admonishes her child, who had dared to stray too close.
Weeks before, while making inquiries about the island, one woman told us to look for her husband, Alvin, who works on the ferry. He is short and has brown eyes, she said.
“You Alvin?” Jayson asks one man who meets the vague description.
“Yeah, that’s me,” he says, instantly offering a smile and his hand. We laugh at our luck and tell Alvin how the ferry came back for us. “Happens a lot,” he shrugs.
Ice broken, we are invited up into the wheelhouse where we are treated as long-lost friends and entertained with stories about how last week the ferry avoided caribou swimming across the tickle the narrow body of water between the two islands. We are even invited to have a go at steering the ship.
“Any icebergs around?” Jayson asks, uttering what will become his favourite question during our six-day stay. “I really want to see an iceberg.”
Isolated and independent
Horace Barnes, 93, peers cautiously at the strangers on the porch of his home. Keeping one hand on the door handle, he answers questions haltingly, offering only the barest of information. Barnes has lived all his life in Island Harbour, a tiny community on the west side of the island. He was born and raised in the home across the road, a building where red paint has faded to almost pink and the wooden frame sits slightly askew. He softens, however, when asked how he met his wife.
“I can hardly tell you that,” Barnes chuckles, a smile spreading across his face. Barnes and a friend took a boat around to neighbouring Deep Bay one fine Sunday back before there were roads on the island. “And she was there,” Barnes says, looking off into the distance. “She was 15 or 16. From that time, that was it. We were never apart afterwards.”
Horace and Frances were married for 65 years until her death a few years ago. They raised nine children in the house he now lives in, its floors swept clean, its counters immaculate and its knick-knacks limited to china plates celebrating 50, 60 and 65 years of marriage. He pauses when asked how many grandchildren he has. “Fifteen,” he says, after counting on his fingers.
Island Harbour is one of 11 communities on Fogo Island, each with its own distinct flavour and sense of pride, even though the communities are, at most, 20 minutes apart. Forests blanket the south side of the island while barren rocks and boggy patches dominate the north. The wind, ever present, keeps the temperatures cool, and from March until August, sweeps icebergs past the island as they head south along Iceberg Alley.
Fogo Island is unique all right, and not just because of its accommodating ferry captain. For one thing, there is the food: toutons (deep-fried dough with molasses) for breakfast, or fish — which means cod and only cod — for dinner. But remember that dinner is actually lunch, not supper.
Settled in the 18th century by the Irish and English, the island has been a study in fierce independence and deep isolation, from both mainland Newfoundland and the island’s own communities. In the 1960s, a filmmaker arrived and began what became known as the Fogo Process, in which islanders took cameras back to their communities and recorded their hopes and dreams for themselves and for their island. The films were eventually shared among the communities, and islanders discovered they weren’t so different after all. It galvanized the communities and the islanders’ desire to stick together, and so in 1967, under the threat of relocation, islanders instead created the Fogo Island Co-op to take control of their fishery and their future. The co-op survived the collapse of the cod fishery and is now one of the main sources of employment — and pride.
Daphne Bailey has worked for the co-op for 30 years, putting in 10-hour shifts on the line in a building that can be noisy, cold and smelly, usually all at once. Short and sturdy, Bailey glances over at us from her job of sorting and packing snow crab legs at the fish plant in Fogo. We have come to see the plant in action and to sample its crab, so fresh that its sweetness rivals that of candy.
At first, Bailey seems shy but her reticence disappears at the mention of the new inn that just opened in the neighbouring community of Joe Batt’s Arm. “They are outsiders. They are going to invade us,” Bailey says, referring to the tourists who are surely now going to come to the island in search of an experience like no other. “I don’t ever lock the door, but the time has come. I’m going to have to look for my key. I never locked my door in 30 years, so I don’t know where that key is to.”
The inn, it seems, is the main source of gossip on the island and everyone wants to know if we are staying there. Our credibility skyrockets when we say we can afford only one night.
“It’s good for the businesses,” Bailey says, her direct gaze slightly unnerving. “But it’s not going to do anything for me.”
To Silicon Valley and back
The success of the co-op has perhaps tricked islanders into relying too heavily on one industry and dampening their desire to embrace change. Enter Zita Cobb. Petite with close-cropped hair and porcelain skin, Cobb is about as far from a high-powered multimillionaire former tech executive as one can imagine. Sitting in the green-painted library of the new Fogo Island Inn, Cobb quotes poets, philosophers, authors and artists as she searches for ways to describe the island’s inhabitants. “Fogo Islanders are very shy people. I think they are naturally curious, certainly deeply hospitable. Even when they are cranky with you, they are very hospitable.”
Although Fogo Islanders are shy, one smile is all it takes to disarm them: one minute you are a stranger who has come to gawk at their island, and the next you are being invited in for tea.
“We live next to the graves of the people who came before us,” Cobb says. “Fogo Islanders have a relationship with the physical place. They have kind of a harmony inside them that comes out of place. And a wisdom that comes out of the genus of the place. If you know where you belong, then you are not fearful. And when you are not fearful you can be open. Fogo Islanders are very much like that.”
Cobb, 55, grew up on Fogo Island, the only girl in a family of seven children. She left the island right out of high school, eventually making her fortune with JDS Uniphase in California’s Silicon Valley before cashing out and heading on a long journey that eventually led her back home.
After setting up scholarships to help island children, Cobb was admonished by one islander for sending their children away. Couldn’t Cobb, with all her millions, find a way to bring islanders home?
“I’m from here. Anything that I have that’s any good came out of this place,” says Cobb, perched on a chair in the library stocked with books about Newfoundland. “(The inn) came out of an awareness that something needed to be done. In the community, prospects were fading.”
The 29-room inn, which took three years to build, cost $40 million, of which a total of $15 million came from the federal and provincial governments. The rest is Cobb’s own money. The inn now belongs to the Shorefast Foundation, a federally registered charity, and is operated in a business trust. Any surpluses from the inn go back to the charity, and a board will decide what to do with the funds, based on requests from the islanders.
“I’m a huge fan and believer in business, and I’m a huge believer in social entrepreneurship,” Cobb says. “So the idea of using philanthropic funds to create assets that belong to a community, that’s, I think, the way of the future.”
Shorefast also runs a number of other projects, including Fogo Island Arts, which sponsors artist residencies in four island communities. For Cobb, culture is inextricably linked to the health of the island.
“For me, the most important things are culture and nature, and for me, they can’t be separated from each other. And I think what we are doing, we’re killing place, whereas we should be worshipping place and holding on to place, because it’s the human relationship to place that gives rise to culture and to human relationships with each other.”
She is going after the high end of the tourist spectrum — rooms in high season start at $850 — in part to minimize the impact on the island. Tiny Fogo Island can’t handle hordes of tourists.
“The thing about tourism is that it’s a dance with the devil for communities,” Cobb says. “I’m really aware of that. And so if you’re going to dance with the devil, you’ve got to be sure nimble on your feet.”
One gets the sense that local carpenter Jerry Oake understands that dance with the devil. The inn has literally changed his outlook. Oake had an uninterrupted view of windswept, barren rocks from his home, a stone’s throw from the water’s edge in Joe Batt’s Arm. Now when he looks out the back windows of his newly renovated house, the inn is the first thing he sees.
“I don’t mind,” Oake says, pausing from his work clearing land to create a garden shed and firepit. “I get a lot of work, a lot of spinoff. I think there’s going to be a lot more to come.”
Born on the island, Oake has already benefited from its emergence. He was hired as a carpenter by an outsider who is buying houses and turning them into Old Salt Box Co. vacation homes scattered across the island. But the Fogo Islander, 46, is now ready to work for himself and plans to put up cottages on his own land, mimicking the stilts of the inn.
While we chat, a young Fogo Islander wanders by looking for Oake’s son. “Gone troutin’?” Keaton Brown asks. At 13, Keaton is lanky and laid back, casually leaning against a post and looking for all the world like a young James Dean. He is both the future of Fogo Island and a bridge to its past.
“Goin’ to stay here,” Keaton says when asked what he wants to do when he grows up. “Mechanic. Thinkin’ ’bout it.”
The way Oake sees it, Keaton will have a bright future as long as historic rivalries among the communities don’t overshadow the opportunities he is sure are coming. “There might be some jealousy down in Fogo. But it’s good for the island, they’ve got to see that, too,” Oake says of the inn. “It’s bringing work, it’s bringing money.”
Fogo Island Inn sits on a barren bluff that reaches out into the ocean, as close to the raging sea as you can be without getting salt spray in your eyes. Cantilevered out over the edge and supported by stilts at one end, it is a magnificent sight on an island of profound beauty.
The foyer is open and sparsely furnished, and the view dominates from every angle. Natural-stained wood floors, painted barnboard walls and ceiling, a wood stove and oversized rocking chairs feel both excitingly new and yet comfortingly familiar.
“Most (Fogo Islanders) who come in will say, ‘Well, it’s a bit like my grandmother’s house. It’s not really that new,’” says Cobb, who adds that every island household has been invited to spend one night as a guest at the inn. “If our ancestors were building now, what would they do? I think they would have built this because they were incredibly innovative people. They were people of the times because sea people are always people of the times.”
Cobb brought in outside experts to reimagine the traditional outport furniture and textiles in contemporary designs. Local boat builders then made the furniture, and quilters are crafting the quilts that adorn every bed. “Really, what we are trying to do is find contemporary expression that is relevant in the world for our lived experience and our history,” she says.
While the furnishings and finishes are natural and minimal, make no mistake: this is a luxury inn. The kitchen staff forage for mushrooms, berries and caribou moss, and the sophisticated menu will evolve with the seasons. By day, the view outside dominates. By night, the inn becomes the attraction, its lights glowing through the windows, a beacon drawing locals and strangers together.
“It’s a place to just be,” Cobb says. “Because life is about being and becoming, and we spend so much time becoming and not enough time being. … You can feel time here in a way that you don’t feel it in the city.”
A timeless windscape
The passage of time is evident at Peg’s B&B in the town of Fogo. Plaques, faded photos, newspaper clippings and CDs are plastered across virtually every square inch of its common room. What little space is left has been filled by rocks mounted on wood and painted to resemble icebergs. These can be bought for $15. The room pays homage to Gerald Freake’s accordion group that toured the country back in the 1990s.
“I just wanted to keep the tradition of playing the button accordion alive,” says Freake, a retired teacher who runs Peg’s with his wife. “So I just threw this group of kids together.”
With just two kids in the group now, Freake worries the tradition is in danger of dying out. “If you skip a generation somewhere, it’s gone. I can probably name three people in this community who can play the button accordion.”
Loss of the button accordion is not his only worry. Peg’s B&B is in Fogo, 16 kilometres from Joe Batt’s Arm and the inn that promises to bring people and prosperity to the island. But will strangers make the drive to his community, and if they do, what will that mean to the town? “People are starting to wonder,” Freake says, stressing that he is only passing on what he hears, not necessarily what he thinks.
“Nobody really knows for sure. Who’s coming in here? What kind of people are coming here and what are they going to do when they get here?”
“What type of people are going to come?” Cobb repeats, her eyes dancing at the thought. It is a question she thinks about a lot as she markets a unique product in an equally unique place. “People who are intrepid and curious. If you are just looking to be comfortable and coddled, go to Florida.”
Fogo Island Inn — and by extension, Fogo Island — is not for everyone, and that is the beauty of it. “It’s a welcoming wilderness,” Cobb says.
“We live in a windscape, and you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. It’s an unmediated relationship with the natural world when you’re here, so if that frightens you, you shouldn’t come.”
A hunk of ice
Uncomfortable. Yes, uncomfortable. That is what I am feeling as we pound through the waves that tower over us, spray from the frigid North Atlantic running down my face, stinging my eyes so badly that for a few terrifying moments I can’t see.
If you’re lucky during your visit to Fogo Island, an iceberg will glide into view. If you’re unlucky, a fisherman will offer to take you to within spitting distance of one, which is how we find ourselves white-knuckling it over to Change Islands in an open punt. At the helm is Dennis Payne, a fisherman with more than three decades of experience, and lucky for us, a knack for surfing big waves. “All this for a hunk of ice,” I hiss about an hour into our boat ride.
Up close, that hunk of ice is breathtaking, its sheer mass creating its own microclimate of fierce winds and churning seas. It is what I imagine Cape Horn is like on a good day. We manoeuvre close to the berg and I hang on to the camera gear with one hand and Jayson with the other, certain his quest for the perfect shot will result in a one-way tumble into the ocean. I am too frightened to brave more than a passing glance at the ice, terrified we are about to be pounded to bits on the rocks or sunk by a falling growler.
Photos taken, we turn and head for home. I am speechless as Jayson reaches into his pocket and pulls out his ringing iPhone. “Jayson Taylor speaking,” he shouts. Seriously? He couldn’t have let it go to voice mail? I could sense the smirk on the fisherman’s face.
But perhaps no more so than the next day when we sidle up to the bar and order a round. “You know the iceberg you saw yesterday?” says one man who must have heard about the crazy city folk who ventured out to see it. That iceberg, as everyone on Fogo Island knew, would overnight be pushed to shore and smashed to bits where locals would gather it up and deliver the hunks to our inn.
“They’re making drinks out of it for you.”