Shane Noble steers his boat across the Bonavista Bay, cutting through the waves and spraying cold Atlantic water all over us. We drive past the tiny isles, hundreds of them, overgrown with pine and moss, all now uninhabited, apart from the occasional weekend cabin with its own tiny wooden pier.
We are headed towards Fair Island. Back in the day, when the Labrador Fishery was still active, it was a vibrant fishing community. The isle’s natural harbour was perfect for docking schooners used for cod fishing in the seas of Newfoundland. And it wasn’t just cod the rugged seamen were after – seal hunting was also a big industry, and controversially, it still happens.
Fair Island was one of the earliest settlements in Bonavista Bay going back to the 1600s. In the early 19th century the English settled and built the first fishing infrastructure. The population steadily grew, with people living off cod, herring, salmon and capelin fishing and, in season, when there was enough ice, seal hunting. There was also a lobster factory on the island that, at its height, had a workforce of 650. Men fished, while women bred goats and sheep, made mittens and quilts, and tended to their gardens on the neighbouring island so the livestock wouldn’t feast on already scarce crops. The beginning of the end of Fair Island started in the 1930s when the Labrador fishery declined. By 1952 there were only 8 fishing families left. The Canadian government decided the upkeep of Bonavista Bay settlements wasn’t sustainable anymore, so they issued a decree to vacate the islands and resettle the islanders on the mainland.
By the 1960s, Fair Island was a ghost island. Crumbling foundations and root vegetable cellars peeped eerily across the tall grass. There was nothing left apart from some wooden shacks for cleaning cod guts, gnarly and overgrown redcurrant bushes, and white gravestones in the cemetery. All the houses were gone, even the church, disassembled after one final service in 1961, towed to the harbour and floated across the bay on oil drums and rafts. It was the end of Fair Island and beginning of Centerville, a bayside town filled with wooden salt-box houses with fronts faded from iodine and wind.
Photo by: Kaja Sajovic
The Noble family was among the last to leave Fair Island. Life in these parts of the Northern Atlantic has always been hard, unpredictable and fleeting, but the history of the Nobles is tumultuous and marked with numerous tragedies. One evening, when men were out fishing, Shane’s pregnant great grandma’s waters broke, so she put up a light in the house as the expectant mothers did when they needed help. But the men at sea mistook the light for a lighthouse and crashed their boat on the reef. They all perished. Seven Noble men, lost in one night.
Their gravestones are in the dramatic hilltop cemetery, exposed to strong winds, overlooking the dark sea below where you can sometimes spot a whale. The island’s elders used to climb up here and watch for schooners in September, when their sons and grandsons were due to return from Labrador after three months on the sea. Some of the gravestones’ inscriptions are barely legible, some are mere white crosses, others tell the harrowing tales of lost children, young seamen drowned in stormy nights, their brides, dead in childbirth. One of the gravestones belongs to Shane’s grandfather, dead at 28. Pneumonia. He left behind five children, including Shane’s mother and aunt Jane who now, like many descendants of the original islanders, returns regularly to Fair Island.
Photo by: Kaja Sajovic
We walk towards the ridge that separates the eastern side of the island from the western side – the latter, sheltered from the wind, was inhabited, while the former, exposed to the sea, was completely wild. We stomp over the moss and lichen, the smell of sea and iodine mixed with the aroma of ripe berries. They have always grown in abundance here. Blueberries, crowberries, marsh berries, partridge berries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, blackberries, raspberries, they were every child’s treat. Picked in season, used for jams, cakes, pudding, tarts, well preserved for winter foods.
There's a dark patch in the middle of the uninhabited side of the island. A former hockey ring. Kids would fill it with sea water and when it froze, they would walk across the hill, put on their skates and – game on. Sixty years later the hockey ring is still here – or what’s left of it – a muddy, black void. Salty sea water killed all the plants.
Unlike some other places that were left to decay, Fair Island managed to survive – partly because of the strong sense of place and belonging the islanders have kept and passed on to their children and grandchildren. Fair Island casts a certain magical spell the moment you disembark the boat. And many of those born on the island never forgot it. In 1983, they set a summer fishing station here and today the western shore is once again resettled with bright-coloured cabins and tiny houses, weekend getaways of mainlanders, the vast majority of them with no in-house bathrooms and no electricity, so during the evenings the sound of crashing waves is drowned out by the sound of generators.
Photo by: Kaja Sajovic
Instead of vegetable gardens, front lawns are filled with rusty anchors and piles of sea shells and crab traps. Now and then, you can see a coyote or a fox sniffing them and, occasionally, even bears stray onto the island. The glory days of fishing in Bonavista Bay might be over, but those who return to Fair Island and the neighbouring Silver Fox Island are keeping the traditions alive and well. In season, they drive their boats to the sea to fish for tuna, squid and cod that remains Newfoundland’s staple.
“After cod jigging in the morning we clean the fish and cut out the tongues and britches and fry them with ‘scrunchions’ (cracklings) for breakfast. Any small fish is cut into rounders and boiled with seawater and onions. My favourite way to have fish,” explains Shane Noble. Natives of Newfoundland and Labrador eat cod in all shapes - and every part of it. Tongues and cheeks are pan-fried, roe is cured and preserved in jars. “But the best way to cook a cod is fisherman style – you set a cauldron with sea water right on the pier, bring it to boil and throw in the fish straight from the hook. No seasoning, no salt added, but I guarantee you this is the best cod you’ll ever have, it melts in your mouth,”says Noble.
Photo by: Anja Sajovic
There is lots of cured fish like salt fish, smoked fish, or bottled fish. “When we were kids, we used to dry squid on the washing line in the summer and put them in the toaster in the winter and eat them like a jerky. Also a popular thing to do is cooking salt fish on open fire while ice fishing. Just wrap salt fish in tin foil and roast on the fire, then eat with butter and home-made bread with yeast made of hops that still grow on the island.”
Photo by: Kaja Sajovic
But Fair Island food traditions, and Newfoundland food traditions, extend well beyond the sea. Hunting remains a big part of it, be it rabbits or caribou and moose. Stuffed moose heart is served for Christmas, as are turrs (local name for murres, North Atlantic seabirds that look like diminutive flying penguins) that they hunt with shotguns from their boats in December. Hunting turrs goes back to the days when Newfoundlanders supplemented their winter diet with every kind of meaty bird they could get their hands on – turrs, puffins, gannets. Feathers were used for mattresses and pillows and the birds roasted whole.
Beverage-wise, Newfoundland is still mostly beer and hard liquor country. Their spirit of choice used to be ‘Screech’ (rum), and it remains an essential part of Newfie folklore with a ‘Screech In’ ceremony, where they welcome newcomers to the island by making them kiss a cod and drink a shot of said rum. But the market has evolved and expanded with craft breweries offering some interesting local brews, including one with iceberg water (Quidi Vidi Brewery), one infused with blueberries (Dildo Brewing), and a sour ale with Newfoundland sea salt (Landwash Brewery). There’s also The Newfoundland Distillery Company, first real attempt at craft distilling in the province, offering concoctions such as seaweed-infused gin and aquavit with barley, honey and juniper-smoked peat from Newfoundland.
Photo by: Kaja Sajovic
We head to Jane Noble’s cabin, crossing a wobbly wooden bridge built by Shane’s great uncle in 1991, for the 30th anniversary of the Nobles’ departure from Fair Island. Around 3.000 former inhabitants of the island and their families gathered for the big celebration. The old Noble didn’t live to see his bridge unveiled – he died just two months earlier. Jane’s house is filled with memories of pre-1961 island life and Newfoundland's fishing knick-knacks – rubber boots by the front door, leftover scrunchions on the stove, walls covered with faded family photographs, old lobster fishing licenses, photos of icebergs that get drifted in the bay in the Spring. There’s a tiny wooden lighthouse in the corner and a notebook next to it. “Faith, Hope, Love,” it spells on the cover.