Struggling to keep upright as gale force wind gusts whoosh across the abandoned runway I look directly ahead, though dense grey mist, towards the distinctive twin hills across the boiling winter sea that marks the point near which Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt met aboard the American warship USS Augusta in the summer of 1941. In the dark days of the second world war, before America was officially involved the two leaders had worked out an agreement for military cooperation and a framework for a post-war world known as the Atlantic Charter, generally accepted has basis upon which the United Nations would be built.
That world seems almost impossible to imagine from this vantage point. The massive American naval base that was built on this site persisted after the war, engaging in the monitoring of Soviet nuclear submarines operating in the North Atlantic. In phases, over decades however, the base slowly shrank. By 1975 the air base had been shuttered, leaving an aeronautical ghost town of runways, towers, hangers, bunkers, buildings, and assorted military debris, essentially intact and little used for decades afterwards. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the peace dividend included the closure of the remaining United States Naval Facility Argentia in 1994, and with it one of the regions largest employers. Growing up in the area in the 70’s and 80’s it was common to see civilian vehicles with US Department of Defense stickers fixed to their bumpers or white US Navy vehicles on the streets.
All that history, all the relationships formed, it’s all long gone. From the vantage point of more than two decades since the base closure it becomes apparent that history is fading away. Exploring the former base it’s remarkable to see how many buildings and structures have vanished. Towers, power plant stacks, the massive residential apartment block, and family housing units. That said many persist. Some have been repurposed, with a new splash of paint, for civilian commercial purposes, while others slowly decay in the harsh marine climate, pealing, chipping, cracking and crumbling. Walking through the former base in the early days of the new winter feels like entering an abandoned, lost, world. Most of the businesses that now exist here are shuttered for the holidays and I’m free to wander, virtually alone among the remains. Along the vast, crumbling runways, their surfaces slowing being atomized into tiny stones with small plants pushing through. Nature reclaiming the land. Continuing past aircraft hangers barely holding on. Punctured with holes, steel girders threatening to tumble at any instant. Signs warning of the possibility of imminent danger. I wander past desiccated fire hydrants, their urgent colors still visible through rust and grit. Once bustling buildings now wear busted windows and pealing panels. Stacks of excavated asphalt and soil are piled like slag. A reminder of the more than $100 million dollars invested in cleaning up the decades of military waste. Aviation fuel, PCBs, heavy metals, and asbestos, just to name a few. The process continues as I note more signs announcing imminent demolition. I continue down roads that now seem to lead nowhere, just to an empty pad where some building once sat. Still, some large military buildings remain, having been re-purposed by metal works and fabrication companies involved in the various industrial projects that have brought a renewed degree of prosperity to the region in recent years. I ponder what their original, military purpose, had been. One seems like it had been a workshop of some sort while another baffles. It reminds be the of those large cold storage apple packing buildings in Washington State. I continually happen upon oddities. A former navy aircraft deicing truck, probably of 1960s vintage, a couple of rusty cannons that pre-date the Americans by hundreds of years, and modern shipping containers toppled by the pervious days wind storms like a child’s toy building blocks.
There remains an ever creeping feeling of the past being erased bit by bit. New industrial structures, dry docks, storage yards all steadily erasing the military past of the site. One day the physical reality of that history will simply, if imperceptibly, vanish.
"But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seest—if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)--
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadowed, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crowned with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."
The Passing of Arthur, Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Contrary to the Avalon of the Arthur legend and Tennyson's imagination, the actual Avalon, a peninsula jutting into the North Atlantic ocean at the far eastern edge of North America, is about as far removed from the imagined Avalon as one can get. As winter begins to envelope this Avalon the winds seem to never stop blowing, the temperature fluctuates between freezing and thawing, the weather cycles between rain, sun and snow. The ponds gradually freeze over and yes, apologies to Tennyson, the valleys do indeed fill with snow. Late December and early January is a transitional time, when winter settles in, the summer tourists have long gone and even the locals tend to stay inside for the most part, venturing out for errands or for hunting in the back country. Walking around towns and villages I only come across the occasional person willing to deal with the fierce, freezing winds. Walk around at night and the pedestrian population dwindles even further. Walking also reveals one of the hazards created by the rapidly fluctuating temperatures, a layer of slippery ice coats almost every chosen route.
Along the shoreline there are numerous fishing boats hauled on shore for the winter, propped up by rough logs cut from the nearby forest. These logs reveal the stunted nature of the native trees, incessantly battered by the ceaseless winds and short growing season.
The Avalon Peninsula has a well deserved reputation as one of the foggiest places on Earth. This, however, is really only true in May and June as the warm gulf stream mixes with the cold Labrador current. The same time of year when the waters along the North coast fill with ice bergs, and whales become a common site in the bays. Towards winter it's the wild winds and frequent snowfalls that dominate the Avalon environment. The wind creates an exaggerated sense of cold, the actual temperatures, moderated by the surrounding ocean, usually average only few degrees below freezing in winter.
Walking through the cold forest using only the glow of the full moon against the snow and ice for illumination, stopping and looking skyward reveals the prismatic effect of the moonlight passing though ice crystals in the high atmosphere. The constellation Orion shines through the thin veil of cloud, framed by the diffusing vapor trails of jets passing in the distance, their silent pulsing lights mirrored on the ground by the pulsing red light of a distant radio tower many kilometers away. There is total silence save for the occasional cracking of surface ice somewhere in the far distance.
The weather shifts daily, and often hourly. One day will bring the brightest sunshine and bluest skies, the next a dumping of heavy, wet snow that sticks to trees and rocks, bathing the landscape in pillowy white. Frequently, while standing on the shoreline I can spot a diffuse white mass in the far distance over the sea. Inevitably, a vigorous snow-squall will come ashore masking the bright light of the low afternoon sun in gray-white. Everything goes dark and sharp ice pellets or sloppy snow flakes are driven ashore. Low drifts of white snow float across the rocky beaches and black asphalt. Sometimes the combination of high winds and a full moon conspire to create strong storm surges against which low lying communities have had to construct various tidal barriers to prevent flooding. As quickly as the dense darkness of the storm arrives it can depart again, inland over the Avalon forest, replaced along the shore line by bursts of sunlight between fast passing clouds of gray, white, black and purple. The passing shadow and light reflected in the ocean surface itself.
Walking along a beach after a fresh snowfall reveals that the white is being eaten away by the rising tide in a pattern that repeats itself, white snow, red-brown algae, brown sand and small waves. Rinse and repeat far into the distance.
Walking further inland along narrow ocean inlets of salt water reveals the beginnings of the winter freeze up. A thin layer of snow covered ice forms over water. Along the shore line soft granular ice rises and falls with the tides, slowly becoming firmer and finer, covering the rounded rocks and extending coverage as the days pass and the land cools. Along the shoreline the previous summers vegetation, reddish and golden wild grasses, become slowly enveloped in accumulating snow. The land turns brilliant white.
Passing through the evergreen woodlands one is greeted by the ‘caw-caw’ of curious black crows high in the trees, the only animals visible. Though I follow the tracks of a fox through the snow for over a kilometer the trail disappears high up a hillside into thick woods and the creature remains elusive.
Heading over the undulating road southward the low forests transition to empty barrens at the extreme southern tip of the peninsula. Passing through tiny villages, never consisting of more than a couple of dozen houses it becomes obvious that most choose to populate the deep valleys which offer some shelter from the relentless winds as well as access to the ocean. Only where the land flattens do larger settlements take root. Along the way a quick glance towards the ocean reveals white capped waves, driven by the winds which rip a misty spray from their crests. Looking in the other direction reveals the pink and purple glow of the fading sun on the snow covered barrens.
No matter the coast, Atlantic, Pacific, or really anywhere the sea meets the land, people are drawn irresistibly to the water. There is something primordial about the attraction. Life came from the sea and we still retain this urge to return, even though, physiologically, we can’t go back. We can visit our evolutionary past only briefly, forevermore tourists in this watery world.
Whenever one goes down to the ocean there are people swimming, fishing, diving, surfing and so on. These explorers, however, are only dipping a figurative toe in the vast abyss of blue.
People come to the shoreline to stare into the undulating flatness extending to the horizon as if staring into the vastness of space itself. We sit on the edge of a liquid universe, only able to seriously venture forth with technological assistance.
The combination of the sky reflected in the rolling sea creates a seeming infinity of space, an openness, a spaciousness, that seems difficult to find on dry land. The periodic rolling of the waves on shore a kind of comforting white noise, almost hypnotic, the gentle roar of wind and wave. Cascading surf tumbles against the sand in a chaos of noise and froth, pushing up as far as it can reach, stretching out in a thin layer of water, erratic lines of bubbles and creamy foam. Sometimes the inattentive thought-lost wanderer is caught in a surge of cold, wet, reality. As quickly as it comes the water recedes, wetting the sand in a thin prismatic rainbow, drying in the warmth of the sun before the next wave overflows. Wash, rinse, repeat. A virtually infinite cycle played out the world over, starting long before humans arrived and continuing long past our departure.
Near the sea the quality of light seems to take on unique properties. The vast sky and sea surface act as enormous reflectors, imparting a strange luminous quality to the seaside. A fine gray spray pushes onshore from the ocean, coating everything in salty mist, diffusing the light. Brilliant sharp reflections of cresting waves intensely focus the sun.
Layers of cloud impart a a complete surface-to-sky grayness. The gauziness of fog envelops everything with a soft, white glow.
No matter the shifting weather or season there are always some individuals drawn to the magnetic attraction of the sea.
It’s these striking similarities that crossed my mind while traveling the north coast of California, down through Big Sur and again a few months later zig-zagging in and out of the numerous coves dotting the bays of Newfoundland, in the North Atlantic. The same, only different. Wandering across the reddish sand at Gooseberry cove, in essence, feels fundamentally the same as walking across the beige sand at Morro Bay.
In peoples mind's California is the land of endless sandy beaches, Newfoundland, ‘the Rock.’ These however are mere geological half-truths. While California does indeed possess many miles of beige, sandy shoreline, in many other places it is marked by shear cliffs or beaches consisting of almost razor-sharp outcroppings of conglomerated rock. California's famously active geology having laid them down so recently that the waves haven’t had sufficient time to take the edges off.
In Newfoundland there are indeed seemingly continuous coastlines of sheer rocky cliffs plunging to the turbulent sea. There are also many beaches. Some consist of an infinite melange of colorful, wave-smoothed stones, others as sandy as any California beach, and generally less populated as well.
The same, only different.
Summer sunsets are spectacular on either coast. Watching the sun slowly descend into the ocean at San Simeon is little different that watching it slip below the waters of Placentia Bay.
The western sky becomes a deep blue, the horizon transitions to intense yellow, orange and subtle pink as the light travels through ever more atmosphere. The sea appears to become calmer, the chill in the wind more pronounced. The first stars twinkle as the suns yellow disk slips into the night leaving us bathed in the gloaming.
Turning ones back to the fading sun, the sky from top to bottom transitions from blue to pink and purple. The earth a fading, ruddy, shadowland.
East coast, west coast, different in so many ways yet sharing the same essential qualities of light, wind, tide, the smell of the salt sea and the spectrum of colors that end each day.
Spring in Newfoundland means it's iceberg time. Each year from about April to June these massive sculptures of long since congealed freshwater, fallen off of glaciers in Greenland years before, travel south on the cold Labrador current and appear out of the fog all along the Northeast coast of Newfoundland. At times they number in the dozens or even hundreds and any visitor to the numerous bays and coves that dot the rugged northern coast of the island is sure to spot them. Sometimes visible in the far distance as brilliant white hills rising above the deep blue north Atlantic on a clear sunny day. Others will be almost camouflaged in thick fog, their shapes just emerging, ghost-like, in the cool, shifting, mist. At other times the massive mountains of ice will sit just off shore, their even more massive subsurface lodged on some shallow shoal, waiting for the wind or tide to change, allowing them to work free and continue their journey to oblivion in the ever warming southern ocean.
During a recent visit to Newfoundland we decided to spend some time tracing the coastline in search of these frozen wonders. Even before landing we knew it would be a successful trip. As we flew over Conception Bay on our decent into St. John’s International Airport we could see several icebergs in the bay. When the plane made a dramatic pivot out over the Atlantic to align itself with the runway we found ourselves staring almost directly down at two large bergs anchored just beyond the dramatic cliffs outside St. John’s harbour.
Upon arriving we made for our first destination, the top of Signal Hill and its vast open vista of the Atlantic, which, from here, disappears over the horizon towards Europe. From here we were able to take in a rather spectacular view of the two icebergs in the bay that we had seen from the air an hour before as well as the sweeping view of the ocean and coastline with its steep, red cliffs. We only just arrived in Newfoundland and had already seen half a dozen bergs.
From our base at Placentia, about an hour and a half drive southwest of St. John’s, we revisited the city a few days later, this time going out to Fort Amherst at the harbour entrance which gave us a much closer look from a lower perspective. The spot had already been attracting a continuous stream of tourists and locals taking advantage of this excellent viewing location below the sheer coastal cliffs. At the same time we could see the local tour boats going to and from the icebergs, skirting among the ‘bergy bits’ trailing away from the soaring mass of blue-green ice. It’s difficult to say if it was real or imagined but everyone seemed to sense a distinct chill as the ocean air coursed over the nearby ice, flowing over the gathered shore dwellers moments later.
Encouraged by these first encounters we consulted the iceberg finder website and plotted our next course. Noting the reported presence of several bergs on the eastern side of Trinity Bay, once again from Placentia we pointed the car North towards the ‘Baccalieu Trail.’ Following the undulating coastal road, darting in and out between stunted forest and open windows onto the piercing blue waters of the bay we could see, far in the distance on the western side, white specks of ice, blazing in the midday sun but elusively far off.
Pressing on towards the tip of the peninsula, where the wind-blasted trees again gave way to barren, boggy, emptiness, we spotted a sign pointing us towards Grates Cove. Turning left down the twisting road we entered the village. Here we were greeted by a nearly treeless coastline of windswept, patchy, grasses tumbling down towards hard slabs of grey-brown rock tilting into the narrow cove which opened into the vastness of the northern ocean. In the distance, almost due north we spotted our objective. At medium distance but nonetheless impressive, a line of the giant pinnacles of gleaming white sailed slowly past, riding the cold Labrador current.
Ascending the small ridge at the top of the picture postcard village we stumbled past the remains of rock walls used to enclose the agriculture of early villagers. Cresting the hill were greeted by an expansive sweeping view of the blue sea dotted with distant triangles of Greenland ice.
Again however, the bergs remained distant, their detail visible only through a long lens.
We moved on.
Leaving Grate’s Cove, following the road to the Southeast we entered Bay de Verde, a vibrant fishing community dominated by surrounding hills trailing down to its busy harbour. Just entering the place one is not so much struck by its picturesque setting but by the smells and sounds of an active fishing port, something once common around the bays of Newfoundland but much less so sense the near disappearance of the Northern Cod and it associated fishery. On the day we arrived the sun shone brilliantly and the blue sky was reflected in the harbour and bay. The harbour itself was filled with large fishing boats as trucks and forklifts buzzed around the seafood processing plant, since destroyed in a fire, that lined the entire north side of the harbour.
Parking on the wharf we walked up some wooden stairs on the adjacent cliff, to a viewing platform. From there we realized we had come to the right place. Just offshore loomed a massive hill of ice, parked, seemingly immovable. From the great berg, streams of icy glacial water could be seen falling into the sea where a circle of debris ice collected. Fishing boats sailed past the cold, hard, ice fortress, surrounded by flocks of squawking gulls. Then suddenly a spray of fine mist and the distinctive near black outline of a humpback whale breaching the surface, a thin sheet of water on its skin glinting in the harsh midday sun. Repeatedly, the whale would emerge, exhale a misty shower, then plunge into the deep, waving goodbye with its massive tail fin. We kept watching as it moved off to the South.
Then suddenly there was a commotion right in front of us. Something large and dark had moved swiftly past our position on top of a large square boulder at the narrow harbour entrance. I say something because while everyone there caught a glimpse of the dark shadowy thing just beneath the surface, none could quite be sure what they had seen. It was gone in seconds having never announced its arrival. We all agreed that we had seen something, the uncertain consensus being that it must have been a whale.
Probably, a whale.
A few days later we decided to push even further north in our quest. This time up the Bonavista peninsula, which promised us views not only into the other side of Trinity Bay but Notre Dame Bay and the North coast of Newfoundland as well. Setting out on another clear blue day we drove northwest on the Trans Canada Highway to the Bonavista exit and turned right. Again just as on our previous trip up the other side of Trinity Bay we took our time to duck in an out of tiny villages along the route. Down narrow winding roads, past traditional Newfoundland salt-box houses in green summer meadows, we again glimpsed far off gleaming icebergs in the blue waters. We continued this pattern into the afternoon, the days being long this far north in June. We then arrived at the historic fishing port of Bonavista, home to several interesting attractions, such as the Ryan Premises National Historic Site and the Matthew Legacy Museum, containing a full replica of John Cabot’s ship which sailed across the North Atlantic to Newfoundland in 1497.
In keeping with our goal for the day we made for the nearby lighthouse at Cape Bonavista. Following the winding road along the rocky coast up a small hill to the parking area we headed for the lower land beyond the lighthouse. Through green grass and low lying shrubs interspersed with boulders and rocky outcroppings we were presented with a wide expanse of the bay and the boundless Atlantic off to the north. Directly in front of us a small barren island populated by seabirds and seals. To our right a fishing boat lazily cut through the dense salt sea, its crew just visible on deck.
Not only did we find a bay populated with numerous distant birds but again, like at Bay de Verde, numerous whales exhaling into the summer sun like a string of distant geysers. Sometimes one would surface in the near distance drawing a synchronous reaction from the small groups of people dotting the shoreline. This coast provided an almost endless series of marine attractions for the keen observers on shore. Icebergs, whales, seabirds, seals, ships, islands, and waves as far as the eye could register.
Leaving the lighthouse area we continued south through the near treeless, gently rolling terrain on our right and with low headlands of rock extending into the sea to the left, towards Dungeon Provincial park.
Turning onto the gravel road at the park boundary we continued slowly until we happened upon a surprise, not the famous Dungeon but an icy visitor from the far north. Parked just offshore was a small, though the term 'small' being relative, iceberg. Just meters away offering a close up view like none other we had seen yet. It was revealed to consist of two distinct peaks above the surface with a gap of interconnecting ice just beneath the water. One side looking almost like a Viking helmet in profile, the other a partially carved neolithic stone tool. Everything about these structures suggests something ancient and timeless. From here again it could be observed that the ice itself had a distinct blueish tinge, unlike the blue-green seen in the massive bergs off of St. John’s. The walls of the upper peaks had a coarse, uneven texture which transitioned to smoothness near the water. The extreme visible ends of the berg taking on the shape and texture of sand blown by the wind. The extended dimensions of the ice were visible just beneath the surface. The whole berg resembled the rocks on the coastline. Rough, fractured surfaces rising to triangular peaks suggesting material had broken away over time leaving behind this pattern. In the distance another small berg glared in the summer light. The Cape Bonavista light station was visible from here, propped up on the stony cape.
To finish our visit we stopped at the Dungeon, a collapsed sea cave that resembles something out of the legend of King Arthur. A medieval cathedral in rock, its roof gone and floor flooded by the tides but the stone columns and archways intact. Its upper surface becoming overgrown with green, its marine floor with brown algae. The water within, sun specked, green, grey and silver, contrasting with the dark blue of the sea beyond. Water having this chameleon-like property of shifting its hue to mimic its surroundings.
So ended our pursuit of the ice, on a perfect summers evening on the Bonavista Peninsula, under the bluest of skies, the long fading rays of the sun warming the colour of the land and a last glimpse of a distant frozen visitor shining like an ice diamond in the blue distance.
As I prepared for my annual Christmas visit to my hometown in Newfoundland I began to think about change. It has been almost twenty-five years since I lived in Placentia and every time I visit I am struck by a few recurring thoughts. On the one hand the general feel and look of the place has remained fundamentally the same over the years. The terrain, winds, tides, clouds, and light which so dominate the local atmosphere do change, but the change is transitional and continuous. Tides rise and fall each day, the winds shift in direction and intensity, sun, rain and snow cycle with the days and seasons. Yet even here there has been a subtle shift. A sense that the climate is changing. Violent late summer hurricanes and tropical storms have become almost annual events and the weather patterns of my youth have shifted, the sea has warmed.
On another level the iconic social fixtures of my youth have undergone an even greater shift. The institutions and architecture which once seemed so permanent have disappeared. Replaced by new structures which I’m sure would be quite jarring to the less frequent visitor. The schools, hospital and town hall demolished and replaced with new modern structures. The towns iconic harbour entrance lift bridge, so associated with the town that it became featured on the municipal coat-of-arms in the 1980s, now sits, sadly rusted, and in an almost shocking state of decay as its successor rises next to it.
On a socio-economic level the area has also seen profound change in the past thirty years. In the 80’s the town enjoyed a relatively comfortable prosperity via heavy industry (the nearby phosphorus processing plant), the traditional cod fishery and the Cold War (via the U.S. Naval Station at Argentia).
In rapid succession beginning at the end of the 80’s all this changed. The global shift away from phosphate based detergents resulted in the closure of the phosphorous plant. At around the same time the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended. As part of the peace dividend the United States began closing military facilities around the world, one of which was at Argentia. In between, the historic Newfoundland cod fishery was closed and the fishing industry virtually shut down overnight. These events threw the community into an economic crisis for the rest of the decade. If it wasn’t for the service industry, and a cohort of workers who had reached pensionable age by the time of the closure, the community would have surely become a ghost town.
Then things turned again. The global commodities boom lead to the construction of a new state-of-the-art nickel processing facility on the site of the former phosphorous plant. Newfoundland became “cool” and tourism boomed, the fishery shifted focus to high value crab and shrimp and the oil industry promised new construction projects on the site of the former navel base.. Prosperity returned for about a decade and much change came with it. Then the tide went out again.The global economy cooled and the price of minerals and oil with it. Promised new projects were put on hold, the massive construction projects previously started wound down. Yet the renewed prosperity still lingers. This isn’t (yet) a replay of the 90’s.
All this was on my mind as I contemplated a new photography project. The sense of wanting to connect the past and present led me to the decision to pull out my Leica R8 and order some rolls of Ilford HP5 black and white film. This would be primarily an analog project, a quest to find fragments of memory and the past in the present day while looking at the present for what it is.
I arrived just after Christmas Day when the new winter had just begun. This is always a time of transitional and unpredictable weather in Newfoundland. One day may bring bright sun with the deepest blue sky then the next day rain or even 20 cm of snow. The winds blow almost constantly, pounding one with frozen sea spray or wet, sloppy snow flakes. Photography is always a challenge at this time of year yet I try to get out there each day.