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A Trip off the Old Rock

By Paula Stone
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Screech-In sounds like something a frustrated ornithologist might indulge in, or a Beltway ritual for stressed-out drivers. But in Newfoundland, it's a traditional ceremony to induct CFAs ("come-from-aways," Newfese for tourists) into the Royal Order of Screechers and thus make them honorary Newfies. I find one in a pub on George Street in the capital, St. John's.

I do not take my decision to be here lightly. To get screeched, I will have to pass several tests that challenge the dexterity of the tongue, the strength of the stomach and the capacity to be grossed out. Not the least will be to gulp down a shot of the potent rum affectionately known as Screech, and also to kiss a dead fish. During my two-week stay in Newfoundland, I keep mulling: Will I? Should I? How badly do I want to become an honorary citizen of this hunk of rock?

Newfoundland (rhymes with "understand"), an island about the size of Virginia at the eastern end of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is nicknamed The Rock by its inhabitants, and for good reason: The coastline is a jagged cragginess of cliffs, and the interior is an uninhabitable rock plateau of alternating ridges and waterlogged troughs. The weather is ruled by the unforgiving North Atlantic and is frequently mauzy (wet and foggy) and logy (oppressively humid), with bone-chilling winters. The population -- concentrated in a few cities and otherwise strung out along the coast in small fishing villages -- is about 600,000, of which 120,000 are moose.

So is this a place I want to call my honorary home? To find out, I plan to immerse myself in some of the best that Newfoundland has to offer: St. John's, one of the oldest and prettiest cities in North America, with its harbor setting and steeply rising streets; the Avalon Peninsula with its whales, birds, historic sites and fishing villages; the historic town of Trinity; and Gros Morne National Park, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its raw beauty and unique geology.

My goal: to become so enamored of the place that I dare to get screeched.

How's She Cutting?

I get my first inkling of what's to come soon after I arrive in St. John's in late June. I am hiking on the cliffside trail on Signal Hill -- the granite sentinel that watches over the city's harbor entrance -- when 60-mph gusts nearly lift me off my feet. I drop to the ground, wedging against boulders for security. Howling headwinds scour my face like sandpaper. Suddenly a jogger runs by. He is holding tightly onto his ballooning shorts, which have half flown off. He grins at me, "How's she cutting, me cock?" Excuse me?

Newfoundland English, as I am rapidly discovering, is a tongue-twisting, colorful blend of Irish and English dialects and sea-lore expressions. The language, which developed as a result of Newfoundland's history as one of Britain's first settlements in the New World as well as its geographical isolation, even boasts a dictionary of more than 700 pages.

I am not the first Marylander who ever contemplated calling Newfoundland home. George Calvert, a.k.a. Lord Baltimore I, tried, too. He gave up. He had founded the Colony of Avalon at Ferryland, Newfoundland, in the 1620s. Until then, Europeans came to these waters only during the fishing season. Lord Baltimore tried to spend the winter here. He hated it. So much so that he petitioned King Charles I to grant him a colony in warmer climes, and he was granted what he named "Maryland."

I spend an afternoon at Avalon's impressive archaeological site and museum. Along the battered headlands, a lighthouse stands defiantly against a mackerel sky. Herring gulls squabble in high-pitched cacophony. A whale's blow sprouts from the sea. I try to imagine the winter here. Isolation. Darkness. The constant threat of starvation. How soothing it must have been to warm the cockles with some fiery rum.

Screech was introduced to Newfoundland in colonial days, when salt cod was traded to the West Indies in exchange for what was then a no-name rum. The nickname apparently is of World War II vintage: It seems that an American officer downed a shot of this Newfoundland hospitality in one gulp and let out a screeching howl when his throat ignited.

Just offshore, the frigid southbound Labrador Current meets with the warmer northbound Gulf Stream. This convergence results in one of the richest ocean brews of nutrients on the planet and, in turn, one of the largest concentrations anywhere of whales, breeding seabirds and, in years past, cod. For centuries, Newfoundland's way of life and economy were based on cod, until the industry collapsed in 1992 from high-tech overfishing.

Remnants of the traditional way of life can be found in rural fishing villages. The road map reads like Gray's Anatomy, with place names featuring heads, necks, noses, arms and other body parts. I focus on Heart's Delight, Heart's Desire and the fascinating village of Heart's Content, the terminus for the first transatlantic cable, which was completed between North America and Ireland in 1866.

These picturesque villages are tucked inside sheltered coves where gritty fishing boats bob. Salt-encrusted fishermen, with chipped teeth and missing digits, mend nets together and talk to me about the weather, changing times and whether the cod will ever come back. These are resilient men, who take nothing for granted and are surprisingly good-natured, given that fishing is one of North America's most dangerous occupations.

Then there's the village of Dildo. Located across from Spread Eagle on Conception Bay near Come By Chance, Dildo entices me to investigate. I stop first at the local convenience store. The clerk fumes, hates that people come here only to learn why Dildo has its name and not to see the town. Seems that folks tried to change the name a few years back, but the resolution was defeated. Some townsfolk now are trying to build civic pride: "D" stands for Dignity, "I" for . . . .

Mmm, Flipper Pie

Creatures that make their home in Newfoundland's forbidding environment need special adaptations. Take the Newfoundland dog: It has webbed feet. Or the northern gannet. This seabird withstands the impact of its spectacular 90-foot plunge-dives for fish with a crash-helmet-like skull and inflatable cells that cushion its body like bubble wrap.

The afternoon I visit Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve -- home to one of the largest and most accessible breeding colonies of gannets in North America -- I am lucky. The fog has lifted for the first time in 14 days. I sit 30 feet from the main nursery. It is a raucous, swirling blizzard of dazzling white birds with ice-blue eyes, blue bills and saffron heads.

One adaptation that I will need in order to call this place home is a cast-iron stomach. I figure that my ability to survive island cuisine will fortify my resolve to become an honorary Newfie. During my travels I keep a lookout for local grocery stores and peruse their shelves for traditional fare. Cod tongues. Caribou pie. Bottled rabbit. Moose salami.

Finally, stopping in a grocery on my way to Cape St. Mary's, I spot the object of my quest: flipper pie. I've read about this renowned local dish. The first step calls for soaking seal flippers in baking soda, which turns the fat white for easy removal; next, you roast the things for two to three hours. Sounds reasonable enough.

The pie looks okaaaay. I carry the golden pastry to the in-store cafe, where the cook heats it up for me. It smells okaaaay. Local patrons nudge me on. I nibble at the edges. It seems to taste okaaaay. A bit fishy, though. Patrons hold back snickers, reassure me that it's an acquired taste. I take a forkful, slowly chew. Sort of like pot roast. Or the dark meat of bluefish. No matter: Swallowing does me in. I gag, bequeath the pie amid laughter and dash to the car to chase the beast down with gobs of peanut butter.

Sadness and Grief

During my search for the heart of Newfoundland, I unexpectedly find a bit of its soul, on a coastal hiking trail near Trinity, 160 miles northwest of St. John's by car. The trail is a squishy moss carpet with root staircases. Peatland ponds are tea-colored, dotted with bulbous yellow waterlilies. A meadow blooms with wild iris and galaxies of buttercups. The air is scented with spruce. By the time I reach the green-blue waters of Kerley's Harbour, I am convinced I am in paradise.

Then I see the sign -- "Kerley's Harbour, Resettled 1963" -- which indicates when the town had been abandoned and its population dispersed.

From 1954 to 1975, more than 28,000 Newfoundlanders abandoned about 300 remote outports (villages inaccessible by road), including Kerley's Harbour, because the Canadian government could not provide them with basic services and urged residents to move, offering them some compensation. With little money, 27 or so families from Kerley's Harbour scattered to "growth centers," including the nearby town of New Bonaventure.

I walk the abandoned hillsides, now littered with rotting planks, and stop at a solitary vacation home that sits at the head of the cove. The house was built by the now-grown son of a resettled family that refused payment from the government and thus retained claim to its land. Building materials for the house were brought by boat.

The occupant, an outgoing woman in her 30s, invites me in and reads me a poem written by the daughter of a woman who had recently returned to Kerley's Harbour for the first time since being resettled with her family 40 years earlier. The verses express the woman's sadness and grief about being resettled. But they also recall memories of love for the land and family, of a little girl's dreams and of her gratitude, finally, to come home again.

I step back outside. On the breeze, five eagles circle and rise, and I swear I can hear the laughter of children playing.

Family, friendship and community -- these are what matter most here. Despite, or perhaps because of, a heritage of hardship, spontaneous acts of kindness are a way of life. Newfies are generous, hospitable, fun-loving. Just go to any "dance up," where "leather hits the lumber." Newfies take square-dancing to a new level: energetic, celebratory, graceful. I find one at a pub in Trinity, where tables are pushed back, liquor loosens the legs and locals do-si-do with visitors. The fiddler is a fiend. Feet tap, hands clap, hips sway. Cells I never knew had rhythm dance inside me.

My fate is sealed. As I laugh and whirl with newfound friends, I feel welcome and at home.

The Master at Midnight

Screech-In ceremonies probably started in colonial times as sealers' pranks, or were rituals performed when sailors crossed the equator. The contemporary incarnation of the ceremony as silly entertainment is about 25 years old. While it has its local detractors, I dare say anyone who has slogged the grog and smacked a fish corpse will ne'er forget it. Tonight, in my St. John's pub, the Screech Master arrives at midnight, dressed in full seafaring regalia. Fourteen of us CFAs wait to be inducted into the Royal Order of Screechers.

He begins the ritual incantations in lilting, ever-quickening Newfese. He teaches us a silly song. We repeat a silly saying. I get down on my knucks (knees). Wrap me chops 'round some prog (food -- in this case, ceremonial bologna). He then pushes the face of a two-foot-long dead cod into my face and I kiss it on the lips -- can't be no Newfie without paying homage to this noble fish.

Finally, I must chug a shot, straight up, of de Screech. Gulp. Singed gullet. Face flushes. That's mighty strong stuff, 'tis. Head reels. The Master dubs me on me shoulders with a canoe paddle. I stand, woozy, but proud t' claim me new foun' her-tage. Chair spins. Is I a Newfie yet? Knucks buckle. 'Deed I is, me old cock, an' long may your big jib draw.

Paula Stone last wrote for Travel about seeing polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba.

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