Just after the boat left shore at St. Barbe we saw our first iceberg, the first iceberg I’ve ever seen, a white chip against the horizon. Then we saw two more, then a handfull, all grazing along the coast like ancient things out of H.P. Lovecraft. A little later we saw our first whales. I’ve never seen a whale before, except maybe once when I was little and someone pointed out a black speck in the distance and told me it was a whale. These whales made their leisurely way across the straits blasting geysers of vapor , dorsal fins rising and falling. Boats, icebergs, and whales were gathered in that water like three strange tribes of giants, but if they had anything to say to each other, I don’t know what it was.
The paved road in southern Labrador is a single ribbon along the coast about 50 miles long. We rode up to Red Bay at the northern end, then turned around and rode back; to go farther we’d need something other than these bikes. 500 years ago Red Bay was a Basque whaling city; for us it felt like a long way from anywhere else, but the store still had Pepsi and Star Wars: Episode I promotional displays.
All the way up we couldn’t peel our eyes off the icebergs creeping along the shore, sneaking into the bays- they were much closer than they’d been from the boat. There was one maybe 50 feet off the end of a pier; it looked like a porcelain sculpture of whipped cream- hard, shiny, rippled, whorled, dazzling white. An hour later when we went by again it had flipped over. There were others with that crazy blue color inside that you hear about, an alien electric glow like radioactive gel toothpaste — really, the last color you’d expect to see produced by snow. One had three thin spires like steeples, seemingly too thin and delicate to support their own weight.
What does it mean when you see icebergs? You look it up in your dream dictionary and find out if she likes you or not, because icebergs aren’t a part of the waking world. They’re not even real things, they’re ideas, symbols, icons. My brain is not equipped for icebergs.
There are minke whales surfacing 100 feet from me — probably the same kind of whales we saw from the ferry, but right here, come into the cove to feed. One comes toward the pier and surfaces and its back breaks the water not 50 feet away. I wonder how much closer it came, unseen beneath the surface. The cove at L’Anse Amour is about a half mile across and has a nice sandy beach: cozy, safe, with whales in it. From where I am, I have to look inland to watch the whales — it’s not like they’re in the ocean, it’s like they’re in the backyard.
There are five houses in a line along the shore at L’Anse Amour and one of them rents rooms. It’s as modern and comfortable as any suburban house, and it could be anywhere except for the whales out the window; that, and the piano in the corner of the living room which was salvaged from a ship that ran aground here in 1922. The H.M.S. Raleigh, crew of 700, also provided the kitchen chairs. The chairs have been reupholstered to match the more recent tubular metal kitchen chairs; I’d never have noticed them.
Rita, our hostess, gives us bakeapples over vanilla ice cream and they are absolutely delicious. When the woman who Sean didn’t hit with his motorcycle told us about the bakeapple festival, we tried to picture apple trees in Labrador. But a bakeapple is a little orange berry with a shape like a raspberry that grows singly on the ground. They have little white flowers which, we’re told, collapse inward and then change color before the bakeapple emerges from within; first the berry is reddish, then it turns bright orange when it’s ready to be picked. They’re tart and sweet and yeah, a little apple-y, but they’re not just a quirky local food, they’re delicious. They strike an unexpected chord of food-joy in me; how could we have never heard of something this good? In their own way the bakeapples are as amazing and surprising as the whales and the icebergs; they must be one of the fruits we forgot about when the Gate was locked behind us.
A boy named Jordan, maybe 5 or 6 years old, rides up to me on his bicycle and starts talking. He’s slightly pudgy with a big grin that never stops as he tells me all about the other day when his friend’s bike broke down in the ditch and they had to tow it out with Jordan’s bike and then tow it all the way back to the house (about 100 feet away). He shows me the flimsy orange plastic cord they used for this salvage operation, wrapped under the bicycle seat in case of further emergencies. He peels out in the dirt a couple times to demonstrate how powerful his bike is. He’s a great kid and I could talk to him all day. He starts telling me about all the different kinds of whales, their names, sizes, where you can see them; he’s like an encyclopedia. It never even occurs to me to doubt his knowledge until I ask him about the whales in the cove and he tells me that they’re killer whales and they grow to be 138 feet long. Oh well.
It’s later now, the sun is about to fall, and the whales are still there. They were there when we checked in, they were there all afternoon, and they’re still there as the dark comes; not a dream.
How much can you see in one day? How many times can you see the rules of your world broken? I’d better go inside, and close my eyes.