Newfoundland is full of small forgotten harbours and coves that were once thriving communities in the hay-day of the cod fishery. Hiking on the Bonavista Peninsula's Discovery Trail system is a great way to connect with these abandoned communities and reconnect with a way of life that lasted for almost five hundred years.
The town of British Harbour first showed up in the census in 1845 but it was first settled well before 1800. Not much remains of the once bustling community toady but at the turn of the century British Harbour had 224 residents. After the collapse of the Labrador fishery, the First World War, and the depression of the nineteen thirties, British Harbour's population suffered and the total number of residents had dropped to just 52 by the start of World War II. After the end of the war and Newfoundland's confederation into Canada the Joey Smallwood government encouraged the resettlement of hundreds of outport communities into larger centers, all over the province. In 1968 the town of British Harbour was completely abandoned along with 300 other communities and over 30 000 people.
The British Harbour trail begins at the town of New Bonaventure and passes by the film set of "Random Passage", a popular television series that depicted life in Newfoundland in the early nineteenth century. The first 2km of the trail follows the route to Kerley's Harbour, another abandoned community from the same era. From Kerley's Harbour the trail is clearly marked, and in addition to the historical significance of the area it offers some great scenery. The trail follows rocky coastline, large meadows, dense forest, and highland barrens, all in one 6km stretch. Lots of moose and birdlife can be seen along the way as well.
The trail itself was quite wet when I hiked out there on Victoria Day weekend but in the summer months I imagine it is quite good. There are some steep up and downs along the way but nothing too challenging. Fog can be an issue here at any time of the year making it difficult to navigate, but even on the highlands the trail is marked well enough to pass through safely.
Coming into British Harbour after descending the last hill, you are almost immediately hit by the contrast of past vs. present. A few modern cabins are now standing around the shore, many of them owned by former residents of the town. Next to the new cabins are the remnants of old houses that lie in collapsed heaps of lumber and glass. All around are rusty relics that remind you of a time much different than our own. In the rubble of one old house was an old metal bed frame, still standing although the walls had long since collapsed around it.
Most of the things left behind from the early days lie in shambles but there are a couple of houses still standing. One of these houses is quite dilapidated, and on the verge of collapse, but the other is in quite good shape and it has an interesting story behind it.
Don and Nina Bannister own one of the modern cabins in British Harbour. Don was born here and he was just twenty years old when he left in 1968. He now resides in nearby Shoal Harbour, but both he and Nina spend three-quarters of the year out here. Next to their cabin is a beautifully restored nineteenth-century house that Don and a few other dedicated helpers managed to save from destruction five years ago when it was lying precariously at a thirty degree angle, ready to topple. They righted the house and rebuilt the foundation, and now it stands proud as a reminder of the history of a town that is now forgotten by all but a few. Inside of the house are many old photographs and a few relics that have survived the years. Don was unsure about the exact age of the house but it was built by his great-grandfather who died in 1920 making it probably at least a hundred and fifty years old.
The Bannister's and their friends Merrill and Marilyn Rogers were great hosts and very quick to lend a hand when I ran into a bit of trouble. They treated me with a feast of steak and lobster and a couple of shots of newfie screech and two guitars did not go astray later that night! They told me that they meet many hikers during the summer season and they are happy to show the old house to those that are interested.
Exploring the rest of British Harbour is a definite history lesson. Tombstones in the cemetery date back to the turn of the century and there are several old root cellars and foundations around the shore. Even in late May the harbour still contained several small icebergs known as "growlers" that can remain well into the month of June. Meeting the former residents is also a treat. The old town has lots of stories and I found a personal connection as well. One 76 year old resident that I met told me that his first school teacher was Dr. Henry Payne who was from my hometown of Cow Head and is the namesake of our own local museum.
When it was time to leave British Harbour, Don and Merrill offered me a boat ride back to New Bonaventure, and after a few hugs and promises to return, we got on our way. Despite the fog, the coastline was magnificent with several waterfalls emptying to the sea and a great view of Ireland's Eye, a picturesque island with several abandoned communities of its own. As we made our way back, dodging icebergs and shoals, I started planning a sea kayak trip for my next visit.
Finally we arrived at New Bonaventure and after a few more goodbyes I made my way back home to the west coast, wondering the whole way how I was going to put on paper the strong emotions that I felt during my visit to British Harbour. For me visiting these places that were once important but are now forgotten makes me sad. Maybe being a Newfoundlander makes it that way but I'm sure that anyone who takes the time to visit these abandoned communities will understand the plight of all of those who lost their homes and their identity's during the resettlement era. One thing that I do know for certain is that I have not made my last trip to British Harbour, and I hope the boys have the guitars tuned up when I paddle my way back into the harbour.
take route 230 from tch at the town of Clarenville. follow 230 until you reach route 239. follow 239 to New Bonaventure. first 2km follows Kerley's Harbour Trail
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