Chapter V

Reprinted from The Skipper Parson: On the Bays and Barrens of Newfoundland by James Lumsden

Transcribed by Wanda Garrett, January 2015

Random South

 

“Back o’er the past with reinless speed
The wayward fancy sweeps.
And with the absent and the dead
A sweet communion keeps.”  — Mrs. Rogerson

A Methodist minister, because of the itinerant system, labors in the course of his lifetime on many different circuits; but however many and diversified these circuits, it is probably true that the first will hold a unique place in his life, the memory of it living longest. This does not mean that it is loved above other; it may or may not be. It does mean that the experiences being altogether new, the emotions stirred are profound and the impressions indelible. May I venture on a bold figure? A mother has several children and loves them equally well, but the first, with whom is associated the earliest experience of motherhood, new thought, feelings, hopes and fear, occupies a place apart. So the minister, if I may judge from my own experience, regards his first circuit somewhat differently from any he may afterward have. The scenes and events of my earliest days in the ministry, my novitiate, are as vivid as if they happened but yesterday; and as I recall them many a deep chord is touched in my hear.

My circuit consisted of sixteen preaching places in all. These were settlements, harbours, and coves, most of them with distinguished names, on eith side of the Southwest Arm, and on the south side of the Northwest Arm, and one on the north side of the bay. To go around this circuit once meant to cover a distance of not less than sixty miles. It meant crossing and recrossing an arm of sea two miles in width; footing it through the forest; and in winder, when the frost king reigned, walking across the Arm or harbors as the ice made it possible, and sailing in an open boat in all seasons to Deer Harbour in Trinity Bay. In this district there were no roads, nothing better than a footpath or track. A horse and carriage would have been a superfluity, and even a horse to ride would have been of little service. Therefore “circuit cruiser” would be a true designation of the preacher rather than the one so well known elsewhere, the old-time “circuit rider.” “Circuit cruiser” too, would be in harmony with the nomenclature of the country. Every trip was a cruise, whether by sea or by land, and there was no commoner question than this: “Bound for a cruise today, sir?” And I have known a minister to be honored with the cleric-nautical appellation, “Skipper Parson.” Schooners, skiffs, punts, snowshoes (“rackets,” in common parlance), were the ordinary dependences. The minister traveled as best he could, according to time and circumstances. It was seldom, if ever, he did not succeed in making the entire round each month.

Besides preaching to or three times on Sunday, I preached every night in the week, with the single exception of Saturday, and carrying my books with me spent the hours when not travelling or preaching in studying for examination, thinking out sermons, and visiting from house to house. The daily fare was not luxurious, the staple being bread and tea; but the people were the soul of kindness, and it was their delight to honor their minister with their best. In homes where he was a regular visitor, there was the “prophet’s chamber,” and sacred to him alone. When the dear “mother in Israel,” whose name and memory successive generations of preachers cherish, spread the immaculate cloth, such luxuries as she could command were provided, and a standard article was loaf sugar. While traveling among the very poor, when bread and tea grew tiresome, herring and potatoes would be prized like the patriarch’s savory meat; but the good people being hard to convince that their minister would partake of such “common victuals,” he had to make known his wish. By and by they learned better. Milk was not to be had, and fresh meat was a rarity. Your missionary considered himself particularly lucky, if he happened along when a bird had been shot, or, even better, when a bit of venison was obtainable. Thus, with his theology and metaphysics on the one hand, and on the other his bill of are as described, while meaning no reflection on a noble-hearted people, it will surely be conceded that he realized the poet’s ideal, “plain living and high thinking.”

We had a few small churches and several school chapels (building serving both the purposes of a church and a day school), on the circuit, and for the rest we preached in houses. In “cruising round” the understood order of procedure was this: the missionary at the close of a service announced the place he wished to visit next; if by water, a boat and crew would be waiting for him at an appointed hour, usually early in the morning; if by land, a guide could be obtained when necessary. By boating expeditions were almost every day. The size of the boat and the number of the crew necessarily depended upon destination, weather conditions, etc. If confined to the Arm and when the day was fine, a punt (in Newfoundland a keeled rowboat of peculiar native construction) and one man sufficed; if out in the bay to Deer Harbour, a “cod-seine skiff” and half a dozen men might be needed. The men always carried guns, hoping to get a shot at a sea bird, or it might be an otter or a seal. If they saw a “chance” they forgot all about time, their destination, and their passenger; everything else. Once we lost the best part of an hour chasing an otter, and then did not get him after all. How much depends upon the viewpoint! This, from the fisherman’s way of looking at it, was wisdom, making the most of an opportunity; from the missionary’s, it might be considered the opposite, wasting time, except in the case of him – and I have seen and known him – who possessed the instincts of a “sporting parson.” Sailing in these open boats in the fall of the year, one could not avoid suffering severely from cold. He might ply an oar for warmth, as I have done for five consecutive hours, and yet his feet would be cold. These trips were not by any means all unenjoyable. In the summer when sailing in the calm, transparent waters of the Arm, I would lie at the stern enjoying the scenery or the reading of the late English papers; and with a good boat and a good crew, wearing a “sou’ wester” and a suit of oil clothes, I always enjoyed being out on a stormy sea – delighting in the wild music of the breakers, the wind that “bends the gallant mast,” and the flying spray, and watching the wonderful evolutions of the sea bird,

“White bird of the tempest – ah! Beautiful thing,
With the boson of snow and the motionless wing.”

Where my brave fishermen friends led I was glad to follow. Once, as I well remember, four or five times in succession, on different days, the attempt was made by six stalwart fishermen, manning a “cod-seine skiff,” to take me to Deer Harbour, but each time an angry sea forced us to put back until the elements were favourable, when we succeeded at last. The missionary in Newfoundland is always a practiced pedestrian, sometimes an accomplished sailor, and in one to two instances I have known him to be the proud owner of a yacht.

In my first year of missionary life, my knowledge of many things were dearly bought. Not until the winter was fully upon us, and the snow lay deep on the ground, was I reminded that there were such things in the world as snowshoes. When I had been more than once baffled in laborious attempts to forge my way through the snow, then only my friends mentioned snowshoes, saying, “If you had a pair of ‘rackets’, now, you would go over the snow like a partridge.” But I soon found out it was one thing to get snowshoes and quite another to know how to use them. Strangely, my friends said nothing about this essential matter, and I could not have learned from example, for mine were the only pair I had seen. There was a clumsy imitation in use, made of wood, called “pot-covers,” which they wore with long boots. These I had tried before and found positively useless.

A memorable Saturday morning dawned. On that day I had to go from Northern Bight to Lee Bight, a distance of about five miles, through the woods. The snow had freshly fallen and lay deep upon the ground; but what did I care, being the proud possessor of a beautiful Indian-made pair of rackets? Would I not, as they said, “go over the snow like a partridge?” O, it is laughable; but it was no joke to me at the time. Just think of it! Wearing long leather boots, I took my first lesson in walking with the light and graceful snowshoe. The rest may be imagined. The snow “caked up” on the heel of my boot, my feet slipped from their position, and down I sank in the snow. Adjusting them again I made a fresh effort; but with my impossible footgear the slight and elegant snowshoe seemed a hindrance, not a help. This was repeated until, disgusted with the snowshoes, I took them off. Reduced now to the worst combination in the world, “main strength and stupidness,” I beat my way through the deep snow. It was laborious work, and I felt at times as if my heart were coming out of me. My strength almost gone, I was revived in a remarkable way by the singing of a bird in a tree close by. I thanked the kindly Providence that sent the wee songster as a messenger of good cheer to me. It was after dark when I reached Mrs. Adey’s in Lee Bight, who ministered to my wants with the tender care of a mother. When I narrated this experience to my friends, they smilingly said, “Why, you need a pair of moccasins.” I am afraid my tone was quite savage when I replied, “Why didn’t you tell me that before?” I suppose I was expected to know. If I had been a Canadian I might have known, but being a Britisher, just out, too, I didn’t. Afterward when I learned to use snowshoes right, I delighted in the delicious exercise of striking out on a sea of trackless snow.

I isolation of Random was terrible. Let the reader put himself in my position and he will understand my feelings. From the city of Manchester, England, I found myself suddenly translated to the backwoods of Newfoundland. At home we were accustomed to hear the postman’s knock every day, perhaps two or three times; here we had mail – once a month! A stranger was such a rarity that the story is told, which is probable enough, that one day, as a railway surveyor passed by, a girl who saw him from a cottage window, excited beyond measure, called out: “O, mother, who is that man? He doesn’t belong to this world.”

My first Christmas Day I spent in a little harbor called St. Jones. My out-of-the- worldness seemed complete when I made the discovery, while dining off salt fish and potatoes, that this was the great festival of the Christian world. It will not seem strange that the imaginations that haunted me the rest of the day were of family groups, merry parties, chiming bells, and worshipping throngs. This leads me to revert to my second Christmas, which was more happily spent. It was in the Shoal Harbour parsonage, to which the Rev. Jesse Heyfield and his gracious lady, in the succession of the Methodist itinerancy had come to reside. I had been kindly invited and was royally treated. Everything was made as homelike as possible, even to decorations and Christmas tree. To crown all, the English mail arrived that very morning, and I was made the happy recipient of letters, card, and papers. I suppose it was the hunger for such things that produced that peculiar relish and enjoyment I remember so well.

But the world moves, and even Newfoundland. The rail road today runs through Northern Bight, and, as we all know, the iron horse is a great revolutioner and civilizer, so that even to the present time the monthly mail of twenty-four years ago must seem a strange anomaly.

The circuit cruiser had to be prepared for a nor’ easter occasionally. Things would run smoothly for a time, and then quite unexpectedly would come the “hard blow,” the “close shave.”

There was a day when I wanted to get from Fox Harbor to the other side of the Arm. I thought myself fortunate when I heard that there was a schooner bound for Hatchett Cove. It proved a wretched little boat, scarcely seaworthy. A family, to be conveyed to the other side with the intention of spending the winter in the forest primeval, was going aboard when I arrived at the wharf. Besides the father and mother and children, there were hens, a pig, etc. They all, poor creatures, except the father, who worked with the crew, found a refuge in the hold. The morning was bitterly cold. The wind was unfavorable, and it was blowing almost a gale. Before the force of the blast ropes broke several times, and the sails lay useless at the play of the wind. Such breakages were followed by shoutings and scrimmages as the men struggled to repair damages with material no better than that which yielded. The lee side of the craft was mostly under water. For five long hours I stood before the mast shivering with cold; I hardly remember more suffering crowded into an equal space of time. How I pitied the crying children and screaming women below, who must more than once thought their last hour had come. Glad were we all indeed to exchange the crazy craft for solid earth. After such episodes at this I have sympathized with the man – surely not a Newfoundlander – who said, “Praise the sea, but keep on land.”

Ingelwood Forest was a small and lonely clearly on the shore of the Northwest Arm. Two houses, a small sawmill, and six persons, young and old comprised all there was of the place. The Forest was a hard place to reach, and it proved harder still to get away from. Your missionary in “cruising round” never passed the smallest place if it was at all accessible; and in the end, one way or another, this was nearly always done. In the winter sometimes, it was easy enough to get to the Forest; but to get away – “ay, there’s the rub.” I had two experiences which will make me long remember Inglewood Forest.

On the first occasion I arrived comfortably enough by boat. During my stay drift ice came in, prohibiting my return by water, without being solid and compact enough to allow our using it as a bridge. When the time for departure was overpast, as there was no promise of a change, we had to seek another way to exit. My host proposed piloting me along the frozen shore. The rocks were covered with ice, and the shore was bespread with large pans of ice, high and dry – in local phraseology, “balacadas.” We were compelled to hug the shore closely or sink in the slob. We had each a stick spiked at the end to support us in slippery places and to help us to climb. But implements were of little use, and we had to revert to the custom – as some imagine – of our rude progenitors in prehistoric ages, and come right down on all fours. There was nothing else for it; as on hands and knees a good part of the way was gone over. Every now and again to avoid an impassable place we had to scale the heights. Then we slid down on the other side, using a friendly stump or shrub to check our too rapid descent. Thus, climbing clambering over the ice-caked rocks, jumping from icepan to icepan, anon among the trees on the heights above on the “balacadas” on the ice-bound shore, we slowly and painfully traversed the seven miles to Lee Bight. I was score in every muscle, and my clothes were almost innocent of buttons when we arrived at Mrs. Adey’s.

Again, the same winter, I got into a similar fix at the Forest. We managed this time to reach it from St. Jones, there being fortunately a good “slide path.” When the time for departure came, my host advised me to make direct for Northern Bight, through the woods and open country. His theories seemed excellent, as he smoked his pipe and elaborated them with many words and due emphasis, and doubtless they were conceived only in kindness; yet when the time came to put them into practice they dissolved into thin air. He reasoned that, while the snow was deep in the woods, by the help of “pot-covers,” which would be provided (this was prior to the episode with rackets previously described),that difficultly would be surmounted, and once in the open country it would be plain sailing, the snow being hardened by the frost so as to make walking easy; he would send his man with me as guide, and in four or five hours we would be in Northen Bight.

With such a pleasant prospect before us, Dick (my guide) and I set off at seven in the morning. We soon got disgusted with the “pot-covers,” and left them handing on a tree. The snow in the woods was light but deep. Weary hours sped, and the sun had passed its meridian ere we saw the open country. Our few cakes had been long since eaten and we were desperately hungry; in lieu of water we moistened our lips with snow. We stretched ourselves for a few moments on the snow. How beautiful it looked! How delightful it felt! But we tore ourselves from its seductive embrace, an inner voice saying, “Up! On!”

And there at last was the open country, which we had almost despaired of ever seeing: a broad expanse of glistening snow, which we had made to believe would be as marble to our feet. Alas for the fatuity of human hope!

There was a crust on the snow which only deceived; it yielded at every step. The snow was not deep, but each step meant a jerk, making locomotion torturous. That is all this “brave country” brought us. The day was still beautiful, cold, and clear. Around us was a snowy desert; no sign of life, not even the chirp of a bird, or the bark of a wolf; not even a far-off streak of smoke to encourage poor wayfarers.

My companion, Dick, was the “handy man” about the place, and he served his master with even abject faithfulness. He might be considered a trifle simple, but he was not quite devoid of grit and gumption, as a time like this showed. Dick was a loquacious and pleasant companion until his temper was ruffled; then, look out! The short winter day was beginning to close when Dick turned suddenly, and gave vent to his wrath. He pronounced imprecations upon his master for sending him on this journey; he blamed himself for coming, and he did not spare me, whom he regarded as the bottom of his trouble. As the day was far spent, it is not surprising that he thought our chances were small. After cooling off a bit, he had a proposal – that he should push on ahead in hope of finding his way out before dark, and I could follow in his tracks. I thought the suggestion sensible, and said, “Go on.” He was able to get along much faster than I, and soon he was out of sight. Wearily I followed in his track. By the time I reached the edge of the woods, the sun, which delays for no belated traveler, had reddened the western sky with glory – his goodnight to our hemisphere – and left us to moon and stars. Going a few yards farther, I was surprised and pleased to come up with my guide. The moment I saw him I knew danger was passed. He was leaning against a tree smoking his pipe with a careless air.

Said he, “We’re all right now, sir. Here’s an old slide-path. My heart went out in the words, “Well done, Dick.”

By nine o’clock I was safely under the roof of worthy Matthias Martin. After a good supper and hot bath, thanking God who careth for me, I lay down with a will to sleep.

 

These transcriptions may contain human errors. As always, confirm these as you would any other source material.