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Report 1901: A Month on the Rock

By Eleanor from UK, Fall 2010

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Page 9 of 31: Labrador - Red Bay

photo by Michael

Remains of the chalupa found at Red Bay

We spent a full day visiting Red Bay.

It is a beautiful drive following the Pinware River for much of the way through wooded hillsides, a gorge and then broad valley with sandy banks. The river then swung away to the north, away from the road. We drove across the mountains with small lakes. It was a brilliant morning and these looked deep blue against the green forest and hillside with rocks. We came over the brow of the hill and there was a dramatic view of Red Bay lying below us.

The original winter settlement was at the head of the bay (Basin) and the summer fishing settlement on the headland overlooking Saddle Island. The sea was a lovely soft blue colour with white houses and a church on the headland. Saddle Island protects the harbour. Penny (or Organ) Island is a small island in the bay which still has the remains of 19thC fishing buildings of unpainted wood which are gradually decaying.

From the 12th to 15th centuries, Basques Fishermen had hunted whales in the Bay of Biscay during the winter. From 1550 they began whaling in Labrador and established a series of whaling stations along the coast of Labrador and Quebec. Red Bay is the most complete and best preserved of these. It was the first major industrial complex in the New World with 20 whaling stations around the bay and on Saddle Island.

Every spring until about 1626, the Basques sailed to North America. As many as 50 ships would arrive each year. By January, winter weather forced the men back to Europe.

As soon as they arrived, someone began watching for whales, while others repaired winter storm damage to the shelters, set up scaffolding to dry codfish and built stone ovens to prepare whale oil in the tryworks. This could take 20 days.

Fish stages and flakes rarely lasted more than one season. They were often pulled down at the end of the fishing season so they could not be used by another ship the following summer. Annual repair and rebuilding of the fishery buildings led to rapid destruction of forest along the coasts, creating the barren Labrador landscape seen today. These temporary shelters were replaced by permanent structures once all year settlement began.

When whales were spotted, boats rowed out to harpoon them. The carcass was towed near the shore, where men worked day and night cutting up the carcass and melting the fat into oil for export to Europe. The quicker the oil could be extracted the better the quality and the higher the price it commanded. It was in great demand for lamp fuel as it burned brighter than more common vegetable oils. It was also used in the manufacture of soap, lubrication, paints, varnishes, treatment of fabrics and in pharmaceutical products.

Barrels were made in Spain and shipped across in pieces to be reassembled here. About 400 whales a year were caught and one whale yielded about 80 barrels of oil. Ships could carry about 1000 barrels. One cargo could make a fortune for the ship owner. Three Basque whaling galleons, including the San Juan, sunk in the bay in 1565 with their cargo of oil.

The site is now run by Parks Canada. We started at the Visitor Reception Centre and watched a short video about the discovery of the site and its history. There were the remains of a chalupa (small whaling boat) which had been excavated and preserved and information boards. We then walked down the road to the Interpretation Centre, which had artifacts found round the site including items rescued from the San Juan and remains of cloth found in graveyards on Saddle Island. There was a model of a tryworks and also of the San Juan.

It is a short boat trip across to Saddle Island, where there is a short walking trail with a series of numbered plates. We were given a map identifying the sites and what had been found there. There is very little left to see as the excavated remains have been covered over to preserve them. There were the remains of broken roof tiles from the tryworks and in one place we could see the hollows which would have been where the cauldrons were.

This was a fascinating visit and we enjoyed it. Do ask questions as the Parks Canada staff are a wealth of information.

There are no refreshments on the site, but the Whalers Restaurant across the road from the Interpretation Centre serves a good range of freshly prepared food.

There are two recommended walks in Red Bay; the Tracey Hill and the Boney Shore trails which we did after visiting Red Bay. Both start from the same car park.

The Tracey Hill Trail is signed off the road at the edge of Red Bay and the car park is a short drive down an unpaved road. From the car park it is a steep climb up the hillside with boardwalk and 689 steps. (I didnít count them - that is what the board at the start of the walk said.) There were several information boards on the way up which were a good excuse to stop and get our breath and enjoy the views over Red Bay and the coast. It is a walk which gets the heart and lungs working and is rewarded by fantastic views.

The Boney Shore Trail branches off the Tracey Hill Trail. This goes through forest and then out onto the lush vegetation above the shore line where bones from the whale carcasses were washed ashore. There were not as many whale bones as weíd expected as most of them are now overgrown by vegetation. We wouldnít bother with this walk again.

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