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16 - The Duck Hunt

 

 

from The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories published, by Maple Leaf Mills Limited, in 1961

Round Harbour, Green Bay is fifteen miles west of Cape St. John and close to the copper mining town of Tilt Cove. The time was just after Christmas 1878, and the larders of Round Harbour were almost bare of fresh meat, which in most Newfoundland outports of that day consisted entirely of sea birds.

On a Friday, December 27th Charlie Coombs dropped in as we say, on Joseph Rex, who was his constant buddy on seal and bird hunting trips. After chatting awhile Charlie suggested they would both go off to the Gull Island in search for some birds. Joseph Rex was quite agreeable to it - anything to break the monotony of the time. So the two friends decided to go the next morning. They spent the rest of that day cleaning their guns, filling their powder-horns and shot-bags and getting a supply of food, as well as a horn of rum. In those days, rum was plentiful bought in puncheons measuring up to 84 gallons. And they left Round Harbour cheerfully in their little punt, holding two weeks supply of provisions in case they should be marooned by ice and storms. Although they expected to be back in Round Harbour again in a couple of days they knew better than to take a chance on the weather at that time of the year.

Gull Island is a desolate knob of rock. A lighthouse was built there in 1884 but in 1878 there was nothing on the island and nobody.

Coombs and Rex reached it without mishap, loaded their guns and went after the salt water ducks. They killed twenty in a short time,. They weren't surprised when the weather suddenly turned bad. They had already brought some of their food ashore to the place where they intended to spend the night.

A few years previously C.F.Bennett and Smith McKay, owners and operators of the Tilt Cove Mines, had built a hut on Gull Island for the use of seal hunters who wintered there. The hut was not in a good condition but it was a better shelter than none at all, and it was the only shelter on the Island at that time. So the two men spent the night in the leaky, draughty hut listening as the howling of the wind changed to the trident pitch of a full gale. When daylight came they could see only a few yards through the drifting snow.

Their little supply of food in the hut was almost gone and they went back to the place where they had left the punt to get the remainder. They had hauled their boat up safely, so they thought, tying her securely to a large rock. What a terrible shock it must have been to find their boat gone with just a painter attached to the rock. Their boat, their only contact with the mainland more than five miles away, had been beaten to pieces and gone out to sea with the wind that night.

Their position was serious. The men had little food and less shelter, and no way of getting off the island. They knew that neither friends nor relatives would worry about them if they did not return after a few days because they had taken provisions for two weeks. If stormy weather prevailed no one was likely to come looking for them. Even if they did make signals these could not be seen.

Coombs and Rex must have recalled the horrible tragedy that had occurred only eleven years before when the barque Queen of Swansea was wrecked in a gulch at Gull Island in December 1867. Although eleven of her passengers and crew escaped from the wreck, none of them left the island alive. Unable to attract attention and help from the mainland all had perished amidst the most harrowing circumstances.

Charlie Coombs and Joseph Rex of Round Harbour quickly realized they were in much the same predicament as the unfortunate passengers and crew of the Queen of Swansea. As they huddled in the cold hut on New Year's Eve the idea struck them they could build a boat. But how? They could get no wood on the island for it was a bare rock. What about the tilt, the hut they were in - there was inch planking and clapboard they could use. It was mean destroying their shelter against the elements. But in any event the dubious shelter of the tilt would only prolong their agony if they decided to remain in it and hope for the best. So they took their chance, and on New Year's day 1879 began to dismantle the rotting tilt. It must have been difficult to get enough even for their small requirements. They pulled out and straightened the rusty nails and carefully put them aside to built the punt. The weather must have been so bad at times they were unable to leave the remains of the tilt. Cold, hungry and worried, they must have been often quite close to despair. But they knew their lives depended on their determination and ability to build a craft of some kind without delay. They laid out a rough plan of a flat-bottomed boat with a square stern and began to build. The two were well aware that fine weather, if and when it did come, wouldn't last long. Their boat had to be launched on a cold calm day.

Using their wood axe the two men shaped the bottom. Square transom from the inch boards made planking and the thin clapboard of the tilt was used for strakes because it bent easily. They found a small quantity of oakum which they clinched into the open seams with their sheath knives. They needed some pitch to heat and pour over the oakum to make the seams tight but they was none to be found. Their ingenuity came to their rescue. They got the idea to pour water into the seams over the oakum and as it froze made the seams tight. So they depended on the bitter cold weather for their trip to the mainland.

On Old Christmas Day, January 6th, 1879 Coombs and Rex had their craft ready to launch. They had to handle the frail boat with the utmost care as they carried it to a selected launching place. In spite of all, an accident happened. One of them fell on the icy rocks and pierced a hole in the thin clapboard strakes. Indeed they might have given up in despair and sat down to wait their fate but these men were made of sterner stuff. They quickly began to repair the damage, and the second time they tried to launch the boat they succeeded.

Now the real test faced them - the perilous crossing of the Tickle between Gulll Island and Middle Bill of Cape St. John and the nearest land. The closest settlement was at Shoe Cove, a half dozen miles or more away. They decided for the nearest land of the cape. They only had a rough pair of paddles and make-shift oars but they rowed steadily and gingerly towards the mainland. These hours must have been the longest they ever spent. Any sudden weather change to rough water could have been their undoing. But they made the headland of the cape safe.

But not they found that in one way they were not much better off than before. Round Harbour was fifteen miles away and to get overland they had to climb the sheer smooth face of Cape St. John. Ice-covered and steep, the cliffs are - just as formidable an obstacle as the five miles of freezing ocean they crossed. The two men talked, looked at the craft, agreed it was in good condition, and decided to risk rowing to Shoe Cove. Carefully they shoved it into the sea again and got in. They put out the paddles and began to row along the shore keeping outside the slob ice, clear of the surge of the tides.

Ah, but these must have been real men! On they rowed making excellent progress till they were abeam of Shoe Cove point, and then pressing their luck, they decided to try to make Tilt Cove. So at nine o'clock that night they reached Tilt Cove safe and well, having rowed fifteen miles in their handmade boat.

Apart from being hungry and tired they were none the worse for their terrible journey not to mention their ten day absence from Round Harbour.

Needless to say Charlie Coombs and Joe Rex were the wonderful hardy fishermen of Round Harbour as they dragged their odd-looking craft up on Tilt Cove beach. When the story of their adventure got around Coombs and Rex were the heroes of the year. The crude punt which had carried them safely from Gull Island to Tilt Cove and which could not possibly have survived any degree of bad weather lay on the beach at Tilt Cove, more or less on exhibition, till the spring of 1879. Then Coombs and Rex brought it over to Round Harbour in their skiff, storing it carefully under Charlie's flake. In time it just fell apart from the action of the weather. Many a time their story has been told how they built such a craft to take them about twenty miles along the wildest, coldest and roughest part of the coast. But the two friends must have had some reliance in each other, as well as their handiwork, and trust in the Maker to win their ordeal.

 

 

Back to: The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories Menu

This page transcribed by James Butler, 2000
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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