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34 - The Year of the Ice



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

During the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century when the fishery, especially the Labrador fishery, was our chief source of a livelihood, the first signs of spring brought much to the settlements of Port Rexton, Champney's and English Harbour, as the different schooners, forty or fifty in number, were being made ready for another voyage.

At a time set by the captain of each schooner, all the men who had procured a berth for the summer would start to work each day, usually returning to their own home each night. Their work would consist of painting, tarring traps, cleaning, loading supplies and numerous other chores necessary so that nothing would be left out once they set sail. The home of the captain was a busy place these days, too, as the men were fed there every day until the boat was ready. Yes, many a tasty meal was dished out day after day on a long table in the biggest room in the house, which was usually the kitchen.

Sometimes the girl who was to cook on the schooner for the summer would be called in to help the captain's wife and get some experience which would help her later when she was alone. This preparation usually took about two or three weeks during which time a short trip had to be made to St. John's to load provisions and salt and everything needed. When all was in readiness, the hired men (or shore men as they were called) would bring their duffle bags packed with their belongings neat and clean, pick out their berth and set everything in order.

It was usually around the 20th of June, and all else being set, a wind in the right direction was all that was needed. This waiting period was uncertain, as no one knew when the wind would change to the direction needed, but everyone watched, and at the first sign of the awaited wind, morning, noon or night everyone would be astir. Crews would assemble, sails would be hoisted, farewells exchanged, and away they would sail, watched by all the loved ones left behind, with a prayer from every heart to God for all to go well for a safe return with a full load of fish. Thus on one voyage in particular, forty or more schooners were sailing out from all parts of the by, very happy and hopeful.

They had all reached the Straits of Belle Isle and, as the weather glasses were forecasting a storm, their only hope was to make a good run across the straits and take shelter in one of the many safe harbours on the Labrador chore. This they did, and all were anchored and safe from the wind, so that the captains weren't much concerned, but after the wind had been blowing for some hours they saw that it was beginning to drift ice along with it. It blew until the harbour was packed with ice and then the wind dropped, and there they were jammed in a field of ice. It was a magnificent sight - the schooners painted different colours, the white sails, the land behind then and the ice in front. At first no one seemed very much concerned because they all expected that any hour the wind would change in another direction and carry the ice away, allowing them to proceed down to coast to their respective fishing grounds. But as day after day passed and eventually two weeks passed with every day clear and fine and warmer, and still the field of ice remained, everyone began to realize what could happen. Outside their harbour, other schooners were passing, and being early at the fishing grounds meant securing the best berths for the season. Besides, the trap fishery was only short at its best, and here they were getting nowhere. All in all the situation looked grim.

Some thought of the coming winter, with no food and clothing for their families; other thought of their sweethearts at home whom they planned to marry in the fall. So much depended on that load of fish.

It was Sunday again, a beautiful day, and, as was the custom in every harbour where schooners were anchored, on whatever boat there was a layman or Sunday school superintendent, or anyone talented and serving the lord, a service was held. The call to worship was given by hoisting a flag, and everyone understood what it meant. In a short time quite a number were wending their way to the chapel on the sea, some walking over the ice where it was packed, others manoeuvring their way in small boats among the ice cakes, so that after a time there was a good congregation.

The preacher they found was a Salvation Army soldier from some corps in the bay, so the service began with lively singing, prayer, and more singing which was joined in by all present. Then came the testimony trial when the preacher asked anyone and everyone who wanted to tell what the Lord had done for them to do so. One elderly man arose, and after saying a few words he suggested that they all get down on their knees and ask the Good Lord out of the depth of their souls to help them in their sad plight which by now was becoming almost unbearable. It was agreed unanimously that everyone would kneel and one brother would make their wants known unto God. So there in the beautiful July Sunday evening everyone knelt, some Methodist, some Church of England, some Catholic, some of other faith, but all making their wants known unto God.

After the prayers ceased, the meeting closed and all wended their way back to their boats for another night, hoping and believing that their prayer would be answered. By dark all lights were out and everyone had retired for the night. Only a few hours and it would be daylight. As the dawn broke, one of the skippers arose as usual to look around and lo! to his utter amazement, the ice was loosening up. Quite a lot of it had disappeared, so much so that he shouted with all his might. "The ice is gone!" In a few seconds everyone was astir, sails were hoisted, and one by one the schooners sailed through the open space in the ice out into the bay and away down the coast to their respective fishing grounds, where many of them got bumper trips.

This is just one of many stories told by Newfoundland fishermen proving their faith in God's promise to answer their prayers.



Back to: The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories Menu

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

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