In the early 1950s, just getting to Cape St. Mary's was an
adventure. The Avalon Peninsula is the easternmost prow of North
Americaa vaguely H-shaped chunk of land that is very nearly an island
itself, attached to the rest of Newfoundland by the slenderest of
threads. It is rimmed by sheer cliffs, by beaches of dark quartz-shot
cobblestones and wave-smashed capes. Where there is forest, it is
somber and mossy, spruce and balsam fir hung with long pale sheets of
lichen dangling from the branches like rotting curtains. But much of
the Avalon is tundra, known locally as barrensan open, windswept land
home to flocks of ptarmigan and the southernmost wild caribou herd in
the world, where the trees, if they grow at all, cower in dense,
waist-high thickets known as tuckamore.
When Fisher and Peterson met here to begin their journey, Newfoundland was very much a world apart, sparsely populated and isolated from the rest of the country not only geographically but also politically; it had confederated with Canada only four years earlier, ending its long history as a separate dominion of Great Britain. Most of the people lived in remote fishing villages called outports accessible only by sea, and beyond the handful of large towns like St. John's the few roads were largely dirt and gravel, and at times all but disappeared into the spruce bogs.
Accompanied by the local ornithologist Leslie Tuck, the two travelers spent a long day bouncing south from St. John's on awful roads. Fisher, keyed up to see new birds, found himself "seeking the differences and finding the similarities"; the first North American species he saw was a gannet, which was also the last British species he'd seen as his plane crossed the Scottish coast. This isn't surprising; few places in North America have as strong an Old World flavor, at least in terms of natural diversity, as Newfoundland. The landscape, Fisher thought, was strikingly similar to the spruce forests he'd known in Sweden, and of the forty-six species of birds they saw, almost two-thirds were ones he knew from Europe. He was stunned to find that the most common birdsong in the dark conifer woods was "a voice as familiar to me in my own English garden as on the cliffs of St. Kilda and the remote Shetland Islands"that of the tiny winter wren. Though a common backyard bird in Great Britain, in North America it inhabits only the boreal forests of the North or high elevations.
They spent the night in the fishing hamlet of St. Bride's, where the navigable road ended, and the next daywith a local guide and a pony to carry Peterson's heavy camera gearthey set off for the great seabird colony near the Cape St. Mary's lighthouse, ten miles down the coast. The special attraction would be thousands of northern gannets, majestic seabirds with six-foot wingspans and an extraordinary means of fishing in which they plunge, like white lances, straight down from more than a hundred feet in the air, hitting the water like Olympic high divers to intercept fish far beneath the surface. Fisher was perhaps the world's leading authority on gannets, and he was anxious to see them on this side of the Atlantic.
Excerpt from Return to Wild America by Scott Weidensaul. Copyright 2001-2003 by Scott Weidensaul. Published by North Point Press in 2005. All rights reserved. Visitors to this web site are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
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