Vind og strøm fører isen fra Grønland inn i buktene på Fogo, Newfoundland, Canada. Foto: Hilde Kat. Eriksen

A trip to one of the world’s four corners: The Island of Fogo in Newfoundland, Canada

At 49 degrees north, it is mid-May in 2017 and spring on the northern hemisphere. Ice floes lay like white patchwork with blue seams around Farewell’s icebreaker ferry. We hear the flakes smacking on the ferry hull.

Text and photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen

Norwegian version

In the kitchen at Joan Penney’s in Little Seldom, one of the many villages on Fogo Island, I recognize the familiar scent of boiling salted meat. I run my hand over the tablecloth on the kitchen table, where strips of fabric in harmonious colors are sewn together in symmetrical patterns.

«It was fine until Joan washed it in the washing machine,» Joan’s sister Marie Payne laughs, when I admire the needlework. Joan laughs too, and she tells us it’s Marie who made the patchwork runner. It is decided once and for all that active little sister Joan does not have patience with neither needlework nor knitting. Still, Marie is standing there with a whole box of knitting yarns for Joan.

«Look here,» Marie says, «You just put the yarn bundles next to each other, according to the order you want the colors!” With her phone, the oldest of the two sisters snaps a picture of the row of colorful yarn on the table.

«Well, now you’ll remember it,» she says, messaging the picture to Joan’s mobile. Joan shows me another picture, it’s a pillow made of a striped, knitted and quilted snake, sewn together in a spiral. Such pillows are what she’s going to make from the yarn from her sister.

Sisters discussing knitting. Marie Payne (left) and Joan Penney. Photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen
Sisters discussing knitting. Marie Payne (left) and Joan Penney.

Jiggs dinner

It’s Friday, our second day at Fogo, and I’ve been with Marie on an island round trip. She bought knitting yarn at Tina’s Gas & Convenience in the village Joe Batt’s Arm, and at This & That Store and Information Station in the village of Fogo. At This & That I had a coffee and a chat with the man behind the counter. Also, I was presented to the mayor, who happened to be in the store.

On our way back to Little Seldom we do an errand at the Inn, in Joe Batt’s Arm, where local household products are sold in the lobby. It is a long way from the small all-around village shops, to the Fogo Island Inn. Not in miles, but in design and content.

Back at the kitchen table at Joan and Max Penney’s, Joan offers dinner. It is a «Jiggs Dinner», a traditional Newfoundland dinner dish containing salted meat, cabbage, turnip, carrots, potatoes and huge dumplings (locally called «doughboys») served with molasses (syrup), pickled beets and a pudding made of flour. In Joan’s pudding she’s added blueberries. It tastes delicious!

The writer at the kitchen table at Joan and Max Penney’s in Little Seldom. Photo: Jahn Petter Johnsen
The writer at the kitchen table at Joan and Max Penney’s in Little Seldom.

Sun and ice

On our first night on the island, we drive from Little Seldom to Joe Batt’s Arm. The sun is low, and Greenlandic pack ice fills the shoreline, and, on the horizon, large icebergs are drifting south, slowly melting.

The cafeteria man on the ferry from Farewell to Fogo and Change Islands invited us to an exhibition opening at Fogo Island Inn. I could barely order a tea and a small lingonberry tart before he placed my accent in Scandinavia, asked where we were staying at the island, invited us to the photo art exhibit and informed about the Fogo Island Spring Festival the same weekend. A festival we are going to attend for the next three days.

In addition to the cafe at the ferry, Curtis Burns operates the «Flat Earth Coffee Company» in Shoal Bay. The mythology of the «Flat Earth Society» claims that one of the world’s four corners is just there, at Brimstone Head in Shoal Bay on the island of Fogo on Newfoundland.

Our stay on the island is, however, not exactly on a corner of the world. We have booked a stay in Penney’s Vacation Home in Little Seldom, not far from the ferry terminal in Stag Harbor. «Penney’s Vacation Salt Box Homes & Outport Studio Accommodations», Joan has named her business.

Joan Penney rents out two saltbox houses and several one-bedroom flats. Photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen
Joan Penney rents out two saltbox houses and several one-bedroom flats.

Photo Art and six hectares of forest

In the Fogo Island Gallery, the environmentally aware photographer Marlene Creates opens the exhibition «To the blast hole pond river», with photographs and video art. The artist originates from Fogo but is a resident of Portugal Cove on Newfoundland. In her art the last fifteen years, she has focused on the six hectares of northern (boreal) forest where she lives.

Some of the photos on Marlene Create's photo exhibition at Fogo Island Gallery. Photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen
Some of the photos on Marlene Create’s photo exhibition at Fogo Island Gallery

It’s not the geography that occupies her, but the place as a process where something goes on, the place like ecology, like language and knowledge. In this exhibition, the photographs are taken by and in the river that flows through her property. Some of the pictures are portraits taken with a camera from underneath the water surface: As if it is nature that perceives the artist.

– We exist in relationship to the whole: The whole planet, the whole of humanity, the whole of existence. It is our job to find ways to belong to the whole while upholding the specificity of people & place. (Zita Cobb, Shorefast Foundation) (Quote from website)

The place and the billionaire

The place is also central to the social entrepreneur and billionaire Zita Cobb. Together with her brothers Anthony and Alan Cobb, she has established the Shorefast Foundation.

The word «shorefast» refers to mooring that attaches a traditional Newfoundland cod net to land (like the Norwegian “laksenot” mooring). The name symbolizes the cod fishing tradition at Fogo, to keep the connection between the individual, the community, culture and place. Shorefast emphasizes what they call the integrity of the place: An established goal for the organization is to revitalize the local community and create cultural and economic sustainability on Fogo Island and the neighboring Change Islands.

On the website, Zita Cobb says: “– We exist in relationship to the whole: The whole planet, the whole of humanity, the whole of existence. It is our job to find ways to belong to the whole while upholding the specificity of people & place.”

The Fogo Island Inn. Photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen
The Fogo Island Inn.

The Inn

In the Inn’s lobby we are greeted by a woman who is easy to like. It’s Zita Cobb, the billionaire behind Shorefast and Fogo Island Inn. Originally, she comes from one of the towns at Fogo. One day, when Zita was a teenager, her dad her dad closed the door on Fogo, and traveled from the island with the whole family. He saw no future in the declining fisheries off the coast of Newfoundland. Zita Cobb studied business in Ottawa and later she made big money in technology and fiber optics. She chose to invest her fortune in the local community of Fogo.

«The Inn», the Fogo Island Inn is called by the locals. The furniture and textiles in the lobby and rooms are made by local crafters. Quilts, crocheted mats, snake cushions and carved furniture are made according to traditional patterns and techniques, interwoven with modern design. Snake pillows are knitted pillows originally made by a Fogo-woman more than fifty years ago. Now they are made by local people in the island community, many of whom are members of The Wind and Waves Artisans’ Guild. Such snake cushions are what Joan Penney is knitting. The products are sold through Fogo Island Shop.

"Snake Cushion". Photo: Fogo Island Inn.
«Snake Cushion». Photo: Fogo Island Inn.

Cod and society

Every community has a core business making it possible to make a living in the place. It may be into the public sector, whether it’s education, health, defense or something else. Or it may be private business, a cornerstone company that creates employment and engages in corporate social responsibility. The city or village can be a trading center, an industrial city, a fishing village, or a durable mix.

Fogo Island, like the rest of Newfoundland, is dependent on fisheries. For centuries, the cod of the big banks of Newfoundland was the lifeblood of the communities. Then the coastal catch gradually decreased. The reasons behind were a combination of environmental changes and an unfortunate management of the fisheries that caused overfishing.

Open access to resources can lead to the so-called «tragedy of the commons», the fact that in the short run, the best for the individual can in the long run be unfortunate for the society. The entire province was fish-dependent, not just fishermen and their families, the fishing industry and the transport industry, but also the other related industries. Several economic and social factors contributed to pushing catches to the maximum, until the cod stock collapsed. This even though both scientists and local fishermen had notified authorities about the conditions.

It came to an end in 1992 when the amount of cod fell to 1% of the previous level. The federal fisheries authorities in Canada imposed a ban on cod fishing. The ban is still effective, but about 25 years later, there is finally an increase in cod stock on the grounds of the Grand Banks, where the warm Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador stream. It has now been opened for a limited cod fishing with traps and hooks.

Encourages development

Back to Fogo. Shorefast, Zita Cobb and Fogo Island Inn: Are the communities dependent of the Shorefast foundation? Will the economy on the Island collapse if Shorefast should be closed?

I’m just an observer from the outside. There are things I do not see or understand. But as far as I perceive there are several important players at Fogo, and Shorefast is one of the oaks in the community wheel. They contribute to the community in several ways. They stimulate development locally through initiating or supporting projects, by attracting money from outside the island, through geotourism and by promoting local product sales to the outside world through Fogo Island Shop. They also contribute to employment, but there is still a depopulation of the island going on.

By targeting a so-called High-End Market with affluent consumers, it appears that Fogo Island Inn creates positive ripple effects locally rather than undermining other local businesses. A weekend at The Inn costs between 10,000 to 18,000 Norwegian kroner. Then you have a full board at the Inn, with included events and activities. These comprise campfire evenings, berry picking, ice-floe jumping, sauna, ski, snowshoeing or snowmobiling, whale-, seals-, bird- or iceberg watching, rock picking spring trips, trips in a local boat type, fishing trips, museum visits, movies and lectures. Or, you can just lie down on the roof and gaze at the stars.

In fact, the program is so busy that both previous Inn-guests and Joan at Penney’s Vacation Home tells us that after a couple of days at The Inn, some of the guest would rather like to visit one of the less expensive accommodations on the island, for, in their own statement, «to relax» (And maybe to save some money).

Local band musicians playing in the assembly house in the community of Tilting. Photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen
Local band musicians playing in the assembly house in the community of Tilting.

Traditional music in Tilting

Friday evening, we head for Tilting, far east of the island. Here the people have have cared well for their Irish cultural heritage and accent. The houses in the village are painted white and green: the colors of the Irish flag. This evening there’s a concert at the community house, St. Patrick’s Parish Club. Apart from the bar in the entrance, and the Irish clover used as decor in the white and green painted interior, it’s like walking into a Norwegian community house built before the 1970s.

The program consists of traditional music with song and acoustic instruments, played by local musicians. We are invited to sit with the retired pensioners and active folk dancers Beatrice and Harry Sheppard from Stag Harbor. Here we also get to know Dafna and Stefan Mildenberger, a couple who have moved from New Brunswick to Barred Island by Joe Batt’s Arm. Dafna is a designer, and Stefan develops the knitting art project «Codfused».

At Fogo, one is never alone, and as the days pass, we will meet them several times.

Fogo Island Fisheries Co-op. Photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen
Fogo Island Fisheries Co-op.

Fishermen Cooperatives

It’s raining Saturday morning, and the rain follows us through the day. We leave early from Little Seldom. Along the way we stop at the roadside in Seldom to pick up Aubrey Payne, Marie’s husband. Aubrey and Marie are crab fishers, and Aubrey is also involved in the testing of cod traps in collaboration with the Marine Institute at the Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) in the provincial capital of St. John’s.

We are on our way to Fogo Island Fisheries Co-op, a partnership formed in 1969. The co-op is a co-owner of boats and fishing quotas and an important player in the local economy. It’s the seasonal start up at the crab factory, and we get a guided tour throughout the production line. A Japanese inspector walks smiling around between workstations to check that the export products are keeping necessary goals. The staff are mature adults. Young people do not show much interest in working in the fishing industry or being recruited for the fisheries. Here, like so many other places around the North Atlantic.

At Fogo Island Fisheries Co-op. Far left, local fisherman Aubrey Payne. To the right, Jahn Petter Johnsen from The Norwegian College of Fishery Science in Tromsø, Norway. Photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen
At Fogo Island Fisheries Co-op. Far left, local fisherman Aubrey Payne. To the right, Jahn Petter Johnsen from The Norwegian College of Fishery Science in Tromsø, Norway.

Shrimp and crabs – or cod

Later, we arrive at the Town Hall in Joe Batt’s Arm. We are immediately surrounded by welcoming people. There’s a round table debate on fisheries coming up, led by Gordon Slate, the chairman of Shorefast. The main keynote speaker is Glenn Blackwood from the Marine Institute at MUN. Also, Jahn Petter Johnsen from the Norwegian Fisheries College at the University of Tromsø is one of the keynote speakers.

«Eight hundred years we have fished for cod here,» Blackwood says. “That’s why people came here. Not for crab or for shrimp.” – “And not for the weather”, he adds to an amused audience.

“People have moved after the fish and have fished where there has been plenty. Off the coast of Newfoundland there’s cold water (-1 ° C) and few species, but large amounts of these five-six species”.

Blackwood claims that this is the coldest, most stormy and foggiest place in the world. As the Greenland ice melt, calves and drives south, it is expected that it will be even colder on the coast of Fogo and Newfoundland.

Fogo currently has an important crab and shrimp industry. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, as the saying goes. It is the same in the oceans. When the cod disappeared, there were better conditions for shrimp and crabs. For the fishermen, these catches provide as good income as cod fishing. Now when the cod stock is growing again, the amount of lucrative species declines.

At the round table conference in Joe Batt’s Arm House on Saturday morning, local fisherman Glenn Best says, «I would like to see that we could have good fisheries of all species». But nobody gets everything, unfortunately.
Glenn is also on the board of Shorefast.

Music and dance, poems and stories at the Kitchen Party in Joe Batt's Arm. Photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen
Music and dance, poems and stories at the Kitchen Party in Joe Batt’s Arm.

Kitchen party and fish soup

After the round table debate there’s a Kitchen party. Traditionally, this is a party where people have gathered in each others’ kitchens to play and sing, tap-dance and square dance. This afternoon program is music, poems and stories, and spontaneous dance. Pauline Brown, ubiquitous presenter at the Spring Festival, turns out to be an incredibly quick dancer!

In the middle of the room local musicians are assembled in a semi-circle. They alternately play guitar, banjo, guitar and accordion, sing and recite. The semicircle expands as more poets and narrators come to. Some present handed down texts, others contribute their own poetry.

The kitchen party is accompanied by a Fish Supper, a fish soup contributed from the Inn. During the meal I chat with Agnés and Philippe de Wouters, a couple from Belgium. After their first visit to the island, they completely fell in love with Fogo. Today they have a cabin in Shoal Bay.

– We didn’t think to make any reservations for the Inn’s dining room before we went to Fogo. (Tables should be booked three weeks in advance). However, as mentioned, we got to taste the fish soup from the Inn’s kitchen. (To be honest, it didn’t impress my common Northern Norwegian palate).

On the cultural night of Joe Batt's Arm, the island's dance group performs. The dancer in  knitted jacket is Zita Cobb. Photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen
On the cultural night of Joe Batt’s Arm, the island’s dance group performs. The dancer in  knitted jacket is Zita Cobb.

Folk singing and tap dance

At Saturday there is also a cultural night with stories, readings, singing and dance shows. The songs with no accompaniment are rally nice. A young woman, Amy, is encouraged by the audience to sing. As the tradition is, she presents her song and from who she learned it. She sings a capella, without music. This is great!

Many of the songs we hear through these days have the interaction between the fishermen and society as a topic.

«With their hardy crews and captains, they are the finest fishermen, and the girls are all excited, the longliners are coming in» («Joe Batt’s Arm Longliners» by Frank Dwyer).

The local dance group demonstrate traditional dance, not completely different from Nordic folk dance. There are tours and rings, exchange of dance partners, and rhythms reminiscent of both the traditional Nordic “reinlender” dance and the “gallop” (fast polka dance) with a «Newfie waltz» into it. But most of all there’s tap dancing!

The dance group consists of happy amateurs who all dance with their own unique technique, which gives the show an informal and entertaining touch. Some of them are dancing with large movements, others with such small, fast, tripping steps that you can barely see their feet move or touch the floor.

The Fogo Island Inn and the Ice. Photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen
The Fogo Island Inn and the ice.

Fisherman film and wedding photography

Sunday morning, we wake up to the foghorn. A woolly howling, far away. We are driving to Fogo Island Inn again. There is a film screening at the Inn. The documentary “Atlantic” is on display. We didn’t manage to get tickets for the show but have been assured we will get a seat. And we do. The film focuses on three fishermen, one in Newfoundland, one in Ireland and one in Andøya in Northern Norway. Similarities and differences in fisheries and management appear in the documentary narrative about these three individuals. Also, about the communities in which they are participants, and about national and international fisheries policy. The “Atlantic” is followed by a short film from Fogo Island Fish, about handline fishing. After the show, there’s a debate. Some of the debate participants had to cancel, because the ferry is set due to storm.
This is island life.

Leaving the film theatre, we walk past a young bridal couple posing in the windows of the lobby, while the wedding photographer is busy finding the right angle for the motive. It is popular to celebrate weddings at the Fogo Inn. Brides couples and guests travel from afar for an exclusive celebration at this Atlantic-Canadian corner of the world. The Inn may help you with a charter flight to the island’s small airport. Flights to St. John’s or Gander and a hire car to Fogo is otherwise a standard way of travel.

Driving force in Fogo Island Spring Festival and Chairman of Shorefast, Gordon Slate led the debate after the screenings of the Atlantic film at the Fogo Island Spring Festival. Photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen
Driving force in Fogo Island Spring Festival and Chairman of Shorefast, Gordon Slate led the debate after the screenings of the Atlantic film at the Fogo Island Spring Festival.

Coastal village culture

Raised in a small village community on an island in the outskirts of Northern Norway, a visit to Fogo is almost like coming home. Not only is it the recognition of a landscape formed by rough weather, the coastal climate, the little shops, which, in addition to groceries, sell everything from rain coats and fishing gear to hobby articles and trinkets, but also the village itself, characterized by distances to regional and national centers.

The people on Fogo are easy to talk to, as if our common coastal culture serves as a lingua franca, a common language. Even though not everything is the same. One of the differences lies in religion, which traditionally has had a major impact on these communities. On Fogo Island, the Catholics live for themselves, as do the Protestants, and the Pentecostals have gathered elsewhere on the island. There is at least one church in each village.

Historically, the peoples of each of these settlements have been isolated from each other, and the kids have attended small rural schools. To change this, a central school for all children was built in the middle of the island. Fogo was one of the first municipalities in Newfoundland to do this. It turned out that the central school, along with the ice rink right next door, became a socially unifying element in the island community.

In the distance; Fogo Island Inn. Photo: Hilde Kat. Eriksen
In the distance; Fogo Island Inn.

The Fogo process and the community

The central school was one of the results of a change that was already taking place on the island. It started with the Fogo process in the 1960s. Colin Low made 27 short films that documented life on Fogo. Behind the film project, «Challenge for Change» was the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and MUN.

By watching films from other villages, islanders discovered that they all faced the same challenges. There was a break down in the coastal fishing. A forced resettlement [KEE6] threatened. Dialogue was needed to get through the crisis, and eventually the island developed effective forms of cooperation between the various small communities. One of the solutions for maintaining the viability of Fogo Island was to build larger boats, so-called longliners, to fish further out in the ocean. The new spirit of cooperation also contributed to the Fogo Island Fisheries Co-op, owned by fishermen and fish industry workers.

The Norwegian social anthropologist Cato Wadel (1936-2011), a university lecturer at MUN (1967-1970), did field work at Fogo. Wadel is interviewed in one of the Fogo’s documentaries, where he talks about the differences between Norwegian and Newfoundland fisheries. A few years later, he became a professor at the University of Tromsø, in Northern Norway.

Watch The children of Fogo Island (17 min.).

Flat deck and ferry dock

Early Monday morning we are ready to leave Fogo. Our nice hosts, Joan and Max tell us to put the car in line for the ferry already Sunday night. They offer to drive us back and forth to the ferry port. IF the ferry goes. You never know.

We take our chance and do not leave the car in the night queue. Early next morning everything is packed and ready when we discover a flat car tire. It has not met the challenges of the island’s rough roads so well. A super quick tire change takes place and we are on our way.

Lining up in front of the ferry port, there’s a long queue of empty cars. One after another they are filled by people who are dropped off at the roadside by other cars in shuttle traffic. When the ferry leaves, there are still cars standing in line at the port. Perhaps the next ferry is the goal. Perhaps they overslept. Perhaps they got a flat tire and didn’t make it to the ferry.

Community poetry

During the Fogo Island Spring Festival, we noticed that many of the participants performed poems and texts written by themselves or other local poets.

Later, in St. John’s, we met former fish inspector David Benson, who ran the Afterwords Bookstore in St. John’s until recently. He emphasizes that the oral tradition is strong in Newfoundland, and that poetry is, and has been, the dominant literary language.

«We Newfoundlanders are poets,» says Benson, who himself has published several poetry books.

Fogo Island Map.
Fogo Island Map.

Facts about Fogo Island

Fogo Island is in the Iceberg Alley in the Labrador current. It’s a place where the pack ice from Greenland drifts past, April to June. It creates a northern climate in a (to us in Northern Norway) quite southern location. Before it moves further south, the ice packs into bays and coves, moves around with the weather and wind, and prevents fishermen from getting out to sea.

The island is about 238 square kilometers, the largest along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Just like the Norwegian island Stord, or slightly less than Arnøya Island in North Troms. Fogo Island measures 25 kilometers from one end to the other. Approximately 2250 people live in the island community (per 2016), just like in the Northern Norwegian town of Vardø. In 2011, all village councils were formally merged into the city municipality of Fogo Island.


Shorefast Foundation

Shorefast is a formal and legal owner and manager of Fogo Island Inn. The five-star Inn opened in spring 2013. The Building is designed by the Norway-based architectural firm Saunders Architecture in Bergen. One of Shorefast’s projects has been to generate geoturism on the island, and «The Inn» is a key part of this.

Fogo Island Inn is a significant investment of NOK 260 million (CAD 41 million). Three quarters of the investment comes from private individuals, Zita Cobb accounts for a large part of this. Rest of the funds are public grants. In 2016, the project began to pay off, and the entire profit is reinvested in the community through the Shorefast Foundation. The idea is that business should lead to economic growth in the small island community.

Shorefast Business Assistance Fund offers microcredit to those who want to start their own business on the island. Various renovating projects, and the craftsman guild, have received microcredit from Shorefast, along with many other projects.

Fogo Island Arts (FIA) has several studios or art studios around Joe Batt’s Arm. These are designed by the Newfoundland-born architect Todd Saunders. Various artist-in-residence programs are available for geologists and other academics, philosophers, designers, writers, musicians. And, not least, artists and filmmakers from around the world can apply for a stay in one of these studios.

Among the many Shorefast projects, there’s also the Fogo Island Fish, which links direct contact between handline fishermen and finer restaurants. The gain is to be able to sell quality fish to an exclusive market at high prices. Other initiatives include The New Ocean Ethic (NOE) and The Fogo Island Economic Development Partnership. The latter is a collaboration between Shorefast, Fogo Island Co-operative Society Limited, and the Town of Fogo Island.

Festivals at Fogo

Fogo Island Spring Festival (May)
Fogo Island Partridgeberry Harvest Festival (October)
The Brimstone Festival (August)

Some recommended novels about life on the coast of Newfoundland

Bernice Morgan: “Random Passage” (1992) and “Waiting for Time” (1994)
Michael Crummey: “Sweetland” (2014)

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