Goodbye to Witless Bay

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One of our very first days in Witless Bay.

Well, our time in Witless Bay has come to an end.  Convent life is over, and we’ve all gone back to our houses and apartments in St. John’s.  I moved to St. John’s only six days before leaving for field school, so for me, Witless Bay feels more like home than my new apartment does.  More than just being a matter of mathematics, though, Witless Bay really did get to feel like home.  Whether it was Ralph Carey coming to check in on us at the convent every morning, Dena Wiseman gifting us delicious food from her garden (and generally being a great help all round)  , Marilyn O’Dea opening up the O’Connor fifty plus club to a slightly younger than usual group of people, or any of the people who let us into their homes to make floor plans and conduct interviews, we were made to feel so extraordinarily welcome.

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We really did make an effort to document every nook and cranny of the houses we visited!

Last night, we said goodbye to everyone who came out to see our presentation about the work we did over the past three weeks.  For those who weren’t able to come, we’ll be putting the video presentation we made up on the blog quite soon, so please keep an eye out for that.  I know we all want to say goodbye and thank you so much to everyone in Witless Bay.  I, for one, am already planning a visit.

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Goodbye, and thanks once again, Witless Bay!

The Closing of the Convent Doors

Well, our time in the convent has come to a close. Personally, I’m not quite ready for the real world. Our field school was a wonderful glimpse into Witless Bay, and I think many of us would have liked to stay longer. I know I lingered unnecessarily while packing my suitcase, in a futile wish to lengthen our time here. In some ways, three weeks just doesn’t seem long enough. At our closing reception last night, fairy and ghost stories were told to us immediately after our presentation concluded. I have the feeling that we’ve only scratched the surface- I think there’s a lot left to be told about Witless Bay!

It was truly an unforgettable experience for all of us, and I feel very lucky to have participated. We’re so grateful for the interviews given to us, and for the warmth and generosity of the community. We’ve waltzed, we’ve bingo dabbed, we’ve been schooled at cards. We’ve delighted in the landscape, too. Witless Bay is such a beautiful place to be.


View from the Tolt, the highest peak in Witless Bay.

I’ve come away from this time with much more than I ever expected. Thank you so much.

Bank supports.

The story of mummers who screeched us in at the convent!

It has been almost three weeks since we landed in Witless Bay. As time is flying, we are also getting close to our farewell ticket, heading back to St. John’s.

During these last days, all of us are very busy working on our fieldwork. Last night, I was in the chapel, writing my field notes, drowning in my thoughts when all of a sudden Daisy’s calling pulled me back to the world. She said, “Everybody is waiting for you in the kitchen and we want to start the Screeching In ceremony!” Waiting for this moment, I got very excited and ran down the stairs. But when I got to the kitchen, there were just Emma, Sharna and Daisy, no trace of anybody else. Getting suspicious, I remembered I hadn’t seen anyone over the last four hours. Really where were the others at 11 p.m.? We were making guesses, when suddenly, we heard some scary noises from upstairs. We started screaming! These were not ghosts or fairies! Yes, that’s true, there were four mummers coming to the convent!

Mummers in the convent,  Photo taken by: Daisy Hurich

Mummers at the convent, Photo taken by: Daisy Hurich

Our unexpected guests last night! Photo by Daisy

Our unexpected guests last night! Photo by Daisy

The ceremony started with dance and music! While making music with pots and spoons, lovely mummers with their funny clothes and scary masks were dancing with us! I cannot say how much fun it was! While dancing with them, I could easily hear my heart, beating with extreme excitement! Our mummers very artistically disguised themselves and it was not easy to guess their identity!

dancing and playing music with the mummers! Photo by Daisy Hurich

dancing and playing music with the mummers! Photo by Daisy Hurich

Next was screeching time! We all had the honour to get screeched in with one of the mummers who was trying hard to disguise her voice! Haha, mummer Terra, your eyes revealed you!

Mummer Terra starting the Screeching ceremony! Photo: Daisy Hurich

The Screeching ceremony! Photo: Daisy Hurich

Mummer Terra explaining to us what we should do!

Mummer Terra explaining to us what we should do!Look at our faces!

Poor Sharna, she was the first sacrificial screecher who kissed the cod!


Sharna’s face after kissing the fish! Photo by Daisy

Next was Emma!

Happy Emma after kissing the fish! Photo by: Daisy

Happy Emma after kissing the fish! Photo by: Daisy

And my turn!

Me kissing the fish while I could not stare at its eyes!

Me kissing the fish while I could not stare at its eyes!

Thanks to our lovely mummers, now we all are proud honorary Newfoundlanders!

Three new honorary Newfoundlanders!

Three new honorary Newfoundlanders! Photo by Daisy

Our scary mummers, Terra after revealing her identity! Photo by Daisy

The scary mummer, Terra after revealing her identity! Photo by Daisy

This photo was taken when the mummers were getting ready to surprise us! Photo by Daisy

This photo was taken when the mummers were getting ready to surprise us! Photo by Daisy

Emma, Sharna and I were not only screeched in last night, but also tasted Newfoundland mummering for the first time! It was an unforgettable memory for all of us, that in September 26, 11 pm at the convent in Witless Bay, we experienced two great Newfoundland traditions, mummering and screeching!

A Place in Time

During the last couple of weeks in Witless Bay, I have had the opportunity to speak with people about many different aspects of their daily life. What seems to keep popping up in our conversations is the changes in the cod fishery and fishing in general, since the moratorium.

Witless Bay, at one time was a thriving fishing community. The beaches were lined with stages and fish flakes ladened with salt fish. The landscape is very different now. A government wharf and another that has seen the effects of the sea’s bashing waves against its timbers, are all that remain along the coastline of Witless Bay.

I still remember the day John Crosbie announced the closure. Although I myself was not reliant on the fishery, I had felt as if a God given right had been stripped away. I remember feeling numb about this decision. It didn’t seem fair. How were people going to get by?

It’s been 22 years since that fateful day. Still, Witless Bay and many other communities are managing. The resilience of the residents plays an important role in recognizing how the community has adapted to this change. Fishing still goes on, mostly a food fishery that takes place over several weeks in the summer and fall. People like Joey Yard, one of the last inshore fishermen in Witless Bay, have managed to keep fishing despite altered market demands and  allotted quotas that don’t add up to an amount the larger markets require. Basically an inshore fisherman has just enough quota to feed his family and if he’s lucky, a little extra to sell from time to time.

I was fortunate to meet Thomas Yard, Joey’s brother and he showed me pictures he had of their old stage and another one, once perched on the North Coast of Witless Bay. Neither stand anymore but they are evidence that fishing was once an industry here.

Yard’s Fish Stage Photo taken by Thomas Yard.

Yard’s Fish Stage Photo taken by Thomas Yard.

Another Stage Just West of Yard’s Stage. Photo by: Thomas Yard

Another Stage Just West of Yard’s Stage. Photo by: Thomas Yard

Thomas and Joey’s father and grandfather are also in two pictures posted below. Henry and Tom Yard, in one picture are cleaning fish in a large pan. In the second photo they are carrying the fish from the flakes in a handle-barrow.

Washing Fish, Henry and Tom Yard  Photo thanks: Thomas Yard

Washing Fish, Henry and Tom Yard
Photo thanks: Thomas Yard

Carrying Fish, Tom and Henry Yard, Photo Thanks: Thomas Yard

Carrying Fish, Tom and Henry Yard, Photo Thanks: Thomas Yard

What is evident in all these pictures is how fishing evolved through father and son through the generations. We see in these pictures Joey Yard’s father and grand-father making fish on the same land Joey and his son James use.

No doubt many coastal communities relied on the fishery for their livelihood. Will it ever come back? Nobody knows for sure, although they tell me there’s lots of fish out there. In Joey Yard’s words,”Only time will tell”.

Where does the time go?

It is hard to believe that three weeks have almost gone by since our arrival in Witless Bay. During the first half of our stay it felt like we had all the time in the world to soak up Witless Bay culture and knowledge. Now that the third week has arrived and flown by, and we are embarking on our last two days here, all of us are already feeling nostalgic.

Last night, once we had finished up our work for the day, Terra and I spent an hour looking through photos from the first two weeks of our Witless Bay field school, reminiscing and laughing about all of the fun times we had not so long ago. While we are so fortunate to have had the opportunity to acquire so much knowledge in so little time, it is important to remember to stop every once in a while and recognize all of the beauty and richness right in front of you. This past week I have tried to remember to do this, in-between hours of finalizing metadata and perfecting floor plans.

This last week has also made me reflect on the gratitude I have for Witless Bay and the graciousness the community has shown us since we have arrived. My classmates and I have been welcomed and taken in with open arms, and there are no words that could properly express my appreciation for this. Being a part of this field school is something we will all look back on fondly and will miss very much.

Here are a few photos that Terra and I rediscovered last night:


The lovely Andrea looking a bit nervous to enter the crawl space of the Carey house.


The chanterelles and blueberries Terra and I found on our first day of bonding.


“Folklore Friends” having fun measuring buildings in the sun.


Brian Ricks and Joey Yard greet the sun-lit ocean below. Can you find any architectural clues?

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Jerry sneaking up into the attic.

And now for something completely different…

As we wind down (or rev up) for our final day and a half in Witless Bay, there’s a lot to be done. Schoolwork to finish, a presentation to finish (I believe Sharna and Emma are the brave souls who are doing the video editing for the presentation). In short, none of us have any entertaining anecdotes to share about our adventures (or misadventures) in Witless Bay.
I would therefore like to take the opportunity of my final blog post here to extend a special thank you to certain members of the Witless Bay community. We’ve been very blessed to have met many amazing people here, but I would like to extend personal thank-yous to a few of them:
Sheila Ryan, who welcomed a group of strangers in to photograph every inch of her house and outbuildings, and gave us some of her garden produce afterwards.
Barry Norris, who let my team photograph, measure and record both his house and his stable, and let me come back to ask him questions. He even pulled up some of the floorboards in his stable to let us get a close look at the stone foundation.
The Sobols, for their hospitality (including delicious zucchini bread), for showing Terra and I around their home, and for letting us record a very interesting discussion.
The Tobins, for also giving me delicious food, and for letting me record their life experience with gardening. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and instructive morning, followed by a tour of Tommy Tobin’s garden.
And Bonnie Johnstone for showing me her art, her sheep, and her home, and for introducing me to the Tobins.
I think we all have very mixed feelings about leaving–glad to be going home, but a bit sad to be leaving the people (and the convent) behind.

Tommy Tobin's pride and joy: his Labrador tree, lovingly tended. Photo: D. Hurich

Tommy Tobin’s pride and joy: his Labrador tree, lovingly tended.
Photo: D. Hurich

Andrea, drawing the Carey root cellar. Photo: D. Hurich

Andrea, drawing the Carey root cellar. Photo: D. Hurich

It's hard to get a good photograph of fire: here's a photo of our bonfire at Gallow's cove, an example of photography more as an art form than a record of time and place. Photo: D. Hurih

It’s hard to get a good photograph of fire: here’s a photo of our bonfire at Gallow’s cove, an example of photography more as an art form than a record of time and place. Photo: D. Hurih

Barry's stable, with a section of floor removed to look at the foundation. Apparently the floorboards in this area have never been nailed down. He's not sure why it was built that way, but it's an architectural historian's dream. Photo: D. Hurich

Barry’s stable, with a section of floor removed to look at the foundation. Apparently the floorboards in this area have never been nailed down. He’s not sure why it was built that way, but it’s an architectural historian’s dream. Photo: D. Hurich

For the residents of Witless Bay, we hope to see you tomorrow evening at the new rec center. I hope our blog has kept you entertained.

Finishing Touches – Floor Plans and Interviews

Joey's shed.

Joey’s shed.

As has previously been written on the blog this last week is hectic.  More hectic than the last and the one before that.  At times it seems like we won’t finish all our projects and work on time but right now there is a quiet determination throughout the convent.  This quiet an interesting change as the convent is usually bustling with conversation and cooking.  With eight “sisters” living in the space there always seems to be something going on.

Inside Joey Yard's Shed.

Inside Joey Yard’s Shed.

It is also a bittersweet week as it is our last in Witless Bay.  I’ve certainly enjoyed the convent life although at times we’ve questions whether we enjoy it too much (is listening to Gregorian chants during meal time taking it too far?).  The communal way of living – cooking, cleaning and living together has been a great experience and I know I’ll miss my sisters when we return to St. John’s (although we’ll see each other four days a week in our two remaining classes when we return).  I’m looking forward to presenting our work to the community on Saturday at 5:00 at the Recreation Centre.  It’ll be great to be able to show what we’ve learned and who we’ve talked to.

Jacquey  climbing around the shed.

Jacquey climbing around the shed.

This week I’ve learned a number of things from different people.  I’ve had four interviews – including Bonnie’s which I posted about on Monday.  Tuesday I had an interview with Vicki Walsh of Burnt Cove who members of the Fifty Plus club recommended I interview.  It was a great interview and we discussed everything from her family in Witless Bay and her great-grandfather’s house close to Lower Pond to rug hooking and Newfoundland Ponies.  Vicki was even kind enough to join Dena Wiseman and do an impromptu rug hooking workshop last night.  I picked Dena’s brain on heritage while everyone practiced the techniques.  I think we may have a few new rug hookers on our hands.  The people here have really been wonderful – inviting us in to their homes, sheds, stables, root cellars, asking us to join them for bingo, craft nights and cards and dropping by the convent with gifts of fresh vegetables or bottled preserves.  I really wish we had more time in the community to enjoy the warmth of the people.  My last interview was this afternoon with the Mayor of Witless Bay Sebastien Despres.  We discussed heritage in Witless Bay while his daughter Amelie explored the chapel in the convent.

Claire hanging out and measuring the shed.

Claire hanging out and measuring the shed.

Other than interviews my week has also been filled with finishing up a floor plan of Joey Yard’s shed.  This shed has two parts – the rear part which was built by his father Henry in the 1930s or 1940s and the front part which was built by Joey in the mid 2000s.  Joey said the shed once housed hay which had been cut in the nearby meadows to feed the Newfoundland Pony their family owned.  The rear part of the shed now contains disused fishing gear such as caplin traps, a squid roller, handmade swivels, gill nets, and piles of rope.  The front of the shed is used more frequently and has barrels of diesel for Joey’s boat, tubs for fish, and containers for lobsters.  It was interesting drawing the inside building with all its studs but even more interesting watching Claire and Jacquey climb around the shed.

Caplin trap.

Caplin trap.

To clue up my last blog post and write what I’m sure we’ll all say on Saturday – thanks to the community of Witless Bay!  It has been an incredible and packed three weeks.  I’m thankful to everyone who made this experience as amazing as it was and I look forward to seeing you again soon!

Joey Yard

Joey Yard

The Carey Root Cellar

All of us students have been making individual floor plans of several “out buildings” (sheds, fish stages and root cellars) in Witless Bay. It hasn’t been easy- we’ve had to stand on top of bogs, disintegrate countless spider webs, and crawl into many dusty corners. But there’s something very interesting about spending a significant amount of time with a particular building. I gradually became quite fascinated by my out building, the Carey root cellar.

The Carey root cellar was built by John Carey in the late 50’s, and is currently cared for by Carey’s son, Eddie Ryan. Above ground, one can find a wonderful array of objects, both practical and aesthetic.


Romantic string art.


Intricate glass window and rolls of unused wallpaper.


My Little Pony lunchbox.

The root cellar’s appearance hasn’t changed much since John Carey’s death in 2003. However, Eddie Ryan has made some recent alterations. He’s attached two moose antlers he found in the woods to the exterior of the cellar, on either side of the front door.


Moose antlers atop Carey root cellar.


Squares of carpet laid to enhance insulation of vegetables.

I hadn’t initially intended on exploring the root cellar itself. I’d assumed that the cellar hadn’t been used for years, and I was afraid of what I might find down there. But when I discovered the functioning lightbulb (owing from the fact that the root cellar is, in fact, in use) I knew I had to venture down.

I found the root cellar to be a very mysterious place. Enormous boulders encroach upon the space, and layers of bare earth are exposed on the cellar floor. Root cellars seem to straddle a boundary between the human and the natural- it’s a human structure, but it’s also the feeling of being below the earth, inhabiting the same space as the insects.


Boulder and ladder, Carey root cellar.


The functionality of the Carey root cellar. Lightbulb and tarp.

Silence in the Convent

We’re halfway through our last week in Witless Bay, and a near-monastic silence has fallen in the convent once more.  Last week, Sister Lois Green told us that from 9 pm to 6 am, nobody was allowed to speak.  We aren’t being restricted by convent rules, but as we all scramble to finish everything we set out to do here, we may as well be nuns, retreating in silence.  Bedroom doors are closed, and the dining room table is host to people staring intently at computer screens and floor plans.

With all this silence, it’s a bit of a relief to go out and conduct interviews.  We’ve all been talking to community members over the past few days about a remarkably wide range of topics.  My own interviews have brought me to Bernadette Maddigan for a great chat about fairies and ghosts, and to the Alderwood Estates retirement home, where I got to meet a whole series of people who either believe in fairies, or who were happy to explain why they didn’t.

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Bernadette Maddigan

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Pat Carew

For all the stress we’re feeling at the convent, it really is starting to feel like home, and I know we’ll all be sad to leave.  This week has, once again, shown us how welcoming Witless Bay is.  So many people are willing to open their doors to us, and when an interview falls through, or we need more information about something, we’ve gotten to know people well enough that we know who to ask for help.  I can’t wait for Saturday night’s send-off, when we’ll get to say thanks to everybody one more time.

The tools of the trade (photo by Saeede Niktab)