This post by Kate McNally is the second post in a series on Environmental Histories of the Future, in which scholars from the environmental humanities explore how people in the past imagined and crafted their own environmental futures, and how our thinking about the environment in 2021 might shape the future. This essay is also cross-posted with Historians for Future.
To the right of the trailhead, a forested ridgeline of rock and pitcher plants wraps around the coast. Red fishing stages hug the waves, and rocks stand dark against the shine of water and sky. To the left, a large hill rises from the steel of the Atlantic and forms another protective arm. Guidebooks will tell you that this bright crescent of Salvage Harbour is one of the most beautiful scenes in Newfoundland, yet the idea that an ocean view has value, aesthetic or monetary, is a relatively new one here. For the first time in the history of this small fishing community, residents are imagining futures that have to be moored within view of the harbour.
The oldest houses in Salvage have few windows facing the sea. They were built in the mid-20th century and before, when rooms were warmed with woodstoves and people planned carefully before cutting a hole into the wall that faced the cold sea wind. If you lived in this town at that time, you considered the ocean through another kind of lens. You worked on a boat, or processed fish at the plant, or provided a service to those who did. It might have been strange to call this vista beautiful; it was a world you lived and died in.
Fishing and fish processing once made up almost all of the work in Salvage. When the fish stocks crumbled and the government declared the cod moratorium in 1992, Salvage fishermen lost their primary way to make a living, and work at the fish processing plant slowed to a trickle. Then, in the spring of 2001, Brian Hunter smelled smoke as he walked next door to join his parents for supper. The plant had caught on fire. The province sent bush planes, and neighbours downwind climbed onto roofs with buckets of water to keep the town from burning. Salvage lost its last major place of employment with a spark.
The summer following the fish plant fire, the town began to invest in another way to make a living from the sea. A building wave of tourists was being pulled toward the coastal beauty of Newfoundland’s icebergs and scenic fishing villages, and Salvage needed a way to capture their attention.
The peninsula is enmeshed in a network of trails that defined life here before roads or electricity. When the trails were reinforced with boards and little bridges for unsteady tourists, they were built almost entirely by the women who lost work at the Salvage fish plant. Patsy Janes is a former fish plant worker, and in 2017 we talked for a long time about the summer after the fish plant burned. “Let me tell you,” she said, “ladies around here had biceps that summer.”[i] When Peter Pickersgill walked along the shoreline in the summer of 2001, he told me he could hear singing and laughter in the woods.[ii]
It was a season of unearthing old paths, some meant for human feet and others designed for carts and teams of dogs. As the trail crews worked, they cut the brambles back from their histories: here was an ancestor’s name on a forest gravestone, here the foundation of a forgotten family home. As they moved deeper into the forest, the trails shifted to winter hunting routes, dense berry patches, and footpaths to long-abandoned communities further down the coast.
I walked along the inland trails one winter with my friend Seamus, whose family has lived in Salvage for generations. The path skirted the frozen forest bogs, and the only marks in the snow before us were the skittering archives of padded feet. He showed me how, if you get low enough, you can see the trail networks that the snowshoe hares make in the undergrowth, burrowing little avenues through snow and brush that crisscross the trail we walked. Our walks became more difficult with each spring day above freezing. Fuzzy willow spears sprang up in the path and mud grabbed at the soles of our boots. New birdsong mocked our slow progress from the trees. The inland trails were not meant for summer, but summer is when the tourists run.
In times of scarcity, such as the 1930s when unemployment was high and the government payout only six cents per day,[iii] the inland trails were arteries of life. The woods provided calories—partridges, hares, berries—to families who couldn’t buy them. Some of the current residents of Salvage grew up using the trails for sustenance, and a few people still do.
Many in town think the inland trails predate the arrival of Europeans, that they were also arteries of life for the Maritime Archaic and the Beothuk who made yearly voyages between the woods and the sea. Residents do not talk much about their English ancestors, who forced the Beothuk into Newfoundland’s cold, boggy interior to die from starvation, foreign guns, and European disease.[iv] Yet, knowledge of this violence is everywhere in gaps and silences—from accounts of looking for Indigenous artifacts on the beaches to books about Beothuk history that I see resting open on the arms of sofas. Violent details are not in the first stories people tell a researcher from away.
Even with the annual anticipation of the moose hunt and the sweetness of berry season, the inland trails are used infrequently now. It’s easy to get lost between the muck of the waterways and the bloom of spring growth. When trails are being used, many feet do the work; it’s when they are abandoned that you need a crew. The Salvage coastal trails are more popular with each passing summer,[v] but every year the number of people who actively use the inland trails declines.
I understood what the head of the Trails Committee told me when he said that they had to be pragmatic about which trails they maintained:
“The fish are gone. In order to stay in our towns, we have to find a way to get people to visit this peninsula and spend their money here. People come to this part of Newfoundland for the natural beauty of the cliffs and the sea, to watch whales and see icebergs! Most of our historic trails are inland trapping routes built along bogs and waterways. They were primarily used for survival in the coldest months, not summer hikers. If we were to really go in and revitalize those trails for our summer visitors, it would be slow, wet work and require a major rerouting away from streams and bogs. We’d have to change them anyway, and then what’s the point? Losing the history makes me sad, but people don’t want to be in woodland bogs when they come to Newfoundland; they want to see whales and icebergs.”[vi]
In clearing some trails and not others, Salvage trail crews prepare their futures. In the process, they decide which histories are unearthed, and which are returned to the damp abundance of the coastal forest. Three springs and summers of growth in the thickets of alder, ash, and spruce have passed since that conversation in the tiny town office, and I can’t help thinking that the Trails Committee is right. The costs of maintaining the inland trails are not justifiable for a peninsula struggling to make a living from their views of the sea. Still, I can’t help thinking, too, of the depths of this place that will be left out of the futures implied by coastal trails and iceberg views. I can’t help thinking of the lines on the land that will be forever lost to Salvage’s histories, some of which were never theirs to lose.
[i] Author’s 2018 interview
[ii] Author’s 2018 interview
[iii] For more information on the impacts of the Great Depression in Newfoundland, see Jenny Higgins, “Great Depression – Impacts on the Working Class,” Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador. Last modified 2007.
[iv] For a brief history of the Beothuk’s contact with Europeans and a critical reading of scholarly representations of Beothuk life, see Todd J. Kristensen and Reade Davis. “The Legacies of Indigenous History in Archaeological Thought.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 22 (2015): 512–42.
[v] For hiking and visitor information about the Salvage coastal trails, see https://damnabletrail.com/trail/salvage-trails/
[vi] Author’s 2018 interview
feature image illustration by the author