Echoes of Louisiana Bayou up North

by Bill Chameides | August 9th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 3 comments

It’s a hardscrabble life for those who spend the summer on Battle Harbor, a remote island hamlet off the coast of Labrador.

Travels with TheGreenGrok — The latest dispatch in a series on interesting places my deanly duties are whisking me off to.

In Labrador, as in the Gulf of Mexico, people cling to their unique but connected cultural and environmental heritage.

On Friday we paid a visit to Battle Harbor, a small island off the southeast coast of Labrador. We were heading northward along the Canadian coast to Baffin Island and then across the Atlantic to Greenland. Now a historic trust site and remote retreat, Battle Harbor was once the hub of a thriving saltfish industry and a stopover point for northern-bound fishing schooners. Today its fishing rooms are unchanged from what they were in the island’s nineteenth century heyday with one exception: they are empty.

Life is not easy in these coastal villages. The wind even on a mid-summer day is unrelenting; fogs roll in over the ocean, putting a damp chill in the air; the rocky terrain is not exactly hospitable; and the peat and tundra underfoot are hardly easy to cultivate. And then there’s the possibility of running into a bear.

Another picture of the hardscrabble life on Battle Harbor. In the summer you can rent a room in the third building on the right. But it’s hard to get to Battle Harbor — many, many miles and several ferryboat rides, and don’t expect to find a supermarket.

It’s hard to believe that anyone would choose to live in such a bleak and stark environment, but choose they did.

The Inuit inhabited the Labrador coast about 800 ago, with Basques and other Europeans arriving in the 1500s, initially setting up seasonal camps to hunt whales. (These were the first whaling settlements in North America, by the way, predating by hundreds of years the New England whaling centers that Melville made famous in Moby Dick. More on Basque whaling here [pdf].)

It wasn’t until the late 1700s that Europeans permanently settled the area. Moravians settled further up the coast, in search of religious freedom and an opportunity to spread their message to the heathen.

A Lost Community, Looking to Find Itself Again

As in many remote villages along this coast, no one lives full-time in Battle Harbor anymore. In the 1950s and ‘60s the Canadian government instituted a couple different resettlement programs, moving the citizens of these remote villages, including many Inuits, to other, more accessible locales. (Further info here, here, and here.)

Eventually, in the ‘90s Ottawa recognized the serious problems the relocations had caused, such as undue hardship for the relocated and the chipping away of an important part of Canada’s cultural heritage. In the case of Battle Harbor, government funds now help preserve its historic buildings and pay the resettled people’s descendants to spend their summers maintaining historical sites and acting as guides to visitors like our party.

Lisa Poole hosted our visit to Battle Harbor. A Métis proud of her Inuit-Basque ancestry, Lisa estimates that about 90 percent of the folk on the island are of similar descent, and she claims she can trace her parentage back to the 1700s. Her family lived in Battle Harbor until they were resettled in the ’60s. She now lives with her husband and children in nearby St. Louis, traveling by ferry to the island daily during the summer to serve as a tour guide.

A Place Rich in History, Living on the Ice and off the Sea

The crumbling buildings of Hebron are all that remain of the Moravian settlement that once existed here. Ottawa is now helping the descendants of Hebron’s settlers to restore the church and has erected a monument apologizing to the Inuit for the earlier relocation programs.

Ostensibly, the highlight of the tour to Battle Harbor is a visit to a two-story building where the American explorer Robert Pearyannounced to the world by telegraph that he had successfully made it to the North Pole and back. (The Battle Harborites are fully aware of the fact that the veracity of Peary’s claim is very much in question. Nevertheless, they are proud that for at least a few days, Battle Harbor had the attention of the whole Western world.)

In addition to exhibits about Peary, there are work buildings where the fishermen prepared the saltfish, an old cemetery, and even a plane wreck where a single prop plane crashed into the rocks on the backside of the island in the 1960s — the remaining parts of the engine and fuselage sit alongside a plaque commemorating the names of the three locals who perished in the crash.

But the real highlights of the visit to Battle Harbor and the other stops along the way up the Labrador coast have been the stark, windswept vistas and the people who cling to their hardscrabble life on the rocky landscape in an effort to keep their heritage alive.

Speaking with Lisa Poole, I realized I had come full circle from my visit to the Louisiana bayous and my conversation with Rebecca Templeton a couple of weeks ago. The parallels were striking.

For one, there is a common non-Anglo, cultural connection. The heritage of Lisa Poole is obviously strongly influenced by the Basque. Similarly, much of the Cajun heritage that Rebecca Templeton honors was first brought to the Gulf Coast in the 1700s by French-speaking Acadians who were forced to leave Canada when the region came under British rule.

There is also an environmental connection. In the bayou, the over-exploitation of the Mississippi River Delta and the extraction of oil and gas in the gulf are undermining the marshes upon which Cajun life is built and based. In places like Battle Harbor, overfishing and the subsequent collapse of first the whaling and then the cod fisheries have destroyed the villages’ economic viability.

Lisa explai
ned that global warming has also taken its toll. In the past, traversing the ice by sled was the main means of transportation between Battle Harbor and the mainland in the wintertime. (In fact, archaeologists now believe that the area was settled swiftly by the Inuit’s ancestors, in large part because of their reliance on and skill with dog sleds to travel the icy tundra.) With warmer winters the ice is no longer thick enough to allow the transport of supplies or people to and from the island. Wintering over in Battle Harbor is no longer an option.

And finally there is the commonality of purpose. Both Lisa and Rebecca feel the tug of their heritage. It keeps them living in the place of their forebears and has led them to dedicating their lives to preserving that heritage. One could perhaps argue that in their lives we can see in microcosm the challenge of all humanity.

filed under: faculty, oceans, oil, overfishing, travel
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  1. Ken Towe
    Aug 30, 2010

    OK, but it was even warmer there in the 1930s. Belle Isle, Newfoundland is about 20 miles ESE from Battle Harbor and ~30 miles from Mary’s Harbor (where many of the Battle Harbor residents were relocated). Monthly temperatures were recorded at Belle Isle from 1931-1940*. In 1931 at Belle Isle the January, February and March temperatures were: 16.3, 17.5 and 25.3°F (avg. 19.7°F). In 1940 they were 19.5, 13.5 and 24.0°F (avg. 19.0°F). According to, the current “average” temperatures for the same months at Mary’s Harbor are 12.5°F, 13°F, and 20°F (avg. 15.2°F). *Belle Island Source: WORLD WEATHER RECORD, edited by H.H. Clayton. Mary’s Harbor Source:

    • Bill Chameides
      Sep 14, 2010

      Ken: asked and answered many, many times. Temperatures for a single year do not tell a climate story. The temperatures at one location do not determine the extent and thickness of sea ice.

  2. Gail Zawacki
    Aug 10, 2010

    Hi, I just read this post: And I wonder, do you still think we have plenty of time to decide just how much of a rush we should be in to say, ban cars? Should we wait until DC looks like Moscow, or Mississippi looks like Pakistan? Just curious!

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