Birding (and Dining!) In Style

Birders are cultured people. You know it, I know it, and increasingly the world of eco-tourism is recognizing that. We all love birds and spending countless hours looking for and at them. But most of us also love art, music, history … and especially food. Good food. REALLY good food! And if you’re one of those many birders and considered visiting Newfoundland, then you’re in luck.

St. John’s has undergone a culinary revolution in the past few years, and is quickly becoming a “foodie” destination. In fact we are now home to some of the top ranked restaurants in Canada, staffed by more than our share of award-winning chefs & sommeliers, and offering a diversity of dining experiences. And increasingly, clients and visiting birders are asking me to recommend fine restaurants and unique dining opportunities. Sure, there are still plenty of us who can (and sometimes do) survive on burgers & donuts or don’t want to stop exploring long enough for a sit-down meal, but it’s no longer the norm. Good food and comfortable restaurants are now an essential part of most tours … and why not?? If you’re going to spend your hard-earned cash to visit a far-flung place, why not take in the culture and food as well as the amazing birds?!?!

This vintage (though undated) photo shows an historic part of St. John's, with Mallard Cottage on the right. That building, one of the oldest wooden structures in North America, is now home to a fabulous restaurant that was recently named on of the Top New Restaurants in Canada!

This vintage (though undated) photo shows a section of historic St. John’s, with Mallard Cottage on the right. That building, one of the oldest wooden structures in North America, is now home to a fabulous restaurant that was recently named on of the Top New Restaurants in Canada!

That’s got me thinking about the potential for an exciting new Birding and Food/Culinary Tour. Amazing but leisurely birding mixed with culture and history, as well as some of the best restaurants that Newfoundland (and Canada) has to offer! Consider spending the day enjoying a rare mix of North American & European waterfowl around St. John’s, followed by succulent dinner and wine with the award winning chefs at Raymond’s – recently ranked “The Best Restaurant in Canada“! Or the exhilaration of ticking some of North America’s most sought-after gulls, capped off with an evening by the fire at Mallard Cottage – just listed among the “Top 5 New Restaurants in Canada” by EnRoute Magazine! Birding at the most easterly point of land on the continent. Lunch at The Rooms Cafe, with an incredible view over historic St. John’s. Hiking across some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world, looking for subarctic gems like Willow Ptarmigan or Snowy Owl. Enjoying local and traditionally-inspired food at the very unique Bacalao, which takes its name from the salt-fish that helped forge our very culture and economy. A visit to one of the world’s largest Northern Gannet colonies at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, where a dozen other sea and tundra species abound. Celebrating life birds with a beer-tasting at Quidi Vidi Brewery, located in a quaint little fishing harbour. For nostalgia’s sake, we can even throw in some of the best fish & chips on this side of the Atlantic 😉

Quaint and historic, this little fishing harbour in St. John's is also home to an award-winning microbrewery - Quidi Vidi Brewing Co (right).

Quaint and historic, this little fishing harbour in St. John’s is also home to an award-winning microbrewery – Quidi Vidi Brewing Co (right). It was recently named one of the “Top 10 Breweries to Explore in Canada” by Cottage Life Magazine.

And the culinary delights aren’t restricted to St. John’s. In summer, a visit to the wonderful Atlantic Puffin colony of Elliston and stunning cliffs of Bonavista can be followed by lunch at the Bonavista Social Club. Located in the tiny hamlet of Upper Amherst Cove, this unique restaurant grows almost all its own ingredients on site, cooks using a traditional wood-fired oven, and offers up some of the freshest & tastiest treats you can imagine.  We’ve even seen icebergs and watched whales frolic right from our table — all in a town of less than 50 people!

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts or interest in this type of tour … and I’d love even more to make it a reality! Newfoundland is currently one of the best food and birding destinations in Canada, so why not make the best of both worlds!!

One of my favourite lunches - a mouth-watering moose burger served on homemade bread with delicious partridgeberry ketchup at the Bonavista Social Club. Note the traditional wood-fired oven in the background!

One of my favourite lunches – a mouth-watering moose burger served on homemade bread with delicious partridgeberry ketchup, garlic aioli and kettle-cooked chips at the Bonavista Social Club. Note the traditional wood-fired oven in the background!

Willow Ptarmigan ... just because I figured I HAD to have a bird photo in here somewhere (Not to mention, they're delicious!).

Willow Ptarmigan … just because I figured I HAD to have a bird photo in here somewhere (Not to mention, they’re delicious!).

Not Just Any Rock …

“This stone gouge may have been used by someone right here in Newfoundland at the same time that the pyramids were being built in ancient Egypt”.

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This stone gouge, about 9″ long, has been part of my family for decades since my grandfather picked it up on a small island in Notre Dame Bay. It most likely lay there, undisturbed, since its owner lost it thousands of years ago!

From as early as I can remember, there was an odd-looking rock sitting on a bookshelf in the basement of my grandparents’ house. I always took an interest in it, and eventually found out it was an old “Indian” tool that my grandfather (who passed away when I was seven) had found on Ochre Pit Island in Notre Dame Bay (not far from Exploits Islands, where he lived and which played a big part in my family history).

Years later, when my grandmother left that house for a more manageable place, I inherited that “rock”. It has always held a special place for me, and has always been displayed prominently in my space – my bedroom at my parents’ house, bookshelves in my various student apartments, and now a display cabinet in my family home. It probably helped trigger my interest in history (and prehistory), as well as providing a sentimental connection to my grandfather who, despite his absence, has impacted my life in many ways.

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Over the years, I did a little research and determined that it was stone gouge, likely made and used by the Maritime Archaic Indians who lived here long before the Europeans arrived. Long before even the Beothuk, who were the only native people living on the island by the time John Cabot arrived in 1497. But I was always reluctant to report this lovely artifact, worried that I might be expected to hand it over to the government or a museum under the Historical Resource Act.

I recently read about the new Community Collections program, developed by the Newfoundland and Labrador Archaeological Society (NLAS), which aims to locate and record artifacts currently held in private collections or by private citizens. I immediately contacted the society, and president Tim Rast asked to come see, photograph and catalog the gouge.

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The gouge is made from green slate, which is common throughout much of Newfoundland and used by every group of people that ever lived here. Once an appropriate piece of slate was chosen, it would have been pecked, ground and polished using other types of stone until it resembled this. A stone gouge like this would have most likely been used in woodworking, which was an important part of life for the Maritime Archaic people.

This illustration, from a book by Florence Cowan, depicts the Maritime Archaic Indians who first settled the island of Newfoundland more than 5000 years ago.

This illustration, from a book by Florence Cowan, depicts the Maritime Archaic Indians who first settled the island of Newfoundland more than 5000 years ago.

I had a great visit with Tim, who seemed genuinely excited to see the gouge and talk about its origins. He confirmed that it was indeed a Martime Archaic artifact, dating back approximately 3500 years and possibly more. The Maritime Archaic Indians were the first people to settle in Newfoundland, arriving from Labrador more than 5000 years ago (their history in Labrador goes back at least another two millennia!). They lived on the island for almost 2000 years, eventually spreading all over the coast before mysteriously disappearing from the archaeological record  3000-3500 years ago. Their presence in Notre Dame Bay has been illustrated by several other finds in the area, but my grandfather’s stone gouge now adds a new piece to the puzzle. It confirms that the Maritime Archaic people visited Ochre Pit Island (previous finds on that island were impossible to date or attribute to specific group).

Ochre Pit Island, in the Bay of Exploits, is named for the red ochre that is visible in the rocks there. We do not know if prehistoric native peoples used this island to collect red ochre for their ritualistic uses, but we do know from archaeological findings that at least one group did visit the island. My grandfather's stone gouge may help shed some light on who those people were.

Ochre Pit Island, in the Bay of Exploits, is named for the red ochre that is visible in the rocks there. We do not know if prehistoric native peoples used this island to collect red ochre for their ritualistic uses, but we do know from archaeological findings that at least one group did visit the island. My grandfather’s stone gouge may help shed some light on who those people were.

For most people, myself included, it is easy to forget that people have lived here for so long. Our notion of human history on this island all too often begins with the arrival of European explorers and fishermen just over five centuries ago, or with the Beothuk people who lived, and so sadly died, here at that time. Yet, sitting on a shelf in my own living room is a vivid reminder that people thrived here long, long before.

This rock was carefully chosen, artfully sculpted, and skillfully used by someone’s hands more than 3000 years ago – someone living a life I can never imagine. As Tim Rast so poignantly reminded me, this stone gouge “may have been used by someone right here in Newfoundland at the same time that the pyramids were being built in ancient Egypt”. Now that’s a history! And not just any rock …