When I was writing this, a winter storm warning had been issued for Vancouver. The sky was the colour of skim milk and the air had a foreboding chill. It reminded me of the Saturday we took Al Dwyer’s Walking Tour on Fogo Island—in June.
Vancouver rarely experiences wind. But on Fogo, described as “a spit in the middle of the mostly wild and erratic Atlantic Ocean,” the winds are ever present and they can be fierce, gusting to 170 km/hr. At noon that day, I’d say it was “blowin’ a-gale.”
But you know us. We’d booked and confirmed the tour with Al. And while Clare and Keenan may have felt otherwise, they cheerfully agreed that we’d pile on our long johns, wear heavy sweaters under our jackets and have faith that the weather wouldn’t get any worse for Al’s five-kilometre tour around Tilting and Oliver’s Cove.
Al, however, wore a wool shirt-jacket and was bare-handed. You might remember that from seeing him on the video we posted on what we loved most about Newfoundland, where we featured Al under the heading “Captivating and Lyrical Language.”
Al lives in Tilting, in the house he was born in. His brother Roy, who guided Ruth Ann and I around the island on a previous trip, lives just up the road. The Irish Times called Al’s home “Irish on the rocks.” But I prefer Celtic Canada‘s description:
Outside of Ireland, herself, there may be no place on Earth more Irish than Tilting. Situated on the very northeast tip of Fogo Island, she may be an ocean away but she’s just the next parish over from Inishmore.
Tilting has been home to Irish settlers since the 1730s. It was named a National Historic Site in 2002 for its traditional saltbox houses, fishing stages and remarkable outfield gardens, gems of green in summer where potatoes, cabbages, onions, carrots, turnips and other veg thrive in the salty air, fertilized by seaweed and cod guts.
At Potato Hole Point, about a fifteen-minute walk from town, Al pointed out the grassy humps that used to be family root cellars and cabbage houses. In the winter when he was a boy, his mom often had him walk there after school to fetch potatoes for dinner.
On March 17, the island’s community and guests will gather for a St Patrick’s concert, “a celebration of Irish and Newfoundland music followed by a few ales afterwards,” Al says. And potatoes?
Oliver’s Cove is the headland that protects Tilting harbour, so for a while we were sheltered from the wind. The walk rambles along a seascape of sculpted rock, small ponds and bogs, places with familial and descriptive names: Hurley’s Cove, Sweeney’s Gulch, Careless Point, Higgin’s Height… Al set a brisk pace and in short time, the wind felt rather refreshing (or was it just me?), it, and Al’s stories, invigorating us onward.
Al pointed out the pond where he and his pals learned to swim in the summer. “And Maple Leaf Gardens,” he said, showing us where they played hockey, “almost every night all winter long.”
Yes, the fierce Atlantic winds cause the ponds here to freeze. Hearing Al’s story of taking off his skates and slipping his feet into cold, wet boots for the walk home made us feel like tenderfoots. Magellan grew up with a skating rink in his backyard and I was too lazy to walk ten minutes to the slough closest to our farmhouse, never mind clearing off the snow and going skating.
Al told us how quickly they’d race home, especially around Greene’s Point, which was rumoured to be haunted by Mrs. Trugards, the sole survivor of an English shipwreck, who was buried here when she died. I’d forgotten the details, which Al kindly supplied.
Mrs. Trugards was of the Protestant faith so she was buried in a meadow in the area far from the Irish Catholic graveyard. The story was told that some of her wealth was buried with her. Sometime after her grave was robbed by a character not known to have any scruples. The people of Tilting in those early times always claimed that her soul never rested after, and her ghost was sometimes seen on the hillsides, and we would avoid the place in late evenings just in case. That ancient graveyard to this day is called Trugards.
Near Greene’s Point is The Devil’s Rocking Chair, a large rock on the edge of the rugged coastline. In 2018 students assisted by Robert Mellin, an architecture professor, built a series of rock platforms to make it accessible from shore. Robert, also an author of books on the area, has done a lot for Fogo, especially on heritage conservation, and is one of the many who have worked to enhance the island’s hiking trails. The afternoon of our walk the winds weren’t hurricane force but there was no way in hell any one of us was going to sit on the Devil’s Rocking Chair for a picture.
Al invited us to “a few songs at my shed,” a warm way to end a tour that was more than sharing the timeless beauty of this dreamland on the edge of the Atlantic—it was a walk through Al’s boyhood playground. I don’t remember for sure if he told this classic island joke, but it comes to mind every time I write a story about Newfoundland:
How do you recognise a Newfie in heaven? Easy, he’s the guy trying to figure out how to get home.
Al’s Walking Tour of Tilting and Oliver’s Cove Al’s Facebook page is the way to reach him. He offers a grand tour and any errors in this story will be ours, not his.
Jones, Lindsay. “The most Irish island in the world is in Canada.” Maclean’s, March 9, 2022.
Law, Colin. “The Children of Fogo Island.” National Film Board: 1967. Trust us, this b/w film will swell your heart and move you to watch more; there are twenty-six others in the series.