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Immerse yourself in a former community from Newfoundland’s past

by Shelley Cameron-McCarron

Brian Avery walks along the seaside in Deer Harbour, a community that doesn’t exist anymore, on Newfoundland’s wild eastern coast.  

“It’s a little bit surreal in some ways,” he says. “You’re there and the only sound you hear is a little bird chirping. You’re part of the ecosystem. I think that’s what people like,” says Brian, co-owner of Gypsy Sea Adventures, who leads tours to the resettled former fishing community where he was born and his father grew up. “They like sitting, watching the birds, the pure silence and mindfulness of what the place offers, the nature. And then the stories. Telling the stories allows them to be immersed in a community of the past.” 

It’s a past he’s helping live on. The retired Canadian Coast Guard project manager lived here until age three, in 1967, when the community (it had about 78 families, 250 residents, a general store and a post office) became one of more than 300 shut down across the province.  

The Resettlement, running roughly from the 1950s through the 1970s, was a controversial, province-changing policy as government looked to centralize its population, resettling thousands from remote, hard-to-reach settlements. 

Now, Brian Avery is one of several tourism operators using these abandoned communities, ghost towns from the past, as a basis for boat tours, vacation homes, even a resort, to help the Resettlement come alive, letting people become part of the history and nostalgia.   

Outport delights 

Loyola Pomroy started Woody Island Resort on resettled Woody Island in 1989 to give guests a feel for what it might have been like to have lived in one of those communities. He says many ex-residents and their descendants continue to go back to their old communities each summer.  

“Most of the old homes have fallen down but many have built cabins on their old homesteads,” he says. “They go back for a few days or weeks’ vacations to show their kids where their ancestors used to live, how they lived, and have them enjoy the many delights that you can get only in an outport community.”   

Woody Island, an outport in Placentia Bay, once had a population of around 400. Today guests come to stay overnight, taking in fresh sea air, and enjoying a chance to scan for bald eagles or whales as they steam there from Garden Cove aboard the MV Merasheen. 

Once landed, there’s opportunity to explore, walk roads unmaintained for 50 years, visit the cemeteries, visit the resort’s “store loft museum,” row a small boat, enjoy supper offerings like pan-fried haddock and “grandmother’s favourite” cottage pudding, or simply sit and enjoy the spectacular scenery. 

Visitors explore an abandoned graveyard.


Best years of his life 

Brian Avery, who grew up in Hickman’s Harbour on Random Island, says he wouldn’t have thought much about Deer Harbour if it wasn’t for his father, who had the chance to return in 1998 after retiring from fishing. Spending time there and listening to his stories intrigued him. 

“He spent the best years of his life in the community of Deer Harbour,” he says. “This was a significant time for Newfoundland and Labrador. We lost some of our identity, of who we were. As older generations pass, so too do the stories and a way of life will be gone. I watched my dad spend time in Deer Harbour … I knew what Deer Harbour meant to him. I kind of created this business so that I would spend my time here and get that same fulfillment.” 

In building the product, he brought in a folklore consultant. He researched books and photos. “More importantly, I had Dad’s stories.”  

It was a simpler life. “Conversation around the dinner table was paramount,” he says. “Kids were going out on the beach playing, helping parents with chores.” 

After the Resettlement, life changed. Adults had cars, nightclubs and many other things they never had before. And communities couldn’t always stay together. “With housing, everyone couldn’t move to the same community and sometimes work dictated where people went,” Brian explains. “In Newfoundland, every little cove was a community, and they’d often know the neighbouring communities. It was a very significant era in our time.” 

A sense of belonging 

Brian wanted to bring guests back to a time when folks sat around a radio. He wanted people to think what it would be like to live there, walking in the footsteps of residents in this pristine environment where puffins, whales, otters, eagles, fox, and caribou are spotted. He shares old pictures, books and literature so visitors can feel that sense of belonging “and look within themselves and find their own sense of belonging. 

“Today, you get wrapped up in everyone else’s life,” he says. “You start your day on your phone looking at Facebook. The thing I want for people to do is to think about what it would have been like to live there.”   

On the two-day tour, guests meet in Hickman’s Harbour, a modern fishing community that provides an example of what Deer Harbour could be like today if it had survived. 

Passengers jump aboard a zodiac or larger boat, depending on tour size, and steam 1.5 hours past cliffs and rock formations. They go around Eastern Head Lighthouse, which gives a first hint that people lived here, before arriving in the beautiful bowl-shared harbour, home now to a scattering of painted solar cabins. 

Guests have a brief history before settling in, with maybe a campfire and some chili. The next day, Brian leads a walking tour, replete with community history. 

He works to replicate activities, including taking guests to where residents used to picnic, so they can do the same. “So that they really have that sense of belonging.” 

The tour just finished its third year, but it’s something he’s been thinking about for more than a decade. “I put a lot of thought into what would work. I wanted to be sure to get it right.” 

Now, he’s planning a five-day option with different itineraries: a lighthouse tour, a resettlement tour to nearby communities, a day fishing, a reflection day, and time to kayak and hike. 

“We want people to be truly relaxed and to think about and to feel all about what Deer Harbour brings,” he says. “For me personally, because I am a romantic, in some ways I want to share what my dad shared with me.” 

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