Looking out my window this week, all that I’ve seen is a bay full of ice and fog.
Some days a wind comes up and blows the ice out of the bay, allowing eider ducks, gulls, cormorants and one Canada goose to paddle along the shoreline. But the ice doesn’t stay out of the bay for long because the Strait of Belle Isle is clogged with ice and icebergs and nothing is getting past the ice in the Strait until it breaks up and melts.
In my last column, ‘What’s the Draw?’ I wrote about our daughter Amy’s visit to northern Newfoundland in late April and her boyfriend Ian’s perceptions of a land still in the grip of ice and snow. I also wrote a paragraph about a man I met in Toronto whose father was named William Grenfell, but when the column was published a ‘glitch in the system’ left out part of a sentence, rendering the paragraph about Grenfell almost incomprehensible, so I add it here...
‘The most intriguing part of the visit was meeting a man in Toronto, recently emigrated from England, whose father’s name was William Grenfell. We didn’t have time to establish the man’s possible connection to Sir Wilfred Grenfell, but the man had heard many years ago of Dr. Grenfell and has always wanted to meet someone from the St. Anthony area.’
When the ‘Toronto Grenfell’ asked about visiting on the tip of the Northern Peninsula, I suggested July, August or September when most of the ice and all of the snow is gone.
I was in conversation with a local man recently, and referred to young Ian’s visit and how he had come from the mainland and been introduced to copying. ‘Oh, you mean tabbying,’ said the man.
I got out The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, which defines tabbying as jumping from one floating ice pan to another. Tippying was an expression that was also used, though I’ve never heard it used up here; but whether it was called tabbying, tallying, or tippying, it referred to the children's pastime of leaping from one piece of floating ice to another. ‘Copying’ meant skipping from one ice pan to another, as the participants followed or ‘copied’ the leader.
As the man talked about his experience tabbying, I asked if parents in the community objected to this childhood activity, but they hadn’t, he said. All the kids in the community, especially the boys, enjoyed tabbying. Sometimes they fell through the ice into the water—which was frigid—but usually the water was shallow; when they fell in all they got was a good soaking. This particular man said when he was a boy he was quite fond of finding a long pole, hopping onto a piece of ice, and pushing himself around.
It struck me as he reminisced that the action of kids jumping from ice pan to ice pan was not unlike sealers jumping from one pan of ice to another. Tabbying was a great way for young boys to prepare for the challenging days ahead when they would be introduced to the seal hunt.
The man recalled his first experience sealing. His grandmother had looked out at the ice and expressed a desire for a meal of seal. His grandfather took him along—he was 14 years old—but it wasn’t like tabbying along the shore; he and his grandfather were facing into a stiff northeast wind that jounced ice pans one on top of another. The sea was alive, the ice was in constant movement, grinding and squeaking eerily. On the edge of the ice, with the sea heaving, it was obvious that hopping from one pan of ice to another—in those conditions—took infinitely more skill and courage than skipping around on ice in the shelter of the bay.
Years later, he and his uncle went out and hauled home a seal each. They were looking forward to the meat, covered in a blanket of pastry, roasting in the oven.
I’m from the mainland, so when he spoke of hauling a seal across the ice I imagined the ice surface as smooth as a skating rink, but no, the ice was rough and uneven with pinnacles sticking up every which way. Definitely, hauling home a heavy seal was work.
So, as I gaze out my window at the ice, with a heavy mist brooding over the face of the waters, at first glance it appears that nothing is happening in the bay. But memories of a bygone day shimmer in the silence, and suddenly I see a boy with a pole pushing himself along on an ice pan, children laughing, shouting, and leaping from one piece of ice to another, and men and boys crossing perilous fields of ice to bring home a seal for dinner.