Heritage Explorer

A passion and curiosity about history motivate this former tour boat skipper

Heritage Explorer was once Gerald Smith’s tour boat. But the name aptly describes Gerald himself, for the man is never happier than when he is learning about the history and environment of his beloved upper Trinity Bay.

The boat, a converted 30-foot trap skiff, is gone now, a victim of high operating costs in a limited seasonal market. Gerald, however, whenever asked still imparts his knowledge encompassing whales, seabirds, rugged coastal wilderness, edible plants, and history spanning 1,500 years along the shores from Hopeall to Dildo Island and on to Chapel Arm. These days, he can sometimes be found pointing out these interesting highlights to visitors aboard Dildo Island Adventure Tours vessel Irish Mist out of Dildo.

Gerald Smith has an enthusiasm and curiosity about the world around him. In the tour business he has met many types of people from nearby communities, tourists from far-flung parts of the world, academics and experts in some of the very subjects Gerald talks about on his tours. That’s where his curiosity kicks in: he picks the brains of these experts to learn more about the fascinating lore and legend of his part of Newfoundland.

“My father used to say we can learn something from anybody if only we’d listen,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot from other people by doing just that.” The result is usually a stimulating experience for both tourist and guide.

A former fisherman, logger, merchant seaman, whaler and fish plant worker, Gerald has wide experience to draw upon. But it’s his attitude that some might see as unusual. For years he made a living from harvesting marine and land resources — part of the Newfoundland culture for generations — but now he does so with the eyes of a conservationist. Perhaps a throwback to the days of subsistence living which often bordered on serious poverty, some rural Newfoundlanders take more than they need from the land and sea, he observes. This can cause wastage and, in extreme cases like the prized codfish, the endangering of the species. When he hunts, fishes or cuts wood Gerald tries to use as much of each harvested resource as he can. And when he takes a boat close to whales he does so with great care to avoid distressing the huge mammals.

From the time he was a small boy, whaling played an big part in Gerald’s life, as it did in the lives of most men in upper Trinity Bay. Harvesting the small pothead whales in huge numbers for animal food was a major industry in the area a few decades ago, and men and boys all took part in it to earn a dollar. Then he shipped aboard a whaling vessel for several years until the hunt was banned by international agreement in 1972.

Gerald and other whalers still remember the excitement of the hunt, something you had to experience to appreciate. “I didn’t think of it as killing. It was something we were doing to earn a living that was also thrilling for us,” he says. “I’ve come full circle, and when I see a whale I get just as excited as I did 30 years ago, only now I observe them and try to show people what beautiful creatures they are. To have the excitement of whaling, without killing or harming anything, is wonderful.”

Dildo Island, about a mile out in Trinity Bay, is steeped in history and is now designated as “Place of Provincial Significance” by the Newfoundland and Labrador government. As Gerald walks a trail offering spectacular views through the island’s aged spruce trees, he points out interesting plants and historical highlights. These include a successful codfish and lobster hatchery on the island 100 years ago, an 18th century shipwreck just offshore, remains of Dorset Eskimo and Beothuk Indian encampments, and even a small fort built on the island to protect early settlers of the area from French raiding parties in the 1700s. Archaeologists in future might even find evidence there of the earliest known inhabitants of Newfoundland, the Maritime Archaic people whose artifacts have been found on shores adjacent to the Dildo Island.

Gerald Smith and his wife Rowena, a former teacher, are the energy behind the Dildo and Area Interpretation Centre on that community’s waterfront. Here, much of the archaeological work on Dildo Island and its findings is exhibited and explained. Rowena is curator of the centre and Gerald serves on the board. Together they share a keen and active interest in the heritage of Newfoundland, and this region of it in particular, that has led to the interpretation centre receiving awards for its contribution to the tourism industry. Preserving heritage is seen as an important part of the future of rural Newfoundland by encouraging tourism, and both Gerald and Rowena have been deeply involved with the Baccalieu Trail Heritage Corporation since its founding in 1993 (see http://www.baccalieudigs.ca).

Scanning the horizon for whales, learning a little more about his environment, and helping interested people from all over the world share his love of the waters and wilderness of Trinity Bay couldn’t please Gerald Smith more.