Labrador History - 3.1 WINTER


Mary TaylorChapter 3
SETTLING IN
3.1 WINTER
Winter in Labrador is a season of contrasts. There are crisp sunny days, when walking in the snow is a sheer delight as it
crunches beneath your feet and there are violent storms, when the wind blows the snow into your face so that you can hardly breathe.
Sometimes it is dangerous to venture far from home, for in storms where the snow swirls around and one can hardly see, people have
been lost. During that first winter of 1953-54 we had both storms fl and sunny days, although there was less snow than usual, and in January we had a rare mild spell which was to set the pattern for
the months ahead.
In the early days before roads or skidoos winter transport meant dogs Sometimes I was called out to visit the sick but many dog team treks were made on a systematic basis to the different communities when things were quiet at the nursing station, i.e. between deliveries! The purpose of these latter trips was to see patients and do immunizations for it was not always possible for us to give the babies their shots a month apart as prescribed. One did the best one could. Local trips to closer settlements were made more frequently, but Red Bay probably had one visit during the Winter.
Stewart Hancock took me on one of my early trips to L’Anse au-Loup We went round Crow Head on the other side of the bay behind English Point, part way over the rocks. That day I sat with my back to him, enjoying the scenery, while he tried to keep his dogs going slowly so that he would not tip me off. His lead dog was very good at setting the pace and all went well that day.

Bert and Emily Joyce and family. Red Bay, Spring 1957.

Bert and Emily Joyce and family. Red Bay, Spring 1957. 


Not to be confused with our station handyman, Stewart and his wife Grace were good friends of mine and I spent many evenings with them playing Flinch or learning how to hook rugs. They introduced me to more than crafts, however. One night they fried something in a pan for a “lunch” before I went home but, when it was ready and we sat down to eat, they wouldn’t tell me what it was. Imagine my horror when I found out it was muskrat!! Yuck!
On my first long dog team trek (one of fifty miles or more) that winter there was very little snow on the barrens, the scrubby, open areas covered with moss and lichens, but there was lots of soft snow in the valleys. We set off for Red Bay, fifty miles north east of Forteau, one Sunday afternoon at the end of February, planning to see a patient in Capstan Island (about half-way there.)
The driver took the dog team round “the battery”, a flat plateau type hill with a very steep cliff that rose abruptly from the rocks below, the “going” being very rough as we wound our way over the rocks and icy pinnacles. As I was sitting across the box, travelling was very uncomfortable, but the driver, a man from Capstan Island who had come to fetch “the nurse,” did his best. The dogs had a hard time on the rough surface of the ice and snow, and frequently their feet got cut. This was a particular problem in certain conditions, and sometimes dog team owners made little boots of canvas for their dogs, which they tied over the paws. Our team had no such luxury that day!
We stayed in Capstan Island overnight and next morning set off for Red Bay. Overland conditions were becoming difficult, for there was not much snow, so we travelled along the river valley. In places the komatik got stuck and the driver had to jump off to help the dogs pull it out of a hole and, at one point, the dogs started off without him and I became quite alarmed! I didn’t know how to guide the dogs, and had visions of them attacking me! However, all went well as the driver called the dogs to a halt, and they stopped until he caught up. The trip from Pinware to Red Bay took us five hours that day, and a note in my diary says, “Boy, am I stiff!”
I spent several days in Red Bay seeing patients and “hauling” teeth. Once, in that same village, I pulled eleven teeth for one man! Dental work involved extractions, and wasn’t always easy, neither for the patients, nor me. Even dentists did little else at first, for fillings were relatively unknown and it was either extractions or dentures. The condition of teeth on the coast was so bad then, of children especially, that little else cold be done. (A diet heavy in bread and molasses had a lot to do with it.) Fishermen’s teeth could be very hard to pull too and at times things didn’t go our way. On one occasion Bert Joyce helped me with an extraction and, unfortunately, we broke off the tooth, meaning that the man had to have the root removed by a dentist in later years.
On the Thursday morning I received a call from West St. Modeste, about thirty miles from Red Bay, notifying me there was a woman there who had ruptured membranes or, as the telegram read, “her waters had broken.” She was only thirty-four weeks pregnant, which meant that the baby would be premature, so we packed our bags and hastily set off back to West St. Modeste. When we arrived I found a crowd at the house. The woman’s friends, relatives and the local midwife were walking the woman up and down trying to start labour, quite the wrong thing to do at that stage in pregnancy.
Given a choice, many women chose to have their babies at ome, attended by local midwives, because they were reluctant to leave their families. Midwives on the coast, local women who attended women in labour, delivered many babies and usually did tine, contacting the nurse if there were problems. However, I liked to see all the expectant mothers during pregnancy as often as possible to screen out the potential problems, and always tried to persuade the women to come to Forteau for delivery. Most of them did.
Clearly, this was one case that had to go to Forteau, so I put her to bed and prayed that she would not go into labour, at least until we got her back to the Station.
Land travel was difficult and, in addition to the possibility of  labour, rough travel would have been very uncomfortable the patient. I decided to get a plane to evacuate us both. There was no direct telephone connection so all I could do was go to the telegraph office, send a telegram and wait. In the meantime I made visits in the community and held a few clinics.
The telegraph system has gone now, replaced by residential p hones, but in those days we depended on it. By the time I rived in 1953 it was really an overland telephone system, each community (except Capstan Island) having a telegraph office. Prior to that some communities had a Morse code system. All the messages for “off the coast” were sent via the lighthouse keeper, Jeff Wyatt, at Point Amour, one of those “characters” who add colour to any society. He was a tall man with a regal bearing and was very knowledgeable about shipwrecks and could tell many stories.
However, to return to the telegrams, the call system between the different offices was a series of short and long rings, and the telephones were wound by hand, the operators being sworn to secrecy. I frequently received messages this way, saying something like, “Please send me some more salve for Johnny,” or, “Uncle Will fell downstairs and hurt his ankle.” I would then reply and try to respond to the request. Contact was not instantaneous, or “live” as we would say today, so we had to wait for replies.
Three days after calling for help from West St. Modeste there was still no sign of a plane so we changed plans and, as it was a nice Sunday morning, tried to take the woman to Forteau by dog team. This meant all the available able-bodied men in the village had to pull the komatik up the “battery”. The patient was placed into a “coachbox”, a wooden structure with sides and ends, which was attached to the komatik in place of the usual box. It was filled with quilts and blankets and the patient tucked snugly inside. I tried to walk beside the patient as we climbed the battery but it was very icy and as I climbed two steps, I slipped back one!
Eventually we reached the top and proceeded by “dog” power instead of manpower! The end of the story was a happy one. We arrived safely and the patient did not go into labour until the baby was more mature, and eventually she was delivered of a fine boy at thirty-six weeks gestation.
At this time, in the middle of my first winter on the Labrador, I experienced the hand of the Lord in a way that was to be repeated the many years that I was in His service. It “happened” in January that I had my first experience applying forceps to deliver a baby, a procedure I had seen done many times but had never had to do myself. Normally a doctor performs this type of delivery, but in an emergency on the Labrador coast, when there was no way to get the patient to hospital, I had to do my best to save both the mother and the baby, even if it meant using forceps.
The patient was an older woman who was expecting her third child. With her blood pressure rising I decided to try and induce labour the old fashioned way - with castor oil, a bath and an en ema. She was rather slow to get going so I considered the possibility of giving her a series of injections to induce labour, something I had done several times under medical supervision. However, each time I prepared the first injection, I got the distinct impression that this was the wrong thing to do. I believe that this was the Lord’s way of stopping me, and future events proved this.
Nature was allowed to take its course and in time the baby was ready for delivery. The baby’s head did not advance, however, even after some time, so I examined the patient to see what was wrong and found that the baby was stuck in a posterior position. There was no way of getting the patient to a hospital and no doctor available, so I was on my own and had to do something quickly. As I was preparing the forceps I quickly consulted my obstetrical
book, and then propped it beside me on the patient’s locker for reference during the procedure.
No amount of observation really prepares one for the task of applying those forceps, rotating the baby into a position suitable for delivery and then delivering the baby. However, I was not alone, and at times like this I took matters to the Lord. Finally, after much prayer and effort, the little one arrived, although in a state of shock. In fact, she showed no signs of breathing or responding, so I tried to resuscitate her. Believe me, I really prayed hard at that point, hut it was about five, long minutes until (eventually) she started to breathe.
I was even more concerned for the safety of this mother and baby because her husband had lost his first wife during childbirth, and I’m sure that her survival was an answer to prayer that day. Today that baby who didn’t breath for five minutes is a healthy Woman with children of her own. This was the first of many occasions when I found that it paid to heed the Lord’s gentle checks.
As the winter went on my experience grew. One Saturday evening a young man was brought to the clinic with an axe wound on his foot. It extended from the base of his big toe, up the side and across the upper portion of his toe down to the base of the toe posteriorly, severing the top of the toe, including a small portion of bone. I had not had a lot of experience stitching up serious cuts although I had stitched up several smaller ones. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” so I decided to give it a try.
Several broken needles later the toe was attached in its original position, and the patient admitted to the nursing station to rest and wait for the doctor, who was expected to fly in at that time. No one told me that these fishermen had such tough skin! 
A week after that, while we were still awaiting the arrival of the doctor, one of our Sunday School teachers broke his ankle. A few days later, after the swelling had subsided, I applied a cast. I remember thinking at the time that maybe God was trying to speak to this young man and had allowed this to happen.
We still had our Bible studies, but at times it was quite discouraging. Sometimes the attendance was poor and at other times so was the response and Satan was obviously trying to hinder the work, both there and in the Sunday School. Then there was a day classes had to be cancelled at the church because the stovepipe blew off. At other times, however, the response of the children gave me a lot of encouragement, such as the time around Easter when I told the girls in my class the story of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus, and they obviously were moved.
I continued to pray - little thinking how wonderfully God would answer those prayers in His own time and way. So the light started to penetrate the darkness, just a little at first, and gradually increasing until the full blaze of the Gospel shone into the hearts and lives of many.
Doctors made visits two or three times a year; in the summer on the Maraval and in winter by mail plane, when available. In those days Eastern Provincial Airways provided the mail service in winter-time, when ships were hindered by ice. The doctors saw patients about whom I was concerned, and any others who wished to be seen.
The doctor we had been waiting for all this time finally arrived but certainly not the way we expected! I was bathing a new baby when, looking through the maternity ward window, saw the plane was about to land. One of the local women brought the doctor to the nursing station and introduced him, and soon we were busy seeing patients. It wasn’t until lunchtime that I heard the story of his landing.
When the bay in front of the nursing station freezes over, a landing area is marked for aircraft by trees stuck into the snow, and called markers. Our bay had been marked and planes had been landing on it until a few days previously, when there had been a bad storm and the ice had broken into smaller pans. Apparently this time the pilot thought that the ice was still safe for landing, but the bay was covered with large ice pans with water and “slob” ice in between. He landed close to the shore but, nevertheless, the plane began to sink.
On board were a number of patients, including a man from Red Bay with a full length cast on one leg. The patients were able to climb out onto the wings until they could be rescued and, miraculously, the man with the cast on his leg only got the heel wet! The situation was a bit tense, though, and one very frightened woman kept crying out, keeping them sensitive to the realities of the situation.
“We are all going to be killed!”
The doctor and a nurse, a Lutheran nursing sister who was coming to relieve me, were not as fortunate as the patients and they sank to their necks in icy water! They came into the nursing station and requested a change of clothing, necessitating a trip downstairs to the clothing store for suitable clothing while theirs dried out! Such was their devotion to duty that nothing had been said about the cause of their being so wet until all the patients had been attended to, and it wasn’t until later that they told me.
The doctor stayed for a couple of days and redeemed his time by seeing patients and even travelled to L’Anse-au-Loup by dog team. He returned to St. Anthony as soon as a plane was able to get him, for the hospital was without a surgeon while he was away. When he left St. Anthony in the first place, his intentions had been to return that same day!
I accompanied the doctor back to St. Anthony for a break, leaving Sister Sofie, the Lutheran nurse in charge at Forteau.
St. Anthony was built on a harbour, on both sides of an inlet at the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland. The harbour was frozen over that winter, so we landed there, although planes often landed on a pond or a lake nearby, which would freeze first.
The eighty-bed hospital was situated at the base of a hill covered with nice pine trees, a pleasant change from our short stubby ones. The Mission complex consisted of the hospital, an Annex, the Grenfell school, the Orphanage, the Handicraft Department and various storage buildings, and the doctors’ residences. the annex, on which was inscribed the words “Faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love,” was used as an overflow for ambulatory patients and for expectant mothers who had been sent to St. Anthony for delivery. The School, meanwhile, was conspicuous for displaying the words, “All thy children shall be taught of the Lord and great shall be the peace of thy children.”
Behind the hospital was Tea House hill, which had a teahouse at one point, although this had been destroyed by fire. Dr. Grenfell’s memorial is at the top of this hill.
I was away about ten days and enjoyed the break. My friend Sheila from Flowers’ Cove was there at the same time, so we were able to renew our friendship and visited Rev. Peter Macaskill and his wife Joyce. He was the minister who was aboard the Maraval when it came into Forteau the previous fall. We also met Dr. Norman Streight and his wife Norah, who were Christians and had just arrived. Later they went to Africa as missionaries.
I worked in the operating room in St. Anthony most of the time and was privileged to assist the surgeon when he performed chest surgery on TB patients. I also got some experience giving anaesthetics for minor surgery, such as tonsillectomies.
I enjoyed my visit to St. Anthony but was not sorry to return to Forteau, because the little nursing station was beginning to feel like home to me. Sister Sofie had coped admirably in my absence and even stayed on for a while after I returned. About two days before she returned to St. Anthony, while making a dog team trip to L’Anse-au-Loup to hold a clinic, she had the misfortune to fall off the komatik and dislocate her elbow - a most unfortunate ending to her stay on the Labrador.
In due course Eastern Provincial Airways recovered their plane from the bay and sent over aero-mechanics to repair it. These stayed with the postmistress but often would come up for a meal and a chat, for visitors were always welcome at the nursing station. A lot of work went into that Beaver and the mechanics stayed until the plane was ready to be tested, at which point a pilot flew the plane to Gander.
The ditching was quite an event in a small community, as one might imagine, and one of the local schoolteachers composed an excellent poem to mark the occasion. It is quoted below.

Don’t Pitch on the Bay by Edward John Flynn

Come listen to my little poem
 Kind people young and old,
And I will tell you a story
That will make your blood run cold.
It was on February ninth,
A bright and sunny day,
When we saw a little aircraft
Come flying over the bay.
We knew it was the EPA
When we saw her circle around
We prayed to God in Heaven above
On the bay she’d not come down.
We knew the ice it was not fit
But little could we do,
As the plane descended downward
When the third time round she flew.
Our waving it was useless
They could not hear our voice,
As nearer she came and headed
Down to the ill-fated ice.
We saw her strike the first time
Then we heard her engine roar
With eager hearts kept watching
As she headed for the shore.
When she was near the rocky beach
Was then he turned her round
And with terror-stricken wonderment
We saw the plane go down.
Soon many men were on the scene
Some sweet life to save,
Th help the pilot and passengers
From meeting a watery grave.
But as the water was very shoal,
 About eight feet at the best,
Her head was on the bottom
While her tail on the ice did rest.
The pilot and the passengers
Were safely on the ice,
Although they were all soaking wet
There was no loss of life.
For two long days on the bottom she lay
Through a gale of north-west wind,
When on the eleventh two men arrived
To try and get her in.
With ropes and blocks and anchors
The people came once more,
Saying, “Hook her fast, Bob Walsh, my boy
And we’ll haul your plane ashore.”
As the sun was setting in the west
To end ajoyful day,
We hauled the Beaver on the bank
From the waters of Forteau Bay.
And now began the thankless task
To get her engine to go.
From stem to stern she was packed
 With water ice and snow.
All through the blinding snowstorm
And in the dead of night,
The repairing it continued
On a barren, bleak and white.
When it was decided
That they could do no more,
They took the engine from the plane
And put it in John Flynn’s store.
After eleven long days of labour
With many a helping hand,
The engine from the Beaver
Began to buzz again.
Oh, the faces now they brightened
 When they heard her perfect tone,
Especially the two engineers,
Bob Walsh and Cyril Jones.
“We think she does sound perfect,”
Her engineers replied,
“But there many hours of labour yet,
Before the plane can fly.”
Her tail was bent and broken
Her tanks with ice were cased,
And there were hundreds of nuts and screws
To be put back into place. B
ut now the job was over
We wish you all goodbye,
After three long weeks of labour
The Beaver was ready to fly.
And may the good God guide her
 In all her future flights,
Never again to put down
On bad salt water ice,
As my poem comes to an end
One more word i’ll say,
If there’s no mark, ‘pitch on the pond
Please don’t pitch on the bay.