The road to Cox’s Cove (a half hour from Corner Brook) ends in a riot of old sheds, wharves and shacks next to a pebble beach lined with orange fishing dories. When I drive into the village to find Darren Park, a fisherman who offers Newfoundland’s only dory fishing excursion, the tide is out. Hundreds of gulls call and tussle on the sandbar at the edge of the Bay of Islands. Cribbing from old wharves sags into the exposed mud.
Along the main street that twists among houses flung around this rocky coast, I see no signs for Four Seasons Tours, Darren’s operation. I pass a single gas pump next to a storage shed, which, on second glance, turns out to be a convenience store. Out of the landscape, as if from roads visible only to locals, roar dirt bikes driven by helmetless young men. I’m not entirely sure I’m in the right place. When I pull out my phone to call Darren, I discover there’s no cell service.
At the wharf, I ask where to find him. A couple of fishermen tell me to wait by the orange dories: he’ll show up—and he does. Darren pulls up in his pickup dressed from head to toe in camo. He greets me warmly and sets me to work loading his dory with fishing gear for his “Cod Fishing Boat Tour.” He drags the dory to the water’s edge, tells me to get in, and then shoves off.
Pointing the dory into a light wind, Darren opens the throttle, grins like a kid and shouts, “I’m living the dream!” As we cruise along the shore, he tells me I’m his third outing today, and yesterday he had to turn away three groups. He’s hosted people from all over the world, including a Japanese film crew, and counts many as friends. “The way we are, Newfoundlanders, we stay in touch,” says Darren.
He cuts the motor spitting distance from a beach lined with small cabins in 140 feet of water. This deep channel next to Brake’s Cove is his favourite—he’s never been skunked here. We unwind line and baited hooks until the line goes slack at bottom. “It’s a surprise every time you hook something,” says Darren. Within seconds, he feels a nibble, gives a good tug and hooks his first fish. It’s a long way up, but soon enough he flips a bronze cod into the boat. The moment it hits, my own line goes tight. I reel in a red, spiny ocean perch.
As we lower our lines again, Darren tells me about Brake’s Cove. The entire village was emptied and resettled elsewhere in the 1960s. It’s now just a string of cabins owned by people in Cox’s Cove. Cattle and horses graze here in summer on pasture that was once garden. Some people still visit the cemetery.
It’s not long before Darren has hooked another. It could be cod, haddock or flounder. Before he pulls it from the water to find out, I’ve got another on the line too. In no time, we land three small cod and two ocean perch —and release an inedible sculpin —enough for a good feed, so we pull in our lines and Darren starts up the outboard.
Across the bay, we pull up to Penguin Head, a mountainous rock face that drops 10 storeys straight into the ocean. Darren points out pockmarks on its surface that he says are proof it was used for cannon practice centuries ago. He says local fishermen once used cannonballs as ballast in their lobster traps.
Another 10 minutes and we’re at a rocky beach. Perched on a branch overhead is a large nest made of sticks. Further out on the branch sits a disheveled looking immature bald eagle. Darren says there should be two. He searches the shoreline through binoculars, but can’t spot the second. When he lowers the binoculars, something stirs on the beach and there it is. The big, clumsy juvenile is so well camouflaged against the slate coloured rocks, we couldn’t see it until it moved.
Eagles are majestic birds, but ruthless hunters as well. One day on the bay, Darren says, he watched as an eagle attacked a gull that had just swallowed a whole mackerel. “The gull will spit up the fish,” says Darren, “because if he doesn’t, the eagle will take the fish by force.” The eagle population on the bay is growing, and that’s good for business because Darren also offers a Bald eagle photo shooting tour.
“When you’re on the ocean every day, you see everything,” he muses. He tells stories of sitting in the middle of a hundred dolphins during a feeding frenzy, of breaching whales and basking sunfish.
We head to his cabin for what Darr en calls “a boil-up” on a remote beach 3.3 kilometres across the bay from Cox’s Cove. He knows the distance because in winter he offers snowmobile tours around and across the frozen bay. His cabin and a couple of others stand on a short stretch of pebble shoreline against an unbroken hill of forest. When we land, Darren gets to work cleaning the fish, tossing the waste to the gulls that have suddenly materialized.
Inside, he rolls the fish in flour and salt and pepper, then lays them into a pan of hot oil. “You want the taste of the fish,” he says of the simple recipe. (I’m almost certain Darren is pulling my leg when he says the filets are so fresh, they sometimes wiggle in the pan.)
As they cook, Darren pulls out an appetizer—cod-aux-gratin. (He pronounces it in the Newfoundland way so it rhymes with “flatten.”) Placed before me is a decadent baked dish of flaky white fish he’s caught himself flavoured with onion he grew himself topped with sauce and cheese.
For generations, East Coast men like Darren have both hunted and gardened to supplement the family food supply. He serves the dish cold, common in Newfoundland, with a side of his own potatoes. “But right out of the oven, it’s not so rough either,” he offers.
In spring, Darren often adds in-season live lobster and snow crab. He usually throws a few wild mussels into the pot too. As he finishes the filets, I think of Darren as the best of what we can be, one of those who thrives in wild places where the natural world is still bountiful, where it’s possible not just to live off both the sea and the land, but to celebrate that bounty with others and to conserve it by doing so. The fish is ready. We scoff the fried cod and perch piping hot with our fingers. The filets are light and delicate. Simple. Delicious. We wash down our boil up on the beach with bubbly – 7UP that is. “You’re at the cabin,” says Darren with a big grin plastered on his face. “You might as well live it up.”
If You Go
Darren Park’s Cod-aux-Gratin Recipe
In a saucepan, melt butter and stir in flour until smooth. Remove from heat. Gradually stir in 1/2 of the milk. Put back on heat and beat until smooth and shiny. Gradually add remaining milk, salt, pepper and onion. Cook, stirring until smooth and thick. Pour over fish. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and cheese. Bake at 375 F for 15 to 30 minutes.