Resettled Newfoundland communities look fantastic in social media photos and in works of visual art. A weathered clapboard house collapses into itself. A fishing boat sits aground in a grassy field.
The images are desolate and a bit romantic — a faded, wistful look at the past.
But what does a freshly resettled outport community look and feel like?
I found out a couple of weeks ago, when I got the opportunity to visit Little Bay Islands — resettled for nearly three years.
Back to the 1990s
My first visit to Little Bay Islands was in the mid-1990s, when it was a bustling fishing outport and I was a young reporter at CBC Radio in Grand Falls-Windsor. It was late fall, and I was there to do a story at the school, H.L. Strong Academy.
Driving off the government ferry and entering the community, I saw a crescent of old-fashioned biscuit box houses and modern snug bungalows, arrayed around a sheltered harbour. A fish plant anchored one end of the cove; a wooden bridge to a small island held down the other end. About 300 people lived there.
The school had 32 students from kindergarten to Grade 12. Most of their parents were crab fishermen, or they processed crab at the plant. There was a family atmosphere at the school; the older youngsters looked after the younger ones, and teachers were preparing the students for the community Christmas concert.
At the town's only bed and breakfast, the woman who ran it made Shake 'n Bake chicken for me and the other guests, a couple of Newfoundland Power workers.
After supper, I put on my new purple parka and took a walk around the harbour toward the bridge. The community gleamed under a canopy of stars as my feet crunched on a carpet of freshly fallen snow.
Times have changed
A lot of water has gone under that bridge since. The crab plant closed. Many families left on their own to find work. After years of bitter debate, the remaining residents on the island voted to take a government relocation package. They packed up their possessions and drove onto the last ferry leaving Little Bay Islands on New Year's Eve, 2019.
Then the provincial government cut the utilities.
Now, arriving as a party of 11 people courtesy of Mike Roberts and Badger Bay Boat Tours, we steam directly into the community's snug harbour, and pull up to the solidly built former government wharf. We break off into groups of twos and threes and wander around.
Trees are showing us their most brilliant autumn colours. The biscuit box houses and bungalows are still in shipshape condition. It looks like you could knock on any back door and someone would invite you in for a cup of tea. Fishing stages and work sheds are everywhere. The paved road has only a few potholes.
The difference is it looks like aliens have abducted all the humans and all their vehicles.
Still some life
There are signs of part-time residents. Many of the houses have new solar panels, generators and satellite dishes. Wells and septic tanks take care of water and sewer. There are a few bicycles, and someone has an electric golf cart parked in their driveway. You can get satellite internet and phone here.
Mike Parsons, his wife, Georgina, and their two dogs are the only year-round inhabitants. Mike takes a break from a welding project in front of his shed, a former Pentecostal church, to have a chat with us. He tells us his favourite time of the year on the island is when the seasonal residents leave and it's just him, his wife and the dogs.
Pros and cons
In many ways, I can see the appeal. Little Bay Islands seems like a post-consumer utopia. Living off the grid, reusing and recycling, fishing and foraging only what you need. Traffic jams, COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine seem like they are happening on another planet.
But unlike long-abandoned Newfoundland outports with their ghosts of the distant past, the ghosts of these houses are still very much with us and have driven their pickup trucks to their new lives in places like Springdale or Deer Lake.
At the school, where I did that story more than a quarter-century ago, there has been a bit of vandalism. Someone has knocked all the library books off the shelves. Broken glass litters the corridor. A calendar from the 2016 school year was torn off the office wall. Uneasiness washes over me.
It would be too easy to lose sense of time in Little Bay Islands. I am wondering what it's like to weather a blizzard here. Does Mike's wife ever get tired of his company?
All of a sudden, I want to get back on the boat.
Back to nature
Nature will eventually reclaim Little Bay Islands. A bad storm will knock fishing stages into the water. Dandelions and fireweed will grow in cracks on the road. Paint will fade off clapboard, roofs will crumble into living rooms and kitchens.
That's a couple of decades away.
Meanwhile, Mike, Georgina and the seasonal residents are living simply, tending to their community and avoiding most of the rotten bits of 21st century life.
They're on their own — in so many ways.