THE BLOG
09/11/2014 12:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

At the Easternmost Point of North America: Canadian Odyssey on the Looney Front - Part 12

About nine miles southeast of St. John's, Newfoundland's capital, on the outer edge of the Avalon Peninsula, the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean break on a craggy headland that is the easternmost point of North America -- Cape Spear.

Like L'Anse aux Meadows, the name is again an English corruption. The Portuguese called it Cabo de Eesperança, Cape of Hope, which the French likewise called Cap d'Espoir. This the Brits then butchered into a totally different meaning.

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Most easterly point in North America

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Cape Spear

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Another view

A cliff-top trail leads round the headland and along the coast amid stunningly wild scenery, with panoramic views across to the narrow entrance of St. John's harbour. Massive icebergs make their stately progress southwards along the coast even at the end of June, and the glowering grey clouds and ominously dark waters add to nature's savage beauty.

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Iceberg seen from Cape Spear

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Cliff-side trail and lighthouse

A restored 180-year-old lighthouse tops the rocks, and massive cannons, bunkers and tunnels remain from the gun batteries built at the start of WWII to protect the harbour entrance. If the Germans had gained a foothold here in Newfoundland, it would have been a whole different game of 'sprechen sie Deutch' for North America.

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WWII cannon emplacement

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WWII cannon

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WWII tunnels

I sincerely hope there's no invasion today. On Signal Hill, which looms over St. John's and its harbour from the north, a group of soldiers decked out in the red coats of 1795 are undergoing some serious drilling, parading this way and that to the sound of fifes and drums, loading their muskets, and generally flowing around in 18th century battle formations.

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Redcoats on Signal Hill

They look none too doughty, though, and I have some serious reservations about the defence of Signal Hill, St. John's and my own safety should Putin choose this moment in time to do a Crimea on the Avalon Peninsula as well.

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Our defences

Aha, I'm being reassured by the commanding officer. These are not the full forces of Canada's army. They're just cadets preparing for the Signal Hill Tattoo, a major annual event of the summer season. And should Putin decide to do something funny, Canada is prepared: Keep calm and carry on.

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Keep calm and carry on

Signal Hill is topped by the Cabot Tower, built in 1897 to Commemorate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee. The final North American battle of the Seven Years' War was fought here in 1762. As usual, the French lost and had to cede St. John's to the Brits.

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Cabot Tower

It was on this hill on December 12, 1901, that Italian Guglielmo Marconi received the first Transatlantic wireless signal. But the hill owes its name to its earlier days in the 18th century when its prominence made it an ideal site for flag signalling.

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Marconi plaque

Today's flag signalling is being undertaken by a silly old cow who is sitting on a wall above a precipitous drop holding a Canadian maple leaf flag so that her silly old bull of a husband can photograph her for eternity.

It's blowing a gale up here, but it's apparently not strong enough to blow her over the edge and down into the roiling ocean to join four fantastical icebergs floating past like a formation of blue-tinted white Klingon 'warfish' - should the Klingon empire need to replace its warbirds for marine warfare.

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View out to sea from Signal Hill

In winter the winds can reach 70 mph. I think I'll go over and suggest she return then to perch on the ledge.

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View over St. John's and harbour from Signal Hill

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Another Signal Hill view

St. John's is a quaint attractive town climbing steeply up slopes, with winding streets and stairs scaling the cliffs that made the site so attractive to those early mariners from Europe. From a narrow opening in the red, pine-clad crags the ocean does a sharp left elbow-turn, almost at a right angle, ensuring calm moorage on the most tempestuous of days and security from icebergs.

The three streets closest to the harborside are the busy center, with the stone landmarks of the Anglican cathedral and the Supreme Court recalling Victorian London. Further out, painted wooden houses line neat leafy streets. Wooded crags and sparkling lakes dot the outer suburbs.

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A St. John's street

On this particular day it's pissing down and the tour van for a trip north up the coast line fails to materialize. A phone call reveals that not enough people booked, and they just cancelled without telling me.

So in lieu, I betake myself to The Rooms, the name of the town's main museum, a very large building whose lofty atrium resembles Paris's ghastly Pompidou Centre, with obese silver-wrapped pipes, ducts, plumbing and other building innards nakedly exposed for all to see. Well, at least they're not on the building's outsides like the Pompidou miscarriage.

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Another street

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And another

There's a room marked "theater" on the second floor, so I push the door open and boldly go where no man has gone before, expecting to see a film on history and archaeology. Instead I'm confronted by a group sitting at various tables focussing on power points flashing on screens - and by a security guard quick-marching forward from behind and gruffly threatening: 'You can't go there!'

"Well, why then in frigging hell are you using the word theater," says I. But it's no use. Security Guard 1, Yours Truly 0.

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Supreme Court

Up on the third and fourth floors are the true museum rooms. Here you can see everything Newfoundland, from 500-million year-old trilobites to dioramas and displays of the lives of the Inuit, Innu, Mi'kmaq, and Southern Inuit, to the early Livyers, as the people of European stock are known from a corruption of the words 'live here.'

If you prefer animals, you've got a fine display of the stuffed variety, from black and polar bears to lynxes, wolves and arctic foxes, all with good explanations.

If you want objects, there's everything from a real crow's nest of the maritime kind - a barrel fixed atop a mast - to violincellos, spinning wheels and sleds, to the appurtenances of the latest hope for prosperity after Newfoundland was badly hit by the 1992 cod fishing moratorium - off-shore oil, with a gooey sample of its first gushes holding pride of place.

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Another Supreme Court view

But arguably the best display of all is the superb panoramic view from the fourth-floor over the town, elbow-bend harbour, and steep pine-clad cliffs plunging into the ocean.

Here Yours Truly makes his come-back. The observation deck is locked. 'How come,' quoths I to a cleaning lady. 'I'll go and find out,' quoths she.

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View from the observation deck of The Rooms

She's soon back with the news that the security guards forgot to open it, but they're coming up right now to atone. 'I can't very well observe if you forget to open the observation deck now, can I,' quoths I snarkily to the guard. My equalizer for the theatre debacle: Security Guards 1, Yours Truly 1.

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Another view

Dozens of picturesque fishing villages nestle in craggy coves surrounding St. John's, all badly hit by the cod moratorium. The strangely named Quidi Vidi - nobody could explain how it got its name - has done the next best thing, though. They've converted their green cod processing plant into a brewery.

Not far from Cape Spear Petty Harbour, a village on an inlet thrusting between the steep green hills, has to rely for income on tourists visiting its idyllic setting, and passing icebergs and whales.

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Petty Harbour

One thing you'll notice on the Avalon Peninsula are strange place names, and then even stranger place names. Come By Chance flashes out from a signpost. It evidently does not mark the site of a surprise orgasm, but nobody seems to be able to explain the name's origin, though early 18th century records refer to it as Comby Chance - as if that would help.

Then there's Heart's Content, terminal for the the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858. And no, it doesn't owe its self-satisfied moniker to Come By Chance, but again the name's origin seems hidden among the secrets of the heart, with its nearby neighbors called Heart's Desire and Heart's Delight.

But Dildo? Now I ask you, there's no mistaking what that means. Yet there it is, proudly proclaiming itself on a signpost, supplemented by billboard adverts for the Dildo B&B and the Dildo Dory Grill. I say, do you want butter or margarine today with your Dildo? Does Dildo Dory mean Dildo is hunky-dory? The name-worthy town is on the Dildo Arm of a sea inlet.

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Petty Harbour view

Despite my best investigative journalism I can't find a Deep Throat to give a clear explanation. Some think a Spanish sailor named Dildo visited the area. I say, Senor Dildo, would you like to call that arm of water over there after yourself?

Others think the inlet most closely resembles the lower member on the male body - hence the name.

Anyway just in case you might miss the point, there's a South Dildo just down the road.

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View inland from Petty harbour

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

And Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.