Newfoundland does festivals really well. We’ve got big giant music-themed extravaganzas, and impressive film festivals, and food-and-drink fun. We’ve got festivals revolving around squid jigging and blueberries and mummers and root cellars. I live in a weird place.
I had heard good things about The Gathering in Burlington. It’s a relatively new festival in Central Newfoundland, brought to life by local comedian Shaun Majumder. Having grown up in the area, Majumder saw potential in this isolated community. There’s no cell phone service. There’s no McDonald’s. But there’s plenty of comedy, fine dining, music, and even a Shed Crawl.
I’ve had a lot of really good festival experiences in Newfoundland, including some of my all-time favourites like Writers at Woody Point. But The Gathering was something special, mostly because it was so bizarre.
Every other festival I’ve attended in Newfoundland takes place somewhere accessible to tourism and townies–places that don’t necessarily rely on traditional Newfoundland income, like the fishery or forestry. I grew up in such a place, and the concept of taking my teeny hometown of 2,000 people and tripling it for one big hoopla just kind of blows my mind.
As far as real Newfoundland experiences go, this is as real as it gets. Here are some of my favourite moments.
I was a guest of Adventure Central Newfoundland on this trip. When my hosts Caroline and Jamie met at the Deer Lake airport, they handed me a tote bag full of goodies. Such goodies included soap, fly repellant, sunscreen, and plenty of Kleenex. It was the most exciting goodie bag I’ve ever received.
We drove from the airport to Burlington, about a two-hour drive…in the daylight. But when the sun drops, this pothole-pitted drive turns into a moose minefield. There’s hardly any traffic, and the towns are few and far between.
I sat in the front, chattering away to Caroline, oblivious about my peril.
“Put your moose eyes on!” Jamie kept saying from the backseat.
In other words, keep an eye out for moose. It was a perfect introduction to the weekend.
It was well after midnight that evening before we arrived at our campsite, which Jamie and Caroline had already set up. At The Gathering, most people set up their tents in Tent City–a two-level campsite on Green Bay. It’s literally in someone’s backyard. A young 20-something named MacKinnon will load up his ATV and tow a cart full of your luggage down to the beach for $10, and it’s well worth the money. MacKinnon was a fun person to get to know; by the end of the trip, I wanted to interview him more than the comedians. There aren’t too many 19-year-olds left in rural Newfoundland who want to stay in rural Newfoundland, but I’m glad to know they exist.
At Tent City, people hang out and drink beer during the afternoon between tours and food hikes, and then once the concerts are over for the evening, people flock back here for campfire shenanigans. On that first night, I briefly visited the campfire before retiring to my tent, which Caroline had set up with lavish furnishings: a giant air mattress, three sleeping bags, and a fleece blanket for when things got tough. There was even a turndown service. Caroline had turned down a corner of my sleeping bag. The only thing missing was a mint on the pillow.
I had no real concept of where I was, having driven into Burlington in the dark. I didn’t stir until early morning, when I heard the whrr-whrr-whrr of motorboats puttering out into the bay. Squid jiggers. From dawn to dusk, the fishermen were out there bobbing on the waves, occasionally yelling back and forth to one another.
That first morning, I heard a few musical notes tinkling across the campsite. I unzipped my front flap to have my first look at Green Bay: gloriously calm water cloaked in a light mist, surrounded by rolling green hills. The squid jiggers off in the distance, methodically jigging. At the edge of the water on the opposite end of the beach stood a man plucking away at his mandolin. Those wake-up calls are my favourite.
My tent was set up next to Keith, a solo traveler who wasn’t the least bit shy and immediately struck up a friendship with me and the tourism folks. He’s a backcountry sort of guy who loves trapping and hunting, and he has plenty of stories to tell. Through him I learned all about the deliciousness of grouse, and how to moose hunt by calling the bulls.
He told me he liked having me there. “Reminds me of my wife,” he said. “Sleeping in different bedrooms.” We laughed and he poured me a cup of coffee. He had been out with the squid jiggers earlier that day, and through him I learned about stuffed squid: a particular delicacy in the area consisting of squid stuffed with savoury spices, bread crumbs, onion, and spices.
He started referring to me as wifey, and I referred to him as my camp husband. One morning, when the weather grew cold and miserable, he brewed me a full pot of coffee and we sat outside on our camp chairs chatting for hours.
The only place you can get cell phone service in Burlington is on a rock in a gravel driveway of a local service building next to the festival registration table. No joke. There’s a tiny rock and someone has drawn a circle around it, and at any time throughout the festival you’ll see a gaggle of people huddled together with their heads bent towards their phone.
Being Internet-free was liberating but also frustrating, considering my job was to cover the festival and I had so many gosh darned Insta-stories to share. But when I learned to let it go, I let it go.
Still, that WiFi rock was great. I met some handsome snowboarders and a few other chaps, also in need of the WiFi rock. WiFi brings people together. C’est la vie.
I decided I want to restock my cooler with some beers, so Caroline and I drove over to Middle Arm to find a liquor store. Middle Arm’s main draw is its rainbow row of fishing stages. We walked along the waterfront, and Caroline paused to talk to a man cutting some wood.
We ended up chatting for some time about nothing in particular, but his wife was the one to paint the green and orange stripes on the stage door, and yes, those were her flowers in the window. Eventually some other locals came by, including a man leading a dog on a rope. It could have been a scene out of my hometown, except it was on the opposite end of the island. Rural Newfoundland never fails to amaze me in its consistency.
Eventually, we came across a shop selling beer and flea market items. The flea market was an absolute goldmine, like something out of your nan’s Sears catalogue from the 80s. I remembered a recent Bored Panda article I had read about “great flea market finds,” and so I checked all the pockets of purses and coats. There were no hidden treasures, but I found one of those tacky painted porcelain cats that were once a decorative mainstay in everyone’s house. Naturally, I bought it.
When I went to pay for it ($2!), I told the lady it reminded me of my nan, and then felt embarrassed, and said something ridiculous like, “Not because it looks like her! Because she had one!” And then I was appropriately shunned out of the shop forever.
The porcelain cat did not survive the trip home.
I actually had a handful of other fun stories to share, but I don’t want to turn this into a novel. I’ll leave the discussion of Shed Crawls and Food Hikes and concerts for a more logistical post about The Gathering, except for a final story.
At the last concert at the festival, Caroline pulled me aside to tell me that the waters around the wharf were full of bioluminescence; in the simplest terms possible, the “production and emission of light by a living organism.” I paid good money to see bioluminescence in the Blue Lagoon in Jamaica.
But here in rural Newfoundland, completely unexpected, the whole thing was a different kind of thrill. We dipped our hands into the bay and the water lit up with glittery, twinkling blue lights. Yes, it was freezing. Yes, it was beautiful.
And then, as we sat on the dock, a circle of people moved in close and…a man accidentally farted on my head.
You just can’t have it all.