There are things we left undone…we didn’t get northeast of St. John’s where shrimping is apparently the main industry, we didn’t get a chance to visit The Rooms, apparently an amazing museum, and we didn’t get “screeched in” but you can’t do everything! It was hard to leave the St. John’s area of Newfoundland but we have a lot of area to cover in order to be home by the end of September. So, with Miles perched on our dash, we headed west on the Trans Canada highway, more or less void of potholes. It felt foreign, but good, to drive at a normal 100kph for long stretches!
A short diversion of about 5 km took us to Southern Harbour, another little fishing village in Placentia Bay. Not a store or restaurant to be found…people must all go into the city for everything. We had hoped to grab a coffee! Instead, we poked around the harbour a bit…the tide was out. And when the tide is out, the garbage is in! Amazing the amount of trash that is left on the shore when the ocean retreats…cups, bottles, etc. It always makes me wonder why people litter in the first place.
Back on the highway and a stop for lunch in Clarenville which used to have a fishery that employed a major part of the population. While we were having our picnic, one of the locals was chatting with us. He has been working in Ft. McMurray since the fishery closed a few years ago. He says it is too expensive to live in Newfoundland anymore. We have noticed as well that everything is more expensive here than anywhere else in the country. Gas is at least 25% higher and kicking our budget to death!
We left the Trans Canada at Clarenville to explore the Bonavista Peninsula. Our overnight spot ended up being the absolutely beautiful town of Trinity. Although there are only about 500 residents, the town houses many more in the summer. It has numerous Bed & Breakfasts and is a centre for whale watching and other boat adventure experiences. It has been used in a TV mini-series called Random Passage as well as a location in a couple of movies…I don’t remember the names of the movies but apparently Kevin Spacey starred in one of them.
The other thing the town is renowned for is its live theatre. It offers four or five plays throughout the season with showings six days a week. We went to see “West Moon”. It was unusual in that all the cast were actually dead! Once a year, on All Souls Night, they communicate with each other and get news of happenings above from the most recently perished. It dealt with the problem of resettlement, a very real issue here as the government, many years ago, could not sustain all the tiny villages so it forced people to leave the villages and resettle in larger communities where schools and hospitals could be provided. This, of course, left all the little graveyards unattended so you can imagine the way the play went!
The next day we headed for Cape Bonavista. Cape Bonavista is where John Cabot first landed in 1497. There are more historic sites here than we could possibly see in a day. We had heard from others that this would be the best place to see whales and they were right. We saw many! One we watched for more than half an hour, rolling, jumping, and slapping his tail against the water as he dove. It was fascinating! I wish I had a camera with a telephoto lens to capture such a magnificent mammal. Instead, it is etched in our memories.
From Cape Bonavista we drove a few kilometres more to Elliston, the root cellar capital of the world! There are hundreds of root cellars here, some still very much in use. They are an example of the ingenuity of the pioneers from this area…frost free rooms built into the cliffs to preserve the root vegetables that grow so well here so they could be eaten all winter. An early version of our present day cold rooms.
Although the root cellars were interesting, the real reason for going to Elliston for us was to see the Puffin Colony. Hundreds…no, thousands…of these cute penguin-like birds nest on the loam and moss covered rocks overlooking the ocean. We saw a few at Cape Bonavista but for some reason there are so many more here! We loved it.
On our way back to the Cape we noticed a somewhat sandy beach area and people swimming. No way was it hot enough for me to swim in the Atlantic! Rounding the Cape and heading down the west side of the peninsula, we stopped at Knights Cove to watch the waves crashing against the rocks, something we never seem to tire of.
By evening we were in Gander enjoying a pleasant walk around Rotary Park, watching the sun set before heading off to find something to eat. We were surprised at how small Gander is. For some reason, we expected a major city…maybe because it has an international airport but it must be on the map because of the airforce base there. Huge military planes came and went throughout the night.
From Gander, we left the main highway again, taking “The Road to Islands” highway to Gander Bay. From there we headed northwest along causeways connecting the islands in the water passage called Dildo Run. The largest of the islands is called New World Island. We continued on to Twillingate Island. In the spring and early summer this would be an ideal spot to see icebergs floating by but it is too late in the season for that now. This part of Newfoundland was pretty remote until the causeways were built in the 60’s so some of the people have pretty thick accents. Jim was getting the propane filled on the van and he couldn’t understand a word the fellow was saying to him! He just nodded and smiled!
We were pleasantly surprised to come across a winery in the area. Auk Island Winery produces about 15 varieties of fruit and berry wines. Grapes do not grow in the region. I was able to taste a number of them…some were good, some not so good…but I came away with a couple to serve at our next family dinner.
We headed back towards the Trans Canada, passing lumber mills in the interior and then more fishing villages along the coast. We drove through Campbellton, quite different from the Campbellton of Jim’s youth in New Brunswick and stopped to sit on a rocky beach with our books for a break. Lewisporte gave us a history of the Newfoundland Railway which really never should have been built given its poor record and many accidents during the few years it was in operation.
We stopped at Bishop’s Falls to have supper by the dam. While there, we walked across an old train trestle, the longest in the province at 927 feet, longer than the Titanic, built in 1901 and spanning the Exploit River. The evening was beautiful and the river was calm. Then on to Grand Falls-Windsor for the night.
The next morning we were up and on the road relatively early. Our destination for the next few days: Gros Morne National Park. We passed small lake villages surrounded by dense forest and steep mountains. The day was overcast, our first day here without sunshine and what a pity. The rounded tops of the Appalatian mountains would have looked even more spectacular against a blue sky. We checked into a campground at Norris Point and got our awning out just as rain started to sprinkle. To be honest, it didn’t matter. We had been on the road for close to five hours and were ready to just veg. We would have a few days here.
The forecast had looked bleak but we woke to a lightly overcast day with the sun trying to make an appearance on and off throughout the day. We had decided to spend the day in the campground, leaving the van parked. There was a nice trail…The Moose Path…that circled the small lake which we walked a couple of times but mostly we played games and enjoyed the solitude of the forest. By evening it was pouring rain and we were forced inside, thankful to be in a van rather than a tent!
It rained heavily throughout the night and into the morning. We packed up in the dampness, determined to see some of Gros Morne Park, regardless of the weather. A short drive into Norris Point offered us an opportunity to go on a guided tour of the marine aquarium there. We were able to view and sometimes hold a huge array of marine animals including the likes of crab, periwinkle snails, moon snails, Connors, starfish, sea urchins, anenomies, blue, red and green lobsters and a wolf fish that, given the chance, could and would bite your finger off! The animals are kept in huge tanks with water circulating continuously through them from Bonne Bay. This maintains as natural an environment as possible as they study the different species. At the end of the season, most of them are returned to the bay along with the tank water. A few of the more rare species are kept over the winter and maintained by a skeleton crew of marine biologists.
Also in the aquarium were samples of whale bones, including a nearly complete skeleton that was recovered from a beached whale in 2014. Pieces of baleen, the weird part of a whales mouth that filters the krill from the seawater, is also on display…it feels like a brush of horsehair!
By the time we left the aquarium, bits of blue sky were visible. We headed out on a 3km hike which followed the shore of the bay along a slate path that was efficiently draining the forest of the water of last night’s rain. As we neared the corner of the bay, the path took an abrupt turn and headed up the mountain with the help of many wooden steps and natural steps made of tree roots and slate outcropping through dense spruce and birch. Occasionally we would get a glimpse of the bay and the mountains across. By hiking path standards, this trail would likely be rated as moderate. As we huffed and puffed our way up and down the 302 wooden steps…yes, Jim counted every last one…our poor old out of shape bodies were challenged! Note to self: get back in shape when we get home! We were rewarded with a nearly clear blue sky as we descended the last of the steps down to shore level again. Yay!
Off we went, through Rocky Harbour, and north along the Viking trail. If we were to follow this road for another 550 km or so, we would arrive at L’Anse aux Meadows where the first Viking settlement was established in North America in the year 1000 A.D. And we would most assuredly see moose and caribou…But we don’t have time for that trek.
A stop at Lobster Cove gave us a panoramic view of the Gulf of St. Lawrence where it enters Bonne Bay. The beacon on the lighthouse there can be seen from 22 km away. A tour of the lighthouse reminded us of the isolated life of the light keeper and his family in the early 1900’s. Keeping the light burning (using oil) was a daily job, not to mention the daily chores of tending to a small mixed farm to feed a family of seven year round. Music was and is a big part of Newfoundland culture but a lighthouse keeper could not leave for an evening of socializing. Luckily, neighbors a few miles away would sometimes come to them and the lighthouse home would turn into a kitchen party.
Our drive ended at Shallow Bay, just north of Cow Head. Here we found a true sandy beach stretching 5 km along the coast of the Gulf. This is the first time we have seen fine white sand here…most of the beaches are cobblestone or gravel size rocks, sometimes a bit smaller but never what we would call sand. We wandered up and down the beach searching among the seaweed for unique shells to add to our collection. Mussels and periwinkles seemed to be all we could find, along with bits of crab that we left lie. The sky had cleared completely and the hot sun felt good on our faces as we watched the shadows grow longer.
Back at the campsite, with a full moon shimmering on the water, we tried to locate the various constellations in the sky, watched for satellites orbiting above us, and were warmed by the blazing campfire…a perfect end to another day.
Our last full day in Gros Morne was terrific. We were booked onto a cruise of Western Brook Pond. Around here, a lake is called a pond. It was a 3km hike over the bogs on a gravel and boardwalk path from the parking lot to the lake. That in itself was wonderful as we could see the mountains looming closer as we inspected all the wild flowers along the way and checked out the weird formations in the trees that have been stripped and killed by the winter winds.
This would be ideal moose country but in the nearly two weeks we’ve been in Newfoundland, we’re beginning to think the whole moose thing is a lure to get tourists here…we’ve not even seen one! We always “just missed a big bull half an hour ago”, or “two cows just went through the campground ten minutes before you got here.” Sure! Right! Anyway, we are always on the lookout.
While we were standing in line to board the boat, chatting with people around us, I jokingly mentioned my moose theory to them. Of course, every one of them, even the couple that had just arrived yesterday, had seen at least one…some had seen several. Lamenting our lack of good fortune as our time on the Rock was coming to an end, the lady next to me pointed across the lake. “Look at that…there’s a bull moose right there!” Finally! And what a magnificent creature!
The boat tour took us deep into the mountains. Steep cliffs and granite rock faces were right beside us. Many years ago, this lake was an inlet of the Gulf of St. Lawrence so it would have been filled with salt water, a true fjord. Whales and other sea creatures would have lived in here, as evidenced by fossil remains that have been found. Then, after at least six glaciers carved their way through, the earth shifted, the bog we walked through rose, the inlet became landlocked. The water, over many years, lost its salinity as glaciers melted. Today it is one of the purest water sources in the world, so pure that very little plant life can grow in it, making it very clear and deep. There are some fish, and moose and caribou roam the mountains around it. Because it is landlocked with no roads to it, activity on the lake is limited to these tours and the odd canoe that a hunter may portage in.
The mountains are old…much older than our Rockies. They are like old men, backs hunched, years of hard work and struggle weighing heavily on their shoulders. They are rounded on top, having lost their peaks over millions of years of erosion. Crevices formed by shifting and heaving have created an amazing picture for us to enjoy. Waterfalls happen only if there has been rain and since we have had some recently, we were treated to a few of them. Our favorite was the one called Pissing Mare…or is it Mayor? Such unique names around here!
Because the pond is not fed by any streams or glaciers, it takes much longer than average to fully replenish its water supply. Where an average lake of this size would take 6-7 years, this one takes 15 plus, depending on the rain and snowfall in the area.
By the time we had finished the cruise and hiked back to the parking lot, it was getting late in the afternoon. We still needed to drive 100 km to the south part of Gros Morne Park. The park is separated by the Bonne Bay and Bonne Lake. Our destination would be about 15 minutes by ferry from Norris Point where we were camped for the last three nights to Woody Point area where we had planned for our last night in the Park. But since the road was built, ferry service no longer exists except for walking passengers. So, up and down and around we went through the steep mountains to camp near the base of the Tablelands.
The Tablelands are quite fascinating. A UNESCO World Heritage site, they are one of the few areas in the world where the earth’s mantle has been heaved up and sits in a mountainous pile above the ground. As we walked over the yellowish rocks, void of any vegetation, it felt like we were walking on the surface of the moon! In the lower areas, surrounding the mountain, vegetation is starting to get established between the rocks. Moss and low lying alpine type plants are filling in the spaces but the Tablelands themselves are barren.
That evening, in a campground that was no more than a parking spot overlooking the bay along the side of the road, Jim got talking to a couple of men and a young boy fishing off the wharf. They were pulling mackerel out of the lake three and four at a time. They ended up giving four of them to Jim! When the sun went down, we were invited in to visit our next door neighbors, Marcy and Tex, in their big Pace Arrow bus…it seemed as big as our house after being in our little van for three months! They were from Corner Brook, not far away and they were out on their first road trip “just getting their feet wet” as they said. No wet feet in that fancy unit!
The next morning we were on the road early, stopping for breakfast just out of the National Park and then back on the Trans Canada heading south. As suggested by our neighbors, we stopped at the lookout on the mountain for a view of scenic Corner Brook, it’s north arm and its south arm reaching out into the Bay of Islands.
Then on to Stephenville Crossing on St.George’s Bay to visit Bernice and Kevin, the couple we had met on our first night in Newfoundland. They had insisted we stay with them on our last night here as they were only a two hour drive from the ferry at Port aux Basques.
Stephenville Crossing is suffering from population depletion like so many other small towns across Canada. During World War II, the Americans had occupied several acres of land there for an Airforce base. It was the perfect spot to refuel its military planes on their way to Europe. 25,000 soldiers were living in the barracks there and a large number of civilians were employed at the base. Many people, including Bernice’s parents, moved their young families there from elsewhere in Newfoundland for work as carpenters, mechanics, etc. After the war, the Americans moved out, selling all the hangars and barracks to the Government of Newfoundland in 1966. The buildings were eventually sold off privately, and reused. The barracks were renovated into apartments and condos, still in use today.
Kevin drove us west along the coast to see the huge limestone quarry. This is an international operation that supplies limestone, dolomite and rock aggragates to many places in North America, Africa, and other points in the world. We watched the huge trucks and cranes as they dug and dumped the rock from the pits right to the ships via large conveyor belts that went underneath the road.
We stopped on Father Joy’s Road to see a massive wooden Roman Catholic Church, the largest wooden structure in Newfoundland, built in 1914. Apparently the inside has been conserved beautifully but it was closed by the time we got there. It is still used for special events like concerts and weddings but no longer used as an actual church.
Back to the house for an evening of chatter around the kitchen table and then a night of sleep in a real bed. We were up very early the next morning to make the two hour drive to the ferry for our 9:30 check-in. One more moose sighting was our hope but it didn’t happen. It’s really hard to believe that the island is suffering from overpopulation of this massive animal. Apparently, it is not at all indigenous to the island. The first two were brought to Newfoundland a number of years ago. They flourished well, so four more were brought from New Brunswick. With no natural predators, the population grew steadily until, when they reached 10 per square kilometre, the government knew they had a problem to deal with. Now, they open hunting season for the moose every year to get the population down, even allowing hunting in the National Parks. Presently there are approximately 3 per square kilometre, the goal being two. Studies, using vegetation enclosures to keep the moose out, have recorded an annual 10 percent loss in forest growth due to overpopulation over the years. Sustainability is now in sight.
Through strong winds, drizzly fog and rainbows in the mist, we approached Port aux Basques ferry terminal, sad to be leaving this wonderful island but excited to know we still have the whole of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton to explore.