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An Adventure in the Canadian Maritimes

"Let's go to Newfoundland," I said, but I was thinking of Nova Scotia. Before I knew it, our flights were booked and I was heading to the vast wilderness of Newfoundland and Labrador, a province of fog and isolation that was the setting for The Shipping News. My travel companions—photographer friend John Huba, his assistant, Mike, and my 24-year-old son, Jeremy—were soon to wonder what I'd gotten them into.

The plane lands at 11:30 p.m. in St. John's, Newfoundland, the oldest city in North America. We have traveled foodless for hours. Prince's "Raspberry Beret" is blaring on the sound system at Green Sleeves, a pub on George Street. What happened to Newfoundland's traditional Irish music that I've read so much about?The waitress brings the menu, which lists the house specialty: cod tongues with scruncheons (fried pork rind). No one else is eating. "It's late," says Mike, trying to make me feel better.

Our food arrives two beers later. John's chowder holds his spoon straight up. Jeremy says the stuffing in his hot turkey sandwich brings back memories of childhood backpacking trips. Mike says it's Canadian Stove Top. My chicken soup is made with beef and the Greek salad is straight from a bag of week-old iceberg lettuce. John glares at me and asks, "Where are we?What are we doing here?"

A gray, drizzly day greets us as we leave the Winterholme Heritage Inn to explore St. John's. Visibility is barely two feet at Signal Hill, where Marconi received his first transatlantic wireless signal. A sign reads LONDON 2,320 MILES and MONTREAL 1,006 MILES. A foghorn adds to the sense of remoteness. John and I get back in the car. Mike and Jeremy never got out.

Dick, our host at the Winterholme, has advised us to try Ches's, which he says has the best fish-and-chips in North America. I give in: if you're going to eat fried food you certainly want the best. Ches's is a simple, working-class joint. As a health nut, I tremble to think of the fats in this one little place. The fish-and-chips are good, but even the guys feel guilty.

After lunch, we drive 17 miles south to Bay Bulls for a bird-watching trip around Gull Island. Our guide, Joe, takes us out in his new aluminum motorboat, through water that's emerald and aquamarine and unbelievably clear. There are puffins everywhere, plus kittiwakes and great black-backed gulls. The puffins' wings make a whirring noise as they pass overhead. A soft, damp breeze scented with salt, berries, wildflowers, and guano blows around us. Suddenly, the fog hugging the hills across the bay disappears, and we're able to see for miles. Joe takes us to one of his favorite places on Gull Island, the Chapel, where cliffs tower above a misty grotto. It has the feel of a great European cathedral without the art. I wait for a pipe organ to boom.

At the Northgale restaurant in St. John's, we sample cod tongues and scruncheons. The cod has a strange meaty texture and a strong fishy taste; the scruncheons are like the gum that squirts liquid into your mouth. But instead of cool mint, they shoot warm grease.

Heavy fog blocks the sun as we set out to see the woodland caribou herd near St. Shott's, south of St. John's on the Avalon Peninsula. We screech to a stop in front of a well-mowed lawn covered with figurines. Madge, a sweet, plumpish woman who speaks with the difficult-to-understand Newfoundland accent, meets us at the gate. "I only wanted three Smurfs for my flower garden," she says. That was 16 years ago. Now it takes eight hours for Madge and her husband to move the Smurfs, castles, Humpty Dumptys, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs so they can mow the grass.

We continue along Route 10, the scenic coastal road that runs the length of the peninsula. An abandoned yellow house with SHALOM painted on it in blue provides the only color in a sea of gray. Outside St. Shott's we stop to survey a matted world of berries, mosses, pines, and flowers. Jeremy and I feast on wild blueberries while John and Mike chase caribou, strange-looking creatures with long, thin legs.

St. Shott's has 162 inhabitants, who live in neat little houses, all flying the Canadian flag. The government declared a moratorium on cod-fishing seven years ago. There are no boats in the bay—they're all onshore. We run into Peter and Theresa Myrick, who are pleased to have company. A golden retriever guards their little white house with its garden of yellow and purple flowers. Peter was the lighthouse keeper for 23 years, until it went automatic. He now runs the foghorn.

St. Shott's occupies my thoughts during the drive back to St. John's. The outport is an endangered species, a place lost in time. We stop at a convenience store for snacks. The shelves are bare, except for a few essentials. No temptation here.

We drive 3 1/2 hours northwest through hilly forest to Terra Nova National Park, where we will spend the night. Just as we get out of the car, the skies turn black and rain pours down. But we decide to take an afternoon canoe trip anyway. As we paddle across Sandy Pond, its surface broken only by raindrops, the sky lightens and so do our moods. We hear the cry of a loon. A muskrat rams our boat several times. We were warned that moose are known to attack, but no one told us about the muskrats.

The rain stops as we pull up to a portage. Conifers dot the landscape, but the real picture is at our feet—thousands of blueberries on a carpet of white-green reindeer lichen. We feast on the berries, which look as if they're growing on clouds.

Newfoundland's landscape reminds me of the Adirondacks, but is much more lush. We return to the dock thoroughly happy and drive to the Terra Nova Park Lodge, blasting the heat and Aretha. Life is good.


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