Another morning of fog and drizzle. We head north from Terra Nova, eventually connecting with the Road to the Isles, a series of bridges and causeways. By the time we reach Twillingate, a tiny port town on one of the northernmost islands, we're all in need of a break from one another. I go to meet Sterling Elliott of Twillingate Adventure Tours, who takes me whale-watching in Notre Dame Bay. As I'm searching for the spout of a humpback, the sun breaks through. "Follow the birds," Sterling says. "The whales stir up the feed and gannets circle the area." The gannets pull their three-foot wings tight to their bodies and dive straight down, kamikaze-style, into the water. Sterling spots our first whale, a minke, and we get so close I can hear its loud breaths.
Our boat glides through a maze of islets. Newfoundland is so much about the sea, and I love floating dreamily over the swells. There's the same pale light that you see in Scandinavia, only here it is colder and somewhat aloof.
We decide to fish, and in a short time Sterling has caught a nice-size cod. He thrusts it into my face, saying there's a Newfoundland tradition that all visitors have to kiss a cod before going home. I stare at the gaping mouth and blow a kiss. Sterling sets the fish back in the water and we watch it swim into the dark sea.
Later I walk back to Twillingate, past sheds covered with drying squid. A fishy, but not unpleasant, odor permeates the air. People seem to cling together in the village. The houses are built close to each other, despite all the open space around. Up a hill is a cemetery with simple white tombstones and granite crosses. Screaming gulls soar above.
At the Harbour Lights Inn, we wake at 4 a.m. to a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, and fried tomatoes. After a 90-minute drive to Gander, we fly across the island to Deer Lake, a town on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula. Mark Tsang, a 30-year-old guide who seems to know everything, takes us into Gros Morne National Park, a unesco World Heritage Site renowned for its geology. The terrain ranges from forested mountains to red tablelands, a desert carved by ancient glaciers.
Setting out on a hike up Lookout Hills Trail, Mark sights a young bull moose within a few minutes. "If he comes toward us, run for the tallest tree," Mark says. I've never been good at climbing trees but hope I'd be able to do it in a pinch. Mark tells us that Gros Morne has the densest moose population in the world. We see four in less than 30 minutes.
Gros Morne's "tuckamore" forest is filled with windswept, stunted balsam fir, white and black spruce, dogwood, and white birch; the ground is thick with blueberries and partridgeberries. A boardwalk stretches surreally across the top of a bog. There's no one else in sight. A boardwalk just for us!
We drive into Norris Point after dark. A road sign proclaims it to be a PHOTOGRAPHER'S PARADISE. That will have to wait until morning, since we're late for dinner at the Sugar Hill Inn. Luckily, they saved us dessert, a cheesecake with compotes of blueberry, partridgeberry, and bakeapple (cloudberry).
A gray morning sets the mood for our drive on the Viking Trail, along the northwest coast to Plum Point. We will spend the night at the Valhalla Lodge B&B in Gunners Cove, near St. Anthony. A nor'easter is approaching, and clouds are blowing swiftly overhead. Mike says it feels like snow. By the time we arrive at the Anchor Café in Port au Choix, the sea is angry. The only customers, we eat bowls of chicken vegetable soup.
Set against the black sky, the Pointe Riche lighthouse looks like a giant red-and-white barber pole. The beach is covered with fossils, so we pile on fleece and rain gear and set out in the pouring, stinging rain to scour. Freezing, I head back to the car. John, Jeremy, and Mike continue the hunt while I sit in the car listening to blues tapes and watching the white-capped sea.
It's another cold and rainy day, but our spirits are high. We're getting used to the weather. The skies clear when we reach St. Barbs, and we can see southern Labrador across the Strait of Belle Isle. We're getting farther and farther away from civilization, and for the first time I feel a little uneasy. This isolation is so unfamiliar.
From St. Anthony we fly to Labrador, the part of the province that's on the mainland of Canada. During the flight we're treated to a spectacular sunset, the most intense color we've seen in days. We land in Goose Bay, which is barely a town. It's the site of a NATO air base and a jumping-off spot for outdoorsmen flying on to remote camps. We check into our hotel, which resembles an airplane hangar. The good news is that we have cable TV; the bad news is that springs are popping out of my bed.
We eat breakfast at the best place in town—A&W Root Beer. Lunch is sandwiches we picked up at Subway the day before. We're becoming fast-food mavens and we don't care.
Though I know it's a lot for such a short trip, I'm obsessed with taking a flight-seeing tour over Labrador's untraveled terrain. Clyde House, our guide for the day, looks like a bush pilot, ruggedly handsome. The sky is brilliant, with barely a cloud. John suggests I sit up front in the seaplane, a 1953 De Havilland Beaver. I ask Clyde whether we'll see polar bears. "Sure," he says. "In the Toronto Zoo!" We have city written all over us.
We take off into wilderness as far as the eye can see. This is what the locals call the "Big Land." No houses, no signs of people—only a paradise of lakes, ponds, mountains, waterfalls, sea, and icebergs, which seem to march single file down the coast.
After four hours of flying, Clyde sets the plane down in Hebron, a town settled by Moravian missionaries on a beautiful little bay. I walk to a cemetery that is all but gone: only a few marble tombstones remain. Wooden grave markers are now blank pieces of bleached wood lying on the ground. Forgotten souls.
The silence is broken by Jeremy, who is yelling "Bear!" Turns out he had been drawing when he noticed caribou approaching. He was about to get up when he heard a noise, and turned to see an equally shocked black bear. Jeremy held his ground, shouted at the bear to go away, and then slowly backed off.
Clyde calls us to the plane. An hour later we land at an old mining camp to refuel. We're greeted by two men covered in nets: netted hats, shirts, pants. Blackflies are everywhere. The camp was used for nickel exploration, but the find was farther down in Voisey's Bay. A chopper drops our fuel cans on the beach. It's a strange place. John keeps humming the banjo tune from Deliverance. I walk around the camp after dumping half a bottle of bug repellent over my body. I can barely see, there are so many flies around my face.
We arrive in Nain, a large Inuit community, with little time to explore. Clyde tells us that the village is much prettier in winter: everything is white and there are no flies. The frozen bay becomes a highway for snowmobiles. Clyde takes us to the home of Gilbert Hay, an Inuit soapstone carver who has a wise faraway look in his eyes. Gilbert's work is well known and respected; he has just made a large shipment to his gallery in Goose Bay, so there's not much here to look at. Still, I'm taken by a green serpentine sculpture of a small head with a wolf emerging from it. Deciding to buy the piece, I ask Gilbert what it means. "It is the act of thinking about the thought more than the actual thought," he says.
The flight back to Goose Bay is the grand finale. We spot seals, minke whales, and huge flocks of Canada geese. Ponds and rivers shimmer beneath us. We pass over tundra, green valleys, and rocky cliffs where snow still clings.
There were times, with all the rain, fog, wind, and cold, that this trip seemed impossible. But just when I thought I wanted to go home, Newfoundland and Labrador knocked my socks off. It is a godforsaken and God-blessed place all at once. I want to go back, and to go farther still. Not long ago I read an interview with Annie Proulx, the author of The Shipping News. Asked how she feels about Newfoundland, she responded: "!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" My sentiments exactly.