Nine days in the wilds of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada's Atlantic rim
"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.
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.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the entry of the province of Newfoundland--comprising the island of the same name and the mainland territory of Labrador--into the Canadian Confederation. The international airport is in the capital, St. John's. You'll need to rent a car to explore; Labrador can be reached by ferry or plane.
Don't go to Newfoundland if you can sleep only on Pratesi sheets. The accommodations here are clean, comfortable, and friendly, but not fancy.
Winterholme Heritage Inn 79 Rennies Mill Rd., St. John's; 800/599-7829 or 709/739-7979, fax 709/753-9411; doubles from $68. Owner Dick Cook is the perfect host at this 1905 Queen Anne mansion-turned-inn; ask for one of the fireplace suites.
Prescott Inn 19 Military Rd., St. John's; 888/263-3786 or 709/753-7733, fax 709/753-6036; doubles from $51. Sixteen rooms in three renovated Victorian buildings.
Terra Nova Park Lodge Port Blandford; 709/543-2525, fax 709/543-2201; doubles from $64. This 82-room hotel has a heated outdoor pool, a golf course, and lots of nature trails.
Anchor Inn Twillingate; 709/884-2776, fax 709/884-2326; doubles from $47. The dining room overlooks the harbor. If you'd rather cook your own meals, stay in one of the eight efficiency units next door.
Harbour Lights Inn 189 Main St., Twillingate; 709/884-2763; doubles from $34. Two of the nine rooms have whirlpool baths.
Sugar Hill Inn 115-129 Sextons Rd., Norris Point; 888/299-2147 or 709/458-2147, fax 709/458-2166; doubles from $52. A charming six-room inn with a hot tub and sauna.
Valhalla Lodge B&B Rte. 436, Gunners Cove; 877/623-2018 or 709/623-2018, fax 709/623-2144; doubles from $40. Annie Proulx began The Shipping News at this seven-room Scandinavian-themed lodge near St. Anthony, overlooking the Atlantic.
Victorian Manor Woody Point, Bonne Bay; phone and fax 709/453-2485; doubles from $34. A pretty garden, comfortable rooms, and views of minkes playing in Bonne Bay.
Rifflin' Hitch Lodge Upper Eagle River, Labrador; 709/634-2000, fax 709/634-2009; doubles from $2,736 a week. A remote lodge with world-class fishing. The rate includes helicopter transportation from Goose Bay, guides, boats, and all meals.
Atsanik Lodge Nain, Labrador; 709/922-2910; doubles from $64. A dusty, bare-bones, 25-room hotel. The only lodging in the area.
Ches's Fish & Chips 9 Freshwater Rd., St. John's; 709/722-4083; dinner for two $14.
Northgale 8 Kenna's Hill, St. John's; 709/753-2425; dinner for two $45.
Anchor Café Main St., Port au Choix; 709/861-3665; dinner for two $30.
City & Outport Adventures 524 Water St., St. John's; 709/754-8687, fax 709/739-8687. Day trips from St. John's to outlying towns.
Wildland Tours 124 Water St., St. John's; 709/722-3123, fax 709/722-3335. Birding excursions.
Terra Nova Adventures Terra Nova National Park; 888/533-8687 or 709/533-9797. Ocean kayaking at its best.
Twillingate Adventure Tours Twillingate; 709/884-5999. Two-hour whale-watching expeditions.
Discovery Outtripping 23 Doves Rd., Cornerbrook; 709/634-6335, fax 709/634-2104. Knowledgeable guides for trekking and fly-fishing in Gros Morne National Park.
Air Tours and Charters
Newfoundland Labrador Air Transport Deer Lake; 709/635-3574, fax 709/635-3901.
Canadian Helicopters St. John's; 709/570-0700.
Air Labrador Goose Bay, Labrador; 800/563-3042 or 709/753-5593.
On the Web
Stop by Newfoundlander magazine's Web site before you go (www.newfoundlander.com/speak.html). That way you'll know what the locals mean when they call you a CFA ("come from away") or ask you to go get the "slut" (a kettle).