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Newfoundland’s Rugged West Coast
By Charlie Shugart Jr.
“It is 10 o’clock eastern time. Ten-thirty in Newfoundland.”
So said Canadian radio. That always made me laugh. Plus there were all those “Newfie” jokes. Well, I was about to see it all for myself. While waiting for the ferry in North Sydney, Cape Breton (Nova Scotia), I walked around like the other hundreds of travelers. Eat breakfast, have a cup of coffee, stroll, chat with strangers. Eat lunch, have a soft drink, stroll.
Then finally our big ship approached—and I’m not just whistling Dixie; it was huge! Named the Caribou, it was more than 500 feet long, and many meters (hey, I’m in Canada, eh?) above the water.
As the marine behemoth slowly approached head-first, the top half of the bow opened high into the air, like some gigantic jaw that was determined to chomp, chew and swallow huge sections of the dock. The ship gradually came to a halt and was tied securely to Cape Breton. Cars and semi-trucks with trailers began spilling out of the ship’s cavity, two levels simultaneously.
After a considerable length of time spent unloading, they began loading the Newfoundland-bound travelers and commercial vehicles. Happily, that included me. .
On the ship, I lined up my truck and trailer exactly where the man told me to (it was about eight lanes wide in the bowels of this ferry), locked my rig and scurried up to the passenger decks—I didn't want to miss departure.
The last vehicle was squeezed aboard, the lines were dropped and the jaws closed in place. Then we eased backwards into the large bay, slowly spun about, and steamed north toward the open ocean, setting our course for Newfoundland, 6 hours over the horizon.
We pulled into Port aux Basque about 10 p.m. I followed the traffic off the ship and up the highway, and then drove a couple of miles before escaping from the flow. Scooting into town, I found Newfoundland’s version of a strip mall parking lot, flopped into my trailer for the night, and boondocked. No problem.
Up early the next morning, the sun was shining brightly. My first stop was just outside town at the Provincial Visitor Center to load up on information, maps and brochures. Leaving the center, in ten minutes I was driving through a total wilderness.
After several stops and conversations with locals, it became apparent that I was having trouble understanding “Newfie-speak.” I found a particularly friendly Newfoundlander—which was easy because they all were friendly—and mentioned it to him. He replied, “That’s not unusual, eh? Even Canadians have trouble understanding us. We talk fast. You’ll just have to listen faster.” I also asked him about the term “Newfie,” and did Newfoundlanders feel insulted by it. His response was plain enough, “Why should we feel insulted by it; we are Newfies.” Another mystery solved.
A few hours later I decided there weren’t many people living outside the towns—but there were some. Every 15 or 20 miles I saw government-made signs announcing such things as “Joe and Mary’s place, 10 km,” or “Martha’s embroidery, 12 km.”
Newfies are mighty proud of their “Rock,” but it is sometimes necessary for young adults to leave Newfoundland and find work elsewhere because local employment opportunities are extremely limited. There’s the fishing industry and the lumber industry, a bit of mining, and not a lot else. But those Newfies who go to Alberta or Ontario for jobs come back to their “Real Home” as often as they can. I met several on the ferry who were doing just that.
Taking every paved road that appeared to cover a little territory near the water, I continued working my way north toward Gros Morne National Park. Just before I got to the national park I took another highway west. It went out to Tablelands and Trout Creek Lake—where I took a boat excursion. This part of Newfoundland (including Gros Morne National Park) was the most spectacularly beautiful part of eastern Canada I had seen on the entire trip. Unfortunately, it coincided with the worst weather. Oh well, you pay your money, you take your chances. After trying to maximize my enjoyment among these lovely fjords and magnificent mountains for three days of constant wind and rain, I gave up. The plan was to drive all the way to the northwest tip anyhow, and that meant returning by the same highway. So I thought I’d give Gros Morne’s moisture-laden clouds a few days to change their altitude.
Continuing up-coast, at one small cafe there was a sign stating, “Prices will change daily as the tide comes in and goes out.” You have to love those Newfies.
Driving in Newfoundland had been delightful so far. During the ice ages this eastern section of the Canadian Shield was scraped down to the ancient and very resistant metamorphic rock, leaving very little soil. It was rocky land, and if there was any farming, I didn’t see it.
After leaving Gros Morne, the mountains disappeared in my mirrors and the land took on a very tundra-like appearance, with much bare rock at the surface and many low-growing plants. At one place I pulled off the highway and walked to the cliff. Standing there leaning into the stiff breeze, I watched waves crash against the rocks. Looking closely at the ground cover—which included mosses, lichens and other low-growing vegetation—I grabbed the end of an unusual-looking plant, pulling gently at it. It turned out to be a 6-foot-long spruce tree that was growing absolutely flat on the ground! Since I hadn’t disturbed its roots, I carefully replaced the tree exactly as I had found it. I guessed that the wind howling off the ocean and into my face was not an unusual occurrence.
Driving slowly and steadily up the west side of Newfoundland I came to St. Anthony, and explored all the roads that radiated through the region to the tiny and picturesque coastal villages: Goose Cove, St. Carols, Little Brehat—where I saw my first and only large iceberg in the province, Griquet, and L’Anse Aux Meadows, which is at the “top” of Newfoundland.
From St. Anthony, I headed back to Gros Morne—hoping, hoping, hoping, that the weather around the national park had cleared in the few days since I’d been there. It had.
Gros Morne is a World Heritage Site and at 697 square miles it is huge! The mountains are an ancient and isolated extension of the Appalachian Chain—formed more than a billion years ago. Plate tectonics (continental drift) shoved the mountains upward. Millions of years of erosion, culminated by the incredible carving action of the most recent Ice Age, carved the rock layers into their present formidable and magnificent state. It is a visual delight!
Wildlife within the national park includes black bears, caribou, lynx and moose. As in many wild places, however, the animals are shy and seldom seen.
Western Brook Pond is a 19-mile long lake. Initially the valley was gouged out by glaciers, and as they retreated a freshwater lake formed when the valley was cut off from the sea. The water is as clean and pure as any other body of water in the world.
During summers, lake boat excursions are offered, and they provide some of the best sightseeing imaginable. The boat takes you right up against the mountains.
Leaving Gros Morne and re-connecting to Trans-Canada Highway 1, I headed eastbound across the province to the capital city of St. Johns. Watch out, Newfies; here I come.
Newfoundland Island is quite large (144,000 square miles), but there are enough provincial park campgrounds and village RV parks to provide for your needs. Boondocking is probably not encouraged by the local constabulary, but there were a couple of nights when I was along the rugged coastline away from all homes and towns—and it was becoming dark, so I found quiet places and overnighted. I’m always prepared to dry camp if necessary, and I was never hassled by anyone. Spending the whole night with no sounds other than the waves crashing against the shore was a bonus.
A couple of amusing tidbits...you know, the kind that happen when you’re talking with friendly locals:
I had heard “Newfie jokes” in other parts of Canada, so I asked several Newfoundlanders to tell me their favorites. Nobody knew any.
After a week in the province I hadn’t seen a single Newfoundland retriever. Then I came across a man walking his enormous and beautiful dog. Admiring the friendly 140-pound pooch, I told the man that his was the first Newfoundland I had seen. He smiled and said, “I got him from a breeder in Los Angeles.”