Chapter 5: Canoeing Newfoundland
Dave and Helen Damouth
August 19 - September 8, 1997
We've finally been able to get enough information together to do some backcountry canoeing. But to bring you up to date: On Aug. 19, we took the ferry back from Labrador, and spent the next few days exploring the extreme northern tip of Newfoundland.
We toured the National Historic Site at L'Anse Aux Meadows - the only confirmed Norse dwelling site in North America, dating from about 1000 AD. It may have been a waystation used by Leif Erikson on his exploratory voyages. The archaeologist who found it used clues in the Norse sagas recorded in Iceland in the 1300's to trace the route from Iceland to Greenland to Labrador, and down the coast to this northern tip of Newfoundland. We then drove around St. Anthony, a pleasant little town on the extreme northern end of NF. The town has built walkways and observation platforms looking out to sea from a rocky promontory just east of town, and several tourists were excited about having seen whales while we were there. This is the headquarters of the Grenfell medical services - a large hospital and administration buildings. Grenfell established the first serious medical services for the NF/Labrador area, 100 years ago or so, with private funding, and it has been growing ever since.
Two days of hard driving, south then east, brought us to St. Johns NF on the night of August 24. We're at Pippy Trailer park - in the middle of a large municipal park sandwiched between the Memorial University of NF and the College of the North Atlantic. The park is big - 183 sites, and well equipped. We have 30 amp electrical service for the first time in several weeks, paved internal roads, and nice well-spaced sites on a wooded hill. And it's just a short drive from downtown.
The Newfies seem to love Newfie jokes. A couple of days ago, I saw a Newfie Ashtray in a gift shop - a beer bottle cap, neatly mounted on a varnished block of wood, nearly filled by a single butt, varnished and glued down. A campground had a sign pointing to the Newfie Pool, which apparently was a big sandbox in the playground. I mentioned earlier that a restaurant had Newfie steak on its breakfast menu - which turned out to be fried bologna.
8/25 This morning, we returned to our truck, which was parked on a downtown street, to find a guy standing on the rear bumper of the truck trying to get his head up inside our little solo canoe to see the internal details. This initiated a conversation about canoes and canoe trips, of course, and after a few minutes, he invited us back to his house to look at his marked-up topographic maps.
After looking over a bunch of maps, he recommended an area which is less than an hour's drive southwest of St. Johns, and is in country where caribou herds are common. So perhaps we'll get to see them after all. (Recall that Newfoundland is over five hundred miles long and has only about half a million people - you don't have to go very far out of town to be in wilderness).
We've been reluctant to take off into the backcountry here without local knowledge, and there don't appear to be any guidebooks. We've been asking for canoe trip information every since we got here, and got mostly blank stares. There is some white water canoe and kayak activity in the spring, and some people that take a canoe out and paddle around a pond for an afternoon, but almost no flatwater tripping.
The land is rough and rocky, and where it's not rocky, it's mostly bog or incredibly dense low spruce thickets called tuckamore. Just finding a place to pitch a tent is a real challenge. So getting our hands on his maps felt like a real coup.
The guy's name is Austin Anthony. After talking to us for a while, he rather diffidently inquired how we'd feel about his coming with us. He's probably in his late 60's, has taught orienteering, led many boy scout canoe and backpack trips into the interior of Newfoundland, has lived here all his life, and has gone into this particular area caribou hunting many times. He turned out, among other things, to be a licensed guide. He owns two canoes, down from five a few years ago. We felt like we were in good hands. In general, we don't like the idea of hiring guides, but in this case, it felt more like Austin hired us - he really seemed anxious to go.
He plays the simple blue-collar Newfie, but it gradually comes out, as we talk more with him, that he knows everyone, has been nearly everywhere, and has done nearly everything. One of his funny stories had to do with attending a tea party at Government House. At one point, we mentioned a book on Newfoundland wildflowers that we bought and liked. Austin was not only familiar with the book but immediately told us that the husband/wife team who wrote the book would probably be attending a nature walk scheduled for this coming Wednesday evening at Pippy Park (which is where we are staying).
The proposed trip went into a wilderness reserve requiring a permit, and Austin went out the next morning and got a permit. He had loaned us his marked-up maps of the area, and during the trip, we found all the markings, of portages, campsites, etc, to be very precise (what would you expect from an orienteering instructor?). With his map, we could have easily done the trip ourselves. But having him along made it an educational experience.
The canoe trip went well, right up until the end. We left St. Johns early and were on the water about 9 a.m. Austin mentioned that he used to hunt caribou in the wilderness area which we were heading into, but that he hadn't been there for 10 years. Then he traversed the complicated chain of little lakes, rivers, and unmarked portages, without ever looking at his map. We arrived at our campsite around 3 p.m., after paddling around 8 miles and carrying over three portages totaling a little over a mile. We camped in a little spruce grove sheltered in a valley running down from the high barrens and bogs to the shore of a little sheltered bay.
On the second day, we took a long hike up over the high plateaus and peaks behind our campsite. At various times, Austin would point and say, "when I was up here in 19XX with Joe XXX, we got a caribou right over there", and then he would continue into some funny story about that trip. On another occasion, he talked about the backpack trip he took over the Chilkoot Trail (the gold miner's trail from Alaska over the mountains into Canada, from the 1898 gold rush. He also talked about trips to England (his wife was born near Oxford), Vancouver, etc. He is active in the Canadian national canoe association, has attended major events of the American Canoe Association, is a certified canoeing instructor, teaches canoeing courses at the local college, trains instructors in canoeing, orienteering and backcountry skills, and leads Venture Scout canoe trips (the equivalent of the Explorer Scouts in the US - the older boys). It also turned out that he has been recovering from chemotherapy and hasn't been on a canoe trip, except for easy student training trips, for three years. He tired and slowed down noticeably during the trip, but still set a respectable pace.
We never did see any caribou - lots of fresh caribou tracks and droppings, a couple of antlers (which fall off annually in early winter), three ptarmigans (similar to our grouse or partridge), a ground squirrel, a couple of aggressive Canada Jays (locally called Camp Robber Jays), beautiful scenery, but no caribou. Austin seemed quite chagrined, and kept apologizing.
The morning we intended to return, we awoke to the sound of strong, gusty winds in the treetops and heavy rain. The wind was blowing straight across the lake at us and the lake was a mass of whitecaps. Even in our big canoe, it seemed impractical to paddle against the wind and waves. For Austin, singlehanding a 16' tandem canoe, it was clearly impossible. We hiked down the shoreline to a hidden "warden's shack" which he knew about. He picked the lock, explaining that he knew all the Local and Provincial park officials and would have no trouble about it. Later, when we discovered that it was a Federal building, used by Federal wardens to monitor salmon fishing in the nearby stream, he seemed a bit uncomfortable. We settled in for a cozy day, with a fire in the wood stove. In mid-afternoon, the wind abated, and we got on the water at 4 p.m. for what I estimated would be a five-hour paddle back. Full dark is about 9 p.m., so we were cutting it very close. In fact, with the heavy overcast and rain, it was dark well before we found our takeout point and we paddled the last lake while navigating by the loom of black trees against slightly less black sky. Unloading the canoes while stumbling around in the dark and rain, even with flashlights, was a new experience for us.
It was also a new experience to walk up to where we parked the truck and find it slowly sinking into a swamp. This had seemed like firm ground when we parked, but a day of heavy rain had turned it into a quagmire. We spent nearly two hours trying to fill in under the tires with gravel, rocks, and branches, and managed to move about six feet, at which point we were defeated when the front tires encountered the small rise up onto really firm ground. At that point, we gave up, and I hitchhiked into the nearest town (perhaps 15 miles) and called a tow truck. It was about 1 a.m. when we finally were on our way home.
This experience again displayed the good side of Newfoundland: when we decided to hitchhike late Saturday night on the Canadian Labor Day weekend, the first car we signaled stopped and offered a ride. (at 11 p.m. on a dark road). At the bar where I went in to phone, the patrons and the bartender went into a huddle to figure out the best action, arguing over which garage would respond quickest, which were open, etc., and then the bartender called the closest guy (presumably at home). That settled, they then proceeded to quiz me: "Where are you from? How do you like our Island? How long have you been here?" And so on until I had to break off in the middle of a long discussion of Newfoundland ecological issues and go outside to meet the truck. The tow truck owner responded quickly, took me back to our truck where Helen and Austin were waiting, and competently pulled us out, working in a hard rain. He charged $50 ($32 U.S.).
We slept in the next day, and spent the day trying to dry out our camping gear on a rainy day - we had sleeping bags, tents, clothing, etc, spread all over the trailer and under the awning. The following day was dryer, with brief periods of sunshine, allowing us to finish drying out.
We also found time to drive out to Cape Spear where we stood on the tip of the Cape, the easternmost point of North America, leaning into gale-force winds from the Northeast, and watching huge waves crash on the rocks below. While we were there, a 35' sailboat came out of St. John's harbor into the gale, rounded the Cape, and headed south, moving at hull speed with only a tiny storm jib. That takes guts - I did not envy them. We've often thought about cruising this part of the world when/if we transfer our travels from roads to water, but watching this tiny boat tossing around out there in that cold, hostile ocean, just off a lee shore, gave me pause.
9/3 The cold, fog, and rain is getting to us, so we packed up this morning and started the southward migration. In late afternoon, we detoured off the highway through the little town of Bishops Falls. The tourist brochure talked of an impressive waterfall and a municipal campground called "Fallsview Park". On our way into town, the road (apparently the main entry to town) passed under a low railroad bridge and we had to stop and walk alongside the trailer estimating clearance. We got under it with six inches to spare - the first vertical clearance concern we've had on this trip. Many motorhomes and fifth wheels are two feet or more taller then our trailer, and would have had to back up a long way to a turnaround opportunity. We never did find either a waterfall or a campground. Further down the highway, we stopped at Catamaran RV Park for the night. This is another of the recently privatized Provincial parks. Quite nice - large level sites, on a beach, Hydro and water. (That's local jargon, all over Newfoundland. Electrical power on the island is supplied by Newfoundland Hydro, and their logo, on all their buildings and equipment is "Hydro". So everyone speaks of electricity as "hydro". Weird! This privatization thing seems to have mixed results. Some of the privatized parks, like this one, seem to be well maintained and successful. Others we've been in were run down, felt shabby, and were nearly empty. I expect they will be out of business in a few more years.
We discovered we were camped in a blueberry patch and picked about two quarts within 50 feet of the trailer. Blueberry pancakes, blueberry pie blueberry tarts, what else can we make with blueberries? Another camper said that there were also lots of partridgeberries nearby. These are dark, very tart, berries, growing on tiny plants an inch or two high. I like the taste, Helen isn't so sure. While in Newfoundland, we've also seen crackerberry (also called bunchberry and ground dogwood), crowberry, elderberry, dogberry, bearberry, bakeapple, cranberry, juneberry, raspberry, ground raspberry, and probably a couple I've forgotten. Every few miles along the highway, there's a native selling bakeapple or partridgeberry jam to the tourists.
9/4 This morning, the weather forecast on the local radio station was "rain and windy today; tomorrow it's going to get nasty". We thought this funny, until we tuned the weather radio to the local marine channel, and discovered just what "nasty" meant in Newfoundland. A major storm was moving in from the Atlantic - gale force winds increasing later to storm force, big waves, heavy rain, just about the time we would be taking the ferry back to the mainland. We looked forward to an "exciting" ferry ride. We arrived at Cheeseman Provincial Park, about 10 km north of the ferry dock, at suppertime after about a six-hour drive. We had our choice of sites - the park was almost empty. We spent a cozy evening inside, listening to the rain. Helen baked blueberry tarts, which also did a nice job of warming up the trailer for the evening. Nighttime temperatures have been down around 45 degrees lately.
9/5 As it turned out, the storm moved a little slower than expected. The ferry stayed ahead of it, actually getting into sunshine toward the end of the six-hour voyage back to Nova Scotia. We decided to skip Halifax and the southern part of Nova Scotia and head back toward the U.S.A. We drove several hours to the Baddeck Cabot Trail KOA campground. This is the first KOA we've been in, and it is very nice - neat , spacious, with lots of hot water in the showers (one of our most important criteria for campgrounds). As I walked up to the office I was greeted by a raucous voice which turned out to be one of a pair of large blue parrots in a cage built into the office wall. When I stepped into the office to register, a red squirrel was sitting in the middle of the floor, and the person behind the desk was throwing it a peanut every few minutes. The price for a pull-through site, full hookups, with Good Sam discount and tax, was $21.74 - high compared to what we've been paying, but still relatively cheap in US dollars ($15.75)
9/6 We moved on to Harbor Light Campground, near Pictou. We had intended to stay in a Provincial Park near here, but found it closed for the season. Harbor Light indeed overlooks a large harbor, with a lighthouse just across the water. We enjoyed a long walk down the beach.
9/7 Another day, another 300 miles! We seem to be settling into this lazy mode of travel - leisurely morning, start driving around 11 a.m., start looking for a campground around 5 p.m. This time of year, there's no need to stop early to get a campground space - they are all half empty. We stopped about 20 km west of Frederickton at Woolastook Campground, which is part of a "wildlife park", with an amusement park, water slide, beach, etc. The campground is far away from the other "attractions", dispersed through the woods on winding drives with large well-spaced sites. The bathroom and shower facility had spotless terrazzo floors. The shower stall was big enough to hold a party in, with plenty of hot water.
9/8 We are back in the U. S., a little over two months after leaving. We crossed the border at Houlton, Maine, with only a few routine questions at customs. Our first impression upon crossing the border and starting south on Interstate 95 was "smooth road". We had sort of gotten used to the incredibly rough roads in Atlantic Canada. In the past several days, we've driven about 1000 miles of the Trans-Canada Highway - by far the best road in the region. Many sections were so rough that driving at the speed limit was inviting broken dishes in the trailer, if not broken tires. (We have indeed broken several wine bottles since leaving home, all in Canada). Even newly paved sections had lots of little bumps and undulations - is this sloppy workmanship, obsolete equipment, or what?
After saying the campgrounds are all half empty, the first place we tried tonight , at 4:15 p.m., had no available sites with full hookups. We wouldn't have suffered without hookups, but we intend to stay two days, and also didn't have hookups last night, so it would be nice to top off water and empty holding tanks before leaving. It's worth the extra $2.00 or so to do this at our campsite instead of making a separate stop at a dump station. Two miles further down the road, was another, larger, Good Sam Park which did have space - Pleasant Hill Campground, a few miles west of Bangor, Maine, indeed a pleasant place - large, but well-kept, with paved interior roads and quite a few trees. Tomorrow, we intend to see a botanical garden and a museum at the University of Maine campus at Orono.
I'll also have to do some tire shopping. Today, while routinely looking over the trailer tires at a rest stop, I discovered deep splits in the outer tread groove in one tire - the tread is on the verge of separating from the tire. Four out of five of the Taiwanese bias-ply special trailer tires I bought right after we bought the trailer have now failed. Only the one which spent most of its time as a spare is still intact. But even this one had a flat a few days ago: it appeared that a sharp shard of stone had worked its way down through the tread. I had it repaired, but I really don't trust it. The tread is hardly worn on any of these tires. One of the five was destroyed when I hit a curb, two were obvious manufacturing defects, and two simply disintegrated while driving down a smooth expressway - not enough left to figure out what happened. I'm tempted to discard all of the existing tires tomorrow and replace them with new radial-ply tires that are at least two sizes oversize, perhaps 8-ply if available.