It was an act of faith: Let's go for it.
As guide John Wight and I drive north from Port aux Basques along Route 1, the Trans Canada Highway, the rain comes down in torrents. After a few days of good weather hiking in the Anguille Hills and on the famous Starlight Trail, we finally are headed for the climax of this week-long hiking odyssey: three days backpacking in the Lewis Hills. And just when we wanted good conditions, we get an epic storm rolling in off the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The Lewis Hills epitomize the wild side of Newfoundland. This is no national park, but a genuine wilderness. These mountains are a unique combination of geological formations made up of ophiolite and peridotite complexes that hold in its wild embrace not just a section of the International Appalachian Trail, but the highest point in Newfoundland. I've always wanted to hike here, but the conditons today are approaching dangerous.
John, who works out of the venerable Marble Inn in the city of Corner Brook, the biggest in southwest Newfoundland, is relaxed. He guides hunting, fishing, rafting, hiking, snow-mobiling, and just about everything else out of doors for lodge visitors. He knows the place, and he knows what he's doing. I'm certain the two of us can stay safe even if it means a little suffering. I really want to get into the Lewis Hills on this trip, so bad weather isn't going to disuade us.
We stop at a remote snow-mobile cabin on the edge of the wilderness to sort gear and talk over our strategy. The rain seems to be letting up a bit, and the forecast is for improvement, so we decide to hike in tonight even though it's late. With luck, we'll put some distance in before dark, and awake to better weather tomorrow, already six or seven miles into the Lewis Hills. That saves a day.
After a couple of hours hiking through the mud and drizzle--there are no trails here--I'm feeling optimistic. But just as we approach Hines Pond, a thick, pea soup fog descends. At first it settlels on the peaks and ridges, but finally drops right down to the deck. I've heard lots of horror stories about backcountry tragedies in Newfoundland, and they usually begin with fog. This is not a good development, and it gets John's attention right away. There's little to talk about. We stop abruptly and make camp near the shore of the lake.
When we get the tents up and start dinner, there's a commotion below us, and we see it's a moose calf crashing through the brush. We're puzzled at first until John sees it's being chased by a coyote. Welcome to the Lewis Hills, where such a scene of raw predation comes with the territory. This is genuine wilderness. And even in the fog we're both glad we gambled on the weather, as making it this far puts us well positioned for our exploration of the Lewis Hills.
We spend two more days here, doing a 20 kilometer loop through perhaps the wildest parts of Newfoundland, and that's saying something. We work our way out to Rope Cove, then scramble up the ridge for views down into the Serpentine Valley. We've been climbing all day, and every step of it has been off trail. Up this high we're mostly walking on snow, even though July approaches.
A day like this is why wilderness lovers flock to Newfoundland, an island that is truly out there, five time zones from my home in Seattle. Dinner that night is moose meat, canned by John after his hunt last fall. Being in the company of someone who knows the Lewis Hills as well as John makes for safe backcountry travel. But the real fun is traveling with a native Newfoundlander who grew up in this area, who knows not just the way, but the local customs and quirks--and even most of the people. His knowledge makes an adventure like this way more interesting.
Cape Anguille and The Grand Codroy Estuary
But it hasn't all been hard core. I arrived at the Deer Lake airport a couple of days ago, where John Wight met me with one of the vans from the Marble Inn, which is the center of the universe for adventurers in Western Newfoundland. This is home to Linkum Tours, which can arrange just about anything you'd like to do. Whether it's skiing, rafting, fishing, zip-lining, hunting or hiking, this is where you come. I had met the owner, Ed English, on a previous hiking trip here, when I asked him to handle the logistics for me on the Long Range Traverse. (See the story). This time, I asked him to put together another adventure for me, something off the menu, something new and different. The result was a week cruising around in the van with John, staying in lighthouses or seaside cottages or campgrounds, eating some of the best seafood on the planet, hiking our brains out, seeing the wild beauty of western Newfoundland, and having way more fun than a journalist should have on any assignment.
We started out by heading south down to Cape Anguille for a stay in the lighthouse inn there, where the accommodations are managed by Ann English, Ed's sister. Stuck out on a cape on the western coast of the island, the birding around the lighthouse is some of the best in North America, and the inn is routinely full of bird watchers from around the world. John and I get settled, then grab the binoculars and head for the summit of the Anguille Hills, a tough half day but with views of the coast that make it worthwhile. Dinner that night, prepared by Ann, is enjoyed family style with a couple from Ontario and another from British Columbia.The 19th century building that is the inn--the former lighthouse keeper's home--is quaint and comfortable. After Ann's delicious cod, I strolled down to the beach to catch the sunset on the lighthouse. I was thinking, I am glad I made the long trip back to Newfoundland. Every trip has been a wonder, and this was just the beginning of this one. John knows this area as well as anyone, so I was looking forward to the days ahead.
After a big breakfast in the morning with our newfound friends, Ann hands us a couple of sack lunches, and John and I pile in the van to head south. The first stop is the famous Starlight Trail. Named for a long defunct road house bar along the highway, the Starlight is like a lot of trails in Newfoundland: It may start right there by the road and yet it really delivers. John and I work up through the heavy timber, with views down to the Little Codroy Valley beginning to open up. We press on, about 2,000 feet above the trailhead, to reach Campbell's Pond and a glimpse into the mountains beyond. Just two hours from the highway and we stand at the very edge of a sprawling wilderness that stretches east for a hundred miles.
But we're not done yet. Down we go, back to the van, and drive a few miles west to explore to the Grand Codroy Estuary, a designated international wetlands. The valley and estuary top the list not only for the number of different bird species, but also for rare and unusual birds. Breeding, migrant, vagrant and wintering surprises make this a year round venue for viewing birds. It's getting late in the day, so John and I find a log to sit on and dig in to Ann's lunch, keeping a sharp eye out for a blue winged teal or maybe a Shoveler duck. Then it's back down the trail to the van for the drive to Port aux Basques, a unique and isolated community that is the terminal for the ferry from Nova Scotia.
St. Christopher's Hotel is near the ferry terminal, a big deal in Newfoundland. The large and modern ferry is impressive as it arrives with a belly full cars and tourist and trucks loaded with supplies for this remote island. This is pretty much the end of the road, as Trans Canada Highway 1 ends here. The fact there's no highway from here along the southern coast of Newfounland is a testament to the enduring wilderness that characterizes this island.
In the morning John and I get up early for breakfast, grab a sack lunch from the restaurant, and head out to explore the Grand Bay Trail, another trove for bird watchers, and one of the few known breeding grounds of the rare piping plover. The coastline here is extremely exposed to weather and storms, and the landmarks are the many shipwrecks that dot this coast. Across the bay we can see the village of Port aux Basques, still small despite the commerce from the ferry. Even today, as the weather turns suddenly blustery, then rainy, the character of this stormswept coast is made clear.
Gros Morne National Park
But John and I kept to our schedule, driving north into the Lewis Hills for three days of backpacking. By the end of the backpacking trip, we hiked out in bright sunlight, climbed into the van and headed north toward Gros Morne National Park. The park is the most popular destination for most visitors who come to western Newfoundland. The signature backcountry route here is the Long Range Traverse, a trail-less four day route from Western Brook Pond to Gros Morne mountain. I had done the route on a previous visit to Newfoundland, so this time would explore some of the other great hikes that are not so well known, routes hidden away in the sprawling national park.
By mid afternoon we arrived in the hamlet of Woody Point, just across Bonne Bay from the other village adjacent to the park, Rocky Harbour. We checked into the Curzon Cottages, near the water, where our deck overlooked the hulking mass of Gros Morne mountain itself. Life is relaxed in Woody Point, so we simply walked into town for dinner at the renowned Old Loft restaurant. Surrounded by water, this is one of the best places in Newfoundland to enjoy seafood only a few hours out of the sea. After another delicious meal, the chef handed us a couple of sack lunches for our hike to the Tablelands tomorrow.
In the morning it was off to the nearby Parks Canada Discovery Center for a chat with the rangers--they call them wardens in Canada--before setting off on a hike through the moonscape of the Tablelands. Western Newfoundland is rich in geologic rarities, and the Tablelands are one of the most impressive. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, Gros Mourne and it's Tablelands is one of the few places you can touch 400 million year old rocks and walk on the earth's mantle.The ochre colored rocks here are more than 500 million years old. Formed more than tens of miles beneath the surface of the Earth, plate tectonic forces have left them exposed.
The route looked a lot like the photos I've seen of Mars: a chaos of red rocks leading to a high plateau. John and I soon hit the end of the trail proper, but kept going, up toward the summit, clambering over boulders and making our way through difficult, rocky terrain. The adventure took us high above the trail, and took a toll in exertion, but rewarded us with views down the bizarre valleys that most visitors don't get. We stop at the high point to dig into the lunches provided by the Old Loft. John and I were becoming the kings of sack lunches, which made life much more simple as we never had to find a place for a mid day meal, we could just hike. The way down was slower, as we had to watch every step on the descent, but soon we were back in the van headed for the remote hamlet of Trout River.
I would challenge anyone to find a more picturesque Newfoundland fishing village. Clapboard cottages, red roofs, stacks of lobster traps, colorful net sheds, it's all right here. And the best part is that it's way off the beaten path, quiet and informal. Before we get to town, we stop at the Parks Canada campground just above Trout River and check in to our most unusual accomodations yet: The Otentik.
We're both curious, and here we find a spacious and comfortable lodging, with floors and bunks, but with stout fabric walls and roof. You could call this camping, but it would be a misnomer, this is way too comfortable to be called camping.. There's power from the solar panels, and the biggest gas grill I've seen in a while, replete with extra burners. From there it's down into town for a stroll along the laid back Trout River waterfront before stopping at the Seaside Restaurant, one of the most acclaimed of all seaside eateries near Gros Morne, in fact all of Maritime Canada. With my Newfoundland adventure winding down, I splurge and go for the lobster, which was pulled out of the water maybe an hour or two before I ordered it.
For the last day of our hiking extravaganza, John and drove to the trailhead for the famous Green Gardens Trail, which winds down the bluff to beautiful Old Man Cove. The route drops almost a thousand feet from the top of the cliff, following a never ending series of switchbacks down to one of the wildest, and prettiest coves I've seen anywhere. We hike through meadows and a stunted forest, down to the rocky beach at Old Man Cove, replete with sea stacks and rocky cliffs. It's a cove straight out of a dream.
Down at the beach we stop for our final sack lunch, and reflect on the unbelievable week we have enjoyed together here on the spectacular western coast of Newfoundland. It was lucky that John and I were cut from the same cloth, and were gung ho for any adventure that presented itself, regardless of the weather. But for any traveler, this excursion would be the adventure holiday of a lifetime. At then end of the day, John dropped me off at the Holiday Inn in Deer Lake, so I could get organized for my long flight back to Seattle. Secretly, I was already planning my return to this island province and it's unforgettable adventures.
Newfoundland is a long way from the western United States, but a short hop for those living back east. Excellent air connection abound through Toronto, or through many East Coast cities, such as New York and Boston. Deer Lake is the most convenient destination airport for those who wish to explore Western Newfoundland.
The premier outfitter here on the west coast of the island is the Marble Inn, located in Corner Brook, about 45 minutes from the Deer Lake Airport. The Marble Inn not only offers a comfortable place to stay and dine while visiting here, but a variety of guide services, from hiking, to white water rafting, to fly fishing, to birding, to hunting and snowmobile adventures. The Marble Inn is home to Linkum Tours, the local guide service that can do it all. Guides like John, well versed in the wilds of Newfoundland, ensure you get to the best and most unique places, in safety and comfort. For help in planning an adventure to this part of Newfoundland, start at the island's visitors site for the west, GoWesternNewfoundland.com.