Popeye the Sailor man of cartoon fame, made the term “Well, Blow me Down!” a recognizable saying. It denotes a feeling of shock and surprise at something. A trip to the Canadian province of Newfoundland will give you both a figurative and literal meaning to this term.
The power of an image of a beautiful place in nature cannot be underestimated. I had not even considered a Newfoundland trip before I read the 1984 National Geographic Society’s publication of “Canada’s Wilderness Lands.” When I turned a page and saw a picture of a fjord in Gros Morne National Park, I instantly knew that I had to go there.
Just getting to Newfoundland was an adventure in itself. I’ll leave that story for a subsequent post, as that journey was a special story all by itself. We’ll start this story in the airport at Sydney, Nova Scotia, where I boarded a flight on Eastern Provincial Airways to Deer Lake, Newfoundland. A friend from Atlanta was on that plane, and we would be doing the Newfoundland trip together.
Many people, especially Canadians from mainland provinces, consider Newfoundland to be at the edge of the world. It is the easternmost province of Canada and consists of the island of Newfoundland and the barren region of Labrador, whose coastline juts out into the stormy North Atlantic Ocean. It’s not a place you would stumble upon by accident. One has to go out of his/her way to get there.
We rented a mini-van at the Deer Lake airport and locally purchased some fuel for the camp stove and set off from there to explore the western side of the island. We hoped to take a ferry across the Strait of Belle Isle later in the week to cross over to Labrador on the mainland to visit Red Bay, the site of where a Basque whaling ship sank before Columbus “discovered” the New World. But first we drove in the other direction. We visited the largest settlement on the west side of the island at Corner Brook, and then drove another 25 miles west to Blow-Me-Down Provincial Park. The name beckoned us to visit there.
Sparsely populated and rugged in topography, Newfoundlanders have their own twist on the creation story of their island. It states, “God made Newfoundland in six days. On the seventh day, He threw stones at it!” That certainly explains the rocky outcrops, rocky coastlines, and lack of vegetation, due to the harsh climate and thin soils.
Blow-Me-Down sits on the coast between York Harbour and Lark Harbour (Canadian spellings). The park is home to abundant wildlife such as caribou, moose, fox, lynx, beaver, muskrat and a multitude of bird species. Several hiking trails are available, including the governor’s staircase. The rocks are ophiolites, which are parts of the earth’s mantle that have been uplifted to the surface. Continental glaciation of the last ice age did the carving to make this landscape art.
So far, we were figuratively “blown away” by the rugged beauty of the island. After some obligatory photos however, we turned north toward Gros Morne and the Great Northern Peninsula—the attraction that drew us to this part of the world in the first place.
At a breakfast stop at a local restaurant the second day, a man sitting at the table next to us struck up a conversation. Four small girls, ages 2-8, were sitting at the table with him. He could tell by our accents that we were Americans.
“What are you boys doing here?”, he asked. “Canadians don’t even come here!” “There’s certainly NO work to be had,” he said.
We told him that we like exploring new, little known places and that Gros Morne had some beautiful scenery we’d like to discover for ourselves.
The year was 1984, and the economy of Newfoundland was in shambles back then. This was long before the discovery of offshore oil and gas which became the Hibernia project. There was a moratorium on Cod fishing (the only major industry at the time), due to over-fishing of the Grand Banks. The restaurant was packed with out of work fishermen.
“What do you do?”, we asked. He looked over at his four daughters.
“Nothing to do except make babies”, he replied. “The only work left is handing out government unemployment checks. But, we DO appreciate your visit to help stimulate what’s left of our economy”, he added.
Although we had rented a car and were buying food locally, we really weren’t the kind of tourists that would be much of a shot in the arm to the local economy. We brought our camping gear and would be staying in our tents most of the time. Our first hike would be an assault of Gros Morne Mountain (807 meters).
Even though it was just a few days shy of the 1st of June, there were still snowfields to cross, even though the elevation wasn’t all that high. The air temperature was warm enough not to have to wear a warm jacket. The hike was a pleasant one.
Afterwards, we drove to some other scenic spots in the park. During the last ice age, moving glaciers carved out deep U shaped valleys. Rising sea levels from the melting ice sheets drowned out the glacial valleys, leaving behind the deep fjords on the coastline. I’ve been drawn to the ends of the earth since that trip to see beautiful fjorded coasts around the world. Most are located at high latitudes on the western side of continents, such as Fiordland National Park in New Zealand, the West Fjords of Norway and Iceland, Southeast Alaska, and the Archipelago of Southern Chile. This one happens to be on Canada’s Eastern coast.
After checking in with the rangers at Gros Morne, we got our permits to camp on the coast using the Green Gardens trail.
Several kilometers of hiking from the trailhead brought us to the rocky cliffs above the coast. The tall green grass provided a soft cushion in which to place our tent. There were actually a few trees in the area. The sky was gray and it started to lightly drizzle. We set up camp, but still managed to take a stroll in our secluded environs. That night, it started to rain a bit harder….
For the next few days, a severe low pressure system migrated into our area. The winds picked up and it started raining sideways. We played a lot of card games in the tent, but you can only do that for so long. I put on my rain gear and went outside and tried to photograph some sheep on the cliffs.
Newfoundland is famous for its storms. The westerly winds bring in continental air from the large North American land mass. It doesn’t mix well with the marine air of the North Atlantic, and the two air masses have vastly different air pressures. The larger the pressure difference, the higher the wind speed. Blow-Me-Down, Newfoundland now had a literal meaning to it.
After three days of constant wind and rain, and with our tent and all of our belongings soaked, we packed up during the storm and headed back into civilization. It was one of the most intense hiking experiences I’ve had in my over 45 years of backpacking. The sideways rain was now mixed with sleet, which pelted our faces. We stumbled out, looking straight down at the trail and glancing up from time to time to make sure we were still on the path. Several miles later, we reached the car. We drove towards Deer Lake and got a hotel. I stood in the hot shower for a long time to try to abate the effects of mild hypothermia.
As luck would have it, the storm abated the next day. We went back to the ranger to let him know that we got out safely. “I was kind of worried about you boys”, he told us. “So were we”, we replied.
From there, we drove north up the Great Northern Peninsula to catch the ferry over to Blanc Sablon, Quebec. From there it would be a short drive into Labrador to visit Red Bay, the site of a sunken Basque whaling ship. The Norse Vikings “discovered” the New World centuries before Columbus could ever have claimed to. So did the Basques. Some say that the Irish made the trip in Curraghs in the seventy century. But forensic evidence does support the Vikings and the Basques getting there. Take that Columbus!
When we got to the ferry terminal, there was no boat in sight. We went in to check on the departure times and a lot of fishermen were sitting around the bar. Piles of long necked beer bottles were strewn all over the tables. We inquired as to when the ferry would leave.
“It was supposed to be here three weeks ago”, one burly fisherman said. “It left St. John’s, but the pack ice in the Strait of Belle Isle is keeping her from getting up here.” “We don’t know when it will arrive!”
Our hopes were dashed. We asked about air fares and car rentals in Blanc Sablon. There was one flight per day, but it was very expensive. Taking it would also require us to rent another car on the mainland, while still paying for the one we had here. We just couldn’t afford it! It was a bitter pill to swallow, but we would have to give up on this part of the dream.
Nowadays, there is a new ferry which is capable of cutting through the sea ice. The Marine Vessel “Qajaq”, part of the fleet owned by Labrador Marine, can hold 300 passengers and 120 vehicles. During the high season, it makes several crossings daily across the Strait of Belle Isle. The 36 km journey usually takes 1 hr. 45 minutes; longer when there is sea ice to navigate through. We were just 30 years too early on our trip!
We quickly formed a plan B. We headed to the northern most tip of the island of Newfoundland and explored the environs around the town of St. Anthony. We also stopped at L’Anse Aux Meadows, the site of where Viking relics were found. The archaeological site dates back to 1000 A.D. and is the only confirmed Norse settlement site in North America other than the ones in Greenland. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1978. The English-French name means “Bay with Grasslands”.
Jared Diamond has a chapter in his NY Times best seller from 2005 “Collapse”, which documents the fall of the Greenland and Vinland (Newfoundland) Norse colonies, due to either conflict with Native societies or reluctance to learn from them due to cultural differences. I recommend the book as a good read into historical and cultural reasons for societal collapses. The lessons from studying mistakes from past societies should be applied to some of our present day struggles. Like the ancient Norse, we could miss out on some opportunities to find solutions to problems, simply because we refuse to view them through anything else than our own cultural lens.
After visiting L’anse Aux Meadows, we stopped at the northernmost town on the island for a Screech and Coke. “Newfie” Screech is a local liquor often drank with Coca-Cola. When in Newfoundland……
Fortified by the local elixir, we were emboldened to climb one of the cliffs in the area to get a look out over the water. Surprisingly, the pack ice was not evident near shore. The higher we climbed, we could eventually see pack ice far out in the channel. Birds flew over our heads, wondering what would entice humans to enter their cliffside domain. Far off in the distance, across the pack ice, we could barely glimpse the shoreline of Labrador. Labrador is an itch I’ve had for almost four decades now, that I haven’t had the chance to scratch yet. But just being that close to it, and being perched on a desolate cliff face at the far end of the island of Newfoundland, which is at the far end of Canada, was satisfying enough. At least it was at the time. I took in the peace and solitude of it all and thought to myself…”Well, Blow Me Down!” Newfoundland is a special place. If you can take some of the weather in stride, you will be rewarded with magical scenery.
For those of you who are considering a trip to Newfoundland today, the economy has bounced back, mostly due to the Hibernia Oil and Gas project. The marine life is making a comeback and humpback whales are prevalent, especially on the East side of the island. For an historical account of the fecundity of the sea life during the time of exploration, I recommend reading an account of Jacques Cartier’s voyages in the area in the 1530s.
Newfoundland has a lot of hidden treasures to discover. Bring your rain gear if you go. But whenever the sun does come out, be prepared to react like Popeye did. You too will likely exclaim, “Well…. Blow-Me Down!”
to access another post about the trip TO Newfoundland, check out “A Funny thing happened on the way to Newfoundland”A Funny thing happened on the way to Newfoundland