Chapter 1 – The Far East

Cappahayden Shoreline

Rugged shoreline along Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail. (More photos)

“B’ye, ya got some legs on you!”

Albert

The biggest difficulty in hiking Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail may be the people. They’re so great, they’re a distraction.

The 215 km trail, stretching from the broad cove of Cappahayden on the Southern Shore of the island’s Avalon Peninsula to the legendary capital St. John’s and linking about 15 communities in between, is a rolling, rugged wonder of unsurpassed coastal scenery. The trail challenges as much as it delights, with each section beginning and ending with a steep climb from sea level before contouring the innumerable granite headlands, cobblestone beaches and stunted cliffside forests that make up the famous coastline of “the Rock”.

We’ve got 10 days to capture as much of the ECT’s delights as we can.

Starting today from Capppahayden, our hope is to basically walk back home to St. John’s in time for my sister’s wedding near month’s end.

Newfoundlanders are renowned for their friendliness, particularly to travellers. The trick isn’t in getting your foot in their door; it’s in getting it back out.

It is now possible to hike the ECT staying mostly in B&B’s, enjoying traditional Newfoundland hospitality and home cooked food at the beginning and end of each day on the trail. But we’re cheap. So we’ve once again broken out the backpacks and pillaged the cookie section of the grocery store. As Autumn gets a little older and colder each day, we’ll be bedding down in our tent and munching various noodle-based dinners left over from the Rocky Mountain trips.

In order to feed ourselves for the whole trip, we began our first day by dropping off food caches to several of the communities along the trail, though for the most part we had no idea where or who we’d actually approach to take care of our groceries.

We needn’t have worried.

Our Uncle Jack generously served as our chauffeur to the food drop locations and the trail head, filling the drive with stories and reassurances that at the first hint of trouble we could call him to arrange a full search and rescue mission (”It’d be great practice for’em” he told me enthusiastically).

At the Town Council Office in Petty Harbour, the clerk took our little grocery bag full of granola and pasta and carefully stored it, telling us who to call in town to retrieve it should we pass through when she happened to be away. At Witless Bay, the administrators of a Senior’s Care Home happily took charge of our little bundle but made us promise to stop in for a hot cup of tea when we hiked back through town and to consider staying the night in one of the unoccupied rooms, rather than camp on the trail. In Cape Broyle, the owner of the local gift shop took our package without batting an eye, unless you counted her friendly wink.

It was only in Aquaforte, our last cache point, that we ran into a problem. The Town Hall was closed and so was the crab processing plant down on the wharf. Other than those two spots, the town seemed to be mostly private dwellings.

Still, rather than carry the extra weight with us from Cappahayden, we decided to try the kindness of an older gentleman who had waved to us from his front yard as we had first driven into town. Albert Walsh had gone back to digging up his wife’s perrenial garden when we pulled into his driveway. His eyes twinkled from under a ball cap that featured the town name over a snow crab. When we explained our situation, he hesitated briefly, explaining that he might be out rabbit hunting (”rabbitin’”) when we came back for the cache. We told him if that happened he could just leave the cache outside. “Oh no,” he said quickly, “Sure we’ll put’er in the shed”. Without further ado, he took us over to his neatly painted shed and hung our cache carefully next to his lawn tools. “There,” he said, apparently taking no notice of the expensive tools and other belongings in the building, “I’ll leave that open for ye.”

And that’s Newfoundlanders in a nutshell.

Albert told us he enjoyed walking himself but when we told him we were hoping to walk to St. John’s, he did a double take and laughed, “‘By, ya got some legs on ya!”

***

According to the folk song, “the seas roll out their thunder” at Cape St. Mary’s. But the 10.5 km of coastline from Cappahayden to it’s sister community of Renews might beg to differ. The weather has been rough for the past few days, so eventhough today was relatively benign, the ocean heaved with stored up energy. Rollers 10, 12 and even 15 feet high gathered and flung themselves onto the shore. Where these waves struck beach, the deep boom of the collission was followed by the chest rattling bass of hundreds of tons of smooth rocks being sucked back into the undertoe. Where they struck granite cliffs, rainbows formed from the misty clouds that were dashed 20 and 30 feet in the air and the sea turned to foam from the incessant pounding. A surfer would have had a riot before being pounded into a fine gooey stain.

Still glowing from our happy send off from Uncle Jack (a tremendous batch of pictures, a final two or three smiling cautions to be careful and one last reminder about how fast he could land an evac team at our campsite), we strolled happily along the path, enjoying the waves and weather and agreeing that it was good to be on the move again after a luxuriously fun 3 week layoff in Jasper, Vancouver and St. John’s. Sea ducks, gulls and cormorants flew by us regularly and every now and then we’d notice the bobbing head of a seal or three watching us from the water.

Though we had fresh legs and the trail was mostly dry, after 3 hours we were looking forward to reaching Renews and the camp that lay only a few km on the trail beyond it. But first we’d have to get past Renews itself, which did a deep u-turn around its harbour before linking back up with the ECT.

Fixing our hair and wiping the sweat off our faces as best we could, we stuck out thumbs at passing cars. The first car passed us by with the driver smiling and pointing at the opposite arm of the harbour. Crap! He was going right were we needed him to but must have thought we were going all the way to St. John’s! For the second car, Janine combined her cute thumb waving with enthusiastic pointing to the opposite side of the harbour. No dice. But the next car slowed and rolled down its window.

His name was Tommy and he was going to his house on the other side of the harbour.

Bingo.

Tommy laughed as we piled gratefully into his little sedan, “I wouldn’t have stopped because I thought you were going to St. John’s but for the pointing!” (which, in the local accent sounded like this: “I’dna stopped ’cause I taught ye were goin to Sinjahns baferda pointin!”) As we covered the 5km through town in as many minutes, King’s English couldn’t have sounded nicer to my ears.

After a quick stop at the Convenience Store so Janine and I coud grab some fresh water for camping (Tommy insisted on waiting for us and driving us all the way to the trailhead), we were soon trotting down the trail on the opposite side of Renews harbour. We walked for only a half hour before finding a camp site on the lee side of a grassy bluff.

As we turn in for the night, our biggest concern is falling asleep amidst the sound of raging surf, which beats the shore vigorously just yards from camp. Out in the harbour, a buoy blinks and chimes rhythmically, and in the far distance, a lighthouse (probably at Cape Race) flashes amidst the stars rising above the horizon. In front of us, the ocean stretches away to Ireland and Africa and Greenland.

I’m not sure what most motivated us to do this hike – the scenery, the people or just the chance to be alone together for a few days before the happy madness of the wedding.

But whatever the reason, it’s been a hell of a first day.

Chapter 2 – Renews to Fermeuse

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Boats in drydock near Port Kirwin (More photos)

“Sure it’d take more den ‘dat to get me to Aquaforte!”

Lady at the Fermeuse Convenience Store

Light rain on the tent roof at 5 a.m. this morning was the only thing to disturb 10 hours of solid sleep and even that was over with before we got up. So much for worrying about whether the breakers on the North Head of Renews Harbour would keep us up.

With fresh trailside blueberries in our oatmeal, we started the day with more wave watching. The incoming tide only amplified the show, with set after set of swells exploding in white, green and grey fireworks on the sharp granite shelves and ledges.

Our objective today was Fermeuse Harbour, which was reached after a moderately difficult 4 hour walk on a rolling trail. Newfoundland weather in October is anything but predictable, but the skies cooperated again, turning from their monochromatic morning grey to a dappled blue and white a few hours later and finally clear sapphire by day’s end.

Warm layers and rain gear were progressively discarded until only light shirts and pants remained, with gaiters over our boots to guard against the trail’s muddier sections.

Throughout the walk, the water kept us entertained. Whether with its shifting colours that matched the changing weather or in the unending number of ways it found to smash itself to molecular tidbits against the shoreline. We watched whirlpools form and fill around monstrous submerged rocks, perpendicular waves crash visciously against one another like charging big horn sheep , their heads shattering on impact and huges swells curling under their own weight and finally collapsing with thundering booms that made our rib cages echo. On several occassions we just stopped, gaped and cheered on the show. Only the animals seemed uninterested; cormorants and seals surfacing and diving nonchalantly – just another day at the office.

Where the trail dipped into the forest, we were amazed by the richness of the vegetation. People think of Newfoundland primarily for its rugged rocky coast. But the high amounts of rainfall and constant spray from the ocean make these sea side rain forests almost as lush as their west coast cousins. Carpets of moss in every shade of green, lichens hanging from nearly each tree, wild blackberries, cranberries and blackberries, dense grasses and yellowing ferns, together with the ever-present spruce trees twisted into a myriad of gargoyle shapes from the fierce Atlantic winds, made the forest walking a magical (and, as we stopped, stooped and picked at will, frequently tasty) experience.

Fermeuse Harour contains three communities – Lance Cove, Fermeuse and Port Kirwan. From the first community to the last is a disance of 8 km – a definite hitch-hiking situation. As with yesterday’s experience, we didn’t wait long. When we asked Scott and his father, busy putting in a new window on a neighbour’s house in Lance Cove, if they know anyone in town who might give us a ride around the Harbour to Port Kirwan, the response was immediate. “Sure we’ll take ye!” said the older man, putting down his saw, “We’re not busy!”

Despite our telling them that we weren’t in a hurry, within minutes, Scott had emptied the back of his father’s new pickup and was barrelling down the road with us towards Port Kirwan, explaining that he was actually off work this week on holidays in the hopes of getting his moose. Despite 5 straight days of 5:30 a.m. wake up calls, he hadn’t yet been successful in bringing down a bull. But with two days left before season’s end, he was optimistic and cheerful, telling us stories about his hometown as we drove. Pointing out the mostly submerged wreck of “The Ilex”, a sailing ship that had burned to its waterline in the harbour back in 1948, he told us that his Father and Grandfather had rowed out to the burning ship to salvage what they could of its cargo of salted cod. “Too good to let go to waste,” he said knowingly. I agreed, secretly wondering if I’d have the guts to board a flaming boat for a feed of fish.

I suppose it would depend on whether there were also scrunchions aboard.

Scott stopped at the Fermeuse Convenience Store to let us grab a few supplies and some fresh water for the 18 km walk to Aquaforte that began at Port Kirwan. While Janine chatted up our driver, I gathered chocolate, Coke, chips, cookies and beef jerkey and brought it up to the till where a friendly woman rang me in. I told her about our planned hike and, surveying my purchases, I said “I ’spose this will get me to Aquaforte.”

“My dear!” she laughed, handing me my receipt, “Sure it’d take more den ‘dat to get me to Aquaforte!”

We tried to get Scott to take some money for the ride, particularly since he’d stopped 3 times to let us take pictures and had driven us an extra 2 km down a rough gravel road to give us an extra head start on the trail to Aquaforte. He wouldn’t hear of it and shoved his hands in his pockets when I tried to give him even a little something. “Chance to use the 4 wheel drive.” he said, nodding to his father’s truck. “Have a good time now!”

Did I mention the people around here are amazing?

We headed up the rolling headlands out of Fermeuse towards Aquaforte, stopping only to munch on our chips and cold cokes while watching more roiling salt water. By 4 in the afternoon, we had reached Bald Head, a high rounded bluff with a 180 degree view of both the trail behind us and the trail ahead. Since this was the last unforested section of trail for a while, we made camp in a grassy meadow just beneath the Head, drying the morning’s dampness from our tent and sleeping bags in the warm afternoon sun.

We can already see the community of Ferryland and its famous lighthouse from here. If we could walk on water, it would be a two or three hour walk tops. But, being confined to the fjord-scarred surface of the Rock, we’ll have to wait another day or two for a tour of that town.

Chapter 3 – Aquafar

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Janine greets the world at Berryhead Arch (More photos)

“Sure, there’s no delivery charge!”

Krista, Verna’s daughter, making a special trip to drop us off Fish and Chips

My poor poor feet.

Twenty-one kilometers in one day is a new personal record, and my feet are not sharing in the celebration.

We set out this morning with a goal of reaching Aquaforte, where Albert Walsh had the noodles we needed for supper hanging in his tool shed.

The highlights of the hike today were Berry Head, which is an incredible sea arch, and Spurwinkle Island, a yellow lichens covered island marking hte entry to the 10 km keep Aquaforte Inlet. 15 km of walking over some very challenging trail brought us into town, and a few more clicks down the highway brought us to Albert’s, At this point we were feeling the burn and looking to camp just outside of town rather than push through the last 5 km to Ferryland.

The best laid plans…

A friendly chat with Albert later and we were headed down the road another 5-10 minutes to the local store, where we picked up some water for camp.

As we chatted with Leona at Croft’s store we weighed the pros and cons of camping versus pushing to Ferrland on the trail and rewarding the effort with a night at a B&B. Leona told us we could camp in her dad’s furnished “shed” in Ferryland, in which he hosts a party for his neighbours nearly every Friday night.

We could have saved our breath debating about where to camp. As we walked out of town on the highway, we missed the trailhead we were looking for at the top of Spout Hill and before we knew it, we were standing on the highway beside the sign welcoming us to Ferryland.

Huh. Oh well. At least we still walked here.

It managed to cut down a 5 km walk down to 3 km or so, and by the time my feet were ready to declare a coup.

Such an accomplishment deserved some indulging. Before long we were clean and rested in the Ark of the Avalon B&B, and on the phone to the best Fish and Chips joint in town, Kavanaugh’s. The cook there, Verna, was sweet as pie, and took pity on our tale of sore feet, sparing us the 2 km walk to the restaurant by sending out her daughter Krista on delivery with a much needed dose of hot fried fish.

When we tried to give her some extra money for the trouble she just laughed. “There’s no delivery charge!” she said, handing over our change.

We knew this would be part of the experience. It’s not a suprise to meet with kindness, good stories and easy laughter in every encounter with the citizens of the Irish Loop. This is the first chance we’ve had in our many trips to the Rock to really meet the people in the tiny communities around the Bay and to bask in their legendary warmth and good nature.

I’m loving it as much as the hike itself. I am learning a lot from these wonderful people.

And that, to me, is what travelling is all about.

Chapter 4 – Ferryland

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Ferryland Lighthouse (More photos)

“Ugh.”

Janine, looking out the window this morning.

My first thought was, “Why in God’s name did we tell that nice lady we needed breakfast for 8 a.m.?”

Our bed at the Ark of Avalong B&B was soft, warm and cozy. I swear to God it was snuggling with me. A steady rain drumming on the window said we were in for a good old Newfoundland soaking if we stuck our heads outside. And Shirley, the Ark’s proprietor, had been at a wedding in Fermuese until 5 hours ago. I cringed under the covers at what she was probably thinking of us for dragging her up to cook breakfast at this hour.

But when we slunked into the breakfast room, our hostess was as cheerful as if we were her first customers of the season. With VOCM’s Irish-Newfoundalnd Show singing out “Are you Diggin’ ‘em Dillon?” on the radio, Shirley served us up tea, ham, eggs and homemade bread toast with a smile. Between mouthfuls, we chatted with her about everything from the trail, to her kids, to the wedding, to the tourism season Ferryland had enjoyed this year. Conversation flowed so easily that we felt like we were at a relative’s house.

After a second cup of tea (is there anything better on a rainy, cold day?), we poured a third cup of tea and laid out the maps covering the remainder of our trail to St. John’s. Our options for today were simple.

Option 1 – Hike in the driving rain to the next town, Calvert, where there was no B&B, and then camp somewhere on the 18 km trail around Cape Broyle. The Cape, which juts out into the Atlantic like a green and granite Gibralter, is not eactly the best place to spend a stormy day.

Option 2 – Sit on our duffs in Ferryland, drink tea and pick up the hike again tomorrow when the weather is supposed to marginally improve.

I know it doesn’t sound like a hard choice, but we still took an hour to make it, and only opted for the rest day after we convinced ourselves that it wouldn’t affect us getting to St. John’s on time. It also helped when Shirley came inside after a running a quick errand and, shuddering, muttered that it “wasn’t fit” outside.

Sitting on your duff and doing nothing sounds great. But unless you’ve got a great book, a penchant for crosswords or one hell of a good cable package, it gets old after an hour or so. I left my book home on this trip in order to conserve weight in my pack (no I can’t square that with taking the pint of maple syrup). And there was no crossword to be had today because the bad weather had delayed the St. John’s Evening Telegram from being delivered to Ferryland well past its normal time.

After 15 minutes of Star Trek 5 on the Movie Network, I had cabin fever. Pulling on my plastic rainpants, boots and gore-tex jacket, I headed out for what I thought would be a quick walk in the Ferryland rain.

Ferryland is a gorgeous place to visit on a bright summer day. The town is strung along highway 10 about an hour from St. John’s The highway is known in Newfoundland as the Irish Loop for the large numbers of Irish that originally settled the area. The main road closely hugs a scenic coastline dotted with a number of varying sized craggy islands. Near the middle of town, where a stone church overlooks the sea, a peninsula reaches out perpendicularly into the water. Low and narrow for its first km (where it is called “The Downs”, it then rises and flares out dramatically. At its edge several km later sits a lighthouse where two entrepreneurial young ladies serve picnic lunches to tourists on warm sunny days while whales chase the caplin and icebergs float silently by. People have been living here off and on for 400 years and when you’re done at the lighthouse, you can explore the archeological ruins and recreated dwellings of a community that lived off the sea in the time of the first Queen Elizabeth.

So blue skies are great here. But there’s something magical about this place in the rain.

Leaving the Ark of Avalon, I walk down the “Main Road” as the highway is called. None of the other roads in town have formal names and none of the houses have numbers. I’m headed towards the Downs just a km or so away. With the fog horn blowing steadily and necessarily, it’s easier to hear the peninsula than to see it. My hood can’t keep my face dry in the drizzle. But there’s a smell to the dampness, mingled with the salt air and the busy woodstoves that makes me smile.

There’s no better weather to explore the old graveyard. Most of its headstones have been scoured clean of information about those lying under them and have sunk so deep into the hillside that the most common way I find one is by tripping on it in the deep, wet weeds. Those that are legible leave more questions than they answer. Why is Mr. and Mrs. Condon’s stone kept up so well 160 years after their death? Why did Sarah (?) Guillton die so young in 1873? The writing on her memorial slants into the moss at an awkward angle before I can get any clues.

On the Downs, the giftshop, the restaurant and the interpretive centre are “Closed for the Season.” So as the rain picks up, I stroll instead down the old cobblestone street of the former Colony of Avalon, past the archelogical dig that is still unearthing 4 century old foundations, forges, wells and household items every summer. In the sheltered harbour called the “Pool”, half a dozen small fishing boats sit quietly. Most are named after people.

Besides the couple of cars that passed me on the main road, their drivers giving a nod or wave as they went by, I feel like the only person in town. The feeling intensifies on the Downs where the rushing surf blocks out every other sound besides the patter on my hood. I start to head back towards the main road – Janine is probably getting worried about me by now anyway -and walk along the beach, but off from the road by a 6 ft high log sea wall. After seeing so much ECT drama over the past few days, this shoreline shouldn’t be much to write home about – just a standard bridge mixture of seaweed, beach rock, bits of rope, shells and pop cans. But there’s something about the rhythmic pounding of grey waves on grey gravel in grey sky that catches and holds me one last time before I reach Route 10. I don’t know how long I stand there before feeding one more stone to the waves and walking briskly back home.

***

As fun as it is to feel like you have the place to yourself, you’d kick yourself for not spending time with local people in Ferryland. Shirley gets nicer by the hour. When we ask if we could throw a load of laundry in her machine, she cheerfully insitists on doing it herself. When I explain to her that some of our hiking clothes are fit to be handled on by us or the bomb squad, she rolls her eyes at me and laughs. “Sure my husband’s a fisherman! Now if I can’t handle smelly clothes!…”

An hour or two later, the once reeking pile of fleece and polyester is returned – clean, dried and folded – to our room.

I enjoyed my first walk in the rain so much that later in the day I take another one with Janine, who has belatedly caught my cabin fever. Towards supper time, we start strolling towards Kavanaugh’s Restaurant at the other end of town but are just a few strides in when a car going in the opposite direction slows, u-turns and pulls over beside us completely unbidden. It’s Leona from the convenience store in Aquaforte. She’s pretty determined to give us a ride despite protests that it’s out of her way and we’ll soak her back seat with our wet clothing. ”Sure, I don’t sit back there!” she laughs.

We’re the only people in the big dining room at Kavanaughs, but Verna (our fish and chips saviour from last night) makes us feel comfortable and cooks us a mean couple of hot turkey sandwiches that are the perfect answer to the soggy weather. Slinging a dishtowel over her shoulder as the evening rush at the takeout counter winds down, she tells us that she’s off to Alberta in November to work in Grand Prairie for the winter. Her three sons are already there working various oil patch jobs. If all goes well, she’ll be back in Ferryland for her first summer off since she was in school. But you never know, she says. Her sons like it and have stayed. Maybe she’ll stay too.

We walk back to the Ark of Avalon in total darkness. Probably not the safest option on a rural road on a Saturday night when you’re dressed like the gore-tex version of a ninja. But the walk is only remarkable for the lack of cars stopping to ask us if we need a ride.

It wasn’t easy to find, but I guess on what is literally a dark and stormy night, even the generosity of Ferrylanders has its limits.

Chapter 5 – Flamber Head

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Lucy and Anna at the Indoor Yard Sale (More photos)

“We’ll accessorize in this colour…”

Janine, considering how to work “ocean” into our future home’s colour scheme

Two days of dry, two days of rain and two days of damp. That sums up the first week’s weather on the East Coast Trail.

With no small amount of difficulty, we said goodbye to Ferryland, Shirley and the Ark of Avalon two mornings’ ago and got back on the trail. Shirley made sure we had a monster breakfast and extra tea before driving us, first to the town’s ATM for the cash to pay our bill, and then second to the trailhead for our walk to the next community on the Southern Shore, Calvert.

While we may have left Shirley’s with a few extra pounds of food in our stomachs, we left with about 15 pounds less of gear after a serious whittling session during our rainy day off. You’d think that after 4 months of camping, we’d have figured out how to pack light by now, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget all your hard-won trail wisdom and slip back to heavymoronville. So it was farewell to the Israel and Palestine travel guide (we’ll have to plan that trip later), bye bye to my teva camp sandals (if I keep wearing those, my feet will go soft on my anyway) and so long to the oil and maple syrup (we can live without pancakes for one more week, I think.)

The walk to Calvert was relatively easy, scooting up and down for 4 km. The trail began with a stroll past another graveyard where some resting places were neatly fenced in (originally to protect against grazing animals) while others were slowly being overrun by small spruce and alder. Keeping a closer eye to roots and stones still slick with yesterday’s rain, we skirted Freshwater Cove, Cow Cove, Scoggins Head, Gunners Point, Billy Maher’s Point and yet another Lance Cove (I’ve counted 3 so far on this trip) before reaching Calvert.

With the community stretching 5 km before us, we didn’t waste much time before sticking out our thumbs. But the driver of the first car to pass us only gave a wave, pointing to the church at the bottom of the cove, into whose full parking lot he soon drove for Sunday Mass. Now that we focused on the Church, it looked like most of the town was there. As we began discussing the merits of attending services and then harassing Calvertians on their way back from Communion (Shirley had earlier suggested standing in the parking lot exit with our hands clasped in prayer and our tongues out), we passed a small, run-down clap board house with a home made sign in the windown advertising an “Indoor Yard Sale”. A lady stood outside the door watching us curiously. I figured, being in an obviously enterpreneurial state of mind, she was the perfect person to approach for a ride. Unfortunately, as I asked for a lift to the other side of “town” the lady (her name was Lucy) got a queer look on her face and said she had to mind the yard sale but would ask her friend if she was interested in the job. In the meantime, we were invited in.

Inside, every room was stuffed full of your typical yard sale fare, from old country music tapes, to back issues of Glamour Magazine, to one wall almost filled with blank CDs. The door frames to each room were adorned with small wooden plaques inscribed by Lucy with the Irish Blessing, or the Fisherman’s Prayer, or carrying little paintings of the Ferryland Lighthouse or a fishing dory.

As I helped figure out how to play a Clint Black CD on the clock radio for sale in the kitchen corner, I met Lucy’s friend, Anna. She had a big smile and loved to laugh, as she showed in clearning up the mistake over where we were looking to get dropped off. “My honey, “town” only means one thing around here – St. John’s!” she said in a thick Irish-descended brogue. “You should ask for a lift t’other side of the harbour!”

A few minutes later with a Ferryland Lighthouse plaque in the top of my pack, we were zipping down the north arm of the harbour in Anna’s Dodge Shadow, howling at her stories about how scared she is of the ocean. The closest she’s come to actually dying is from the fear induced by the 20 minute ferry ride to Bell Island just outside St. John’s (”My friends convinced me to go for the drive. One time. Never again!”) and she once canceled a free trip to Alberta to drive a family member’s car back to Newfoundland when she remembered it would require a ferry ride from North Sydney to Port a Basques.

We got big hugs from Anna before she left us at the trail head. There we started a steady climb up the forbidding slopes of Cape Broyle, the most strenuous hike of the trip so far. The Cape is a notorious nautical landmark on the Southern Shore – a dozen or more ships have been destroyed here. Over the first 4 km, we climbed and descended three steep grades – Castle Hill, Cold Harbour and The Cape itself. Taking advantage of our breathlessness at the top of each pitch, we stopped to snap panorams of the Cape, Calvert Bay and Ferryland Lighthouse (we’d finally lose sight of the last landmark once we rounded Broyle) under a sky that still brooded grey from the previous day’s rains. When we finally reached the “Top of the Cape” we were treated to views of the rugged coastline all the way to Mobile.

Past the North Point, Shag Rocks Point and Shipwreck Point, we settled in for the night at Long Will Campsite. Long Will himself is a stubby sea stack rising up out of the middle of, you guessed it, Lance Cove. I assume that Long Will’s name appropriately has its origins in the bluer side of Newfoundland humour.

The next morning we slipped, bushwacked, waded and cursed through the remaining 7.5 km of the trail to Cape Broyle. There, a friendly young fisherman named Gerard, who we accosted whilst in the middle of preparing his and his father’s fishing shed for the winter, drove us the 7 km through town (excuse me, around the harbour) to the next trail section.

The 6 km walk around Brigus Head to the tiny community of Brigus South was one of the nicest stretches of trail yet, despite some less than evocative place names such as Trousers Cove, Tar Cove Point Cove and, our personal favourite, Shitting Gulch. The trail was broad and far more dry than the Cape Broyle section; wound around coves that dropped more than 150 feet into the sea; and passed a thick, double horned sea stack called the Big Hares Ears, against which the waters crashed violently.

After a lunch break spent feeding the ducks in the Brigus South harbour, we continued another 4 km to our camp at Flamber Head. Despite the light rain that began to fall as we pitched camp, Flamber itself made up for the damp clothes and wet feet. It’s one of the most dramatic places on the trail – a jagged, blasted peninsula jutting out into the sea to simultaneously form the north arm of Roaring Cove and the south arm of the much larger Freshwater Bay. Near the Head’s hundred foot tall tip, a massive sea stack juts out of the thrashing surf, taller than the head itself, though only 20 ft wide at its top.

It’s an intimidating landmark – a rude gesture from the stone to the ocean, meant to provoke a nasty fight.

Maybe it was the weather (more rain by the minute) or the growing darkness, but standing on Flamber Head at that moment, we got an urge to get back to our tent. To be surrounded by four flimsy walls and feel that the world was small again.

Or maybe it was just a desire not to see that nasty fight, so old and big and ugly that it looks beautiful.

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Chapter 6 – Past La Manche and Pee Pee

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Flamber Head in the morning sun (More photos)

“Yis. C’mon!”

Keith, getting back in his truck

A little sun, a little blue sky, a little calm on the ocean, and Flamber Head moves quickly from intimidating to inspiring.

It may be overdoing it to say we were spooked by the landmark’s moodiness the previous night. But as we left camp late the morning after that first encounter, we felt a need to walk out on the peninsula again, if not for better photographs then only to ensure we parted Flamber with pleasant memories. The weather did its part. After a night of periodic rains, the emerging sun was a blessing on our soggy clothes and gear. And in the yellow light, with the ocean blue now, not a matted green-grey, it was easier to picture dayhikers picnicking and watching whales from Flamber Head then to imagine freighters and mariners being smashed to bloody and metallic pieces beneath the watch of its imposing granite sea stack.

Rounding Cape Neddick, where a hawk warned us to enjoy the view but not to get too close to its eyrie, we walked into the remains of the abandoned village of La Manche. Though the community in this snug, deep cove was destroyed by a tidal wave in 1966, La Manche remains one of the prettiest points of interest on the trail. Amongst the slate foundations of the little homes that once housed more than 50 people , we enjoyed a restful lunch beside a reconstructed foot bridge that spans the narrowest part of the cove where the tumbling La Manche river falls into the sea. I’ve often seen 2 or 3 seals here, feeding on the befuddled trout that are tossed into the cove by the river.

A half hour’s walk past La Manche, we reached the quadret of villages known as Bauline East. The clouds and cold weather returned just as we passed a small cafe. We interpreted this as a sign from God that we were to have a cup of tea and enjoy the cafe’s superb view of the islands making up the famous Witless Bay Seabird Ecological Reserve. In the summer time, more than 250,000 Puffins mate, nest and poop here (in foggy weather, they say you can smell the islands before you can see them). Our favourite island is named “Pee Pee”, shaped like a quarter chicken with the drumstick portion called “The Leg” and the thigh portion called “The Arse”.

It hadn’t been a terribly hard day so far, in terms of distance. But the late, damp start had made it feel otherwise and we were reluctant to leave the cafe and get back on the road. Things were made a little easier when Janine charmed Keith, who had just pulled into his driveway after dropping off his son at a friend’s house a couple of communities away, into getting back in his truck and giving us a ride through Bauline to the trail head at Tors Cove. On the way, he told us about his and his brother’s bird- and whale-watching business and the growing number of foreigners buying up property on this scenic stretch of shore. Some of the newcomers are less open to having people cross their newly purchased land for hiking and berry picking and this is a strange thing for the lifelong residents to understand. Still, Keith drives us as far down to the trail as he dares, and waves off our offer of some money for his trouble with a friendly curse and a threat to never give someone a ride again if we give him any cash.

***

The 5 km walk from Tors Cove to Mobile is one of the easiest on the loop, with the trail closely following the low coastline alongside cobblestone beaches and rolling seaside meadows, pleasant even in the fading warmth and light of a mid-October evening. The next community of Witless Bay is only 2 km away by road but another 7 by the trail. As we walk from the trailhead towards highway 10, we know we won’t make it before dark. And unlike the Rockies, with its smooth, firmly packed trails, the ECT is no place to be walking after dark.

Before this trip started, we would never have dreamed of doing what we’re about to do. But a week among the people of the Southern Shore has stretched the boundaries of our sense of propriety and lowered our shame standards.

Time to call the Retirement Home.

Chapter 7 – Retirement

sanctuary.jpg

Sanctuary (More photos)

I know we said we were retired, but this is ridiculous.

Janine

When we had first met Debbie and Junior Dunne a week earlier, we couldn’t conceive of taking them up on their offer.

The couple owns and manages the Alderwood Estates, a newly renovated 60 room retirement centre overlooking the south arm of Witless Bay. On the suggestion of a family friend, we had stopped into Alderwood on our way to the trailhead at the beginning of our trip to see if we could leave one of our food drops there. My previous experiences with old age homes had left me with the impression that they were all essentially utility-grade hospitals. So, when we entered Alderwood’s sunny main foyer, we were shocked. Water burbled quietly in a riverstone fountain that cascaded down one wall. Directly ahead of us, a spacious dining room looked out over a harbour that in the summer time is home to humpback whales, icebergs and hundreds of thousands of migrating sea birds. Tasteful, local artwork decorated the hallways and every panel of hardwood flooring seemed to gleam warmly.

We’d have moved in in a heartbeat.

Debbie and Junior wore the excited/tired expressions of people whose life work was two weeks away from its grand opening. But that didn’t stop them from dropping everything they were doing to give us the grand tour. They stored our food bag with care in the front entrance but looked at it with some concern. “When you come back, you should stop in for a cup of tea and something to eat,” said Junior.

“Yes, and stay the night,” added Debbie. “We’ve still got plenty of empty rooms. You’ll need a night in a bed after all that hiking.”

We thanked them for offer but confidently assured them that we wouldn’t add anymore burdens, including ourselves, to their shoulders. When we got back into the car with Uncle Jack to continue our drive to the Cappahayden trailhead, we laughed at the idea of (a) actually imposing on someone like that and (b) despite our proclamation that we are on “Temporary Early Retirement”, actually staying in a retirement home.

It’s amazing what a week on the trail can do for your attitudes about such things. After seven days of acclimatizing to the generosity and good-nature of the Southern Shore people, we had no doubts when we reached Witless Bay’s neighboring community of Mobile that Debbie and Junior’s offer was both genuine and yet another opportunity to make new friends on this hike.

In the fading mid-October light, we tramped off the trailhead in Mobile, tired and soggy. After stopping at a house for directions, we made our way to the town’s convenience store. There, as I devoured the first of two ice-cream sandwiches and chatted with the lady working the counter, Janine called Debbie, first at her work number, then, with some hesitation, at home.

We caught them right at dinner.

Janine’s hesitant inquiries about whether the offer of a room was still on the table were greeted by Debbie with an enthusiastic yes. They’d been expecting us. “Our room” was ready and there was freshly made stew in the kitchen. Debbie could tell where we were in Mobile from her call display and, with an order to stay where we were till she got where we were to, she hung up the phone and drove out to get us.

What a difference an hour makes. Sixty minutes after exchanging hugs with Debbie in the store parking lot (Debbie hugs you like she’s known you for years), we sat in the Alderwood dining room; freshly showered with our filthy hiking clothes spinning contentedly in housekeeping’s washing machines. As we dipped giant pieces of homemade buttered bread into steaming bowls of irish stew, our soaked camping gear lay drying in the spacious double room with large ensuite that Debbie and Junior had set aside for us. When we could eat no more, we ate more. Then, dessert – a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies baked by the residents earlier that day.

Finally, at one point Janine and I made eye contact with each other and burst into laughter.

“I know we said we were retired, but this is ridiculous.”

I agreed. Either someone up there was smiling down on me, or I was seriously going to pay for this somewhere down the road.

***

“Ow.”

After a hearty breakfast with Debbie and the residents at Alderwood (at least two of whom thought we were the latest couple to move in), we had set out in bright sunshine for the next community on the ECT, Bay Bulls. In the span of just one evening and a morning, we’d grown so close to Debbie and Junior that they felt like old friends. And as we exchanged hugs and handshakes, we promised them that we’d drive back to Witless Bay for Alderwood’s grand opening next week.

Laughing and sharing stories from the night before, we walked the scenic 7 km to Bay Bulls along a section of the trail called Mickeleens Path in just under 2 hours. A ride around Bay Bulls’ lengthy harbour was granted courtesy of Clothilda, a beaming woman who responded to my offer to pay her for the ride with a booming “Not a friggin’ ting!”. An hour and a half later, we stood on a high headland in front of the Bay Bulls lighthouse after a rolling hike past the colourful local landmarks of Bread and Cheese Hill and a fat, 40 foot tall sea stack known as The Pulpit. The simple white lighthouse stood like an ivory spike marking the end of the Bay. And while it contrasted against a blue sky and sea for now, a fast-moving front of grey cloud roiled towards us in the distance. We decided to take a snack break and enjoy the view while we had it and before we were forced to break out the gore-tex. Anyway, I’d been developing a pain in my right knee since the first hour of the hike today. A rest couldn’t hurt that either. We plunked down near the ruins of the lightkeeper’s house and broke out the chocolate and trail mix.

As soon as I got up, 20 minutes later , I knew something wasn’t right. Even just bending my right leg to put on rainpants in the increasingly poor weather was sending little knives of pain down the back of my leg. As we set out for the ruins of the abandoned fishing village of Freshwater, a scenic collection of stone foundations and walkways near a natural waterslide running down to the sea, I was having trouble putting downward weight on it all.

By the time we reached Freshwater, a kilometer later, I was walking like Terry Fox – just with less courage and more whining.

We sat on the little bridge over the swift flowing Freshwater river and discussed our options. The next stretch of trail – 30 km to the town of Petty Harbour – was one of the best for scenery on the whole ECT. Sea stacks and arches stretching hundreds of feet from the water, bald eagles by the truckload nesting in the spruce trees, a rushing geyser called The Spout caused by the ocean tides pushing a river back up through the tiny hole through which it drains into the Atlantic. But it was also one of the most remote sections on the whole East Coast Trail – no easy ways out if we got half way through and changed our minds.

Not the best place to blow out a knee.

The hail was easing off and it looked like the sun could break through again. After such a restful night at Alderwood, we were excited to finish the trail and walk into St. John’s. Two or three more nights could do it. But we couldn’t help but think too of all the trekking we had in front us – desert hiking in the Sinai, gorilla trekking in Uganda, climbing Kilimanjaro. One torn up knee could take away all of that.

Maybe someone had been trying to tell us something with the Alderwood sojourn. Maybe it was time to retire.

***

“What are you doin’?” asked Wayne, leaning out his window with a drink in his hand.

We were retreating. In my case, literally limping back into Bay Bulls, looking for a phone from which to call my Uncle Jack, who I would beg to make the 40 minute drive from his house out to Bay Bulls to pick us up.

Wayne soaked in this explanation along with another sip of his drink. Then he blinked and said, “Sure you can come in and use my phone. And I got a buddy here who’s goin’ to St. John’s in a few minutes. He can probably drive you in.”

Perhaps feeling that further explanation was necessary, Wayne continued with a wink, “I’d drive ye myself. But I’m on the rum.”

***

An hour later, we’re standing on the door of my mother’s town house in Mount Pearl, waving good bye to Chris, a sea captain just back in town from a stint laying telecom cabling on the ocean floor off the Orkney Islands. As Chris’s jeep pulls away, he gives a final tap on his horn to us and flicks on his headlights in the growing darkness.

We stand for a minute on mom’s porch, perhaps a little shocked that our hike is actually over. We’re disappointed at the sudden ending. But we know it’s the right choice. It’s been an amazing adventure, and thanks to the people we’ve met along the way, it’s also been a bowl of chicken soup for the soul. A reminder that most people are nice, that most people help others and that most people will give you a lift, drop you off some fish and chips or feed you chocolate chip cookies made by senior citizens.

That last stretch of East Coast Trail isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s nice to have something to look forward to for our next trip. But for now, it’s time to get in out of the cold, light mom’s fireplace and start rummaging through her liquor cabinet.

We knock on the door.

Mom’s not home.

We don’t have a key.

Maybe our East Coast Trail adventure isn’t over after all.

While I continue to stare at the door with an expression of intense stupidity, Janine barely misses a beat. Snapping on her gloves and balaclava, she roots through her backpack until she comes out with our campstove and a pack of matches.

“Cup of tea?”

jason-on-flamber-head.jpg

Postscript: This page is dedicated to the memory of Jack Kreiger; uncle, friend and adventurous spirit, who passed away suddenly on March 24, 2008. He travels with us still.

Jason and Uncle Jack at the Cappahayden Trailhead

Uncle Jack and JasonJason and Uncle Jack at the Cappahayden Trailhead

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Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

a

Dear Jason,
In the depths of winter when the snow is crusted over with ice and there’s a forecast for 25 cm of rain, we often wonder why we continue to live here on this miserable piece of rock. Your blog eloquently explains why, of course. It’s the beyond-friendly people and the beautiful-even-in-RDF landscape. Your writing ably describes both. Thank you for the inspiration on this dull February day.
Sharon

I was looking through your website and I’m hoping can help me with something.

I have an interest in natural arches.

Can you tell me how to get to Berryhead Arch?

Also, I noticed another arch in one of your other pictures. It is IMG_2537. (See also the link below.) Do you remember where this arch is?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/7513523@N07/1683137311

I appreciate any help you can give me.

Sincerely,

Robert O’Connell

Hi Jason,

Loved the website and your humor laced narrative! Some friends and I are planning to backpack the ECT from Blackhead to Tors Cove, and we only have 3 days to do it. Is this too much? This group has backpackers of mixed abilities and would prefer to hike about 4 – 6 hours pre day. I have the maps and guidebooks from the ECT Assn. and think this would be do-able. My other concern is at-large camping, is it allowed? I only see two designated campsites in this stretch of trail, Miner Point Camp and Little Bald Head Camp, and the distance between Blackhead and Miner Point is too much for one day.
We have a cootage booked in Tors Cove, Celtic Rendezvous, which is why we want to finish there.
Any suggested route will be greatly appreciated!
Thanks Jason,
Mike

Loved reading about you’re hike on the east coast trail. I actually live on the trail in Port Kirwan. I also noticed that you mentioned staying at the Ark of Avalon, Shirley is my 1st cousin. The restaurant you ate at in Ferryland is my Fathers place {Bernard Kavanagh’s Irish loop drive restaurant}. i’m so glad you enjoyed it all. Maybe you’ll do it again. Take Care

By the way Happy New Year

Your trip report of the ECT is truly enjoyable; or should I say your trip report of the folks and the ECT is just as. A great story, combined with a nicely detailed report is often hard to find regarding this trail. My wife and I have been hiking the ECT for many years already, and again this year we’ll be returning to discover the intricacies of the trail. We’ve experienced everything from hypothermia, to dehydration on one trip or another, and oft remember climbing a hill, standing on the very tip of a tall rock with arm extended holding a cell-phone in hopes of getting noisy analog connection just to touch base with the kids at home long enough to blurt our lat/long and “we’re alive”.
Every place you mention rekindles a sacred, and truly memorable experience.
This trail is quickly becoming “developed”; so your timing was spot on. We’ll rue the day when the wildness of this trail evolves into another series of stops dotted with large, low, platforms of pressure treated wood held together with the latest in stainless steel hardware, and the “throne” at Little Blad Head becomes the final depository of someones’ last copy of “How to Sh*t in the Woods”.

I remember hearing a father tell his young daughter a “Once upon a time” story in Freshwater Bay, to which she responded; “But Dad, there will always be berries, right ?”

always was and is

eastcoasthiker(s)


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