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Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

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Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

The view from atop Gros Morne is spectacular.

The talk of salt cod and moose started before we’d even made landfall on The Rock. On the ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland, a wizened fellow regaled us with stories of jigging for fish with his cousin and bagging a bull moose with his wife. It was late September.

He was pleased as punch that the freezer was stocked with sufficient cod and moose meat to see the family through a harsh Newfoundland winter. As

Florence and I drove off the ferry the man motioned us with a gnarly finger. I rolled down the window.

“Safe travels me-son. And don’t drive at night on The Rock,” he warned, “sometimes the moose are so thick you have to get out of the car and push them off the road.”

We were on Newfoundland’s southwest tip. The island is bigger than I had expected. The first road sign we saw proclaimed, ‘St John’s 890km’. But before heading to the distant capital on the Avalon Peninsula we wanted to explore the west of Newfoundland, Gros Morne National Park and L’Anse Aux Meadows, where Leif Erickson established North America’s first European settlement 1000 years ago—500 years before Columbus set foot on Hispaniola in the sunny Caribbean.

The drive north from Port Aux Basques was slow going. Along the highway, workers were installing the new transmission line from Muskrat Falls in neighbouring Labrador on the mainland. This project is an expensive undertaking—and considered by some Newfoundlanders just another dam boondoggle. Many Islanders also still bristle at the mention of Churchill Falls, a hydroelectric legacy from the era of Joey Smallwood, Canada’s last Father of Confederation.

Fall colours were near peak as we drove past lovely Corner Brook and leafy Marble Mountain. We enjoyed a late-season round of golf at Humber Valley Resort, ranked Canada’s 6th best public golf course. The rolling fairways were flanked by yellow, gold and red-hued deciduous trees and stoic evergreens. There were no moose on course, but a solitary black fox did greedily eye my ball on the green at the signature par 4 10th.  A little further down the TransCanada we made a sharp left at Deer Lake onto Hwy 430, bound for Gros Morne and the rugged west coast.

 

Life is hard on The Rock.

Gros Morne National Park is remarkably diverse. The pebbled shoreline of Rocky Harbour gives way to a series of finger lakes, forming magnificent inland fjords. South, across Bonne Bay, lie the Tablelands where Earth’s mantle has squeezed to the surface and only the odd pitcher plant and a few other hardy species can survive the acidic, infertile ancient soil. And lording over all is Gros Morne, Newfoundland’s second highest mountain, which we intended to climb.

The night before our ascent we stopped at Park Headquarters to pick up a trail map.

“Be careful me-loves,” warned the ranger, “specially if you see a tick fag.”

“We most certainly will,” I assured her, glancing over my shoulder. In the morning, low dense clouds roiled out over the sea but the sky above Gros Morne was crystal clear. No tick fag up there.

The hard part about summiting Gros Morne Mountain isn’t the summit itself. The top is flat as a pancake, a broad sparse plain where caribou graze on lichen—and rock ptarmigan nest. The difficult portion of the ascent is ‘the Gully’ a breathless hour of bouldering through frost-shattered rock that precedes the Arctic tundra of the plateau. ‘Big Lone Mountain’ tops out at 806m (2600 ft) and since the hike starts pretty much at sea level, the elevation gain is just that. As we exited the Gully, our calm fall day rapidly deteriorated into wintery conditions atop the windswept barren.

A rock ptarmigan strolls the summit.

We snapped a quick pic at the signpost marking the high point before scurrying toward the descent on the far side of the mesa. There we met two young women who had stopped for a terrifying selfie on the precipice overlooking Ten Mile Pond. I could barely stand upright as we screamed at each other over the wind. The Parks Canada brochure warns trekkers to be prepared for an arduous climb and that “hikers have fallen from the ledge… and died.” Watching the gals pose near the cliff in this gale, I wondered, “Fallen? More likely blown.”

That night, at the Ocean View Hotel in Rocky Harbour, we enjoyed our first Newfoundland kitchen party, where we were screeched in and kissed the cod, courtesy of local celebrity Dave Shears. I joined our host on stage for a couple of songs.

“Stick around and strum a few after the others have left,” he offered, “and we’ll have a cuffer ‘bout dis and dat.”

So, long after the cod had been smooched, the screech ‘inned’ and the bar doors barred, we were still singing, quaffing—and trading yarns with our convivial hosts.

Western Brook Pond is a glacier-carved, masterpiece of nature. A cruise on this fresh-water fjord is mandatory for any visit to Gros Morne. But check the forecast. Chances are that you’ll walk 40 minutes from the parking area to the pier only to find the boat ride has been cancelled due to foul weather.

But even if the outing is kiboshed, the 2km hike through tuckamore forest, with long stretches of boardwalk over peaty bogs and around fragile wetlands, is worth the amble. Luckily we had a good day for it. The boat meandered slowly to the far end of the long, narrow lake, squeezing between sheer, 750m high cliffs. Everywhere waterfalls cascaded to the surface from the dizzying heights. Since Newfoundland is a land of perpetual impromptu music, the boat’s crew couldn’t refrain from scratching their musical itch during the two-hour tour.

When not attending to his maritime duties, the first mate played the spoons. Passengers clapped accompaniment while Celtic jigs blared over the ship’s loudspeakers.

Sheer cliffs define the fresh-water fjord.

The next evening the live entertainment continued at the Gros Morne Music Festival in Cow Head with fiddling, percussion and a sad, a capella ballad recounting the hard life of early Newfoundlanders. After midnight, walking back to our campground, the wind began to freshen. At 3am we were shaken awake by a strong sou’ wester – and slept only in fits and starts for the rest of the night.

Our plan was to hit the road early for the 350km drive to l’Anse aux Meadows on the extreme tip of the Northern Peninsula. But by morning the gusts were blowing in at 100kph – a sad portent for motor home travel. We decided to hunker down and wait out the tempest. But one by one our resolute fellow campers pulled up stakes. Soon we were the sole remainders. Suffering from FOMO, I threw caution to the gale-force wind, pulled out onto the narrow, winding highway and, as they oddly say in Newfoundland, steered north ‘down the coast.’

Next time: L’Anse aux Meadows and more tales from The Rock.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence live in Kimberley, BC!

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Gerry Feehan

Hawaii Five-O’s by Gerry Feehan

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Standing on an active lava flow is ill-advised. But our guide Steve demonstrated the art carefully, with a brief clamber onto the quickly cooling pahoehoe.

We were on the Big Island of Hawaii. Ten of us, five couples in our fifties (the Five-Os), were sharing a charming three-floor oceanfront home in Kona. Although we spent much of our two-week stay lazily floating in a private solar-heated pool watching humpback whales breach, spinner dolphins spin and surfers hang ten, we also took time to explore the many wonders of Hawaii’s largest, youngest chunk of land.

Posing papaya enjoys the view

It is labelled the Big Island for good reason. All the other islands of the 50th state could fit easily within its landmass. Driving from Kona on the western leeward side to Hilo on the wet eastern side is a three-hour drive one-way. But that’s where the lava is and it doesn’t flow uphill. So we hopped in the rental cars and made the overland foray.

Their motto is “go with the flow” … so we did.

There are few places on earth where one can view lava freshly vented from a magma chamber, oozing inexorably toward the sea, creating new planet. The Big Island is one of those magic spots.

Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of the Volcano, is tempestuous and unpredictable. As placation she insists on an offering of gardenia, plumeria or an equally entrancing native Hawaiian blossom. So said Steve as we embarked at twilight on our trek across twenty-year-old lava toward the fresh, gurgling stuff.

There are two types of lava, each easily recognized by its remnant trail. A’a’ flows are jagged and brittle, settling in an upright, dangerous posture. Our path was over the more subtle, titanium-coloured pahoehoe lava, defined by its often ropy, luxuriant and more accessible texture. Pahoehoe wanders hot and plentiful, vented from deep in mother earth’s mantle. A’a’, pushed methodically downhill, builds like windrows graded from a winter street. I prefer pahoehoe. It’s much more forgiving if you trip and fall.

Steve and his partner Ken purchased 23 acres of oceanfront Hawaiian land a decade ago. Recent transports from Montana, they intended to milk goats on their new abode. Lava had not invaded this parcel for 5000 years. But their nanny-milking ambitions were destroyed within three months of move-in when Pele unleashed her fickle fury on their whole tract of Hawaiian soil.

So they gave up the goat and took up lava tours. Their motto is “go with the flow” … so we did. They are a knowledgeable, informative and respectful team. We dutifully followed our guides across terra incognita. Ken led. Steve took up the rear.

The group begins their twilight traverse across pahoehoe lava

Twilight in the tropics is brief. After an hour slowly meandering across the shiny titanium landscape we halted. Utter blackness had descended, but beneath us the darkness evaporated. We stood mesmerized atop newly borne earth — the fresh molten evidence under foot, like a glowing red spider-web. And to our left and right fresh molten rock slowly flowed by, like incandescent rivers.

I proffered Pele’s floral gift directly into the path of the creeping molten stone. The flower wilted and disappeared beneath the hot rock’s onslaught. Nearby a large Koa tree caught fire, exploding in light, whistling and popping like Canada Day fireworks.

The author a little too close to the lava for comfort

When Steve stepped up onto pahoehoe that, seconds earlier, had been a red-hot sinuous mass of 1100°C flowing stone, we stood back, aghast. Fortunately, Steve is light on his feet. After a moment atop the smoldering lava he hopped back to safety, the bottom of his boots smoking faintly. Goddess Pele loves to see soles burn.

Steve prepares to pose atop the cooling lava.

Headlamps illuminated for the hike out, we carefully retraced our steps through a minefield of sharp lava. In the night sky the island’s persistent vog had evaporated. The Milky Way lay crisp and clear above us. We were one with the universe. Well not actually one. But pretty darn close.

Mahalo

The beachfront house at night.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

 

Vancouver Island by Gerry Feehan

 

 

 

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Gerry Feehan

Vancouver Island by Gerry Feehan

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Let’s face it. April in Alberta sucks. Beneath the snowy mantle cold and clean… lies a bunch of dead brown grass. Meanwhile on Vancouver Island, spring is in bloom. The cherry trees are in full magenta majesty. The land is bright with magnolia and rhododendron blossoms and colourful tulips punctuate the evergreen grass. Hummingbirds flit amongst the flowers, sipping spring’s sweet nectar.

I’m not stupid. Last year on the first of April my wife and I packed our cozy little motorhome and headed for the coast. Avoiding the customary Vancouver to Victoria ferry route, we elected to travel up the Sunshine Coast, on the mainland to Powell River, before heading over to the Island.

I use the word ‘mainland’ loosely since, although technically attached to the continent, there is no direct road to Powell River. Getting there entails travel by ferry—two ferries actually. After departing Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver, the first stop is Gibson’s, made famous by the old CBC series The Beachcombers. We combed Molly’s Reach unsuccessfully for Bruno Gerussi and Relic before navigating the steep road up and out of town and onto the Sunshine Coast Highway.

Soon we were serpentining through massive stands of hemlock, western red cedar and Douglas fir. We encountered the sea again at lovely Sechelt where we enjoyed a quiet hike through a towering old-growth forest—and a lively overnight stay with Sechelt friends. In the morning we followed the meandering road to Saltery Bay where we boarded our second ferry for the leg to Powell River.

We had hoped to avail ourselves of some Sunshine Coast tourist amenities—perhaps a day trip to Desolation Sound, a floatplane into Princess Louisa Inlet or a zodiac ride to Sechelt Narrows—but none of the operators had yet opened for the year.

Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, this became a recurring theme during our April trip to the wet, er I mean, west coast. That it was quiet was just as well. Highway 101 (which apparently originates 15,000 road miles away at the tip of South America) terminates at Lund, BC. And I mean, terminates. Had there been a couple more cars parked in front of the historic Lund Hotel, I’d still be trying to turn the motorhome around.

After retracing our path south to Powell River, we caught the late afternoon ferry for the run over to Comox on the Island. Our arrival was inauspicious. Rain poured down through the night. In the morning the windshield wipers were flapping time all the way to Port McNeill. Literally flapping. They were broken. But when we pulled into town the sky cleared and we enjoyed a lovely, crisp evening. The town was deserted. We had the world’s largest burl, a Port McNeil must-see, to ourselves.

For the uninitiated, a burl is an abnormal outgrowth on a tree, like a wart, or a giant blemish. This particular burl is six meters in diameter and is estimated to weigh 30 tonnes. That’s one big zit.

A few kilometres up the road is Port Hardy, which bills itself as a salmon fishing mecca. But the charters were all in dry dock. The run of spring salmon had yet to arrive. And the orcas that eat them were nowhere to be seen. So forget whale watching.

Perhaps this whole ‘Vancouver-Island-in-April’ thing was not such a great idea after all. But of course, it was. Sure, we got a bit wet here and there and, yes, some of the more touristy things weren’t yet open for business, but there was the quiet solitude, gorgeous hiking, camping in peaceful remote forests—and spring’s bright blossoms.

I unfurled my fly rod and spent a delightful day wading the Marble River, near Port Alice, casting every manner of lure onto those pristine mountain waters. Alas, I didn’t land a thing, despite digging deep into my fly box for the finest of flies. Clearly, the fish of Vancouver Island are either blind—or very stupid.

We had the Island’s campgrounds to ourselves

Pursuing more quiet isolation, we headed for Telegraph Cove, located on a dead-end road just south of Port McNeill. We phoned ahead to see if the campground was open but the pre-recorded message simply thanked patrons for ‘a great season’ and offered an encouraging ‘see you in the spring’.

We weren’t optimistic. We resigned ourselves to a night of boondocking in some remote pullout. Still, we pressed on and pulled into the cove just as the setting sun glimmered red on the calm, gorgeous bay of the tiny hamlet.

Telegraph Cove

Look up ‘quaint’ in the dictionary. There’ll be a picture of Telegraph Cove. The small harbour is surrounded by cute, rustic lodging; converted fishing shacks and charming motel units hang precariously over the water.

At the end of the pier stands the iconic rust-red Telegraph Cove Lumber & Trading Co., which now houses the Whale Interpretive Centre. Everything was shut fast. I peeked through the smoky windows of the local cafe. In a far corner, tables and chairs were upended and neatly stacked. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an older fellow, with a hitch in his gait and a sharp tool in his hand, appeared. ‘Can I help ya?’ he inquired, hoisting a hacksaw. I looked at Florence and shivered. It was reminiscent of The Shining.

‘We were hoping to find a spot to camp for the night,’ I mentioned nervously. ‘No problem,’ he said. ‘we’re not officially open yet but you’re welcome to pull in anywhere and hook up. No charge.’ He pointed up the hill toward a steep gravel road leading into the forest and a sign that read, ‘Camping.’ I turned to thank him. He was gone.

Still, we slept peacefully that night, lullabied to sleep by the rhythmic swaying of giant Douglas fir. In the morning we moseyed down to the boat ramp, intending to launch our inflatable kayak. The wind was gale-force. Outside the harbour entrance, the roiling sea was grey and angry. And we’d been warned that even on calm days, navigating the tide at Telegraph Cove can be challenging.

Deflated, but not defeated, we stuffed the limp kayak back into its lair in the rear of the RV and pointed the wheel toward Tofino on the rugged west side of Vancouver Island… where we would soon encounter a real adventure on the ocean.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

Heavenly Valhalla by Gerry Feehan

 

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