St. John’s – You’re all growed up!

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The last time we were in Newfoundland was almost 40 years ago. A friend was studying at Memorial University so we flew in from Toronto for a week’s visit. That visit involved late nights and alcohol, so our memories are a bit tainted but St. John’s had a rough edge then. Now there’s shiny new buildings and decent restaurants and stores that sell many varieties of olive oil.  People work out – St. John’s has its very own Stairmaster – about 100 steps up from the waterfront.

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These women were completing their ninth run up the stairs when we stopped to talk. (We had just huffed up one time –  after finishing our ice cream cone).  Before we left, they were circling for the 10th and final time.

We’re here for seven nights – staying at an Airbnb and being hosted by a young woman who owns a heritage home close to downtown and rents out two bedrooms.  The advantages : we have the opportunity to meet other people, hang out in a neighbourhood and pay half the going rate of a St. John’s hotel ($68 a night). The disadvantages – we have  five people vying for one bathroom in the morning! So far, it’s worked out well, and as a bonus,  we are right around the corner from our friend Ingrid.

We met Ingrid over 35 years ago. She had completed her studies at Memorial University and was checking out life in Vancouver. It didn’t stick – she moved back to St. John’s and we lost touch.  Life in Newfoundland has suited her very well. She retired from a 30-year career  with CBC, has a son who lives in Halifax and has a happy life hanging out with this town’s musicians and miscreants. We swapped stories, had a beer on her back deck and tried to get the hang of selfies.

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Ingrid is our finger on the pulse of life in Newfoundland. I asked her about getting “screeched in” and got an unabashed and profane response. I figured it for a contrived tourist gimmick and got a sense of that from a few older Newfoundlanders.

Being “screeched in” takes place in a bar and involves tossing on a sou-wester, throwing back a shot of screech and kissing a frozen cod. A certificate is then bestowed on the newly minted Newfoundlander wannabe. There are two perspectives – one of innocent fun and inclusiveness and the other of perpetuating stereotypes of the drunken goofy Newfie. The use of the word “Newfie” is also questionable – offensive to some and yet…we see this sign and wonder.

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Being in Newfoundland can feel like being in a foreign country. Language ranges from clear diction to a charming Irish lilt to an incomprehensible jumble. We were approached today by a gentleman who noted that we were “a far piece from home.”  That came out like, “Yos a fapeezefrawomb.” We managed to figure that out, but the rest of the conversation was lost on us, so we just kept smiling.

St. John’s is famous for its crayon-box homes. We’ve only begun to discover the town, but here’s a teaser:

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Just down the street from us – I love this  home, with its  picket fence, Kraft Dinner paint job and matching flower basket. This is a colour to get you through winter.

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Our first night here, we walked down to the waterfront to get the lay of the land. This is a working harbour – unlike Halifax or Vancouver whose container ships are sequestered away, St. John’s is a little less picturesque. In a controversial move, much of the harbour is now behind a high gate (ostensibly for security reasons) and it prevents pedestrians from being able to walk beside some of the more interesting ships. This was taken through the chain-link fence, and looks straight out to The Narrows.

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St. John’s is one of the oldest settlements in North America, but much of the east end of the city was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1892. Many of the older houses and businesses in the downtown  have gone through a number of incarnations. I love the irony of The Cornerstone Building, which was once a Catholic School for Girls and is now a strip club.

 

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Movie night downtown – “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” – chairs, blankets, jammies, snacks – just waiting for darkness to fall.

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Our first dinner in St. John’s – wood-fired pizza, fresh salad and Campari at Piatto – we needed a break from fish and homebaked rolls. A memorable start.

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Next up – the search for the Newfoundland dog. I thought we’d be tripping over them, but according to a number of reliable sources – they have fallen out of favour. They have relatively short lives, cost a lot to feed and no doubt that ever-present slobber is a deterrent. Still, we saw this big guy, Dory, and couldn’t resist – we pulled off the road and accosted his owner, who was quite tickled that we were so interested in him.

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We’re splitting our time between being in St. John’s and heading up and down the fingers of the Avalon Peninsula.  We drove to Portugal Cove and parked beside a lookout. A couple told us we had “just missed” a pod of humpbacks. They are out there in great numbers – we will make sure we see them before we leave this island. Still – the cove was very pretty – we sat and enjoyed the view and tried to figure out how the boat system works. We saw pulleys, but couldn’t make sense of it.

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On to Brigus – one of the oldest settlements in North America and one of the prettiest towns – very New England in its look.

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Homes ranged from modern re-dos of a traditional saltbox (one of my favourites – I love the clean lines and the Lego staircase):

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The Fowler House, one of four Heritage homes left in Brigus and on the market for $184,900. It needs work, but is eligible for a $50,000 Heritage grant.

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We bumped into a charming man who had recently returned to Brigus after a couple of decades in Colorado. He was sitting on the dock and struck up a conversation with us – he was finding his way back to Newfoundland and seemed pleased that we were enjoying his home province so much. He took this photo of us.

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The view out to sea:

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Just down the road is Cupids, another very old settlement in Newfoundland. They have an excellent interpretive centre there and an imposing harbour. At the top of a hill, we found this home – a stately command post.

This home reminded me of  one of the famous Newfoundland and Labrador ads we have all grown to love – shot against a backdrop of water and blue sky. However, most locals are telling us this that sun and heat is not typical of a Newfoundland summer and we’ve been very lucky to have a full week of it.

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We found out today that Newfoundland in July can be foggy!! We drove two and a half hours to reach Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve – one of the largest northern gannet colonies in the province. Since this area gets 200 days of fog a year, we weren’t surprised but a little disappointed that our visibility was not ideal to view these nesting birds.

Walking toward the interpretive centre – an idea of the range of visibility we had.

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The 1.4 km. walk out to the nesting site is well-marked with orange markers, to prevent visitors from straying off the path and plunging 100 metres to their death. With all potential hazards out of the way, we enjoyed the atmospheric stroll out to the cliffs, punctuated by the steady sound of the fog horn.

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Finally – to the edge, and the first glimpse of the birds.
If you look closely, you can also see razorbills – they are black with white tummies, like miniature penguins.

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Stephen took a brief video to capture the sound of 10,000+ birds. The smell was just as overwhelming – I’ll leave that to your imagination.


One final image – Newfoundland’s famous potholes. Some of the major highways are well-paved, others are not, and still others are no better than a back road in Mexico. There are many theories – from the severe weather, to the damaging effects of the snowplows to the “Jeezley” politicians who have misspent funds, but whatever the reason – Newfoundland roads can be hazardous. We were way more afraid of ripping up our tires or breaking an axle than we were of hitting a moose.

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On a typical 10-km. stretch of road, you might drive around hundreds of potholes like this and worse.

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See you again soon – lots more St. John’s and area to explore before we leave.

Icebergs!

We were not holding out much hope of seeing them – their peak time is early May to mid-June, with a few trickling into early July. However, this year has been a banner year for icebergs and a cautionary tale for mankind, unless you are a climate change denier. They are a thrilling but bittersweet sight. This smaller iceberg was our first glimpse –  it was hanging out so close to shore at St. Anthony we could almost have reached out and touched it. The next day – it was gone.

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St. Anthony is almost at the top of the Great Northern Peninsula, and first in the line  of “Iceberg Alley”,  as the icebergs break off each year and make their way south. This year, over 1000 icebergs have been spotted, but the season is winding down – possibly a week or two left to see them.

One of the many fascinating thing about icebergs is how quickly they move and change.  We spoke to a woman at our campground who had taken a boat tour out to over 15 icebergs. One week later when we took our tour, we could only access one berg and an ice pan – the rest had drifted south or further out to sea.

This was our view from shore the day before we took our boat tour; half a dozen small icebergs within easy view.

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This was our boat, Gaffer III. We were lucky enough to get one of the few seats upstairs.

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The 2-1/2 hour boat trip was billed as an “iceberg/whale-watching” tour. The challenge with this is that we were on the very tail end of iceberg season and the humpbacks have only begun to come into the area. Our delightful guide tried very hard to make it exciting – he was knowledgable and folksy and charming, but he’s not a magician. We saw the backs of a few minke whales and a pod of dolphins who were feeding and therefore not wanting to play. Right at the end we saw a small humpback, but again – no dramatic breaches or showy tail-flaps. While we would have loved more marine activity, the main draw for us was being able to see an iceberg up close. Our first stop was an ice pan that happened to have a harp seal basking on it.

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We headed out for about half an hour to the main event – the one large iceberg that was currently still in range. Two other very large icebergs had been part of the tour the day before and 24 hours later they were too far out to access.

Still – this one was awe-inspiring and a little bit scary to be so close. Seventy-five feet high and 265  feet underwater. Translucent white, with greenish tinges and fissures with rivulets of water dripping into the ocean – this iceberg was alive. It had already rolled over a couple of times – indicated by the smooth parts of the iceberg. According to our guide, it was “anchored” – meaning it was stuck in that spot for a while – luckily for us.

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Another view:

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And a nearby piece, probably fractured from this iceberg. Our guide told us the ice pieces around were a good hint that the big iceberg was going to break up. Those ice pieces are also called “bergie bits” – apparently anything smaller than a house or car is not a full-fledged iceberg.

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We were treated to iceberg chips – the purest (and oldest – over 10,000 years old) water on the planet. Iceberg water is well marketed – iceberg beer, iceberg vodka, even iceberg doughnuts (for a very brief time during Iceberg Festival) at Tim Hortons. Our guide dropped a net into the water, hauled up a good-sized bergie bit and broke up pieces to sample. Surprisingly, the ice did not taste of salt – it was as pure and clean as the driven snow. Icebergs are so dense they do not easily absorb sea water.

(Please excuse my rough manicure – “camping” fingernails.)

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It was an unforgettable experience, but we missed the main event – seeing dozens and dozens of icebergs at their largest and most majestic. Another time, we would plan our visit to Newfoundland for early June.

Of course, the other reason we were way up north was to visit L’Anse aux Meadows. This UNESCO National Historic site (absolutely free this year with our  Canada 150 pass!) was the first European settlement in North America, c. AD 1000.  It was authenticated in 1960 and is believed to be Leif Ericsson’s Vinland camp. The site begins with an excellent interpretation centre with displays, movies, artifacts and a scale-model of a Viking boat.

Hiking paths wind around the site – one of them along the coast.

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This showpiece sculpture by Luben Boykov is the visitor’s first introduction to the site.

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Most of the site are grass-covered mounds, with explanatory plaques – a house, a barn, a foundry etc. They have been excavated, but not recreated.

The main area is comprised of a few reconstructed sod buildings, of peat construction and bolstered by wooden frames. They are not actually built on the original site, but just off to one side.

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One of the entranceways to the main structure.

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Inside, we found two young women in costume, sitting demurely with needlework in their laps. Suddenly a bearded man appeared, all swashbuckling cape and gruff demeanour. I am most uncomfortable with historical reenactments – I always worry I will be picked out of the crowd and compelled to speak with an accent or indulge in play-acting as a bar wench or scullery maid. Thankfully, there was none of that but we were invited to pick up helmets and swords and try them on. Stephen, who is not at all worried about being centred out, obliged. Not the most fearsome Viking around, but a good sport nonetheless.

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We spent a few hours at L’Anse aux Meadows – the landscape is ancient and barren and it lends itself to imagining historical events from so long ago.

The Northern Peninsula has a dramatically different feel from  the mountainous, heavily wooded terrain of Gros Morne. It is all rock and  water and wind.  A bright day in mid-July still feels like winter is just around the corner. Not a place for the faint of heart, but   there is such beauty here.

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There are two distinctive features in northern Newfoundland that speak to the resident resourcefulness – the roadside garden and the monster woodpile.

We kept seeing gardens either in the ditches beside the roads or just back a bit, but they were all similar – neatly planted rows of vegetables, fenced to keep the moose out.  The roadside plantings began years ago when the roads went through and the fill was cast off to the side. Families plant these gardens, amend them each year with seaweed and reap the rewards of a year’s worth of root vegetables.

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And the woodpiles – unbelievable piles of firewood, right by the side of the road. We became so curious: were these community piles – come and help yourself? Or a business – call and place your order for three cords of wood? We asked the park staffer at our campground  about this.

These piles are all  cut by individuals or families with a permit and set out by the road to dry. In the fall, the locals haul their wood back to their  homes for the winter. We were incredulous – does anyone steal this wood? Apparently not – that would be unneighbourly.

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So many interesting differences with both people and place here. We’re in Musgrave Harbour tonight – enroute to St. John’s tomorrow. We’re staying at a motel overlooking the ocean and we just came back from dinner at their restaurant.

At one of the tables was a couple who had worked 25 years in Fort Mac, and 11 years ago left friends and family and grandchildren back in Alberta to “come home.” That is such a common story.

The longer we are in Newfoundland, the more we understand how hard it must be to leave.

Life is sweet on The Rock

So we’re finally here – in Newfinlan, affectionately known as The Rock. It takes exactly five minutes to figure out why – this island is built to last. After we landed in Port au Basques, our first destination was Gros Morne National Park – about a four-hour drive up the western coast. There is a fair bit of road construction going on and I imagine the going is a little slower than other parts of the country. Now these are rocks – we drove for about 50 km. beside these massive boulders, and watched two-storey drills trying to break them up.

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We’re camping about 6 km. from Rocky Harbour, one of the Park’s main little towns.

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Rocky Harbour offers all the staples one might need – ice, basic groceries, liquor and fudge. A number of “home-cooking” restaurants feature notable Newfoundland specials such as moose burgers and stew, toutons (deep-fried bread), and cod au gratin (pronounced gratten).  Newfoundland is not noted for its delicate or innovative food – this is a cuisine based on what is available – anything that can be fished, hunted or grown. It is basic scoff served with walloping sides of hospitality.

Rocky Harbour also caters to the souvenir-hunters:

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Our campground is very well-equipped, with spotless showers and washrooms, laundry and a shelter with big wood stoves and twin sinks for washing dishes. We appreciated the shelter the first day, as it poured rain for most of the morning.

There is no wifi at the campground  and I’m writing this from the Visitor’s Centre, which is a bit spotty. Wifi is an issue on this coast and will get worse the further north we go. My next couple of blog postings may reflect that with fewer photos and less narrative.

Gros Morne Park cannot possibly be “done” in just four days, but as an advertising blurb goes, “we’ll just have to come back.” It is a staggeringly beautiful area – I felt a little choked up on our hike yesterday; it is a privilege to be here.

Gros Morne was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its unique geological features, and while there are a number of museums and local festivals, most tourists are here for the great outdoors.

There are over 30 trails, ranging in length from 1-16 km. as well as a multi-day backcountry hike. We managed to fit in five of them.

Green Point was a remarkable site. We were lucky to run into tourists from Virginia who could explain the rock formation in layman’s terms. Basically, the earth tilted and went sideways (millions of years ago), and shoved up the many layers of rock into the air. This was once the bottom of an ocean, and is the world geological benchmark for the start of the Ordovician period. (and no, I have no idea what that means).

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The simple act of driving in the Park is a delight – there are no bad views. Motorcyclists are in heaven – they are nimble enough to dodge potholes and often have the road to themselves. We spoke to a man from Scotland yesterday – he was taking three months to  ride his bike from Nfld. to Vancouver Island.

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The skies are pure drama. We’ve been lucky with the weather in our four days – three out of four have been clear. Weather forecasts are almost pointless – you know what weather you’re getting when it arrives. Clouds like this are a good indication that it’s time to pull out your raincoat.

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If it is picturesque fishing shack photos you’re after, you’ve come to the right place. They are abandoned…

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…and in full use.
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We went to Norris Point on our first morning here, in search of an indoor activity, since it was pouring rain. The Bonne Bay Marine Station was a hit; a young biologist took a group of us around the tanks to see blue lobsters, explain how crabs regenerate missing claws, and showed us tiny jellyfish (that grow to 100 feet in the ocean). As we left the building, the rain was just letting up.

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Norris Point is one of a number of towns with this designation. I like it – it matches perfectly the appearance of most towns – not fussy, not overdone, just…tidy.

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We took a hike out to Lobster Cove Head Lighthouse. It is so quintessentially East Coast, it looks Photoshopped.

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It is the original light keeper’s home and has been redone to demonstrate the heritage of the place – right down to the (new) wood stove from Elmira, Ontario! One of the park staff brought out an ugly stick and encouraged one of the spectators to hold the songbook so she could sing and play. A stout stick has dozens of beer caps attached, with a rubber boot on the bottom and a Carnation milk tin on top – the player bangs a stick on this contraption and sings, and bingo – a kitchen party.

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We headed south to hike the area around Woody Point – about an hour’s drive away. By the time we got there, the skies had closed in and the winds were picking up, so our plan to hike the 9-km. Green Gardens trail was cut a little short – we did a total of 6 km. – didn’t quite make it down to the beach, but it was still a fantastic hike. In many places, the trail was very steep and muddy, so it was our most challenging hike.

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The highlight for us was the Western Brook Pond hike and boat ride. Western Brook Pond is a freshwater lake with billion-year-old  650-ft. cliffs. , accessible only by a 3-km. hike in, on lovely soft paths and boardwalks. On either side of the boardwalk is peat – five meters deep.

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The boat has 99 passengers, but only room for 45 on the upper level, so we lined up in order to make a rush for the stairs. We had a perfect view, and for two hours listened to our guides talk about various points of interest. It was a mesmerizing experience.

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The guides were fantastic – on the way back one of them pulled out a guitar and got the crowd singing and clapping. One woman leaped to her feet and danced a jig for the entire length of “Eye’s the Bye” . Someone called out and wondered where all the moose were, and the quick-witted response, ” If you’re not a Newfoundlander, they’re not interested in you.”

So that explains it. We’ve had eyes peeled since we arrived, but have seen nothing more exciting than a chipmunk.

Our last hike today was a lovely coastal stroll for 6 km. – first through a forest canopy.

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All too short  a time here, unfortunately. I suspect that will be the case wherever we go. We pack up camp tomorrow (in the rain – it is raining right now) – to make our way north to St. Anthony’s. We’ll check out the Vikings, and hope for whales and iceberg sightings.

See you again soon, wifi permitting.