This article is part of the Mountain Life Isolation Reading List
Newfoundland is no stranger to strangers.
The Vikings landed here sometime around the year 1001. The English showed up in 1497, followed by Portuguese fishermen, Basque whalers, French rum runners, Caribbean pirates, Canadian confederates and, smack in the middle of the region’s snowiest winter on record, us—a crew of B.C. riders searching for undiscovered powder and rumours of big mountain riding on the East Coast.
Wait a minute… Caribbean pirates in Newfoundland?
Words: Feet Banks Photos: Mark Gribbon
For the new Mountain Life Resort Guide
“Yes b’ye, you’ve never heard about the Man in the Mountain?” Jon Thorne, a born-and-raised Newfoundland snowboarder and adventurer, asks. He begins to recount this 300-year-old lore, easing his sled-loaded Ram 2500 (a.k.a. The White Moose) off the Trans-Canada Highway and into a narrow lane of blowing spindrift and steep snowbanks. If there are lines on this road, they’re invisible under the snow; the road signs are nearly buried.
“The story goes,” Jon continues, “the Pirates would sail up to Newfoundland and all the way up t’ Bay of Islands to the mouth of the Humber river here. Then they’d row upstream to Shellbird Island and bury their treasure. Right above the island there’s this huge cliff, you seen it right there on your way into Cornerbrook, big sheer cliff with a face in it. In the shades of the rocks, the face of an old man. So the legend is the pirates would always be able to find whatever it was they left there. The Man in the Mountain would always be watching over. No b’yes ever found it, though.”
Jon’s story is completely believable because over the past five days being guided around Western Newfoundland we’ve already found a place where the entire crust of the earth has folded up onto itself, a chairlift that was struck by lightening, and the battlegrounds of the Great Viking-alien Wars (okay, that was in the B-grade sci-fi film Outlander, but it was filmed in Lark Harbour, Jon’s hometown).
The mysteries of Newfoundland continuously amazed us, days earlier Jon had pointed out a rare geographical anomaly while we were scanning his map of the Long Range Mountains in search of backcountry snowmobile spots.
“Newfoundland is an island, right?” he explained, pointing to an isolated lake on the map. “And right here is a lake with another island, Glover Island. And on that island is another pond, with another island. An island in a pond on an island in a pond on an island. They call it a tertiary, I think. There’s only a few of those in the world. My friend flew a couple of b’yes in there, wealthy fellas. They just wanted to stand on it.”
The only thing we wanted was to stand on was snow. A 3-degree-too-warm winter on the West Coast had forced our hand to chase it, and Beau Bishop, Mark Gribbon, the Salmon brothers (Trevan and Keegan) and I had crossed Canada to the snowiest, and least known snowboarding destination we could find. The Man in the Mountain’s buried pirate booty sounded awesome, but we were much more interested in burying ourselves in waist-deep powder. And we’d come to the right place.
“The Man in the Mountain’s buried pirate booty sounded awesome, but we were much more interested in burying ourselves in waist-deep powder.”
Marble Mountain, Old Sam and New Buds
Surrounded by the North Atlantic Ocean, the Labrador Sea and the ice-clogged Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland is under almost constant attack from wind and weather during the winter. And just off the western coast, tucked into the Long Range Mountains, Marble Mountain gets all of it.
“We usually open at 10 a.m. on a weekday,” explains Kristyn Titford, the one-woman marketing team at Marble who invites us into her office and gives us shelter from howling morning of blowing snow. “But with these winds, patrol will make the call at 11.”
The call was to open at 12:30, and so we slide up to the fixed-grip quad chairlift at quarter past. The lifty hasn’t set up the maze yet but there are two dudes in line for first chair, friendly dudes, one ends up being Dru Kennedy, Newfoundland’s premier shred photographer and usually the first guy to buy a season’s pass the day they go on sale.
Marble Mountain is owned by the Provincial Government and it keeps the lifts turning on slow days as a service to the citizens of Newfoundland. Today is a slow day. The reason the lifty didn’t build a maze is because there’s no need for it. When the lift cracks, there are 32 people in line for 39 runs cut into 225 acres, with over 518 metres of vert. The mountain, for all intents and purposes, is empty.
“Welcome to Marble,” Kristyn shrugs as she joins Dru for first chair. “Our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness.”
With no rush and no fiendish crowds, we simply head down the closest run to the top of the chair, The Corkscrew, an aptly named twister of banked corners and steep fall line with no cat tracks, obstacles or reasons to slow down. On a regular day this might be one of the best speed cruisers in the country, with 15 cm on top, it was the run of the year, even for seasoned pros like Beau and Trevan.
Up again and into the trees, where Trevan and Beau plugged in for some laps through massive twisting birch trees reminiscent of Japan.
“This is the best snow of the year!” Beau shouts amid deep white perfection. This is exactly what we came for.
“With an empty hill, blower pow and the legendary Newfoundland friendly vibes at every turn, Marble is starting to feel like the greatest little ski hill in the world.”
On the next lap we have to get some photos. Ski patrol boss Jamie Robertson sends one of his crew to carry the shovel and pack down our take-offs. With an empty hill, blower pow and the legendary Newfoundland friendly vibes at every turn, Marble is starting to feel like the greatest little ski hill in the world. Little did we know it’s about to get a lot better—tomorrow is Old Sam Day
Historically, rum was the currency of trade along the Atlantic seaboard and casks of Old Sam Caribbean rum have been floating up and down the coast since 1797. These days, Old Sam is blended and bottled in Newfoundland and since 1953, they’ve been sponsoring Newfoundland’s biggest party on snow.
In perfectly simple Newfoundland style, Old Sam Day consists of two things: a GS race and drinking rum. Once registered, riders (mainly skiers, but snowboarders have their own categories) have all day to show up and throw down a single lap through the gates. The fastest skier will take about 19 seconds, the rest of the day is for freeriding, socializing and drinking rum in Marble’s expansive Knotty Pine Lodge, a behemoth of a building built for the 1999 Canadian Winter Games.
Prizes for the Old Sam race are bottles of rum and the entire tribe of Western Newfoundland mountain lovers comes out to celebrate. The oldest competitor is well into his 80s and the fastest skiers are a pair of brothers who’ve had a rivalry going for over 20 years. The fastest snowboarders are us: Trevan Salmon takes first place in the under 30 category with Beau nabbing third. Dru Kennedy ensures the local presence with a second place showing and Jon Thorne claims second in the over-30 category. High fives are thrown, rum is quaffed and it quickly becomes apparent how strong and special Marble Mountain’s community is.
“Despite the modest elevations, Newfoundland’s frigid climate breeds very real mountain passion.”
“Last year was 25 years of snowboarding on Marble,” says Kevin Vincent, part of a small crew who built Newfoundland’s first snowboards out of plywood and countertops back in 1989. “Out here you make due with your what you’ve got. We’ve been isolated so long we’ve always had to come up with ways to do it ourselves.”
Despite the modest elevations, Newfoundland’s frigid climate breeds very real mountain passion. Marble’s core group of skiers and snowboarders are more than happy to share and show off their mountain culture. Like nearly everything on the Rock, they’ve had to build it themselves, by hand.
On the drive north to Gross Morne National Park, Jon Thorne tells a story about two American hunters who’d come up to Newfoundland in the early 2000s and released a pair of cougars in hopes of tracking and hunting them for sport. Neither hunter ever fired a shot.
“A b’ye I know swears he saw one of them cats, though,” he says. “Big mountain lion leaped right over two lanes of highway, gapped it in one bound. Six-foot long tail, he says. None of it’s ever been confirmed by Forestry, but I can tell ya without telling ya, you know what I mean.”
“How long do cougars live?” Trevan asks from the back seat. “Are they still around?”
“Well, that was quite a time ago,” Jon says. “And the story is they were brother and sister, so any offspring’d be sterile. Could be an old mountain lion still kickin’ around the backcountry but we’ll be OK, I reckon.”
Newfoundland is not known for it’s backcountry snowboarding but the entire island is crisscrossed with snowmobile trails, power-line cuts and secret stash slopes that get hammered with dry arctic snow. Beau and Trevan had been chasing winter for months, filming a web project called Turn and Burn. They’d definitely been burned plenty by the conditions out West and were keen on finally bagging some turns. We weren’t about to let some big mountain lions get in between us and some big mountain lines.
Gros Morne National Park is a big-mountain hotspot in Newfoundland. It’s also a globally recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the best places on the planet to see, study (and snowboard on) tangible evidence of plate tectonics. The Tablelands are huge swaths of the earth’s mantle, rock thrust up from beneath ancient ocean floors when North America and Africa collided around 1.3 billion years ago. To backcountry rippers they’re also 610 metre-plus ridges riddled with steep couloirs, all within walking distance of the highway.
“Timing is everything, even with billion-year-old mountains. We show up to find thin, weather-ripped bands of snow clinging to the ragged, orange-hued faces.”
But timing is everything, even with billion-year-old mountains. We show up to find thin, weather-ripped bands of snow clinging to the ragged, orange-hued faces. Beneath that snow is nothing but rock, ancient shards of granite and gneiss that would give geologists wet dreams, but also shred a snowboard base into curly fries. No vegetation grows in the Tablelands, ever. It’s like snowboarding on the moon, only colder.
While good outerwear and two or three layers of merino wool could keep the knifing arctic winds out long enough for a test lap, the snowpack on the Tablelands has been wind-stripped literally to the crust of the earth. When Jon suggests we postpone our big mountain plans and explore some nearby urban riding, the heater in the rental van quickly melts any disappointment.
Trout River is one of those storybook Newfoundland fishing villages full of lobster traps and crayon box coloured boathouses. The kind of place Tide laundry soap goes to film its commercials: the ones where the rugged but very tidy looking Newfoundlander heads out into the sea-sprayed great beyond while his wife waves proudly from the porch, a Tide box sitting on the windowsill catching the morning sun. It’s so picturesque that if it were anywhere but Newfoundland, Trout River would look fake.
“Trout River is one of those storybook Newfoundland fishing villages full of lobster traps and crayon box coloured boathouses.”
But it’s real. A quiet cliff side town that drops into the harbor with steep chutes that end in dense pack ice and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Few tourists would ever want to snowboard here, but we ran into a couple of local kids hitting a booter above the harbor. The old timer curiously watching them, and us, gives Trevan and Beau a nice example of the local dialect.
“How ye gittin’ on b’yes?,” he asks. “Y’ll wan’ be on the rood ‘for tha’ storm comes in. Last one buried th’ rood, she did.”
Outrunning an impending snowstorm and heading back inland, Jon finds time to unhitch the sled and tow us into one his secret spots. “The Neck” is a protected forest ridge with natural lines ending in a frozen swamp of moose-nibbled pine trees. We face-punch a few laps, hiking straight up beside each pow line. It’s the perfect end to a wind-beaten-but-amazing day of exploring Gros Morne, one of Canada’s national treasures. To keep things awesome, The Jackladder Pub has moose burgers on the menu and that fuels the drive back to Marble, a place that is already starting to feel like home.
Blowmedowns and Boil-ups
Like moose, kitchen parties, and waiting for mail/food/everything to arrive by ferry, snowmobiles are a way of life in Western Newfoundland. Outside the city streets of Cornerbrook it’s not unusual to run packs of sleds parked beside cars at gas stations or kids rooping old beaters up and down the streets of town. With an average yearly snowfall of over 4 metres it only makes sense that sleds are everywhere.
But there’s a difference between riding your machine up a power line cut to get firewood with your buddy and punching deep into the most notorious backcountry terrain in Newfoundland. The legendary Blomidown Mountains are almost universally known as “The Blowmedowns”, named after the nasty unexpected squalls of hurricane strength that come out of nowhere and hammer down Newfoundland’s steep fjords.
We’ve been waiting for over a week, but access into the Blowmedowns requires the right weather and the right snowmobiles. On our final day of the trip Mother Nature gave us a hint of blue sky and Craig Borden took care of the rest.
Craig runs Rugged Edge Mountain Lifestyle Emporium, a sales and service snowmobile holy land that feels a lot like a core snowmobile shop out West, only twice the size and with seal skin gloves.
There are more MacGuyvers per capita in Newfoundland than anywhere else in Canada—when something breaks, a Newfoundlander fixes it. And if they can’t fix it, they come to Craig, who without hesitating pulls machines from his showroom floor to ensure we have solid machines for the trip into the Blowmedowns. With the sleds loaded and departure imminent, Craig grabs a 5-gallon metal cooking pot and bungees it to his cargo rack.
“That’s for the boil-up,” he explains, and off we go.
The Blowmedowns are impressive, steep, treeless ridges and canyons crisscrossed with half-frozen rivers and moose-chewed forests. All the b’yes we’ve met this trip are guiding us on their own sleds—Dru Kennedy, Paul Templeton, Craig, Jon T’orne, John Patten even has his dog, Trigger, a Siberian/Labrador so accustomed to deep mountain snowmobiling he knows when to lean into the turns. It’s a Newfoundland backcountry all-star team that leads us straight to the goods. But Mother Nature has other plans. While Jon leads the hike up a perfect ridgeline in stunning light, she lowers her skirts and within minutes the Blowmedowns become a white chowder of fast moving cloud and blowing snow.
We wait, but the blue pockets remain elusive so Craig guides us to a stand of trees, procures an axe and has a fire blazing in minutes. Despite the howling gale ripping through the bare ridges above, we are sheltered, warm and even get a few tree laps in before lunch.
And lunch is ridiculous. Where us B.C. boys are used to a gas station sandwich or maybe a wrap, heated up under the hood of a sled, a Newfoundland backcountry boil-up is pure gourmet. Five kilos of live mussels go into Craig’s massive pot while foil-wrapped moose sausages cook fireside. A true Newfoundland tradition, the boil-up is more than a meal. It’s time spent around a fire with good people, warm conversation, delicious food and tea. Craig passes around jam-jam cookies and Peppermint Nobs, a candy so sweet it’s almost inedible but which every Newfoundlander present says is an important part of any boil-up. “Those are traditional, that’s for sure,” Jon affirms. “Like grandma candies.”
While slurping back fresh mussels, each of us share a common thought, one that photographer Mark Gribbon finally vocalizes, “We really need to step up our game back home, boys.”
Post boil-up, the decision is made to get out of the Blowmedowns while we can still see. The clouds are everywhere but they remain at ridge level, with all the creeks and open water in the valley, no one is keen on trying to lead a pack of CFAs (Come From Aways) back to the highway in a total whiteout. So we make tracks while we can and once again the fabled Newfoundland big mountain riding has slipped through our gloved fingers.
“Places as special as Western Newfoundland will always require commitment and time, a lifetime even, to fully enjoy.”
But that’s the way it goes. The best places, the really true adventure spots are like that. Places as special as Western Newfoundland will always require commitment and time, a lifetime even, to fully enjoy. Which may be why every Newfoundlander who leaves the island, for work or adventure or whatever, always dreams of returning and usually does.
“I’ve been lucky enough to drive across the country, twice,” Jon Thorne says. “But this is home. In Newfoundland it all comes down to the basics: food, water, the outdoors and people.”
Newfoundland is no stranger to strangers. But there are few places in this country as welcoming. The buried pirate booty of Shellbird Island may be real or it may not, but Western Newfoundland holds endless treasures, every winter, buried right here in plain sight.
Any trip to Western Newfoundland will be incredible, but these people and businesses will only help make it better. Helpful hint: For winter fun, fly into Deer Lake rather than St. John’s and skip the 690 km drive to the mountains.
Western Newfoundland Tourism
Your go-to source for area information
Epic snow, empty runs, great people. (709) 637-7601
Rugged Edge Outdoor Lifestyle Emporium
Rentals and sales of snowmobiles, ATVs, side-by-sides and more. (709) 634-6683
O.G. snowboarder Kev Vincent’s sushi joint. Delicious. (709) 634-6666
Marble Inn Resort
Posh lodging across from the ski hill. The burgers at Madison’s are all-time. (877) 497-5673
Marble’s only slope side option. (800) 636-2725
Beauty 3-bedroom chalet in Woody Point on the doorstep to Gros Morne. (709) 453-2582
Gros Morne Visitor Centre
Free information and education on the entire park. (877) 737-3783
Marble Zip Tours
Ziplining and snowmobiling in the Marble backcountry. (709) 632-5463
Humber Valley Resort
Summer golf getaway. (709) 686-2710
Dru Kennedy’s Instagram
A look at the magical beauty of Newfoundland
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