Up and Down The Rock: Navigating Newfoundland

Calling Newfoundland “The Rock” is a bit like calling Toronto “Hogtown”—nobody seriously says that anymore. And maybe nobody ever did. But unlike “Hogtown”, “The Rock” remains an accurate nickname today:  you will experience an awful lot of rock while visiting Newfoundland. In my view, it would be more accurate (though less pithy) to call Newfoundland “The Three Geologic Zones”: Avalon (East), Dunnage/Gander (Central), and Humber (West). From Signal Hill above St. John’s Harbour to the desert-like Tablelands of Gros Morne National Park, rock of various origins looms high over every visitor to the island.

written by Ned Morgan

Gros Morne National Park, Humber geologic zone. The ancient red igneous rocks of the Tablelands were once part of the earth’s mantle, forced up by long-ago plate tectonics. Photo by Craig Minielly.

 

My expedition cruise around Newfoundland takes up the first half of June aboard the 137-metre Ocean Endeavour, a 1B ice-class passenger ship operated by Adventure Canada. A last-minute itinerary change—ice blocking the Strait of Belle Isle means we can’t proceed north from St. John’s and around the island counterclockwise—obliges us to head south. After rounding the Avalon Peninsula we head west and then north all the way up to L’Anse Aux Meadows Norse archeological site at the tip of the Northern Peninsula. Then, we turn around and sail back down. In spite of the truncated itinerary, the voyage still feels Odyssey-like, a quest into distant realms of mist and myth.

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2017 is a heavy ice year in the North Atlantic and we were forced to reroute. Photo by Craig Minielly.

 

Place names like Avalon, Isle Aux Morts and Lourdes reinforce this impression. The fact that the Paleoeskimo, Thule, Norse, and other now-vanished peoples passed along these shores, reinforces this impression further. And long stretches of fog-shrouded, iceberg-flecked ocean and thickly forested coastline, mostly untroubled by humanity, lend semi-mystical shades to the voyage. And while many of the peoples who travelled here have come and gone, the rock remains—unchanged through our comparatively short human epoch.

In honour of each geologic zone, I offer three distinct impressions of our expedition cruise.

 

Avalon Geologic Zone: St. John’s Harbour

It’s difficult to imagine a harbour more sheltered or easier to defend than St. John’s. At its narrowest point, the entrance to the harbour measures just 61 metres across. (The rock of the Narrows is Neoproterozoic: Fluviatile and shallow marine siliciclastic sedimentary, including limestone and bimodal volcanic rocks.) As we sail out on a windy afternoon, Signal Hill rises to our left and to our right stands a lighthouse and the storm-scoured ruins of Fort Amherst and Second World War-era gun emplacements. The Rock, and specifically St. John’s, always took defence seriously, especially during the war, when it was closer to the front lines than most North American ports—in 1942 alone, German U-Boats strafed the Narrows with torpedoes and sank four ore carriers off nearby Bell Island.

 

Inside St. John’s Harbour. Photo by Craig Minielly.

 

The first berg. Photo by Craig Minielly.

 

The region may be peaceful today, but the wind rises as we proceed out into the unprotected ocean. To my lubberly eyes the ocean looks savage, a thrashing blue-grey wilderness. I imagine myself in a kayak, and the four or five terrifying minutes I might last before flipping over into the certain death grip of the North Atlantic. One thing I learn quickly about an expedition cruise: one must place absolute trust in the professionals and their ship. And the Ocean Endeavour feels solid and proficient as it cuts through the whitecaps like nobody’s business. It may look like chaos out on the Atlantic, but in my cabin and in the various lounges throughout the ship, all is serene and orderly. We take a detour around a delicately sculpted iceberg, then sail south toward the relative shelter of the lower Avalon Peninsula, then west along the South Coast.

 

Dunnage/Gander Geologic Zone: François

The morning before we head into the South Coast outport of François (pronounced fran-SWAY) our Expedition Leader MJ Swan briefs us in the Nautilus Lounge with some sobering weather charts on his laptop (projected onto the big screen) forecasting high winds. I know it’s MJ’s solemn duty to let us know about such forecasts and prepare us for the worst. That way when the weather hits, everyone is focused (ie, always walking with one hand free and ready to brace). And if the weather turns out mostly fair after all, which it does in our case, nobody is faulted.

 

The Ocean Endeavour inside François fjord. Photo by Craig Minielly.

 

Nowhere is weather a more serious business than on board a ship in the North Atlantic (though our altered route keeps us mostly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence). During our visit to the bridge, I ask Captain Georgii Zelenin about the worst weather he’d ever seen during his years in a ship and he replies that once on a different vessel in another part of the North Atlantic he encountered a storm with 30-foot waves. He speaks as if that information is not very remarkable.

 

Georgii Zelenin, Captain of the Ocean Endeavour. Photo by Ned Morgan.

 

What is remarkable, at least to all the passengers, is Zelenin’s entry into the slender François fjord that morning under high winds. We’re assembled around the deck during the approach and watch as the wind seems determined to blow the ship sideways into the barren promontory not far off our starboard rail. Zelenin must overcompensate in the opposite direction of the wind, but not too much—the other side of the fjord looms just as threateningly. Of course, the Captain leads us straight through the middle of the channel and later turns around handily in the fjord, which appears hardly wide enough for a ship of this size to navigate.

 

François, population 80. Photo by Craig Minielly.

 

One of the ponds above François. Photo by Craig Minielly.

 

Ashore, I walk through the steep streets of this tidy, car-free village (population 80) and into the museum: a rectangular, dimly-lit room in a large house sided in pale vinyl. Among the old photographs and glassed exhibits is the perfectly preserved “white gown or christening dress” of a child who died in 1913, aged 2. The cause of death is not given. I assume the child is buried in the cemetery above the town. When I later walk up there, I find the opposite of urban sprawl. Beyond the uniformly white headstones, all signs of habitation end and the rock begins. (The domed mountainous rock of the fjord is of the Devonian and Carboniferous periods, consisting of granite and high-silica granite.) I follow what appears to be a seldom-travelled trail beside a stream up to the top of the ridge. Up here I view a soaring multilevel world of water and rock, devoid of people save a glimpse of the port far below. Behind me is a deep amber-coloured pond in a meadow of scrub and wildflowers (in the shadow of The Friar, the highest peak above the village); in front of me a stream that drops off into a ribbon-like waterfall and then flows into another pond; and barely visible in the distance beyond the fjord mouth, a cold-blue slice of Atlantic.

 

 

As I walk back through the village I see a young woman pushing a baby stroller on the road, talking with an older couple across a freshly painted picket fence; François may be isolated but life continues not all that dissimilarly to the small Ontario town where I live. (Bar the supermarket, the highway, the dentist, the cafe, and the LCBO). The shiny new power plant on the edge of the village suggests that François is not without provincially funded refurbishments. François is at once non-touristy (no gift shops) and welcoming to tourists (pass the time of day to a local and you’ll receive a short novel of conversation in return). On the way back to the ship I overhear a passenger speculate about the possibility of buying a house here and renting it on Airbnb. I think, “That’s fine but if too many Airbnb tourists came here, that would be the end of François. This place is noteworthy precisely because it is a working outport and not overloaded with people who are here only to show their Instagram friends…” Though I should remind myself that showing François to my Instagram friends is exactly what I later did.

 

Humber Geologic Zone: Brake’s and Cox’s Cove

As we approach in the ship I notice a weathered staircase or crooked ladder leading up the headland between Brake’s Cove and Cox’s Cove, roughly a quarter of the way up Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, inside an inlet of the Bay of Islands. Later when I approach the top of the stairs on foot from Cox’s Cove, I find no sign or barrier to indicate they’re not in use—but up close, they look anything but trustworthy. The builders, it seems, had nailed the “new” stairs to an even more weathered, ancient set of predecessor stairs underneath. Was this a good idea?

 

The stairs, looking towards Cox’s Cove. Photo by Ned Morgan.

 

Stepping down slowly, I keep my arm tight to the railing and try not to picture the stairs collapsing underneath me, throwing me out into space and onto the jagged rocks below, and the headlines the next day: “Stairs collapse beneath tourist… Injuries severe…” But the stairs do not budge as I climb down and then walk along the beach, which is backed by a jagged, grey-black cliff (stratified rock of the Cambrian to middle Ordovician period: including sandstone, shale, chert, volcanic and metamorphic types).

 

The Rock. Photo by Ned Morgan.

 

After I climb back up the stairs, I encounter Joe Park, who is about to climb down. I had met Joe earlier during our tour of the tiny water-access-only outport of Brake’s Cove, where he was born, and where he often stays during the warm months. It turns out these stairs are a shortcut for residents to walk along the beach at low tide between Brake’s and Cox’s Cove.

In 1966 when Joe was 25 the government resettled him and his family and the 15 other families living in Brake’s Cove to the larger, road-accessible Cox’s Cove. Brake’s is not a ghost town, however, and the buildings are maintained as cottages and fishing sheds. Led by Joe and other former cove dwellers, our tour takes us up a hill above the beach where, amid the spruce and fir trees sheltering us from a brisk salt breeze, lie two cemeteries. One is fenced and maintained, and the other isn’t: washed out and damaged in a flood untold years ago, this older cemetery continues to erode into the ocean below and is almost indistinguishable from the forest reclaiming it.

 

Joe Park (centre) in the washed-out cemetery, above Brake’s Cove. Headstones lie in the grass at his feet. Photo by Craig Minielly.

 

Joe Park on the beach, Brake’s Cove. Photo by Craig Minielly.

 

I can make out several rectangular mounds, and headstones lying recessed in the grassy soil—including those of the cove’s eponymous Brakes, Joe’s ancestors, who were part English and part Mi’kmaq. One stone marks the resting place of Benjamin Brake, Joe’s great-grandfather, about whom a story is circulating through the tour group. Narrated partly by Joe (in rapid-fire, singsong accent I can’t always make out) and repeated by others, the (unconfirmed) details are as follows: Ben Brake spent several years in prison for shooting and killing a man who either slept with or mistreated his wife. (Joe: “Ben took his gun and went in and said he wouldn’t’ve taken no better shot at a caribou.”)

The meagre newspaper records I find later confirm that in 1876 Brake murdered a trader from Nova Scotia named Carter. According to Joe, Brake was branded with an “M” for “Murderer”—either while in prison or possibly by a mob before he was arrested. The contemporary Newfoundland Express report does not mention the brand but comments that the “French Shore”—the entire western coastline of the island, where the French retained treaty rights until 1904—was a place where “lawlessness rules instead of British authority on this British soil.”

 

On the cemetery hill, looking down on Brake’s Cove. Photo by Craig Minielly.

 

Even with the decline of the fishery and the emptying of villages like Brake’s Cove, life today on the “French Shore” seems not only lawful but enviable in many ways. A serenity hangs over this place that I can’t quite pinpoint, but could be due to a combination of the surf surging on the beach, the luminous greens of the surrounding forest, and the unaffected demeanor of cove people like Joe. Though I’m a day tripper and can’t see deeply into the life of this place, it seems to exist somehow outside the ordinary boundaries of time. I’m accustomed to living in a semi-urban culture where nearly all things—buildings, lives, landscapes—are remodelled and upgraded ceaselessly; it’s as if our nature demands constant upheaval. In Brake’s Cove, as the old cemetery slowly erodes into the sea, the upheaval has come and gone.

It is a fitting goodbye to the coves as spry 78-year-old Joe Park calls me “m’son” and flies down the vertiginous stairs without even holding on. A life of sea air and sea diet agrees with him.

Check the itinerary of Adventure Canada’s 2018 Newfoundland Circumnavigation here. And their full roster of trips here. Gear for ML’s trip was provided by: Arc’teryxCatalyst CasesGarmont, Gregory PacksHelly Hansen, Manfrotto Canada, Tilley Endurables.

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