Rugged and striking, Newfoundland could literally kick your butt. For two weeks I had my butt kicked around most of this amazing island and much of Labrador.
Three middle aged men were intent on circumnavigating Newfoundland and Labrador in an apparent quest to conquer this formidable corner of the world and discover it from a perspective not enjoyed by many, that being, skinny tires and the sweat of our exertions.
Personally, I had little idea of what I was doing. This was my first full length bicycle excursion. Harvey, a close friend, had been born and raised on this windswept island and organized the agenda. He was an aeronautical engineer and task master who lived in Thailand. The third member of our motley crew was a retired Armed Forces padre, Charlie, who called Toronto home. He would pray for our sins. I was a simple grape seed from Kelowna.
Arriving in Deer Lake by air, we packed our bike boxes into a couple of cabs and descended on a small motel on the edge of town. Within a few minutes our room was in complete disarray as we unpacked our boxes and began assembling our bikes and organizing our gear.
The morning came very early as we embarked on the first leg of our journey. Harvey had somewhat designed our route beginning with the 450-kilometer-long Viking Trail. This highway and tourist route starts in Deer Lake and ends in St. Anthony at the northern tip of Newfoundland. It is named as such because the Vikings came here long before Columbus discovered the New World. The proof is displayed among the timber framed turf buildings excavated at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula at L’Anse aux Meadows where you will find the only proven Viking era settlement in North America.
We, however, were taking a slight detour at St. Barbe, about 100 kilometers from St. Anthony, where we would enjoy a ferry ride over to Blanc Sablon, Labrador. But on this day we were just becoming accustomed to travelling with 80 pound packs on the back of fragile bikes and bodies.
Charlie and Harvey had partaken in several previous bike expeditions together and apparently invited me along as the camp buffoon. Having never ridden a bike loaded with mountains of gear on the rear wheel, my first attempt at boarding my mount saw me hurled over the crossbar as the weight shifted and I plunged, bike, gear and all, into a very deep ditch at the road’s edge…about 30 feet down. We were not even beyond the city limits of Deer Lake. The fall actually hurt and caused bruising, but this did not deter my unsympathetic compatriots from emitting barking sounds not unlike rollicking laughter. My wounds were certainly not soothed by their strange sounds and my trip nearly ended before it began….mostly from injured pride. Not wishing to go home on the first minute of my first day, I picked up my bike, pride and gear, and set out to discover the new world. My second attempt was more successful even though further chortles could be heard as we embarked on the first leg of our journey.
As we rolled along, my bruises were soon forgotten as we climbed veritable mountains, fought bitter sea-borne gales and enjoyed the splendour of Newfoundland. We passed villages with place names like Rocky Harbour, Cow Head, Pistolet Bay, Daniels Harbour, River of Ponds, Flowers Bay, and many more. I began to wonder if Newfoundlanders had consumed an excess of intoxicating beverages while come up with these names. The beauty, however, was stunning and it seemed we were thrown back in time. Villagers would approach us with a friendly smile and handshake, and ask where we were from. Of course neither Charlie nor I understood a spoken word, but Harvey graciously descended into the rhythmical dialect of his youth. Although it was apparently of English origins, no word that I understood passed between these communicators. We always left such scenes with a hearty wave and an apparent invitation to enjoy a few rounds of the local brew when our day’s labor was completed, and we did…several times.
Harvey generally booked rooms about 100 kilometers apart. We, consequently, always had to complete at least 100 kilometers with a little site seeing thrown in to increase our mileage. This 100 kilometer rule, however, could make for very long, or very short, days. If there was a gale in our face or a series of mountains to climb, we might travel only a few kilometers an hour and arrive long after sunset. If the gale was behind us we could be finished by noon. One never knew what the day would bring. Either way, we always arrived sweaty, dirty, hungry and tired. The road was not always kind but it was unfailing. Our days were not spent sipping wine within a travel brochure setting in France, but the food was plentiful, the brew was absorbed liberally, and much interaction was had, at least between Harvey and all we met.
Our first day on the road saw us travel through Gros Morne National Park. This is a very beautiful park and one that I am sure many travelers have enjoyed while viewed through the crystal clear windows of their automobiles, sipping Tim Horton’s coffee in a climate controlled environment. It would surely seem so quaint and beautiful as they ascended and descended the 4 to 6 degree inclines and declines with a gentle nudge of the gas pedal. On a bike loaded with 80 pounds of gear and scrawny limbs and lungs the only horsepower propelling us forwards, the reality of Gros Morne is much more apparent. Gros Morne was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for both its geological history and its exceptional scenery. No one told us, however, that the park takes its name from Newfoundland’s second-highest mountain peak (at 806 m or 2,644 ft) located within the park. Its French meaning is “large mountain standing alone.” It is also the second largest park in Atlantic Canada, at 1200 square kms.
So this was our first day’s challenge. We expected hills but these were mountains. With our virgin legs and butts, we huffed and puffed up one side, while the downs only left us enough breath for the next up. About half way through I was beginning to think 80 or 60 kilometer days might be more to my liking. But, eventually, we arrived….about dinner time to a very nice lodge overlooking a wonderful fjord-like valley. The beer was cold and the vittles plentiful. We had conquered Gros Morne!!
The next morning came very early as we gathered in the local dining room where there seemed to be a bustle of activity. A small crowd was amassed around a dining room window that looked upon a small grassy area behind the lodge. Being an inquisitive sort, I pushed my way through the crowd for a better look at what was causing the minor disturbance. As my eyes descended upon the grassy area beyond the window, I was taken aback by the portrait that confronted me. It was as if someone had placed a real live picture of a moose just past our dining room window. The enormity of the beast was shocking. It literally filled the window and seemingly much of the room within. Mr. Moose was grazing unconcerned about the many eyes and cameras pointed in its direction. We settled in for a breakfast while eyeing this overstated creature similarly dining only meters away.
Hoping to avoid any such beasts on our second day’s adventure, we set out to experience more of Newfoundland. On this day I did not tumble into any ditch to start our journey and was feeling like one of the boys after my previous day’s efforts. We rode along the coast in a northerly direction to find the Labrador ferry that was a few day’s journey ahead. This was a much easier day as we passed through small fishing villages, stopping for lunch and a few pictures. The scenery was like nowhere else with fishing boats painted in bright colors appearing a sharp contrast against the hazy blue sea beyond and dark sky that appeared to threaten a storm. Fish nets were strung between buildings and lobster traps stacked in piles, waiting to be loaded on boats. Fishermen labored or enjoyed a conversation with their mates while we rolled past. It was like a living postcard.
Newfoundland was all pretty much as I had visualized with hard working men amid a striking backdrop of beauty and ruggedness. The restaurant food, however, was somewhat less than anticipated. I had imagined these fisherman surviving on the bounty they harvested from the sea and enjoying the health of those who work hard and play hard. To my disappointment most Newfoundlanders appeared overweight and generally unhealthy. Their food was chronically deep fried and somewhere inside all that batter there was very little protein. Women and children were bordering on obese and seemed to have little inclination for exercise or hard work. It seemed to me a declining civilization.
After eating my third meal of fish and chips we set out for Labrador. Although relatively flat along the coast, some days we were literally required to stand on our pedals just to make headway with a proper gale in our face. Then we would turn a corner and be propelled along at 40 kilometers per hour with the same gale pushing us through the countryside.
On our fourth day we stopped for a photo op in front of a sign stating that the Labrador Ferry was only about 30 kilometers away. Later that day we would be completing the first leg of our journey. The ferry was to be our accommodation that night as we would sail from St.Barbe on Newfoundland to Blanc Sablon in Quebec.
We boarded the ship around sunset and stowed our bikes in the belly of the boat. Comfortable little berths were provided and there was a spacious dining room on one of the upper decks. Having finished some more deep fried batter around a minnow, we were sitting in a commons area when a strange sort of music began to emanate from within. Nothing was organized, just a few Newfies assembling around a table, as if they did this every day. One had an accordion, another a guitar, a couple of singers, and a wonderful earthy kind of music began to fill the cabin. Within a few minutes, the place was hoppin’. The music seemed to unite and galvanize us all. We began to meet other passengers. Trying to make conversation, only Harvey understood anything that was said, but we made some friends and felt much loved. By morning we had pretty well met all those on board and I even began to understand a bit of this strange dialect.
We disembarked at the ferry terminal at Blanc Sablon which was actually in Quebec then rode over an imaginary border the short distance into the burgeoning metropolis of L’Anse-au-Clair that is in Labrador. The population sign informed us that there were 264 residents. We were the only cyclists and many of our new friends from the ferry honked a farewell as they passed. Our destination was Cartwright, Labrador but, as I soon learned, this goal was about 400 kilometers away on a very rough gravel road. We were travelling on skinny tires, not fit for gravel roads. As well, we had no camping equipment as Cartwright would take at least four days of cycling and there were no towns along the way. Our travel guide, had it all in hand, however. From Thailand or somewhere exotic, he had amazingly contacted someone at a gas station in L’Anse-au-Clair, who knew someone, who had a cousin, who might give us a ride in his truck for a fee. We hung around for awhile and finally found some young man in a pick-up who said he would transport us. It soon became apparent that said truck was of rather prehistoric vintage and he had only four very bald tires, no spare. Seeing little alternative we threw our gear in the back and set out with three bikers and a young man stuffed into the front cab of an ancient pick-up. We offered to buy him a spare tire but he assured us we would be fine. After all it was only 400 kilometers on razor sharp rock.
We bounced along hour after hour with little conversation and, for me, mostly thoughts of where we would camp if we incurred a flat tire. My worries were unfounded as we rolled into Cartwright about sunset. We paid our man off, whereby he turned around and headed back over the 400 kilometers, not bothering to pick up a spare. They must make bald tires tough in Labrador. We had reached our destination albeit it appeared less impressive than the effort it took to get there. There were a few scattered houses, a small hotel and not much else, population 516. We settled in to the very basic hotel, enjoyed a nice meal, then, come morning, rode around to discover why this community even existed. After about 10 minutes we had seen most of the town with the only memorable event being a grinding ascent to a mountain above Cartwright where we establish some sort of cairn, possibly to ensure the world was aware of our presence.
It soon became apparent that we were to be in Cartwright for a few days as the return ferry to Newfoundland only visits once per week. I guess there isn’t that much demand among the 516 residents. Finally, on the fourth day we were up very early as the ferry would leave by 7:00 AM.
We rolled onto the ferry by dawn and were soon ensconced in our little berths. I was personally concerned that there would not be enough room for us on board and we would have to remain in Cartwright another week. Consequently, I remained in my berth until the ferry left the pier before emerging from my room. The trip back to civilization was similar to the journey away as Newfies, once again, assembled for a rousing musical tribute to their culture with much conversations shared and friends made.
The return trip was somewhat longer than our previous sailing as we landed in Lewisport, but once we hit the shore with our skinny tires on paved roads, we were like coiled springs after no activity for several days. We stormed down the highway amid honks from our new…found….land friends.
The journey continued for a few more days as we passed through such communities as Gander, Charlottetown, another park, and finally Charleston where our friendly tour guide had been raised. We were shown around the small fishing village of his heritage and stayed a couple days with his sister overlooking an ocean inlet. We were glad to just sit back, enjoy some hardy meals, laughs, and no hills for a few days. I, accidentally, revealed my unclothed derriere to our host one night, not aware that her darkened room was directly opposite the only washroom in the home. Perhaps avoiding the embarrassment of this event or simply craving some city living, I took a bus into St. John’s for a couple days until my coconspirators caught up and we flew off to our respective homes.
The finale of the journey saw me arrive with my bicycle in a box at Kelowna Airport. I picked up my box and dragged it to a curb outside. As it was the middle of an afternoon on a weekday, no one was available to pick me up. Undeterred, I unpacked my box, assembled my bike, deposited the empty box in recycling, and set out for home. It was only about 20 more kilometers and the last hill up to Lakeview Heights was a bump compared to Gros Morne. Adventure completed!