In the first installment of a feature series, we walk the Rock. Story by Lesley Choyce.
Yes, we have been travelling, my wife Linda and I, in the very midst of the pandemic. In fact, on this fine day in Nova Scotia, you would find us sitting in the somewhat subdued lounge at the Halifax airport waiting for our flight to St. John’s, Newfoundland. I have returned to reading Sun Tzu’s, Art of War, thinking I need some coaching as we travel during these strange and worrisome times.
“In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity,” writes the Chinese sage, who – according to scholars – may or may not have been a real person. There are so many translations of this book that each version I pick up seems almost completely unlike the one before and I discover something different. Nonetheless, these challenging words provide a modicum of positivity for the trip ahead.
The opportunity was an offering of extremely cheap flights coupled with the opening of the “Atlantic Bubble.” At the time, there were so relatively few cases of COVID-19 in Atlantic Canada that we were free to travel within the region. This made us feel most privileged in a world held hostage by disease. We had our masks on and hoped for the best, despite the fact we would be sucking in shared oxygen inside a propeller driven De Havilland Dash 8.
Newfoundland had been calling to us for a long time, but costly airfare and European attractions always sent us flapping our wings over the Rock on a transatlantic flight instead. But now our flight was called and soon we were in line with a young, smiling (Was she smiling? Hard to tell from behind her mask…) airline employee pointing a device not unlike a gun at our forehead to take our temperature. And then it was smooth sailing on a clear and cloudless day east across the Nova Scotia mainland, briefly over Cape Breton, and then out across the Cabot Strait to peer down at the remote and other-worldly coastline of the nearly uninhabited southern lands of Newfoundland.
Now you might think that I am lying when I say this, but we arrived during a heat wave on the Avalon Peninsula. Yes, such things happen here although they are rare. I had forgotten to bring a rain jacket or even a sweater as if some deep primitive part of my cerebellum had told me not to worry about weather, calamity, or ill-will from locals fearful of outsiders bringing a deadly disease onto their island home.
“If the mind is willing, the flesh can go on and on without many things,” so says Sun Tzu.
I am probably being overly dramatic. But then Linda and I were on an unusual romantic getaway from our self-isolated lives. This was a quest for hiking challenges, wilderness experience, Newfoundland craft beer, and Irish music. All, I believe, are worthy, of high-minded notions.
As if we had just landed on another planet, the car rental guy seemed genuinely glad to see us. I had foolishly reserved a big-cab Ford 150 pick-up truck because it was affordable, but I changed my mind at the counter and was given the keys to a nearly new Mazda that awaited our arrival and, like us, was hungry for adventure.
We had an apartment rented downtown on Duckworth Street near the nightlife entertainment action – well, for us, it was primarily early evening action. For the mornings I had scheduled an itinerary of remote hikes. Our temporary accommodation was located above the Trinity Pub, one of the many Irish pubs in the city. St. John’s is also known as Sin City, which baffled me at first, given the shiny happy people walking around the streets, until someone gave me directions and I noted that it sounded like “Sin Jawns.” I noticed a clothing store on Water Street offering Sincity Streetwear, purportedly “high end, unique streetwear imported from…” – well, somewhere other than nearby I suppose. And after some cursory internet research, I discovered that the owner had been arrested in 2019 for trafficking cocaine although he fought the charges saying that he had been unfairly targeted and unlawfully searched. Clearly, St. John’s was that kind of town, filled with curious history, unusual streetwear and colourful citizens regularly carving a place in the modern world with their own set of rules. So, there were at least a few colourful characters hereabouts putting the sin in the city. But then, somewhere in a provincial tourist brochure, I had also read that it was also known as the “city of legends.” And, so, it was that as well.
Once we unpacked our suitcases – me realizing I had pretty much forgotten to pack even the most common and essential items for travel – we headed down to the Trinity for a quiet beer on a sunlit deck. Sun, heat, Quidi Vidi Calm Tom Ale, and the company of my most amiable travelling companion, combined for a good omen for our Newfoundland excursion despite the uncommon heat which seemed to have inspired many locals into dressing as if they were on a Caribbean holiday.
We must have ambled down George Street after that. If you can believe TripAdvisor, they exclaim, “23 bars in a one block strip! If you like bar hopping, Irish bars and dancing then check out George St.” Perhaps we were there too early in the day as the legendary street with supposedly the most bars in the world seemed a tad tired and worn, but one can understand that such places probably should only be explored at the height of midnight madness. However, by that time we would be sound asleep, prepping for rugged rural thrills instead of urban insanity.
As Sun Tzu would caution, “Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust.”
Before you think that we were being overly reckless with our mid-Covid adventure, let me say, most establishments in St. John’s were enforcing the masks and sanitizer squirts and keeping patrons reasonably apart. It certainly did not deter us from venturing beyond seedy, litter-strewn George Street and down onto Water Street which had blessedly been blocked-off from traffic and turned into a pedestrian mall – at least for the foreseeable warm days. It was late afternoon by now and crowded, as if half the population of Newfoundland had funnelled itself onto this main drag of the city. I catalogued moms and dads with toddlers, respectable looking older couples, not-so-respectable looking older couples, skateboarders (always a good sign in my book), pot smokers, urban chic young people, classic old farts in flat caps, kids on bikes with training wheels and probably the most interesting and polite panhandlers that I had come across in a long time. And because of the warm weather, if tattoo-observation was your special thing, there was much to admire or sneer at.
Linda likes to look up reviews so that is why we ended up at Adelaide’s Oyster Bar for fish tacos. I think I ate one oyster, and it was pretty good. During our Maritime Mexican dish, I kept thinking about gastronomic geography and how a famous flatbread food would find its way so far north and east from its origin that a lad from Nova Scotia would be sampling it here, stuffed with locally caught cod or haddock from the cold Atlantic.
We were determined to find some “authentic” music before the sun went down as we withdrew to our second story rental. We had been alerted that Sunday night in St. John’s is party night (as, apparently, are the other six nights of the week) and fortunately for us, the parties and the music started early.
“Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength,” as Sun Tzu says, is reasonably good advice for the seasoned or unseasoned traveller.
But the night was young, and we found a roost at Broderick’s Pub a little further down Water Street. It felt Irish enough for sure without having too many shamrock decals on the windows. There we were introduced to Quidi Vidi’s Dayboil Session IPA, a somewhat low alcohol, local, tasty beverage that ruled the town and live music from a couple of performers who had driven in from Stephenville (766 km.!) to offer us some most excellent tunes. The fiddle and guitar were just what we needed. There was a young waiter who had the kind of nervous energy that suggested that he had downed a few too many Red Bulls but he kept my glass filled and told us he was trying to get to Norway to work in the offshore oil fields once the COVID-19 thing was over
By the time we headed home as it was well after 8pm and, as we ambled along Water Street, we wondered why we had not come to Newfoundland, our neighbouring province for God sakes, much sooner.
As if St. John’s would not prove quite Irish enough for our tastes, we were tempted to venture out onto what the provincial tourist folks call the Irish Loop, heading south from St. John’s for a further exploration of the Avalon Peninsula. According to Westjet Magazine, the loop is named for its 400 years of Irish history. Wisdom taught me to avoid driving too far, so we would only go as far south as Bay Bulls. First, however – lest the weather suddenly change and we were doomed to more traditional days of fog and cold – we drove to Cape Spear early in the morning. It was another warm, clear day and we intended to make the most of it. Cape Spear, however, was not where I thought it was and we made a few wrong turns – it seemed that every road we took out of the city wanted us to go to the blighted inland zone of shopping malls and industrial parks. But, eventually, the car itself decided to take control and we let the GPS put us on the road towards Black Head and ultimately Cape Spear – “Canada’s easternmost point of land.”
Like many, I have a fondness for things extreme. I have a passion for all the world’s land ends that I could plant my feet on: Land’s End itself, of course, in Cornwall, U.K. – a bit touristy in a Disney sort of way, but it took only moments to walk your way out of the shopping plaza and out onto the windy welcoming cliffs. The same as with Pointe du Raz in Brittany – a wild and untamed chunk of rock.
Now here we were on the opposite side of the sea, on our own side, and we could brag to anyone we cared to tell that we were further east than any of the millions of North Americans who were satisfied with their mediocre geographical locations on this fine morning. But was the cape merely extremely east or was there more to it? As it turned out, there was more – much more. Sure, it is an historic site run by Parks Canada, but it was almost entirely deserted with buildings locked tight. Still, the trails were open. Linda is a runner and was itching to run. I would hike and do my best to keep up. We headed south towards Maddox Cove. The trail was well marked, the vistas were stunning, and we were transported to another level of existence. I could argue that you can only arrive at such a heightened mental state by going to remote coastal locations and putting your feet down firmly on rocky (or boggy) ground and getting your bipedal fix from the salty air, the dazzling sea and communing with the wind-whipped shrubs, herbs and trees that are your proper cousins.
The bogs smelled of peat, the sky sang of blue and, aside from a few locals picking bakeapples (also known as cloudberries) from the bogs, we had the place to ourselves.
Twenty minutes (if we hadn’t gotten lost, that is) from the throngs of Water Street and here we were at our own private end-of-the-earth during probably the most benign weather this part of the world had seen in this or the last century. Linda would wave to me from a hilltop a kilometre away and I would wave back in our morning long-distance relationship. We ventured about four kilometres out and then back and both took a wrong short cut through a soggy hillside that muddied our shoes but failed to diminish our euphoria. I could go on about how grand a place this is, but I would bore you, so suffice to say, we would be back. And if you ever get the chance, go there and see for yourself when the world returns to normal.
Back on the road, we wound our way to Petty Harbour. I had once interviewed Alan Doyle of the Celtic rock band Great Big Sea about his book, Where I Belong, and I wanted to see the bridge he wrote about that separated the two sides of town. It seemed that the Catholics lived on one side and the Protestants on the other when he was growing up there in the 1960s. We parked on a look-out above the famous denominational dividing line and gazed at the houses perched on the steep hills above the sea.
The name of the town was short for Petite Havre as, apparently, the French named it first. But even before the French found this little nook of the north, Basque fishermen had established temporary quarters ashore here dating back to 1500. Did I fail to mention that European settlements here are really old? The Portuguese were here fairly early as well and then the English. A fair number of Irish convicts were shipped here to settle also, as travel costs were considerably less to Newfoundland than to Australia in the eighteenth century. Authorities did a head count in 1794 and determined there were 133 Protestants and 122 Catholics living in Petty Harbour, separated by the river of course, and long before Alan Doyle grew up there in the 1960s.
We didn’t hang around long enough for me to give a proper opinion of the place before linking back to the Irish Loop and heading further south while listening to CBC Radio give us a fine lecture about the origin of Newfoundland terms. My favourite phrase of the morning was the query, “Who knit ya?” which is a common way of asking who your parents might be, although I found the imagery a tad troublesome. I give second place to “Put the side back in ‘er” which simply means close the friggin’ window.
Then it was on to Bay Bulls, which also had its origins in the sixteenth century when it was settled by fishermen from the island of Jersey in the English Channel.
This whole coast is said to attract tourists who come to see whales, puffins, and icebergs.
As we drove the coastal back streets looking for the local stretch of the 300-kilometre long East Coast trail, we saw no whales, puffins, or icebergs, but nor were there any tourists about so it was a reasonable trade off. As we put on our hiking and running shoes, we did hear the amplified voice of the captain of a whale watching boat heading to sea with a scant group of customers, so presumably the whales hovered offshore in deeper waters waiting each day to show off for the visitors.
The hike was a good one, blessed by legions of dragonflies the size of toy helicopters. We headed east towards South Head and soon discovered that the trail, unlike the one at Cape Spear, takes you through dense green forest hugging the side of the hill. Still no whales or puffins to be seen, but I loved the feel of spongey peat beneath my feet, the burble of tiny rivulets coming down the hillside, the friendly fir and spruce trees sheltering us from the sun, and the scent of the fecund wet earth with its low-lying vegetation. I think we did three kilometres out and three back, with plenty of uphill and downhill, but no complaints from these trekkers.
Now, if anyone was ever to study the two of us on our wilderness outings, they would undoubtedly find it strange. As noted, Linda runs and I hike – at a good clip usually, but it is still walking. So, she runs ahead on whatever terrain it is and turns around after a half km., runs back to reassure me that she hasn’t been accosted by a moose or fallen into one of the many slippery ravines. Then she turns and runs on while her husband winds his way onward, smiling at the accommodating trees, sky, boulders or whatever the coastal path has to offer. It seems to work for us and saves money on expensive gym fees, Prozac, and marriage counsellors.
When I say yet again that the heat was almost oppressive, you will roll your eyes, but it was indeed overly warm and, by the time we doubled backed to the Mazda, we were both sweating as if we had trekked through a tropical rainforest. At the trailhead, a large obstinate Newfoundland dog greeted us. He was one of those old, large dogs who stands directly in your path and barks at you in an unfriendly manner while drooling large droplets of saliva onto the gravel. A man stood nearby watching saying simply, “He’s not my dog,” and I was thinking that this Newfoundland dog is probably not nearly as lovable as the one Lord Byron had for a pet back in the good old Romantic poetry days. I talked to the dog the way a parent talks to a young child who has just picked up a carving knife, but the dog just stood his ground barking and drooling until I realized that was his modus operandi. So, I gave him a pet and he drooled copiously onto my hands. Then all we really needed to do was walk on past. Could the dog be what is locally referred to as a “bull” I wondered, and is that why the town is called thus?
We retreated to downtown Bay Bulls and poked around. I later discovered it may have been known as Bay Boule by the Jerseyites who founded it. At least that is what Bishop Howley claimed, and – in Newfoundland – you really don’t’ want to argue with a bishop. We drove around looking for something we thought looked authentic but ended up back on Highway 10 heading to another cleverly named village called Witless Bay. Sadly, we bypassed Running the Goat Press, a “micro press that published books of exceptional quality” according to their website. If you are down that way, please be sure to drop in and report what they have to offer. The name intrigued me, as many names do, so I soon learned that “running the goat” is a kind of group dance traditional to the town of Harbour Deep. I was immediately inclined to convince Linda we should swing by there to see if any impromptu parties were on, so we too could run the goat with the locals but quickly discovered Harbour Deep was on the Great Northern Peninsula, 718.1 kilometres away – a 10 hour and 18-minute drive.
Have I pointed out yet, that the island of Newfoundland is very large? Well, the province is officially called Newfoundland and Labrador and it is altogether 405,720 km2 – which is only slightly larger than all the Maritime Provinces together or slightly smaller than California. Suffice it to say, our little foray into a nicked corner of the Avalon Peninsula was like a mere walk to the corner store to buy a beef jerky in a land as large as this.