The morning found us on the road again, this time to the most northerly tip of the Avalon Peninsula directly above St. John’s. Why there? Well, for one, there is another lighthouse and a longish unpaved road leading there to what appeared to be a remote coastal spot within driving distance for us – yet another end-of-the-world type place, at least in my mind. And to top that off, the name on the map read Cape St. Francis. I have fond memories of another Cape St. Francis that my wife Linda and I visited in South Africa. That cape was immortalized in the classic surf movie, The Endless Summer, and it was considered to have “the perfect wave.”
Mere names of places attract some people to seek them out. I am one of those people. The town of Dildo in Newfoundland attracts multitudes of visitors most years simply because it has that funny name. But, for me, Cape St. Francis – surprisingly far down a very difficult dirt pot-holed road – was a must. So off we went, north through Outer Cove, Middle Cove, Flatrock and Pouch Cove until the pavement ran out. We didn’t exactly have the right vehicle for the wilderness road with its jutting granite rocks and potholes the size of kitchen sinks, but I proceeded at a snail’s pace while Linda, impatient to get her morning exercise, got out and ran ahead a fair bit faster than I could go. About a half hour in, after the local squirrels continued to make fun of my progress, I ditched the Mazda and hoofed it ahead, hoping to catch up with my wife.
The terrain is completely uninteresting until you get to the cape and then the visual impact is enough to knock you off your feet.
It was another blue day, and the sea was gorgeous. There were a few cottages out here but not a soul anywhere to be seen. And sure enough, there was a somewhat small squat lighthouse riveted to the ledge of rocks near the very tip. Here was a jagged, rugged promontory where we climbed over rocks and dutifully scraped knees and elbows until they bled on the exotic bits of geology whittled by the glaciers long before man arrived at this outpost. Beside the lighthouse was a helicopter pad with a No Trespassing sign that simply called out for us to visit. So, we walked out onto the concrete slab and took some photos as the gulls egged us on to dance beneath the cloudless sky. I am not much of a dancer, but wilderness dancing is far superior to underwear dancing in your living room even if you don’t have an appropriate soundtrack. The wind and the gulls were enough for me. And a No Trespassing sign always helps.
The famous East Coast Trail comes through here as well, so we hiked a chunk of it going south and west. It is more of a steep rock scramble rather than a trail and we concluded that in the next lifetime we would take it all the way to Bauline but not today. We hiked back down to eat lunch on the helicopter pad, and I could readily envision how cool it would be to be landing here after settling the whirring machine down out of the brilliant blue sky. It was then that I noticed a fair amount of graffiti on the concrete and some on the rocks. Nothing nasty, mind you, but disconcerting all the same. Given how difficult it was to get out here, I wondered who the graffiti vandals were and what they were thinking. Despondent youths from downtown St. John’s who were tired of skateboarding on Water Street when one said, “Hey, let’s drive our old Ford Escort up to Cape St. Francis with our spray cans and leave stupid messages on the helicopter pad.” Maybe…I don’t know.
It was a long hike and then a slow, slow drive back to the paved civility of Pouch Cove. On the way, we were accompanied by a squadron of dragonflies. Big ones, the size of model airplanes, I’d say. We were listening to Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” on one of the St. John’s rock stations when one buzzed up to the open window and seemed to want to come inside for the party until he realized we were going so slow that he could get to wherever he was going much quicker under his own power. And then I began to wonder where is it that dragonflies go to each day on their excursions, what do they eat and what happens to them in the long, cold Newfoundland winters?
We drove back home via Bauline (named for Baleine on the Isle of Sark, they say), Portugal Cove and St. Philips and, along the way, I was on the lookout for Beachy Cove. I can’t remember how we found it, but we did. It was a short steep hike down from Route 41 and we crossed the East Coast Trail again where a young athletic couple bragged to us that they had tromped all the way north from Paradise that morning. I had forgotten that there was a town called Paradise on the outskirts of the city and wanted to ask them about it, but they seemed to want to keep moving. Alas, we wished them well on what looked like an arduous trek that took them down to the water, and then up again into the forested hills.
Beachy Cove was on my radar because my old friend Harold Horwood once wrote a book called The Foxes of Beachy Cove that I rather admired.
As Linda and I made our way down to the water at this little pocket beach tucked between two steep hills, I definitely felt the magic of the place.
A couple of families were there with their kids splashing around in the icy clear water and I dipped my hands into the stream that gushed down into the sea here thinking there is always something special about a place where fresh water enters into the big salty mother sea. There were no foxes, but I could feel the spirit of feisty, white-bearded Harold present. He had coached me as a young writer, and I remember he chastised me once for writing a love scene in one of my early novels where the couple had not fully taken off all their clothes. He was of the opinion that any consensual act of sexual union, fictional or otherwise, required total nakedness.
Harold had introduced his legendary friend, Farley Mowat, to the intricacies of Newfoundland life many decades ago and helped persuade Farley to move to that remote outport where he wrote some of his finest work including A Whale for the Killing. I could see why anyone would be inspired to write here on the Rock. It is indeed a place of spirit and magic. I could still feel Harold hovering over my shoulder when I looked up to my right to see a very modern, very ostentatious home not far from the clifftop. It was a beautiful edifice, obviously owned by someone quite wealthy, but it seemed out of place to my eye and not at all in the spirit of The Foxes of Beachy Cove. I counselled Harold not to look but he did anyway and vanished. It was time to move on.
I checked the map and discovered we were not far from Paradise so I thought we should head that way before calling it a day. I probably was not the first person to be disappointed in Paradise, as it was part of that suburban sprawl that seemed to choke St. John’s off from the grander aspects of the Avalon Peninsula. “So, this is Paradise,” I said more than once to Linda who didn’t scowl at me until the third time.
If you go to the town’s homepage on the internet, you will discover that, “With a population of approximately 21,000, the Town of Paradise is proud to be one Atlantic Canada’s fastest-growing municipalities with the youngest average-aged population in Newfoundland and Labrador.” If that doesn’t make you want to run for the hills, the town promoters also add, “In the Town of Paradise, you are in the middle of everything, with room to breathe and an abundance of green space to enjoy with your family. Our name truly says it all!”
Not seeing any of that available green space, I pulled into the Paradise Plaza so Linda could buy some item of make-up from a familiar-looking drug store. I wanted to point out to my wife that Joni Mitchell had sang it right – they really did pave paradise and put up a parking lot. Many of them. But I pushed the mute button in the back of my head. So, instead, I sat in the car, studying the other shoppers entering the store and made judgements on them based on their clothing and face masks, thinking about the irony of the town’s name but also wondering about the origin. A couple of skateboarders caught my eye rolling by on long boards and, with the window down, I could smell the sweet musty smell of cannabis before looking over to some other school kids in uniforms coming out of a fast-food hamburger joint (I can’t remember which one) and was also reminded of the Jimmy Buffet song, “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” But enough of that.
We still had some time before food or beer would call us, so we went to visit The Rooms – a mammoth art gallery/museum in St. John’s that is supposed to look like a big fish shed. It was cool, calm and quiet as we wandered around looking at historical displays of fishing equipment and scale models of dories. I wished then that I had more genuine enthusiasm for such places but had been wowed by nature yet again on this blessed day, so I just followed my wife from room to room, even one that had a very fine display of the Group of Seven painters.
We made a point of packing as much of something new and different into each and every day.
When the next morning dawned, however, we made a beeline for Cape Spear again so Linda could run while I searched for the elusive bakeapples in the low scrubby growth of the headlands. It was another hot, clear day and I was cataloguing the smells of all the low-lying plants and studying the wind-sculpted shrubs and trees. The evidence was clear – like poetry written in their branches – that here was a truly windswept piece of real estate where deciduous anything would not survive long. Whatever species of plants inhabited this land had the fortitude to survive some supremely harsh conditions and allow the salty blasts of the North Atlantic to sculpt them into whatever the elements desired.
On the way back to town, we decided to explore the south side of St. John’s Harbour and drove past the Coast Guard docks and industrial buildings out to Fort Amherst, directly across the narrows from Signal Hill. According to Canada’s Historic Places, the fort was “first completed on this site in 1777, guarded the mouth of St. John’s harbour, and was named after Colonel William Amherst, who had recaptured St. John’s from the French in 1762.” There is a lighthouse there guiding vessels to the narrow mouth of the harbour and, during World War II, guns were mounted here to shoot at the pesky German U-boats trying fire torpedoes past the cliffs right into St. John’s Harbour.
The next day we were to fly home to Nova Scotia with our masked companions, but the flight didn’t leave until afternoon, so we figured one more hike/run was in order. The weather had turned on us at last and we decided not to go too far from town or the airport, so we drove again to the top of Signal Hill where we had seen an enticing trail map that showed a looped path dipping down to the open sea from the top and then winding along the north side of the entrance to harbour. The parking lot was mostly empty as we got ready for another jaunt on what looked like a semi-difficult path, down and up on the barefaced headland. A Parks Canada employee had previously told me that it was an easy hike from the top down into the city streets below and back up to the top and that any fool could do it. But today the sky looked defiantly dark, and the trail was already wet and slippery from an overnight squall as I took to the stairs leading down to the rocks while Linda jogged off beyond my view.
Most modern couples would probably each carry a cell phone to keep in touch when undertaking something like this, but I have always been of the opinion that any bit of technological gadgetry would diminish my ability to appreciate nature, so only Linda had a phone. We agreed that if it started to seriously rain, we would retreat back to the car despite the fact that the trail was supposedly one-way (as a COVID precaution).
By the time I made it down to the Narrows, I had lost track of Linda and the drizzle had turned to something more tangible. The sky was looking mean, and the wind was up off the sea as I opened up a brand-new package of one of those little raincoats you buy at the Dollar Store – bright yellow, and as thin as those little bags you put your Brussel sprouts in at the vegetable section of the grocery store. It was, I discovered, a poncho – a very, very thin poncho that ripped as soon as I tried to put my arms through. I paused beneath a rock overhang and wondered whether I should turn back according to Plan B, but not wanting to appear to be a wimp to my fleet-footed wife, I soldiered on. The Parks guy had indicated the hike was a piece of cake and that his 95-year-old grandmother walked it even on her bad days, so I figured it would not take long to loop all the way back to the parking lot on the pinnacle of Signal Hill where Marconi received the first ever wireless signal from across the broad Atlantic. (The message was “pip, pip, pip,” by the way, Morse code for the letter S.)
It turned out that there is a narrow section of the trail perched high above the harbour entrance where you are obliged to cling to a cable attached to the bare rock face so that a gust of wind like the blasts hammering away today will not blow you into the cold seawater far below. It was around there that I began to worry about the safety of my wife and wondered why she hadn’t looped back my way once or twice to show me she was still alive. So, with my flimsy yellow flag of a poncho whipping about in the wind and a body quickly soaked from the incessant rain, I plodded on, hoping for the best and looking into the waters below to make sure there were no bodies floating about.
After trying to convince myself that the situation couldn’t possibly be as bad as it seemed, I found myself on an empty city street with no signage of any sort.
I tried a couple of dead-end avenues that offered no consolation at all but kept at it until I found the main artery which I recognized that would take me past the visitor center and the Johnson Geo-Vista Park at the base of the damn hill and back to the top.
Just for the record, I will say that when you drive the nicely paved road up to the top of Signal Hill, it is a lovely drive on most any day and the views of the city are pleasant enough, so that when you arrive at the top, you are ready to sniff the fresh sea air and read all of the historical plaques reminding you of the grand history of this magnificent place. But when you are on foot, soaking wet and struggling against a villainous cold wind as you worry about the safety of your wife, it is another matter altogether. I daresay the hill is much steeper than it ever seems when you are driving. For me on this day, it was a fairly hateful thing, a veritable mountain that just kept getting steeper and steeper as you ascended the heights.
My favourite moment was when I was approaching one of those solar powered electronic speed warning signs that tell motorists how fast they are driving and if you are driving too fast, project an electronic scowling face. There were no cars whatsoever as I approached the speed sign on my soggier-than-thou attempt to scale Signal Hill and the robotic sign, having nothing better to do, projected in bright LED numerals that I was approaching it at 3 kilometres per hour. Just to see if it was really reading my speed, I started walking faster and, yes, it bumped up to 4 kph before I began to feel even more winded than before.
But the kicker then, was the smiley face that gleamed down on me as I was passing it. The arrogant thing approved of me because I was not going over the speed limit. I considered revenge on the damn contraption, but my Buddhist nature reminded me to let go of the animosity and keep moving one sodden foot ahead of the other. Besides, hadn’t I just recently read in my The Art of War book that, “He will win when he knows when to fight and when not to fight?”
Linda was waltzing around with apprehension in the rain at the pinnacle parking lot as she observed me make the hairpin turn at 2 kph for the final leg to the top. When I finally reached her, she was still frantic with worry. She was soaked as well, of course. “I assumed you had turned back when it started raining,” she said.
“But I was worried about you,” I countered, huffing and puffing. She said that she was about to call for help, assuming the worst had happened to her husband. We tried to sort out whose judgement was flawed as we spilled ourselves back into the rental car and eventually gave up on the discourse, happy that we were both more or less alive and in out of the rain
I drove to the visitor’s center at the bottom of the hill to go inside and change but it was closed. So, we shed our wet clothes inside the car and steamed up all the windows like a couple of teenage lovers out on a wild date as we wiggled into drier attire. Linda, obviously feeling an appropriate amount of guilt over the morning’s fiasco, offered to buy me lunch so we drove back to Quidi Vidi and ate fish at the Mallard Cabin looking out on a small pond where the signature mallard ducks seemed to have no qualms whatsoever with the ceaseless and insidious rain.
On the flight home, we tried once more to determine whose fault it was that the morning events had gone so sour but, as the skies cleared and we winged our way south over the vast stretch of empty wilderness that was the interior of Newfoundland, we decided that – all things considered – we had fallen in love with our neighbouring province and would return soon to explore the Rock yet again. ~ Story by Lesley Choyce
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