Last week, the Pie and his parents and I decided to take a wee road trip out to the Salmonier Nature Park to visit the moose and see some eagles. What started out as a jaunt of about an hour or two in the sunny afternoon turned, however, into a seven-hour trek across the southern portion of the Avalon Peninsula. See, Salmonier Nature Park experienced some serious damage during Hurricane Leslie back in September and has been closed ever since, despite what the website says. We stopped off at Father Duffy’s Well, which is nearby, to stretch our legs and figure out what we wanted to do next.
While Mrs. Nice and I vegged out in the sunshine and appreciated the burgeoning flora, Papa John and the Pie examined the detailed visitors’ guide, which listed all the attractions on the Cape Shore drive, which takes you on a coastal route between St. Mary’s Bay and Placentia Bay, both on the southern side of the Avalon Peninsula.
So we decided to keep going, to see what we could see. While the Pie and I had driven the Irish Loop (which covers the peninsula containing the Avalon Wilderness Reserve), the Cape Shore was a new one to us. And what a landscape to encounter!
If you’re interested in fishing villages, rural architecture, climatology, ecology, geology, geography, biology, oceanography, or history, then I don’t know why you haven’t been to Newfoundland yet. And when you go, take a drive on the Cape Shore. It’s like going to Mars. The landscape alters between rocky barrens and verdant bogmarshes, both of which run right up to the edge of 300-metre cliffs falling straight down into the bright blue North Atlantic Ocean.
If you’re not that interested, just know that it means there are a lot of lichens.
And very few trees. And the trees that are there are very, very short. It’s like the Newfoundland answer to bonsai.
Eventually we ended up at a point where we hadn’t intended to go just yet: Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve. If you like birds, or you like rocks, or you just want to see some place that is super dooper cool, then you should go there.
I won’t give you a huge educational lesson today (for that you can click on any one of the hyperlinks above), but I’ll let some of the photos speak for themselves.
The natural trail. Don’t fall off.
That’s a drop of several hundred metres.
Lots of lichens.
I’m a lichen liker.
The tundra and the shore.
And of course, the famous Bird Rock.
Totally worth the trip. Bring a hat!
More photos of the Reserve on my Flickr starting here.
As our chapter of Newfoundland living draws slowly to a close (our five years are almost up!), the Pie and I are trying to take any opportunity to experience the good things and the amazing things that this province, and the St. John’s area, have to offer. And this summer, owing to the generosity of my law firm and some fortuitous Groupons, I ended up taking not one, not two, but THREE boat tours of the area, with three different companies. So I thought, now that the boating tour season is almost over, I’d give you my opinion on the whole enterprise, so that if you’re in the area next spring and summer, you can decide if you’d like to try this experience as well.
But first an Ali-cized version of Newfoundland history. As you may know, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has been the location of various fishing colonies from Portugal, France, and England (and a few others) for the past five hundred years. Legend has it that the first Vikings to visit North America stopped here first, and that they could walk from their ships to the rocky shores on the backs of the plentiful cod in the water. All that cod meant a lot of fighting over fishing rights, and after a few switches back and forth, England eventually won out (although France and Portugal still have their own interests). Newfoundland became part of the Dominion of Canada after World War II, and here we are.
In 1992, the cod fishery was so severely depleted that the government declared a moratorium on cod fishing — there simply weren’t enough fish in the sea anymore. This resulted in thousands of fishermen losing their traditional livelihood. If a Newfoundlander can’t fish cod, is he really a Newfoundlander?
Some enterprising fishermen came up with some new ideas about how to put food on their tables. They converted their fishing boats into tour boats, adding seats and life jackets and taking out the nets and hauling equipment. Tourism in Newfoundland began to thrive. And from May to September every year, you can take a tour with one of these companies and see all the sites that Newfoundland has to offer — from the sea. In May and June, if you’re lucky, you can sail up close to a massive ice berg as it makes its way south to melt. In July and August you can sail alongside all manner of local whales as they, too, migrate to other waters.
My first tour happened back in late June. My law firm charted an Iceberg Quest boat to take us from St. John’s Harbour around Cape Spear to Petty Harbour.
It was a calm and sunny afternoon as we pulled out of the harbour, but once we hit the currents of the North Atlantic, the swells got a bit higher and the spray off the bow was enough to thoroughly soak most of us in minutes.
There were a few members of the party who had to make use of the barf bags on board. I’m sure the open bar didn’t help. I kept getting salt water in my rum and Coke (which actually didn’t end up tasting that bad). But those of us who had our sea legs had a great time.
My favourite moment of this particular tour was when we rounded Cape Spear, which is the most easterly point of land in North America. And at that particular moment, I was more east than Cape Spear.
We did catch a glimpse of a humpback whale off our bow, but it was gone before any of us got any good pictures of it. This is the dorsal of a minke who was too camera shy and gone before long.
There were birds all around us, though, and they were interesting too.
We pulled into Petty Harbour nicely sauced and just in time for dinner.
Chafe’s Landing is a restaurant just a few steps from the harbour and is rumoured to have the best fish and chips on the Avalon Peninsula. And I’m here to tell you that those rumours are TRUE. It was incredible.
We took a bus back to St. John’s as the sun set, all happy, salty, and full of good food.
While the staff were friendly they weren’t all that talkative with us. Perhaps because this was a private charter they weren’t required to give us the rundown on the things we were seeing as we sailed around the Cape.
A particular benefit of Iceberg Quest is that they are the one tour company that sails directly out of St. John’s Harbour, so if you’re in town and you don’t have transportation, it’s the way to go. I think that because it is directly out of St. John’s that the tour cost is probably quite a bit more expensive than those which operate outside of town. Because the firm paid for it, I have no idea how much it actually cost. But the boat was flashy and shiny and big.
My second tour was with O’Brien’s in early August, and the Pie and I got a Groupon for a four-person pass at half price, which cost us about $120. We took Cait and Jul and drove to Bay Bulls one morning for a 9:00 AM sailing. As we left St. John’s and headed south, it got foggier and foggier, and by the time we hit Bay Bulls we could barely see ten feet in front of us. Not to worry. We were experiencing what is known as “capelin weather,” which meant we were in luck. Capelin are tiny fish, about four or five inches long, that provide the main source of food for not only the cod, but many other species of wildlife in the area. Capelin migrate through here in the summer, and are usually the most plentiful (like, you can scoop them off the beach with a shovel) after several hot days in a row followed by a cold, muggy, foggy spell.
Despite the weather being the pits most of the time, Newfoundland is definitely beautiful, rain or shine, and we were quite taken with the shoreline emerging suddenly from the mist, and disappearing just as suddenly.
Then we hit the mouth of Bay Bulls and saw a giant patch of birds, all feeding from the same place in the water. This meant capelin, and so, if we were lucky, it also meant we might see some whales. Then, not a hundred metres from where we were, we heard a humpback take a deep breath. Then, a few seconds later, we smelled it. Whale breath is not a pleasant thing.
Over the next hour or so, we were joined by two more humpbacks, who were very curious about us and the other tour boat next to us. Instead of gorillas in the mist, we got humpbacks in the fog.
Justin, our highly experienced (and musically gifted!) guide, said this was the best year for whales he’d seen, and he’s been doing this for twelve years. He was very good about explaining to us exactly what the whales were doing when we couldn’t see them. You see this round patch of water? That’s the whale’s footprint, essentially. You get that sort of upswell when the whale makes a deep dive. It sticks around for a surprisingly long time.
Whenever we thought the whales would get bored with us and take off, they would surface again and just sort of hang out between our two boats. It was truly incredible.
At long last we had to bid the whales adieu and keep to our schedule. We headed a bit further out of the bay to Gull Island, which we smelled before we saw. This area is an ecological reserve for seafowl and has the largest population of puffins in the entire world. But it’s also home to a huge number of other birds, and we got to see them all.
As we headed back to the Bay, we piled into the cabin for warmth. When you sail through fog it tends to stick to you, so we were all coated with a light, salty mist, and our hands were so cold it made holding our cameras tricky. But it was definitely worth it for such an amazing experience!
My third tour was actually just yesterday (because I’m writing this on the 24th of August), and I wrangled another Groupon package deal for four with Mullowney’s Boat Tours for $110, which was half-price. Trav was staying with us at the time and so the three of us went. I ended up giving the fourth ticket to one of the other passengers. The highway to Bay Bulls is only one lane on both sides with little room for passing and we got stuck behind the slowest person alive on the way there, meaning that we arrived at Mullowney’s five minutes after 12:00 PM, the time the boat was supposed to sail! We thought we had missed it entirely but fortunately, because I had made a reservation, the boat was waiting for us. They had heard from other passengers that the traffic was bad and they stuck around until we got there, which was really nice.
Today when we left Bay Bulls it was sunny and calm and absolutely glorious. We had layered up in anticipation that we would get cold and we actually found ourselves to be quite comfortable, even a little warm, in our jackets. Now, this is the North Atlantic, so for it to be this calm and quiet was extremely unusual. If you do a tour, make sure to dress warmly.
It had been three days since any of the local tour companies had seen any whales, so we didn’t get our hopes up this time. It is the end of the whales’ migratory season anyhow. Because I wasn’t looking for whales, I got to focus a bit more on the sea birds around, and we had a great time laughing at the antics of the puffins, who are the most ungainly flyers I have ever seen. The other birds regarded them with disdain, and chased them down for their fish.
Despite not seeing any whales, we all agreed that we’d had a great time. Mullowney’s takes a bit of a different route from O’Brien’s, so the Pie and I got to see different sides of Gull island than we’d seen before, and it was nice to observe their habitat when it wasn’t shrouded in fog. The pleasantness of the day alone made puttering around on the sea a true delight, and the companionship of our friendly young guide Alastair made for an entertaining trip.
I can’t say that I had anything other than a very pleasant experience with all three of the touring companies I used this summer. The staff were all very friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable about both sailing and the areas we visited, and I know from speaking to several of the employees that the companies are not in competition with each other. That makes for a much friendlier environment, and they help each other out when it comes to spotting whales and bergs and the like.
When you take a boat tour there’s no guarantee that you will see whales or ice bergs or any of the more spectacular things out there. There’s not even a guarantee that the water will be calm or the sun will be shining. But even if you don’t get the jaw-dropping experience of seeing giant whales or colossal ice bergs, you can still appreciate nature writ large as you sail past Newfoundland’s ragged coast line and you hear the cries of hundreds of sea birds all around you. Any day you go, whatever you see, you are guaranteed to have an experience you won’t forget any time soon.
One of the benefits of camping with a former Junior Forest Ranger supervisor is you tend to find things out. Ranger P tells us that there is evidence in Columbus’ writings that the aboriginals fed Columbus and his crew Labrador tea, which is extremely high in vitamin C, and saved them all from scurvy. The internet tells me that Labrador tea also provided a revolutionary alternative to regular tea after the Boston Tea Party.
A member of the rhododendron family, “Lab tea” also contains ledol, a toxic substance which, in high quantities can cause paralysis and cramps. Those who drink the tea on a regular basis (which is pretty much all of rural Canada, because this stuff grows freaking EVERYWHERE) say that’s a bunch of hooey. The leaves and branches are also used to keep bugs out of clothing and rodents out of grain.
You can find Labrador tea pretty much all over the place. Despite its name, it grows across the width of the country, and can be found in the deep woods, by rivers and waterfalls, and in peat bogs.
Will.i.am and Caramía gave the Pie and me a Backpacker’s Pantry Outback Oven (available as well from M.E.C.) as a wedding present, and we’d had no opportunity to use it in the two years since. When we found out we were going camping in Gros Morne over Canada Day weekend we figured that there was no time like the present.
The day of the potluck dawned and we considered our options. Miss Awesome and Ranger P (formerly P-with-an-E) had come pre-prepared with felafel and crackers and cheese, but we felt we should contribute something of our own as well. We had flour, oats (from instant oatmeal), brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter on hand — why not create a crumble?
The problem was the fruit for the middle. It turns out that fruit is nearly impossible to come by in any of the communities within Gros Morne, and we didn’t have the time or the resources to stretch our search farther afield. Fortunately, the fates shone on us that day (as did the sun). Miss Awesome’s Auntie, whom we visited while in the park, happened to have a frozen bag of raspberries on hand, which she graciously gave to us and thus saved the day.
So now to the crumble. Of course, in the thick of things, I measured nothing, so I’m just going to guess here.
Because the berries were still frozen, I set them to thaw in a pot on the fire. I thought about adding a bit of sugar to the raspberries but changed my mind. There was enough sugar in the crumble mixture, in any case. I think I had about 2-3 cups frozen raspberries in this.
We had a random orange floating around, so I grated the peel from that and chopped up the fruit into small pieces and chucked that in with the raspberries.
Miss Awesome persuaded me to add a few drops of Cointreau to the mix. That’s her foot there.
In a bowl, I mixed up the dry instant oatmeal (about 1 cup instant oatmeal) with about 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup butter. Add in 1/2 cup brown sugar and a liberal sprinkling of ground cinnamon and mix with your fingers until it’s all nice and crumbly.
Spread half the crumb mixture in the bottom of your outback oven.
Pour the raspberries (now thawed, but not stewed) on top and spread it evenly.
Sprinkle the remaining crumb mixture on top.
Seal up the oven, placing the lid securely on the pan and the little tent-thing on top of that and bake for a while. This of course depends on the strength of your camp stove. Ours only really has one setting — hot — so we had to keep turning off the flame and letting the thing cool down before starting it again in order to prevent burning. Here Miss Awesome checks on her couscous while the crumble bakes.And the Pie relights the burner for the umpteenth time. I can’t be trusted near fire.Keep checking that little dial!
After a while, when the raspberries were bubbling through the crumb top, I took the lid off and let the tent-thing help me crisp up the surface of the crumble a bit. I think that had I used less gooey fruit and real oats instead of instant oatmeal it would have been a crisper thing, but it was sure tasty.
A little while ago, Doodle came to St. John’s, in a lightning-fast visit crammed between her graduation from the University of Chicago and a hike along Peru’s Inca Trail. Because she normally lives in Oregon, we figured that now was probably the only time we would ever see her on the east coast.
After Rusty and Mags’ visit earlier in the month, the Pie and I tried to glean the best of their lengthy visit into a more concentrated form for the two and a half days Doodle would be in town. So, if you’re ever in St. John’s and you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, here are the absolute must-see, must-do things on your list.
1. Climb Signal Hill and the Battery
LOCATION: Downtown St. John’s
I can’t even count the number of times we’ve been up to see the Cabot Tower. It’s the thing you do when people come to town. You can’t not do it. And to have a historical landmark right in the middle of town (okay, it’s right on the edge, on a cliff, hanging over the ocean, but so is most of the city) means you can’t really justify skipping it. And if you’ve got a stout pair of walking shoes and an extra hour, I recommend wandering through the Battery and taking the North Head Trail up to the top of Signal Hill. Your butt muscles will hate you for it but the view is worth it.For more information about these historic sites you can see the post I made when Cait and iPM were in town last summer.
And the nice thing about this place is it’s pretty even when the weather is terrible:
The view at night is also awesome. It’s our goal some day to come and watch the sunrise here. If it’s not foggy.
My father, sailor that he is, has been to St. John’s more times than he can count, and he will tell you time and time again that a visit to the city isn’t complete without a scoff at Ches’s. Serving fresh, local fish is part of their manifesto, and despite the greasiness of the menu items, you never leave the restaurant feeling gross. Plus every time you eat there you get a free mini-cupcake. Also available for take-out.
3. Stand at the Most Easterly Point in North America
LOCATION: Cape Spear National Historic Site, 20 minutes’ drive south of St. John’s.
Because really, why not? It’s not like it’s far. This is another place where I’ve been so many times I’ve lost count, but it never gets old. I’ve seen it in all weathers: in fog, rain, wind, sun, storm, and even a blizzard. Beautiful every time.
I like to go stand next to the edge and look out into the wide empty space of the ocean. The Pie doesn’t like it when I do that, but I ignore him. I’m not really that close to the edge.And the waves crashing into the coastline are truly spectacular.For more information on this historic site you can see the other post I made last summer.
Now, if you’ve got yourself a wee bit more time and access to a car, here are a few more places you should visit.
I’ve only been here once, for a few minutes, but I would like to go back soon for a guided tour. We arrived in the pouring rain but a nice young man told us all about the five trained seals they have on site and answered all our questions. He even let us play with the local fauna in a touch pool that was really neat. The Pie wasn’t too enthused about the nobby sea cucumber but I thought it was cool. The institution itself looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel.Plus can you imagine going to work every day with a view like this?Sheesh.
5. Take a Ferry Ride
LOCATION: Portugal Cove-St. Phillips, 20 minutes’ drive north of St. John’s, straight down Portugal Cove Road.
Take an afternoon when it’s sunny and head up to Bell Island, my second-favourite place on the Avalon Peninsula. Hop on the short ferry and sail on over. We’ve been there three times now, and every time we see something different. Here is the post about our first trip, and our second trip. The third time I didn’t think you needed to hear all about it. And yet here I am, typing away.
But seriously, it’s worth a few hours of your time, especially if you like looking at things that are pretty.
6. Have a Picnic
LOCATION: Ferryland Head Lighthouse, Ferryland, 1.5 hours’ drive south of St. John’s.
Now my favourite place on the whole of the Avalon Peninsula. I think I gushed about it enough here, but I’ll tell you again that you should go.
On our visit, Doodle and I paid the $9.50 each to go through the interpretation centre, which was a little bit of a bust (unless you like looking at pot pieces in drawers with little explanation of what they are), but it meant that we got a little booklet that explained all the numbered archaeological dig sites in the area, and gave us access to a period kitchen where we talked to a nice lady dressed in costume about spinning wool by hand, and how you bake bread in a fire.
And of course we had our picnic.You can’t go without having a picnic.
And that’s just stuff to do on the Avalon Peninsula. Newfoundland is an absolutely HUGE place, with tons to do. Stay tuned for our camping excursion in Gros Morne!