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Thursday, 31 August 2006

Newfoundland: Earth to Human

Written by Christina Kay Bolton
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In July I went on a different type of tour of Newfoundland. If I had to put a name on it, I'd call it a “human-centered eco-tour.”  ‘Earth to Human’ was our theme as we explored Gros Morne National Park and Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, seeing breathtaking landscapes as well as visiting all types of sustainable projects from newly created ecological reserves to the lodges that thrive on the influx of tourism...

The trip was created by David Maggs, a graduate student in Resource Management and Environmental Studies at the University of British Columbia, and also pianist and director of Gros Morne Summer Music.  His interest in ecology, arts and culture, and history inspired him to arrange this unique itinerary through his native Newfoundland with the help of Anne Marceau, an interpretation specialist from Parks Canada.

The tour was produced by Horizon and Co., a Canadian luxury and adventure tour company which offers a variety of tours ranging from literary sojourns to culinary expeditions to African safaris .  More recently, they’ve gotten involved in eco-tourism and created a tour on behalf of Canada’s World Wildlife Fund in order to expose its members to the wildlife they want to protect.  The ‘Earth to Human’ theme fits under the eco-tour umbrella. guide

With 12 participants on the tour and 5 guides, it was very easy to get one’s questions answered.  Our Horizon guide Richard Perron was an adventure tour leader for years and completed some incredible journeys like skiing to the North Pole.  We also had two naturalist interpreters: Anne Marceau and Michael Burzynski, an enthusiastic Ecosystem Scientist. On the cultural side were David Maggs and Dr. Michael Newton, a Professor from Memorial University who teaches a class called ‘Spirituality and the Earth’.  And then there was the Azmari quartet who were spending the summer traveling around Gros Morne playing inspiring music, and thanks to David Maggs’ scheduling their concerts, were able to join our group on occasion to perform several private concerts for our group.


Day 1

We began the journey in Rocky Harbour a small town whose houses surround a large bay on the rugged western coast of Newfoundland. I was immediately struck by the smell of wildflowers, pine, and wood smoke.  We had an opening dinner at Java Jack’s, a great restaurant whose owner Jacqui Hunter wanted to offer an upscale alternative to all the fish-and-chip restaurants that line this shore. We sampled all kinds of seafood creations, beginning with halibut cakes, mussels, and salmon paté followed by salmon in parchment with blueberry crisp for dessert. Java Jack’s also offered good vegetarian options, in an area where those were scarce.

Afterwards, David Maggs spoke; he offered a philosophical talk on aspects of the enlightenment in Europe and the theme of the week: sustainability. A performance by the Azmari Quartet followed, where the dissonance of Mozart's Piano Quartet in E-flat highlighted the end of the hope of the enlightenment. We slept at the Fisherman’s Landing Inn, a hotel off the highway without a view, but with clean, new hotel rooms.



Day 2

phillips gardensWe were off early to Port-aux-Choix, a historic site halfway up the western peninsula.  It was a drizzly day, but the walk to Phillips Gardens was beautiful. At the site, archeologists were busy digging the remains of a Dorset house. Pricilla Renouf, the main archeologist and Canada Research Chair at Memorial University, met us there and explained that Phillips Gardens is the best spot in Newfoundland to hunt harp seals and is also the richest place to find the Dorset people’s remains.

The Dorsets were Paleoeskimo people who lived here 1,200 to 1,800 years ago. The dirt is black from hundreds of years of seal oil. What was especially interesting is that over 90% of the bones found at this site of over 100 Dorset houses were from seals, even though caribou came to these fields every day and fish would have been plentiful as well; the Dorset people hunted caribou and fished in different areas because they considered it disrespectful to the seal to hunt something else in a place so perfect for seal hunting.

lodgeWe continued up to the Tuckamore Lodge in Main Brook, a quiet spot on a beautiful lake. Rooms at the lodge are paneled in local woods and decked out in fine linens, which impressed us all. After a refreshing swim, we had dinner in their perfect dining room overlooking the lake.

After dinner, local author John Steffler read from his books about the government’s relocation program and the resulting ghost towns and cultural upheaval, and read poetry highlighting Newfoundland’s creatures like fish and moose.

The owner of Tuckamore Lodge, Barb Genge, spoke about her short stint in Toronto and her longing to return to her native Newfoundland. Since the cod moratorium in ’91 saw the collapse of the fisheries, many people had to leave the island in search of work in Ontario or other provinces. Barb ended up coming home and found work at a local community development association, where she launched a series of initiatives which were unpopular at the time because they were considered too radical. They included cleaning up the rivers and starting a cottage industry in bird down that would eventually allow local women to collect the feathers and sell them.

According to Barb “There’s more power in a blunt pencil than a sharp knife.”  With her characteristic warmth, easy laughter, and Newfoundland twang, she told us how she started the Tuckamore Lodge without much money and in the beginning would even collect redeemable bottles at 5am to pay her mortgage. Now the popular lodge attracts both hunting and non-hunting clientele. Her pride in being a Newfoundlander was revealed when she said, “I’m a Newfoundlander and I do what I do so I can stay here.”

Day 3

L'Anse aux MeadowsAfter a short night’s rest, we woke at 5 am to get to L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland for breakfast with the Vikings.  We ate in a sod longhouse with a very spirited group of actors playing the part of crass Vikings who shared songs and stories with us.  Our breakfast was catered by one of the best restaurants in the area, The Norseman Café, and included Viking specialties of apples sautéed with sausage and onions, flatbread, and some more familiar dishes. vikings

At the visitor’s center we learned that L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site was a Viking settlement 1,000 years ago. This was actually the first European discovery of North America. Archeologists did not find this site until 1960 and have since excavated many of the longhouses. They’ve even found a blacksmith’s hut, where the first Viking settlers made iron nails for repairing their ships by smelting the ore found in peat.



Next, we stopped in St. Lunaire at the Dark Tickle jam factory, an example of a very successful business based on harvesting the local berries and producing quality jams. The owner spoke with us about his expanding business and about Newfoundland. When asked what he likes most about his homeland he said, “It’s the freedom, the open spaces.”

We lunched in Raleigh at the Burnt Cape Café, a new business that sprung up after the creation of the Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve. After lunch, we met the interpreters for the reserve, who took us out to the peninsula and showed us the frost polygons and miniature plants & flowers growing in limestone. Burnt Cape has the shortest growing season, the lowest annual temperature, and the most precipitation of any park in Canada. Not surprisingly, it is home to many rare plants, most of which are tiny.

That night, after another great meal at the Tuckamore Lodge, we sat in the Great Room for the evening’s talk by David Maggs and another inspiring concert by the Azmari Quartet.  Surrounded by glass, we watched trout jump and fireflies zip around under a blanket of stars.


Day 4

After a restful sleep and filling breakfast we were off along the boardwalk to view the salmon holes, where we happened to meet Trevor Pilgrim, the initiator of this sustainable project. He described the journey of the salmon through a mile of underground caves created when water dissolved the calcium in the limestone over thousands of years.

tuckamoreWe drove to Torrent River where Bill Maynard, owner of the Torrent River Inn, showed us a project to re-introduce salmon to the Torrent River, which had always been one of the best spots in the area to fly-fish, but which had been heavily over-fished to the point that the river was down to only 19 salmon in 1969. Now, the river has over 5,000 salmon and is open to catch-and-release fishing, with each fisherman being able to take home four fish a year, the maximum number that is sustainable for this river.

Our next visit was to the Myra Bennett house in Daniel’s Harbour; Myra was a nurse (who acted like a doctor) to the entire area. Her 82-year-old son Trevor Bennett met with us and told us stories about his mother’s work and the way things used to be. When asked, “If you could bring back one thing, what would it be?” “Humanity,” was his immediate response and then, “the versatility of people… People used to do so many things, like make their own snowshoes… When you’d leave the house your mom would say ‘bring your axe’ because you could always cut trees to make a shelter if you needed to.”

Some of us wandered down to the docks as the fishermen were cutting off fish heads, preparing the catch for the market. When asked what the best thing was about being a fisherman in Newfoundland, one replied right away, “Saturday night.”

Next, we were off to Cow Head for the Gros Morne Theatre Festival’s dinner theatre at the Shallow Bay Motel. The show was The S.S. Effie and during the meal, riotous laughter kept breaking out as the actors who served us took on unforgettably obnoxious personalities.

The story of the S.S. Effie was a serious one, though: another piece of local history about an old steamer caught in an intense storm. To try to save the passengers, the captain decided to run the ship aground in an area sandy enough that it would not be torn apart. They managed to do so, but were still too far out. Running out of options, they  decided to set up a bowman’s chair by attaching a rope to a barrel and sending it afloat towards shore.

The plan worked: the people on  shore saw the crisis and caught the rope:. Each of the ship’s passengers then got on the bowman’s chair, and eventually they all made it safely.  There had been a baby aboard as well, and in another feat of Newfoundland ingenuity, they wrapped her in blankets and put her in a mail sack, attaching it to the rope chair and sending her ashore to safety.

It was an inspiring story and I don’t think I’ll ever fear getting on a boat in Newfoundland. The Shallow Bay Motel was less inspiring, however. The furnishings are older and commonplace, and only the rooms with an ocean view are really worth staying in.



Day 5

western brook pondThe next morning we took the boat tour of Western Brook Pond – a deep pond surrounded by high cliffs. It was a nice 45-minute walk to the dock via boardwalks and gravel paths. This trip is one of the most popular highlights in Gros Morne National Park and it certainly is beautiful – best if you have time to climb up to the point where the most famous pictures of the park are taken.

We then went to the fabulous Sugar Hill Inn where we had a few much-needed hours to ourselves in its sunny rooms, cabins, and suites. Like the first night, we had dinner at Java Jack’s in Rocky Harbour and a concert at St. Matthews with David Maggs and the Azmari Quartet.

Day 6

Some of us took part in an optional kayak trip to see whales in beautiful Norris Point, and then the group visited the Bonne Bay Marine Station, where we learned that Bonne Bay has the greatest biodiversity of any bay in eastern Canada. The Center has some of Captain Cook’s surveying tools, as he surveyed the coast for two seasons and established himself as the pre-eminent marine surveyor of the time. All of the charts in use now are based on his work.  There are also many high-tech devices in use to give the scientists information for their studies of marine life. There is an area here somewhat like an aquarium where you can see an array of fish, crabs, and coral that inhabit the bay.

After lunch, we took the water taxi to Woody Point, the hometown of our beloved bus driver Bruce Martin who knew every single person in the town. We continued on the bus to the Tablelands --- a completely different landscape than almost anywhere else on the planet.  tablelandsOur resident interpreters Anne Marceau and Michael Burzynski explained that the Tablelands were formed when the tectonic plates of North America and Europe collided, and it is one of only five places on earth where you can see the sequence of rocks from mantle to ocean sediment exposed.  It looks extremely dry with its red canyon cliffs, more like someplace you’d find in New Mexico than Newfoundland.

It is actually not that dry, but has such high levels of iron in its Peridotite stone that it is very difficult for plants to grow.  The plants are trying to adapt, though. They showed us a few that were able to survive here, such as the pitcher plant, which allows some insects to subsist and even hatch their larvae in the deep pockets of water in its leaves. Anne pointed out that “Survival of the fittest has led us down the wrong path and taught us to be competitive. Now, we’re looking at examples of cooperation in nature --- the pitcher plant is one.” It also happens to be the provincial flower of Newfoundland.pitcher plant

We had a delicious dinner at the Old Loft Restaurant in Woody Point. I had the delectable Fisherman’s Platter with shrimp, scallops, and of course, cod. Afterwards the Azmari Quartet gave a mesmerizing performance in the historic and quaint St. Patrick’s church in Woody Point.  The church was moved here from another community in winter across the frozen bay to its spot hill on the hill.

We stayed at Middle Brook Cabins & Motel in Glenburnie, whose rooms varied widely – from standard motel rooms, to chalet-style cabins with nicely designed lofts, kitchens, and porches.



Day 7

In the morning we had breakfast at the Granite Café in Woody point and then drove to the Gros Morne Discovery Center where we heard a talk by Trevor Bell of Memorial University on climatology, the Dorset Paleoeskimo people, the Port-aux-Choix Archeology Project, and the effect of climate change on the people of the region. There was an abrupt abandonment of Newfoundland after over 900 years of habitation between 1,100 and 1,200 years ago. He explained that this population collapse was caused by a warming of the area, but it also allowed Amer-Indian groups from the south who were accustomed to warmer temperatures and less sea-ice to move in to the areas vacated by the more specialized Paleoeskimos.

boatA two-hour hike to Green Gardens took us to striking grass-covered cliffs on the sea, where we ate bag lunches on the rocky shore. From there, we were picked up by a fishing boat for a ride over to Trout River.  Surrounded by the strong smell of fish, we asked about the cod moratorium and what the crew was catching. The boat had a permit to catch cod, and when permitted, they could catch 4,000 pounds a day.

It was our last afternoon, and we were beginning to feel the week winding down. Dr. Michael Newton gave a talk about eco-psychology --- the link between humans and the earth and each other.  We then took turns telling the group what stood out most strongly for us and best illustrated this sense of “Earth to Human”.

Our closing dinner at the Seaside Restaurant in Trout River was excellent. The mussels were the best I’ve ever tasted and incredibly fresh. Members of our group who’d never been to Newfoundland were “screeched in” - that is, made honorary Newfoundlanders by kissing a cod and drinking cod liver oil and moonshine, for which we each received a certificate. I’ll definitely be sure to bring my “screeched in certificate with me next time I visit Newfoundland, if only to avoid repeating the ceremony!guides

Our diverse and knowledgeable group of guides were what made this trip especially memorable. Their insight inspired many lengthy conversations and they were able to easily answer all our questions, whether ecological, spiritual, or logistical. More than that, however, this tour was billed as a “journey into the self,” a goal that’s difficult to measure, but many epiphanies were mentioned in our closing circle.  This incredible trip had moments of wonder in both the natural world and in the pauses between the movements of Bach.

Though the landscapes of Newfoundland are beautiful, I was most impressed by its people – inn keepers, ecologists, bus drivers -- and their connection to their beloved homeland evident in the multitude of ways they found to try to stay there.  Hopefully, this tour will be the next sustainable success story in Newfoundland.


Details: Earth to Human: Horizon & Co.

Info on travel to Newfoundland:

©Christina Kay Bolton

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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