UP THE WESTERN SHORE OF NEWFOUNDLAND:
SOLO BY SEA CANOE

July/August 2008
By Reinhard Zollitsch

Newfoundland from above

What a spectacular sandspit peninsula, and what a massive mountain range, I thought to myself,  as I looked out my window at 34,000 feet, down onto the western shore of Newfoundland. I was looking at the almost 250-mile-long spine of the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland and the fishhook-shaped 25 by 30 mile long sandspit peninsula at Port au Port. I have to check out this area some day, I thought hopefully, and do some serious paddling and hiking there.

ready to go
Ready for yet another adventure

That was 24 years ago, but the initial image from above never faded; it just got postponed for other more pressing tasks or projects. But after last summer's rounding of Cape Breton Island (see MAIB, Jan. 2008) I felt I had set myself up to paddle along the western shore of Newfoundland, “La Côte des Basques”, all the way to the very tip at L'Anse aux Meadows and check out the Vikings' and John Cabot's possible landing there around 1000 and 1497 respectively.

The western half of Newfoundland even looks like that of Cape Breton Island, only larger. And why not start my trip at Port au Port, on the inside of that huge fishhook-shaped sandspit peninsula. This would present me with a very doable 320 mile/512 km 16 day paddle. I knew I would not be able to average more than 20 miles per day with the ubiquitous fog, notorious rain, persistently strong winds and ever-increasing tides towards the Strait of Belle Isle, not to mention the precipitous shoreline making landing very difficult.

route map
Click to enlarge map

The plan - logistics

Getting to the put-in was relatively easy to figure out. But how would I get my car up to L'Anse aux Meadows, or me, my boat and my gear back to my car at Port au Port? I googled an outfitter for the Gros Morne National Park. He suggested I contact a trucking firm in St. Anthony (the only town up north), have them ship my boat and gear back south to Stephenville, while I take the bus (which, by the way, does not run any more) and a taxi back to my car in Port au Port and wait till my boat arrives. “You are kidding”, I sputtered dumfoundedly, but no, he was not.

This meant I had to come up with a plan B. I entered a NFLD kayaking website, asking whether any paddler could drive my car from the Port au Port/Corner Brook area up to L'Anse aux Meadows, from where I would drive him/her back home the same day – and it worked. I got a most accommodating reply from Steve, who assured me “No problem! Just phone me when you get there.” That was my kind of guy. Thanks, Steve. I liked his “can-do” attitude, and was more than ready to reimburse him for his time (and of course gas), which he at the end accepted only reluctantly.

ferry to port aux basques
Ferry to Port aux Basques - arrival in Newfoundland

My venture turned out to be a good 2,000 mile round trip by car from Orono, Maine (two times three days), including two 6-hour ferry rides: from Sydney, NS to Port aux Basques, NFLD and back. It took a lot of planning, but in the end was worth it. Everything worked out just right, down to my ferry reservations both ways and a B&B near Port au Port the night before the start of my paddle trip. The owner of the B&B even agreed to drop me off at my put-in at sunrise, 6:00 a.m., and drive my car back to his place and later to Corner Brook where Steve would pick it up. Thanks, Bill.

Steep and beautiful – the trip begins

put-in
Put-in: "Just follow that shore!" (Photo by Bill Alexander)

It was a relief to be in my boat, leaving terra firma, my car and all other problems ashore. The trip had started (July 18, 2008), and I was full of excitement and expectations. I knew from looking at my Canadian nautical charts, most of which were black and white charts from the British Admiralty, going back to Captain Cook, the first systematic surveyor of this coastline in the 1760s, that the first four days would be the most spectacular but also the most difficult days.  The 90 miles of shoreline all the way to Rocky Harbor would be steep, precipitous and hard in more than one sense, because there were hardly any harbors or even little pocket beaches to pull out on for the night or in an emergency.

approaching gros morne
Approaching Gros Morne Nat. Park and Rocky Harbor

But I lucked out on the weather for this stretch: it was sunny and warm, with winds never exceeding 20 mi/hr. I even decided to island-hop across the big Bay of Islands, saving myself an extra day for when I would get winded in. My paddle plan had not allowed extra wind-days, but rather set a daily target of 20 nautical miles (22.5 statute miles), and a trip average of 20 statute miles per day. It worked out perfectly: 320 miles in 16 days.

cape st. gregory
Cape St. Gregory (my campsite on right)

Just as on my charts, the Long Range Mountains plunged steeply right down to the water, affording truly spectacular views up and down the coastline as well as skyward. My first night saw me at the foot of the Lewis Hills (2475'); then at South Head, the steep tip of the peninsula jutting into the Bay of Islands from the south; at Cape St. Gregory (2251'); and in Rocky Harbor at the edge of Gros Morne National Park, the “Big and Gloomy”, as the name implies. Curious pilot whales accompanied me most of the way. The Blow-Me-Down-Mountain winds at my second overnight at South Head were very active all afternoon, slamming into my modest pocket beach campsite with gusts of up to 40 knots. The surface of the water, however, only showed black wind riffles. There were no big waves or whitecaps, since the wind only came in strong gusts from all directions. I was glad, though, I was not out on the water that afternoon.

bay of islands
Bay of Islands from my tent

Prevailing winds, tides and courses

From Rocky Harbor on, the Long Range Mountains move back from the very shore, leaving a two-mile wide elevated more or less level corridor for the only road running north, connecting the many small townships and fishing villages. Mostly, however, I encountered small seasonal fishing stations, locally known as “outports”, consisting of 5-10 very small houses or sheds. The lobster season had already ended. It is very restricted up here, I learned: stretching for 8 weeks from the first Saturday in May. July was cod fishing season: 1500 lbs per week per license holder, and also shrimp. So except for the few fishing boats out on the water off the few still active harbors like Rocky Harbor, Port au Choix, Hawke, Saunders, Ferrolle, St. Barbe and a few others, the ocean was empty. I saw no sailboats, pleasure crafts or even other sea kayaks. I was absolutely alone along a shore of significant geological and climatological proportions.

typical fishing station
Typical fishing station or "outport"

My dead reckoning navigation was somewhat easy though: I would steer basically northeast along an almost straight coastline, keep the ocean on my left and land on my right, as I had done on so many of my other long distance sea canoe trips. But since fog can set in at any moment, I always made sure I had an accurate course figured out in advance and compensated for the significant 24 degrees western variation, i.e. ADDED 24 degrees to the true chart course for my compass heading.

I had studied the prevailing wind patterns for July, and had hoped a steady SW wind would  push me nicely towards my goal in L'Anse aux Meadows. But no matter how early I got on the water, and I usually made it by sunrise, 6:00 a.m. (which meant getting up at 4:45 a.m.), it was already blowing hard, mostly at a very steady 15-25 knots, with wet whitecaps and rain or thick fog that felt more like rain in my face. It was real Gore-Tex weather, and I was glad I had replaced my old leaky rainsuit and floppy hat. I also wore a polypropylene suit under it and poly gloves. I felt cozy, never cold, despite being wet from the outside and moist in my own sweaty mist from working so hard and for so many hours. Most days I spent about 6 hours in my boat, often without a break, three days even 7.5 hrs. I knew I would have overheated in a wet or dry suit.

The Vikings at St. Paul's Inlet

The Gros Morne area north of Rocky Harbor was not as spectacular as I had expected from the many pictures I had googled ahead of time. The mountains move quite a ways back from the ocean and must look much more breathtaking from certain hiking trails along the steep fjords and mostly bare mountain tops than the distant views I was getting from the water. But that was all right by me, since that afforded me possible take-outs along shore.

arches provincial park
"Arches" Provincial Park

It seemed like a long paddle to St. Paul's Inlet, with the road and lots of noisy trucks running right beside me. Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed pulling my boat out on a lovely sandy beach at the very tip of the large tidal inlet or “hop”, also known as a “barachois”. This was the same place where, according to the Icelandic sagas, a group of Vikings had landed around 1000 looking for Leif Erickson's Vinland. I remember reading that they had a nasty encounter with the native Beothuk people here (pronounced “Bee-OH-tik”), who eventually made them leave the premises and return to L'Anse aux Meadows, the “Bay of Jellyfish”, by the way, according to the original French name “L'Anse aux Méduse”. Today's name “Meadows” is simply a British corruption of the French word for jellyfish, “méduse”, which very few people, even up there, know. The Brits must not have heard right or knew better...or both.

viking site at st. paul's inlet
Viking site at mouth of St. Paul's Inlet

Point Riche/Port au Choix and Ferrolle Point

Point Riche at Port au Choix (from “Portuchoa”, “the little port”) was my first major point rounding and created some anxious moments, pushing me and my boat to the very edge of what we could handle. I had rounded the point, so I thought, and was turning back towards shore, turning my tail to the waves, when a set of big breaking rollers tossed me about, almost into a headstand, while I tried desperately to brace myself upright so I would not lose my balance and fall out of my boat, which was tearing along on those big waves. Whew, that was close!

drying clothes at squid cove
In Squid Cove after a wet day on the ocean

Ferrolle Point (named after a cape in Spain and locally pronounced “Froll”, as in “roll”) came next. But after only 8 miles, a fierce, increasing WSW wind forced me off the water into Squid Cove. The following day, though, I rounded Cape Ferrolle, with its many long ledge bars leading up to it and at its very tip, without a problem and made it into my favorite harbor of the entire trip, Old Ferrolle Harbor. It is one of the few natural harbors along these shores, like ours here in Maine and the rest of New England, and was thus chosen by the Basque fishermen as one of their favorite hangouts.

I pulled out at Plum Point, where the Basques must have gone ashore also, and where one can still see the large mooring anchors and wooden dinghy/boat ramps. And then the sun came out: my clothes, sleeping bag and pad got dried, and I enjoyed myself immensely on my level, grassy tentsite surrounded by colorful wildflowers. My BDS (my brief daily swim) was cold as expected, but never as frigid as off Nova Scotia – I was still in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and not in the Labrador current along the Atlantic side.

old ferrolle harbor
Old Ferrolle Harbor - the Basques' favorite port

After seven days of WSW winds on my left quarter, the wind finally shifted to the NNE for the rest of my trip, coming in over my left bow, again blowing a steady 15-25 knots. And the farther north I got, the more I also noticed the effects of the strong ebb tide current, which I encountered each morning. That sounded good for my course initially, but wasn't really, because the tide was running against the wind and started creating noticeable tide rips off every point.

Rounding Big Bad Cape Norman

I made it fine past St. Barbe, though, from where a ferry can take you across the Strait of Belle Isle to Blanc Sablon, the oldest Basque fishing harbor along the Labrador coast. This was the narrowest spot of the Strait, about 10 miles wide or a bit wider than the Northumberland Strait between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, but thick fog kept me from seeing the steep shore of Labrador till I was driving home in my car at the end of my trip. North of Eddies Cove the road left the shore, trees got even sparser, and the often black rock walls along shore looked even harder and more menacing – a very lonely, bleak and foreboding stretch.

Approaching Cape Norman, I was again blown off the ocean after only 8 miles, beyond Big Brook, but I was able to tuck into Boat Head Cove just before Boat Harbor. However, this turned out to be a very pleasant stopover. The town of Boat Harbor was celebrating their 10-year homecoming, and lots of former residents from as far away as Alberta, Calgary and Edmonton were visiting, along with their kids, who found me first on their ATVs and dirt bikes.

I walked into town (a good mile), and enjoyed a cup of hot coffee and homemade doughnuts in their church vestry, which also proudly showed off the family tree of the Wadsworth family who started this community. The nicest thing was, when around supper time a Mr. Wadsworth (and son), who is one of the few remaining fishermen in this village, came by my tent with a care package of smoked salmon, homemade muffins and bread, a jar of cloudberry jam, an orange and other little goodies. What a nice touch. It gave me renewed energy and encouragement to tackle big bad Cape Norman the next day. The steep shore of Labrador continued to remain hidden in fog and rain, and I tried hard to ignore the big iceberg off my shore towards Cape Norman when I turned in for the night.

flat treeless tundra
Flat, treeless tundra at the northern tip of Newfoundland

It was windy all right, from the NNE again, and there was fog, rain and a hard running ebb tide. The shore looked bleak and foreboding, and big ocean swells were rolling in magnificently, with crests about 50 yards apart, breaking on every rocky outcropping or bar. Fortunately the cape itself was bold and clean, and I again heard and even saw the sickle-shaped dorsal fins of several pilot whales slicing through the water. (Pilot whales, not sharks as paddler Greg Stamer recently maintained on Canadian TV.) The real problem came after I rounded the cape on my way into Cook Harbor. Norman Rock and a few other ledges were one mile off shore, and I was even farther out. It was tense, and I was all eyes and ears, making absolutely sure I would not get caught in any of those humungous breaking swells.

I threaded my way inside of Schooner Island towards Cook Harbor (named after British Captain James Cook of South Seas and Hawaiian fame and first surveyor of these waters in the 1760s). But then I boldly decided to cross the entire Pistolet Bay at its mouth to Burnt Cape on Burnt Island and on across Ha Ha Bay to Ha Ha Point. I smiled as I mouthed these names, but the steep black, ragged rock formations brought me back to reality in no time. I saw a little cove behind some protective ledges and a ledge island, and I decided to pull out and pitch my tent on the black pebble sea wall. I was bushed and done for the day.

ha-ha point
Ha Ha Point - nothing to laugh about

It was another wet and foggy night, but my satellite phone worked flawlessly, and hearing Nancy's cheerful supportive voice on the other end always gives me a big boost. Our “date” was set for 6:00 p.m. sharp, “Newfy time”, before I left on my trip. My VHF radio telephone, on the other hand, did not always work, and I had to do without an accurate weather report a couple of days. (It works on a line of sight and can get blocked by mountains.)

Into Sacred Bay and the former Viking landing

One more day to go, and one more cape to round, Cape Onion, before I could slip into Sacred Bay and the little harbor of L'Anse aux Meadows. It was again blowing from the NNE at 15-25 knots, plus rain, fog, tides, swells, only more so. And again there were long bars capped with little islands extending way out into where I did not really want to be, but absolutely had to go, if I did not want to go swimming around this point, and that was never an option in my trip planning.

I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I finally saw Ship Cove on the inside of Cape Onion. From there I headed straight across Sacred Bay in wonderful parallel waves. (I really love paddling in parallel waves, maybe heading just 10 degrees into them. Powering straight into the wind is often too wet and too much work. The worst kind of waves, though, are big breaking waves from behind because I cannot see and anticipate them, like at Point Riche.)

Sacred Bay is a very scenic bay with lots of islands, peninsulas, bights and ledges. I finally could relax, and marvel at the scenery, especially the impressive two big outer Great Sacred and Little Sacred Islands. And at that point I realized that this was exactly what the Vikings must have seen around 1000, when they came looking for the “Vinland” that Leif Erickson had discovered and described in 996.

And here in little Epaves Bay at the mouth of the tiny Black River, at this rather small pebble beach, they must have beached their boats, as I was doing right now.  And there was their modest settlement, now nicely and authentically reconstructed at the L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site (which is also a UNESCO World Historic Site). Nobody was there. Great. So I gave myself a private guided tour from all I had read about the Vikings, most recently Farley Mowat's book WESTVIKING (see info in back).

You see, I grew up in Viking country in northern Germany, on the Jutland peninsula between the  North Sea and the Baltic Sea, not far from the major hub and trading post between these two important seas. At Haddeby (Haithabu) near the present town of Schleswig, there was an important walled Viking city, where between the years 800-1050 goods from the Baltic would come in on the long thin arm of the Schlei fjord. From Haddeby it was only 9 miles to the west-flowing river system of the Treene and Eider Rivers which flow into the North Sea. I vividly remember the Haddeby Viking museum, housed in what looked like five upside-down Viking boats. The gem of the digs, however, a fully intact racy-looking Viking ship, the “Nydam” boat, was exhibited in the old castle of “Schloss Gottorp”. It was one of the first things I had to show my wife and later our kids when we visited my folks back in the old “Heimat”.

viking longhouse at l'anse aux meadows
Viking longhouse at L'Anse aux Meadows

At the L'Anse aux Meadows site there was a low longhouse, partially set into the ground and covered with peat sod over thin tree trunks. Several closable openings in the roof must have drawn out the smoke from the fires inside, but I cannot imagine being cooped up in there without real daylight for an entire Newfoundland winter, eating mostly dried fish, no fruit or vegetables, inhaling lots of smoke, being cold and wet, and suffering from vitamin C deficiency. I know the Acadians of 1604/08 had serious problems with scurvy. At the first settlement on St. Croix Island in Maine, only 44 of 79 men survived the first winter, while in the first settlement in Québec 400 years ago only eight men out of 28 saw the next spring.

doorway to longhouse
Doorway to longhouse (notice peat sod construction)

And there were work stations, including a smithy where they may have smelted iron or at least reworked their iron fittings and nails. A large communal outdoor fireplace...it was easy for me to get carried away and move in. But I had only pulled my boat onto the beach without tying it up. This whole area is a virtually treeless big bog, tundra, and flat as a pancake for more than 60 miles. I had to get back before my boat decided to follow the Vikings out to sea and on to Greenland from whence they came.

viking camp
Viking camp at L'Anse aux Meadows (work stations)

So I hurried back, but my trusty Kruger Sea Wind had kindly waited for me. Looking over my shoulder as I pushed off the beach,  I noticed I was smiling from ear to ear. “Reinhard, you have done it again, just as you had planned your trip, and again right on time and without any mishap.” I was chuckling, but also noticing that it had not been easy. As a matter of fact, with each year my trips had been getting harder and harder, not only because I was getting older (and older – currently 69), but also  because my trips were getting farther and farther away from home and into rougher and ever more challenging territory.

Cape Bauld/Quirpon Island and John Cabot's 1497 landing in the New World

cape bauld on quirpon island
Cape Bauld on Quirpon Island in the distance

There was one more thing I had thought about doing when I first planned this trip, and that was checking out Cape Bauld at the very tip of Quirpon Island (pronounced “Carpoon”, as in harpoon, which is also its original meaning), the last headland before the open Atlantic. I still had half a day to do so. I saw it jutting out into the Strait, bleak and bold, only 5 miles from where I was now, but then thick fog wiped it off the map as well as my mental screen. The wind kept howling, sending big waves and swells crashing on all surrounding shorelines and ledges. I felt suddenly humbled by the tremendous forces of nature and very small and vulnerable.

I was tired of battling the elements. At the same time I felt proud of my decision not to go to or even around Quirpon Island only because I had said I might, so I could boast upon my return to Maine that “of course I also went around Cape Bauld”. I felt I needed to prove that I could say NO to myself. Saying YES had always been much easier for me. But most importantly, I was still numb from Cape Norman and Cape Onion and thus saw myself quietly paddle into L'Anse aux Meadows Harbor proper. With a smile I declared my trip successfully over. The eagle had landed. It was August 2, 2008.

mouth of bateau cove
"The Eagle has landed"

After setting up my tent in the rain and reporting my safe arrival at home, I asked two local  fishermen about Cape Bauld and got all my answers - and that will have to do, I thought to myself.  They agreed that Cape Bauld was absolutely no place to be under the present weather conditions. And yes, there were white rocks in the headland, thus Bauld meant white (not bald), as I assumed, being an old English major. The headland is elevated (500'), like the Sacred Islands, but not nearly as high as the Labrador coast or Cape North on Cape Breton Island (1415'). And there are only two small coves on the open Atlantic side where John Cabot could have landed, gone ashore and raised a cross and the British flag to claim this “new found land” for the British crown. But Cape Bauld still sits on a tiny island, not the mainland - not an appropriate place to claim an entire continent, as I see it.

I still believe John Cabot first landed at Cape North on Cape Breton Island, where I was last year, and that Cape Bauld was merely his point of departure for Cape Dursey, Ireland, being on the same latitude.

Then one of the fishermen tossed me a cod fish to cook for my supper, signaling the end of my question and answer period. I felt bad having drilled them with my petty questions, but beamed as I caught the fish in midair. I thanked them profusely and with that, my trip was definitely over. What a proper way to celebrate my successful 320-mile solo paddle along Newfoundland's fierce west coast of the Great Northern Peninsula, I thought to myself: a cod fish for supper in “the land of the cod”, or “Tierra de Baccalaos”, as this big “Rock” Newfoundland was known in Portugese.

The Norstead Viking village


Later that afternoon I found out there was a whole Viking village nearby, including the replica Viking ship that had sailed here from Greenland in 1996/97 to celebrate Leif Erickson's first arrival in the New World. And then it dawned on me: that boat was built in Maine, on Hermit Island, near the mouth of the Kennebec River, for author/adventurer Hodding Carter. I had even read his book describing their voyage on “Snorri” and remember being very impressed. I had to see it. The whole settlement was just about 400 yards behind my tent on the next bight over. And there she was, beautifully maintained and preserved with lots of linseed oil. It was stored in a huge boat shed looking like a Viking long-house covered with peat sod over thin tree trunks. I could not get enough looking at all the construction details, the mast, the sails, the rudder, down to the huge pile of stone ballast the boat carried across from Greenland.

norstead viking village
"Norstead Viking Village" - boathouse and runestone

I even joined a group of Viking-clad ladies, who were sitting on sheepskin-covered wooden benches and tending pots around a smoking fire and carding wool. “What's for supper?” I asked gleefully, but only received a benevolent smile for an answer. I better stick to boats, I thought to myself, as I walked back to my humble abode, but a whole pot full of steamed cod fish steaks. Mmm, was that good!

Future trip plans

And yes, I have already thought about what I could do next year. I thoroughly scared myself by thinking the most logical trip would take me from here across the Strait of Belle Isle (by ferry from St. Barbe to Blanc-Sablon in Labrador) and then along the so-called “North Shore” of the St. Lawrence River, 400 miles to the west to Sept Isles, the next access point, or even on to Tadoussac and Québec City eventually, thus completing my loop around the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence. But I know better than to tackle those harsh and inaccessible 800 miles solo. And what about continuing circumnavigating “The Rock”, some of you eager readers may ask?

At that very moment, though, all I could do is take comfort in the thought that I might stop right here in L'Anse aux Meadows, stop while I was ahead, and only dream about those other trips in this area, bent over my beloved nautical charts and Coast Pilot with Nancy and my dog Big Boy at my side...till the urge to explore new shores gets too strong again – who knows.

Signing off for now, though - over and out.

Enjoy!

Reinhard

INFO:

NOAA charts of the entire west coast of Newfoundland. Fisheries & Oceans, Ottawa, Canada
Sailing Directions, Gulf of St. Lawrence. Fisheries and Oceans, Ottawa, Canada, 1992.
The Basque Coast of Newfoundland. By Selma Huxley Barkham. Great Northern Peninsula Development Corp. (undated)
Farley Mowat: Westviking. McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1965.
W. Hodding Carter: A Viking Voyage. Ballantine Books, NY, 2000.
  
BOAT AND GEAR:
17'2” Kevlar Verlen Kruger SEA WIND, solo sea canoe (www.krugercanoes.com)
10 ounce, carbon fiber bent-shaft marathon-racing canoe paddle by Zaveral (www.zre.com)
Iridium Satellite phone; VHF radio telephone for weather reports and contacting Coast Guard and other boats
Luneberg lensatic passive radar reflector by WEST MARINE (so I show up on other boats' radar)
6' bicycle wiggle stick (so other boats can see me better)
two 10 liter water bags by MSR-DROMEDARY (also great for water ballast under my boat seat and for boat trim)
camping gear, including 1-burner propane stove for wilderness beach camping (no campgrounds or homes)
canned food and all gear selected and packed at home in Orono, Maine
NO official sponsor – no stress, no obligations; all gear is my personal choice
Cost: gas for VW Golf  ~ 2,000 miles; car ferry to Newfoundland: $ 231.00 (round trip)

STATISTICS:
3-day drive up to put-in and three days back home from take-out  (a bit over 2,000 miles total; twice as far as last year's drive to Cape Breton Island)
16 days on the water - 320 miles/512 km – 20 miles per day on average
boat time: mostly about 6 hours in the boat; 3 days of 7 ½ hrs. each
longest distance paddled per day: 27 miles; shortest distance paddled per day: three days between 7-10 miles each
rest/wind days: none
unintended personal weight loss: the usual 10 lbs (sorry, Nancy)
gear or personal damage : none


© Reinhard Zollitsch


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