What have you done to restore your soul this summer? I hope you’ve carved out a bit of down-time. I was so fortunate to take a 2-week trip to Newfoundland with my husband, Doug. Here are some highlights and photos from the first week.
Day One — St. Johns — “Newfoundland Time”
When we flew from Washington, DC to St. John’s, Newfoundland we left behind a hot, humid day and emerged into a cool, drizzly evening. That wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was the time change — 1.5 hours. One point five. Apparently Newfoundland is the only place in the world that splits the time zone in half. Perhaps that says something about the independent spirit of the island.
Day Two — Bay Bulls & Witless Bay — Whales & Puffins
We woke to a sunny day and made last-minute reservations to go whale watching and puffin viewing. A 2-hour tour left Bay Bulls at 11:30. The large double-decker boat heads into Witless Bay, to an island that’s an ecological preserve for seabirds.
In the mouth of the harbor we saw a pod of three humpback whales. From the top deck, you could see their long white fins, which look like aqua patches in the water. Their dorsal fins and blows were clearly visible. We followed the whales and were treated to some tail displays as well.
Eventually we continued to the island to watch the puffins. The puffins hardly seemed real with their black and white bodies, bright orange beaks and bright orange feet. When they fly they look like footballs with fluttery wings. The puffins were spaced apart, each on a nest which they had dug into the dirt of the island.
There were also murres, which look a bit like penguins, standing upright and formally dressed, with a black coat over a white shirt. Each bird occupies four inches on the rock.
Riding back to the harbor we played tag team with another pair of humpbacks, a cow with a calf. Outstanding. As the boat hurried back to the dock, Doug’s hat blew off into the ocean. The hat said “Chesapeake Bay Foundation,” so I hope it appreciated its new home, the mighty Atlantic.
Day Three — St. John’s — Cape Spear & Signal Hill
Another sunny day that was breaking Newfoundland heat records. We drove to Cape Spear Lighthouse which reminded me of Point Reyes. It’s a picturesque lighthouse on a long spit of land, surrounded by ocean. We could see the blows of two whales in the distance. During WWII Cape Spear was used as defense— watching for U boats — and there were many remains to tour. We hiked around enjoying the views.
We had brought a picnic lunch and searched for a shady spot to eat it — so many conifers, so little shade! We ended up in a little hamlet called Blackhead, on the front porch of an abandoned house.
Then we drove to Johnson’s Geo Centre, which is a museum about geology. We were there almost 2 hours and learned about the history of the earth and human evolution. Newfoundland is called The Rock, partly because the rock which is exposed is some of the oldest known, formed half a billion years ago.
Drove a short way further up to Signal Hill, which is a Marconi site. We hiked a few miles on trails all around the high points. The wind was amazing. I have never experienced such strong gales — the stretchy band I wore to control my hair literally blew off my head. Just incredible.
Day Four — Cape St. Mary’s — Bird Rock
We cooked greens and eggs for breakfast, plus made toasted raisin tea cakes. The sunny weather had passed. On our way out of town we stopped at the Basilica of St. John the Baptist. A funeral was just ending and folks were scurrying about to set up a wedding — casket out and white bouquets in. Such is the rhythm of life. A fellow pointed me toward an artwork recently contributed by a local artist, which very much moved him. Good to talk with him, and to have a chance to appreciate the painting.
We drove about two hours southwest on TCH the TransCanadian Highway to a small town named Branch, then headed to the Bird Sanctuary at Cape St. Mary’s. Before I continue, let me say that I am not a birder. I am just someone who wants to appreciate what’s put in front of me.
It was very foggy, and as we got closer to the water, the fog thickened. We turned off onto the road to the sanctuary and for 14 km could see nothing but the white lines on either side of the pavement. The fog was so thick we almost missed the parking lot.
We got out of the car and I was surprised there was no building. I thought there would be an interpretive center. But we could see a bit of pavement, so we decided to walk a little ways. Then boom! There was the building after all, about 15 feet in front of us. We almost found the door with our nose.
Inside, the rangers told us the specifics about the 2 km hike to the Bird Rock and what we could expect to see. Using a picture of the rock, they pointed out exactly where to look for the different species.
As we walked to the Bird Rock, the mist condensed on our faces and hair like a fine rain. Along the way we could hear birds squawking and mewling, the sound growing and ebbing as the cliff edge curved toward us, and then away again. Orange stakes marked the way, and we were careful to keep these stakes between ourselves and the cliff edge, especially as the grass was so wet and slippery.
We arrived at the rocky point that reaches out into the sea. A stone’s throw from the tip of that point is the Bird Rock, out in the ocean, and literally covered with birds — gannets, murres, kittiwakes. The sound of the foghorn, the various pitches of the birds’ cries and calls, the feeling of the mist on your skin and the wind lifting your hair, the smell of guano and salt spray, the constant movement of the birds’ circling and hovering, the way the rock itself seemed alive with feathered bodies jostling, preening, pooping, landing, lifting off — it was a full-body experience that’s hard to convey.
The gannets are especially beautiful but a person doesn’t normally get to see them up close. Gannets are powerful seabirds that spend most of their time over open water. They’re very large, with a wing span twice as big as a common seagull. They’re mainly white, but their wings have black tips and the tops of their heads are a peach color, like a little beret. Pairs mate for life and come to the rock to hatch their one egg each year. This colony has 11,000 breeding pairs of gannets. Can you imagine the noise? The gannets have lovely grooming behaviors and stretch their long necks and rub them together. Those lovely necks are not just for looks. They’re useful for hunting, which the gannets do by diving. They begin high in the sky, tuck their wings, stretch their necks, and hit the water at 60 miles an hour, piercing the water up to 60 feet. Powerful. If you’re lucky enough to see a gannet dive, you won’t forget it.
There were also thousands of common murres, the formally-dressed birds. Murres lay their eggs on the sloping edges of rock cliffs. Doesn’t that sound like an impractical place to lay an egg, especially when they’re surrounded by pounding surf? The murres have all these fascinating adaptations to make it work — the eggs are sort of triangular, like squashed ovals with flat sides, and they use their own poop to stick the eggs onto the rock.
And then there are kittiwakes, which are a kind of seagull, but very different from the noisy squawking herring gulls that pester you at the beach. These gulls are a bit smaller, with black legs, and they stay farther out to sea. They were sitting with their young, which are fluffy and gray with a black ring around their neck. Adorable.
Doug and I spent about an hour at the rock, alone, soaked, and absolutely happy.
Day Five — Skerwink Trail
We drove back to Bird Rock to spend another hour with the gannets, murres and kittiwakes, then drove 3.5 hours north to the Trinity/Port Rexton area to hike the Skerwink Trail, which is one of the top 10 hikes in all of Newfoundland.
The Skerwink trail is only 5.3 km long, but has stunning views. We took our time. There were sea stacks visible all along the way. The forest is tuckamore, which is the word for stunted conifers that only grow on one side. They are small and old-growth at the same time, which appeals to me, like something wise beyond its years.
We could peer down at beaches that were strewn with capelin, the small sardine-like fish that the whales feed on. In fact, capelin is the foundation of every life form in the area — whales, birds, cod. We saw two whales in the distance, and a few osprey. We also saw puffins flying into the cliffs. With our binoculars we could clearly see their orange feet sticking out of crevices.
Day Six — lots of driving and a few stops
Day Seven — Fogo Island & punt boat ride
Fogo Island is accessible by ferry. It’s very beautiful, with stunning ocean views. There are gorgeous hikes, and we did three of them — Brimstone Head, Lion’s Den, Joe Batt’s Point.
Fogo Island is also interesting in an economic sense. It was devastated by the collapse of commercial cod fishing in the nineties. In recent years the economy is being revived by the arrival of the upscale Fogo Island Inn. And by upscale, I mean to say that there are only a handful of rooms, the cheapest of which is $1600/night. The mastermind and innkeeper is Zita Cobb, a woman who grew up on the island, became a multimillionaire, and is pouring her resources back into this unusual enterprise. She is devoted to sourcing everything locally and ethically. Check it out.
We were planning to take a boat ride the next day, and mentioned this to our AirBnb host. She mentioned that her husband would be happy to take us out on his punt boat. How could we turn that down? This would be an entirely different experience from a large tour boat!
When we climbed aboard Jim’s boat, the decision we needed to make immediately was whether we should go out to an island where there are puffins (“It’ll take us half an hour or more at full throttle,” Jim said) or go jigging for cod. Our decision was complicated by the fact that the skies were full of dark clouds, which were massing in the distance. It would make the most sense to fish now and take the big boat the next day. But we decided to throw caution to the stormy winds. “Take us to the birds,” my husband shouted, and Jim opened up the throttle.
We headed to the puffin island — it took more than 30 minutes going at top speed in the little boat, chop chop chopping along the water. As we sped along we saw puffins flying, and gannets diving. Then we saw some humpback whales. When the first one showed his tail, Doug and I clapped spontaneously. After that, a number of whales kept up a show — rolling and fin flapping.
When we got to the island, Jim pulled up close. There were puffins flying all around, their wings flapping and orange feet dangling. We also saw a few razorbills, which are very cool because they’re related to the extinct auk.
You could see rain on the horizon, with lots of wind and rolling clouds. Lightning flashed. We turned to head back, and the whales really put on a display — including tail lobbing, when they wave their tail from side to side, and breaching, when they jump out of the water so you can see the ripples on the underside of their big body. Really amazing. Then we saw dolphins. For some reason I started singing: Whales to the left of us, dolphins to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you!
Jim offered to take us past Fogo Island Inn, where we saw a rainbow. I snapped a picture of Jim, the old-timer fisherman, taking us to see the Inn, the newcomer entrepreneur.
Then we went jigging for cod. Jim explained that he could only fish three days a week — Saturday, Sunday, and Monday — and the limit was 15 cod each day. He would put it in the freezer to eat this winter. We went to a depth of about 80-100 feet, and laid out the line, unwrapping it from a wooden spindle. As the boat drifted and the line needed to go deeper, we would put out more line. The idea was to lay the bright metal fishing lure on the bottom of the ocean, like a capelin, then pull it off the bottom and jerk it a bit. That’s the jigging.
Doug caught two cod and I caught one. Dave and Jim caught ten more. When we had thirteen cod and the sun started to set, I asked if we were going to quit.
Jim said: “Missy, we are going to fish until we catch our limit if it takes all night.”
It only took a few minutes. Then we wrapped up the lines and headed back. I had never really understood the purpose of a fish shed until I watched the two men unload the cod, still flopping about, and then clean and fillet them. Jim and Dave worked with the efficiency of people who’ve done something a thousand times, with each action practiced and effective.Jim put two beautiful fillets into a bag for us.
To read Week Two, click here.