by Jules Older
I'm a travel writer, which means I'm a hit-and-run artist — New Zealand’s North Island today, the southern Sierra tomorrow. I'm the man who rarely returns.
Except to Newfoundland. I've been five times to Canada's easternmost, quirkiest and most interesting province. That chunk of rock in the North Atlantic, closer to Ireland than to Vancouver, 1,600 miles east of New York, captured my heart an hour into my first visit.
On the latest visit, I experienced three lifetime thrills in three consecutive days. Where else on earth can you do that?
THRILL ONE: ICEBERGS
It began in the tiny town of Springdale, where we hooked up with ace pilot Rick Adams, owner-operator of Springdale Aviation Ltd.
I flew over and around massive icebergs making their way south from Greenland. Never before had I seen a berg, and now they were scant yards below the Cessna 185's wing.
But if iceberging from a low-flying plane is a thrill, berging from a sea kayak is a life event. Because sea kayaking has a very steep learning curve -- you can be moderately proficient in an hour or so -- and because icebergs have a tendency to get stuck just offshore in the province's protected harbors, the experience is open to the many rather than the fit few.
It's a stunning experience. I drove over a hill and down into an outport, Newfoundland for coastal village. My heart thumped a little louder as I spotted the gleaming white of half a dozen icebergs towering above the dark water like dollops of cream on a chocolate cake. I couldn't wait to haul the kayak off the roof of the van.
That done, I slid the sea kayak into the bay. After just ten minutes paddling, I found myself looking up at a wall of ice, pure white with an occasional riff of translucent blue running down to the bay. Thrilled though I was, I still noticed unexpected qualities: the sound of running water funneling into the water, the shape of a human face, the pattern of artistically placed ridges. I wanted —no, I needed — to get closer, drawn in by the stillness, the whiteness, the enormity.
But as I took the first stroke, there was a sudden rifle shot, a sharp kr-rack! from the iceberg. I backpaddled fast, grateful for the early-warning reminder of the power within these behemoths. I remembered hearing of the mini-tidal waves that form when bergs calve, when ten-ton chunks drop off their sides. I kept backpaddling, then turned around and, almost dazed by the enormity of the berg and of the moment, slowly headed back to shore.
THRILL TWO: SEA BIRDS
As soon as you leave the capital city of St. John's ("Beyond the Overpass" as Newfoundlanders say), civilization disappears at a remarkably rapid rate. Past Placentia, on the way to Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve on the Avalon Peninsula, the hilly land dips sharply down into isolated bays. Sometimes a few houses remain; more often they're abandoned. But I didn't really grasp how few people pass this way until, at Patrick's Bay in the middle of Route 100, I drove past a mini-basketball court, complete with net and foul lines... set up in the middle of the highway.
I came to appreciate that isolation when I reached the sanctuary, for it has allowed the cliffs of Bay St. Mary's to become one of the planet's finest spots for bird watching. Protected from predators by those cliffs, undisturbed by industrial pollution and nurtured by the endless sushi that swims through the bay, Cape St. Mary's has become the nesting ground for tens of thousands of seabirds.
Northern gannets with six-foot wingspans and black-and-white markings as precise as a jet plane occupy the top of Bird Rock, a 200-foot-tall hunk of granite that rises from the ocean floor. Muerres, terns, gulls and an occasional puffin occupy the lower stories, each at its own level. There they seek mates, raise chicks, protect territory and voraciously feed during the summer months.
But what really makes Cape St. Mary's extraordinary is that all this bird behavior is clearly visible from another granite outpost scant yards from Bird Rock. Here gather another interesting species – birders — who bring long lenses, powerful binoculars, serious tripods and Peterson's Guides to the lookout point.
Cape St. Mary's felt like hallowed ground. The birders spoke in respectful whispers. I was reduced to a rare silence. The height, the seabirds, the isolation obviated any need for speech.
THRILL THREE: HUMPBACK WHALES
Newfoundlanders have only recently discovered that whales are worth more alive than dead, that people will pay more to shoot them with cameras than to have them shot with harpoons.
Once this new reality sunk in, local entrepreneurs went at it with energy and verve. In the course of three days in June or July, you can shoot whales from land, from a seaplane, from the deck of a converted fishing boat and most exciting of all, from the cockpit of a sea kayak.
The beauty of the sea kayak is that it allows even inexperienced paddlers to share the water with whales.
I joined a whale-paddling tour run by Wilderness Newfoundland's (www.wildnfld.ca) Stanley Cook. The humpback whales were so near land that his onshore safety demonstration was interrupted by the sound of their blowing a scant hundred yards from the beach. It's a haunting sound, something between the trumpeting of an elephant and the roar of an inflating hot-air balloon. It was loud enough to echo off the rocks and alive enough to raise goose pimples up and down my arms.
When he demonstration ended, our group paddled out from Cape Broyle on the Irish Coast, itching to set eyes on the leviathans making that sound. In less than a quarter of an hour, we sat five yards from a humpback's dorsal fin. We were close enough to feel the spray from the blowhole, close enough to see the barnacles on the giant fin as it passed slowly, gracefully, dreamily by our tiny crafts. Even the small proportion of the creature above the surface was longer than the kayak. Sometimes the boat was flanked by a pair of whales, a sight and experience that penetrated the depths of my soul.
The humpbacks appeared undisturbed by the paddlers. If they chose, they stayed near; if they preferred, they dove and resurfaced a hundred yards away.
I loved paddling among icebergs. I was delighted to see the seabirds. But after the day of my marriage and the day our daughters were born, my Newfoundland experience of kayaking with whales was the most thrilling day of my life.
Jules Older is an award-winning travel and ski writer. His (and wife Effin’s) iPhone app, San Francisco Restaurants, has been called “the best and most current guide to dining in that extraordinary City by the Bay.”
Photo source: iStockPhoto.com