Getting Back to Basics in Newfoundland

words + photos by Noella Schink

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Most know of Newfoundland only because the Titanic almost made it there and… well, I guess that was the only time I’d heard of the island before I set off for it, backpack bulging. After hearing it was pretty, I decided I would travel there in an effort to unwind after my harrowing senior year. I wanted to rough it, explore new terrain; I was hopeful for a dose of nature’s rejuvenation after the fluorescent lockdown of high school.

My month-long trip started in central Maine. It took 12 hours to drive into Canada, through quaint New Brunswick and rural Nova Scotia, to the furthest tip of Cape Breton Island where “Lick-a-Chick” fried chicken’s neon billboard came out of the misty night as the only sign of life aside from the ferry terminal. It was a six-hour, overnight ferry ride to Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland.

The early morning fog did nothing to hinder my high spirits and I immediately took off on the scenic, albeit lonely, Trans-Canada Highway. I stopped at every brown and yellow Provincial Park sign, giddy for the start of my venture. J.T. Cheeseman gave me a chuckle with its goofy name, but the chilly tidepools and sweeping dunes were gorgeous. Little did I know the Newfie place names would only get quirkier as the scenery turned more dramatic.

Barachois Pond Provincial Park provided a first taste of towering, yet serene, virgin forests, Canada’s well-kept network of hiking walkways and my urgent need for a real rain jacket. I returned to my sopping campsite with a muddy backside and bloodied shin, elated by the ruggedness of it all. A granola and Kool-aid supper never tasted so good!

Fast forward to me, snug and smug in my new Newfie-chic rain slicker, as I navigated my next hike through the mist at Blow Me Down Provincial Park, like a seasoned pro. I caught a couple trout with an aged yet cheerful couple, thigh deep in freezing Rocky Harbour, then in Norris Point I held in another giggle of embarrassment when I stopped for supplies at “Hiscock’s Convenience.” The grizzled gent at the counter, with his gentle Irish-like lilt, was so kind (he offered me a tarp from his own garage when he found the shop was out of them!) that I left more enchanted than scandalized by the shopping experience.

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Laden with instant potatoes, instant noodles and cheese sandwiches, I delved into Gros Morne National Park. The Green Gardens trail was the real gem of this untamed and bizarrely diverse landscape. A 10 mile day hike, the trail took me from moonscape in the Tablelands, through lush forest, along jagged, sheep-speckled cliffs and pebbled beaches. Volcanic sea stacks begged to be climbed and I found myself weepy and overwhelmed by the inspiration I was left bursting with. Inspiration for what, I couldn’t say—I was just happy to be there. By far the most scenically intense hike I’ve ever walked, it even trumped Western Brook Pond’s heavily photographed (and truly spectacular) fjord.

I looped around the island, exploring narrow offshoots from the Trans-Canada Highway, industriously changing flat tires, swatting squirrels from my cooler and enjoying the ever-morphing scenery. The roadside went from barren to verdant, dramatic glacial striations, to marshlands riddled with lakes and streams.

The serrated northern coast was ripe with inlets and coves where, amongst the narrow bridges and looming icebergs just off shore, I found Dildo Run Provincial Park (I told you the names got wacky). Hiking along this peaceful coastline I felt I might have lost a century. The hot shower that welcomed me back at the campsite was the only indication I hadn’t been sucked back to pre-colonial wilderness. Not that I would have minded--I was happy to start my fires by flint and found the nightly envelopment by the chirpings of the forest soothing. 

A quick, roadside snapshot of the “Welcome to Goobies” sign and I was back on my way towards the eastern coast of Newfoundland. Terra Nova National Park was my reward, its boreal forest recently ablaze with forest fire. Almost 250 acres of the park had been scorched, but the view from Ochre Hill was still sweeping and even more impressive because of the veins of red-black trunk skeletons. I could tell I was getting closer to civilization at Newman Sound campground, where kids were rambunctious on their bikes and the camp store sold hot, fresh pizza.

I finally arrived on the “cosmopolitan” Avalon Peninsula and found St. John’s pleasantly bustling. The oldest English-settled city in North America, it was rich with lore and history that the locals were more than excited to share. The panorama from Signal Hill made it obvious why the spot had been fortified for over 300 years, serving sentry for the city’s harbor. Once again, I felt the increasingly familiar tightness in my chest as if the beautiful scene was taking root and unfolding inside me.

I was beside myself eating not macaroni and cheese/Chef Boyardee straight from the can, in a real restaurant on Water Street, and there was even a rousing Irish trio playing at the pub later on, where I found myself quite chatty and overall rosy after a couple locally crafted pints.

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The ferry ride back to the mainland was a 12-hour affair this time; from Butter Pot Provincial Park I packed up my tent for the last time and headed for the terminal in Argentia. Lucky for me, I love boat rides, ’80s movies and fish fry, as those were activities offered. A plush bed in North Sydney at “A Charming Victorian Bed and Breakfast” (finally, an appropriately named establishment!) never felt so good after a month of flat Therm-a-Rest and damp sleeping bag.

As I crossed the border back into Maine I noticed how over-worked the trees and how gray the crashing waves were. Compared with the chipper, heel-clicking villages of brightly painted Newfie houses, now Maine houses stared blankly back at me, hedges drooping in summer’s heat. Now, I think of Newfoundland as my own secret oasis and I remember my time there whenever I feel overcome with the strain of today’s technology, dirty sidewalks and work stress. I find comfort knowing that tourists will likely never tame Newfoundland, and those heart-bursting vistas, turquoise bays and overbearing squirrels will stay wild and free.

Noella Schink is a travel writer from Portland, Maine. She loves road trips, the beach and her dogs. Her favorite adventures so far have been studying abroad in New Zealand and touring the UK rental car-style. 

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