Sailing the Rock
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By George Burden | lifeasahuman.com
The first thing you notice is the air, scrubbed by a thousand miles of ocean and a hundred miles of evergreen forest. The spruce-scented breeze wafts along the shores of western Newfoundland filling the billowing sails of our tall ship, Concordia, and simultaneously purging our lungs of city smog. Even the tap water in Newfoundland (affectionately known as "the Rock" by locals) is so pristine you can fill your car battery with it.
Our vessel is a barquentine, a three-master with a square rig on the foremast and a fore-and-aft (or schooner) rig on the mainmast and mizzenmast. Vessels like this would once have been a common sight around Bonne Bay and the Bay of Islands, our nautical playground for one week in late July. The shoreline here is dotted with picturesque little outports, fishing communities that have lately opened their doors to tourists.
The Concordia was plying the waters in and around Gros Morne Park, utilizing a crew of sixteen with sixteen passengers aboard. We embarked from the dock at Norris Point, a small community within the park boundaries, and day one found us cruising through the Bay of Islands down to Cox's Cove, a small community whose shores are dotted with colorful fishing dories. The weather was wet, but regardless that evening some of us elected to walk through the town or use the vessels thirty-speed bikes. Others kayaked and I took a Zodiac ride with an amiable Scottish crew member named David. Speeding off to Penguin Cove the driving rain soon made me glad of my rain suit. We passed small clusters of deserted houses, once year-round communities that had been re-settled back in the forties and fifties, as well as daunting cliffs and picturesque waterfalls. Things got rougher on our return and as the spray and rain whipped my face and we bounced over the waves I had a nostalgic flashback to my childhood, spent in Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland. David apologized for the chop and I laughed, loving it.
The next morning we sailed to Goose Arm and into sunshine. The afternoon cleared to a balmy shorts weather as we cruised through sparkling waters. The crew allowed the passengers to help as they climbed the masts to loosen the sails, and manning the lines we hoisted the course, upper and lower topsail and the topgallant, leaving the topmost sail of the square rig furled.
The crew seemed about an equal mix of ladies and gents, and the Bosun, who is in charge of the sails, was a young French Canadian woman named Madeleine. She and Terri, another young woman from British Columbia, scrambled up and down the rigging like they'd been born to it. I wondered what mariners of centuries past would have made of this.
As we sailed past a huge scree-strewn slope past the narrows of Goose Arm, we spotted a pair of low mountains looking rather like a female bosom. An American from New Hampshire promptly dubbed them the "Grand Tetons". At anchor we sat and enjoyed the sun, sipped Chardonnay and conversed in idyllic surroundings as our chef, another Terri, prepared a gourmet supper. I was just going to say, "It doesn't get any better than this," when another passenger beat me to it. But it did.
Gentle waves lulled us to sleep that night and early morning found us bound for Lark Harbour. Another picturesque fishing village, we arrived just in time to see the cod boats arriving. Though the catches are curtailed the inshore areas still have enough fish to support a small fishery. A good thing too, because dinner that night was fresh pan-fried cod. The legendary Newfie hospitality was confirmed when retired local gent, David Wells, offered to drive me around town and gave me a personalized tour. "Would you be likin' a drive to Corner Brook, 'by?" he asked. Corner Brook is a forty five-minute drive away! He'd have been insulted if I'd offered him money but I got his address and promised to send him some photos of our vessel.
At Lark Harbour I chose to hike to Bottle Cove, a sheltered cove dominated by huge cliffs and a sea cave, which can be visited at low tide. We traversed woods full of colorful wildflowers and mushrooms and passed tuckamore, dense stands of weathered trees, a few feet tall but often a hundred years old or more. These are nature's bonsai sculpted not by human hands, but by blasting winds, freezing winters and rocky soil. We emerged on a cliff overlooking the cove, marked by a monument to Captain Cook, who landed here in the mid 1700s.
That evening passengers and crew enjoyed local entertainment at Maureen's, a hybrid café and pub. I told the owner that I practice medicine in Nova Scotia and she asked if I knew a local boy, Bill Harvey, who grew up in Lark Harbour. As a matter of fact I did. He works about thirty feet up the hall from me at our clinic in Elmsdale. She told me about some of my colleague's childhood escapades, which will go unrecorded.
Early the next morning we set sail for Woody Point. This little community has preserved many of the traditional fisherman's homes, and the hundred-year-old Orange Hall has been transformed into a theater. Some of the Catholic entertainers opined that their ancestors would roll over in their graves if they knew that they'd set foot in an Orange Hall. The Protestant organization was very active in Newfoundland and even until fairly recent times a vigorous Catholic-Protestant rivalry existed on the island.
Near to our dock, the Discovery Centre at Woody Point provides an overview of Gros Morne Park, with interesting displays of maps, photos and local art and artifacts. The center acts as a gateway to the Table Lands, a barren, flat orange mountain unique in the world, which we hiked that afternoon. The tortured terrain looks like the surface of Mars but actually comes from inner space. One of the main reasons Gros Morne Park is designated a World Heritage Site is that the Table Lands are unique. They are composed of peridotite, which is normally found only miles deep within the earth. Half a billion years ago, it is theorized that when continental plates collided, instead of the mantle being thrust down as almost always happens, it was pushed skyward. Considered to be the best geologic evidence for the theory of continental drift, our park guide, Chris, told us that this site is a geologist's Holy Grail. She should know as she is a geologist, as well as an artist. The Table Lands have a unique orange hue due to rusting of the high ferrous content of the rock. If you break a piece of stone, however, it is green with a weblike network of white veins. The heavy metal content makes the stone toxic to most plants and hence little grows, adding to the extraterrestrial appearance of the area.
After hiking the Table Lands we headed back to Woody Point, boarded Concordia and hoisted sail for Man o' War Cove. We were hardly the first to moor here, with luminaries such as Jacques Cartier and Captain Cook having dropped anchor in this, one of the best anchorages in western Newfoundland. We were not alone as a small sloop had also chosen to overnight in the cove. Our evening's entertainment, a talented saxophone player, not only elicited applause from our vessel but from our neighbor as well.
The morning dawned a glassy calm and we hoisted the anchor and set course once more for Norris Point. From here we took the Zodiac rafts to the start of a hiking trail to Gros Morne Mountain. Named by the French, Gros Morne means, prosaically, "big hill". Indeed it is, as we found when we hiked to its base. The weather was sunny and hot but fellow passenger Todd and I made it to our destination rather sooner than the others and continued about a third of the way up the steep slopes. Stunning views of Bonne Bay rewarded our climb. This true fjord offers not only great scenery but is a gold mine for marine biologists researching Arctic waters. Meters below the surface the water temperature plunges to minus one Celsius, even though the fresher surface waters are often a balmy 20 degrees Celsius. Although not truly in the Arctic the marine life forms are identical and much easier to access.
After a challenging day hiking we anchored and supped on more of Terri's culinary wizardry, a butter tender prime rib washed down with a full bodied Aussie Shiraz. Afterwards, most relaxed on deck to watch the sunset of our final evening aboard Concordia. Mother Nature must have been smiling on us, for a magnificent sunset lit up the orange colored Table Lands in the distance as if they were afire. To complement this a full rainbow appeared, and minke whales frolicked in the waves, a fitting ending to a truly idyllic voyage.
There's a lot more to do around Gros Morne after the cruise ends. Highly recommended is a hike into the stunning Western Brook Pond, a fjord that has now become a landlocked lake. Many have seen its image, with a hiker in the foreground, arms spread, in promotional material for the province. Don't miss taking a boat trip down the length of the "pond". Further up the coast visitors can tour the only known Viking settlement in North America at L'Anse-aux-Meadows, and physicians will enjoy a tour of the famed Grenfell Mission in St. Anthony. The more adventurous may even want to take the ferry over to Labrador and check out its historic Basque settlement at Red Bay or dip a line in her storied salmon rivers.