Theatre of the fog-bound

6 May 2014

By Daniel Scott
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It is like a scene from John Carpenter's 1980 horror movie, The Fog. As I coax the hire car along the twirling coastal road, I envision the ghosts of drowned fishermen darting through the mist and expect at any moment to be harpooned by the antlers of a 500-kilogram moose crashing through the windscreen.

The latter fear is real. From two introduced to the island in 1878 and four more in 1904, Newfoundland now has the highest concentration of moose in the world. More than 5000 of the long-nosed beasts roam in Gros Morne National Park, causing such damage to its forests that an officially sanctioned cull has recently been expanded.

"Thanks for ordering moose pie," said a teenage waitress on my first day. "It's one less death trap on the roads."

"I wouldn't drive at dawn, dusk or at night," she cautioned.

Or in fog so dense you could embalm a city with it, she might have added.

On the way up, the half-hour drive between my Rocky Harbour motel and the Shallow Bay theatre showing The Belle of Bonavista Bay, seemed innocuously scenic, but, during the play, part of the annual Gros Morne Theatre Festival, examining historic links between Dorset and Newfoundland, the fog barrelled in off the sea, reducing visibility to three metres.

Sometimes, while you might wish the sun would shine on your destination, a place cries out for complex weather. Newfoundland's west coast is steeped in a lost fishing heritage, where cod was king and men and women worked themselves into an early grave, and the sudden summer fog fits it like a downy glove.

I turn up the radio, seeking comfort in jaunty Newfoundland "kitchen music". The most prominent sounds are the Irish fiddle and the breathy heave of the French accordion, the legacy of Basque fishermen, visitors to this coast since the 15th century.

The fog is getting thicker. Unaccustomed to driving in such murk, I deploy high beam, which bounces back into my eyes.

It was conditions such as these that inspired E. Annie Proulx's novel, The Shipping News, set in Newfoundland, and haunted the 2002 film version, starring Kevin Spacey. The Pulitzer-prize-winning book was the product of nine trips to the north Atlantic island.

"Rarely have I been so strongly moved by geography," Proulx said of her first trip up Newfoundland's northern peninsula, which includes Gros Morne. "I liked the harsh, bony, bare, empty, cruel and beautiful place so much I could not bear it."

Established in 1973, Gros Morne National Park was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987 for its natural beauty and geological history. Canada's second-largest national park, it gets its French name, meaning a "large mountain standing alone", from an 806-metre peak. The Long Range mountains loom through it, a landscape of alpine plateaus, glacial valleys and high-sided fiords backing coastal plains beside the Gulf of St Lawrence.

In the park's south, the Tablelands are one of the few places in the world where the Earth's mantle is exposed, thrust up from beneath its crust. In the 1960s, the formation helped scientists explain the role of plate tectonics in shaping continents. It is these geological wonders that have drawn me to Gros Morne. To get here, I have flown from Newfoundland's likeable capital, St John's, to nearby Deer Lake, and driven for an hour along the Viking Trail tourist route.

On arrival, I get my bearings from interactive displays at the park's Discovery Centre at Woody Point. I then join Quebecois ranger Sebastien Caty on a "walk upon earth's mantle" in the Tablelands.

"The peridotite rocks here are around 500 million years old and aren't supposed to be exposed," Caty says, as we amble through a stony valley.

"They show how land masses were formed by continental plates moving and colliding and earthquakes jolting the planet."

At lunch, I sit in a Woody Point cafe overlooking Bonne Bay, which divides the park in two and reaches a depth of 276 metres. Minke whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins frequent its waters, but today the only thing moving on the bay is a traditional fishing dory.

Another of Gros Morne's remarkable geological features is Western Brook Pond. I reach the fully enclosed fjord the next day via a short drive and a 3.5-kilometre walk through a glacial valley. The boardwalk winds over limestone ridges, streams and bogs and a Day of the Triffids-like minefield for insects and small animals, full of carnivorous plants.

Making it there unscathed, I take a catamaran tour. Carved by glaciers and then cut off from the sea by upwelling rock, the 16-kilometre-long fiord is hemmed in by chapped, oddly slanted, billion-year-old cliffs. On this overcast day, with clouds nudging the surrounding peaks, Western Brook Pond seems to embody another definition of the French word "morne", sombre.

For a moment, dwarfed by grey wilderness, I am gripped by loneliness, but with traditional music, including a spirited rendition of What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?, bursting through the boat's speakers, it does not last.

That night, watching local band Anchors Aweigh at my motel, I am reminded of what ranger Sebastien Caty told me.

"Culture is very important here," he said, "because it was the first park in Canada where people were allowed to stay in their communities. People here are open, generous and friendly and there is a strong music culture, because it was isolated for so long, so they created their own entertainment in their kitchens."

Anchors Aweigh's show is a rollicking display of storytelling, skilled musicianship and self-parody that goes down a storm with the Canadian audience.

In 1948, Newfoundlanders voted only narrowly for confederation with Canada and consider themselves a breed apart. If the Tasmanian-style "Newfie" jokes are any indication, the feeling is mutual. Their independence is further defined by their own delightful turn of phrase, melding Irish and West Country whimsy.

Anchors Aweigh bid their audience adieu with "snow to your heels, long may your jib draw", or "good luck for the future".

Newfoundland has attracted fishermen, including Middle Dorset and Palaeo-Eskimo people, for 2500 years. In AD1000, Viking Leif Eriksson was the first European to visit, 500 years before John Cabot, English King Henry VII's envoy, who found the surrounding oceans "swarming with fish". In 1583, the island was claimed "for the benefit of English fishermen", becoming that nation's first colony.

Fishing, whaling and sealing dominated Newfoundland life for centuries, until the advent of factorised methods depleted the northern cod stock. In 1993, the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on fishing, creating mass unemployment.

Although the discovery of offshore oil cushioned the blow, the benefits bypassed the isolated communities of Gros Morne.

Its coast is punctuated by ghost fishing ports, including Broom Point, from where the Mudge family fished every summer between 1941 and 1975.

Now a national heritage exhibit, open June to September, the cabin into which three brothers, their wives and children squeezed and the store where they repaired lobster pots, canned salmon and salted cod, stands as a testament to a bittersweet way of life.

The shoreline where the Mudges eked out their existence has an elegiac beauty all of its own.

I follow a short coastal trail that once connected Green Point and Bakers Brook fishing hamlets. I walk through forests of stunted, wind-bashed trees and behind pebbled beaches rasped by blue-green waves. It is enough to convince me that, over millennia, people returned for more than the bountiful catch.

It is on my final night in Gross Morne that the fog lurches off the Gulf of St Lawrence, prompting my wild imaginings. The remainder of my drive is a homage to slow travel, the enforced horse-and-cart pace giving me a hitherto undiscovered connection with Newfoundland's west coast.

I leave early next morning, with a better perspective on Gros Morne's extraordinary geology and nostalgic for its lost fishing culture, but having somehow missed seeing a single moose.

The writer was a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Newfoundland Labrador Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Air Canada has a low-season fare to Deer Lake for about $2640 return from Sydney. See aircanada.com. Gros Morne is a 68-kilometre drive via route 430.

STAYING + EATING THERE

Ocean View Hotel, Rocky Harbour, has rooms from $C129 ($126). See theoceanview.ca.

Old Loft restaurant in Woody Point has tasty moose pies. See theoldloft.com.

SEE + DO

Western Brook fiord boat tours, from $C56. See bontours.ca.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO AT GROS MORNE

HIKE

Take a guided hike to the top of the bottom of the Earth in the Tablelands. $C125 ($122) a person. See grosmorneadventures.com/tablelands.

FESTIVAL

Attend the Trails, Tales and Tunes Festival at Norris Point in the park, which includes daytime walks and evening concerts. May 16-25. See trailstalestunes.ca.

HISTORY

Visit the Port au Choix historic site, 115 kilometres north of Gros Morne, where archaeologists have uncovered evidence of maritime archaic Indian and Dorset Palaeo-Eskimo culture. See pc.gc.ca.

CULTURE

Take in the Writers at Woody Point festival, August 12-14, which brings together scribes and musicians. See writersatwoodypoint.com.

KAYAK

Do a guided two-hour sea kayak tour on Bonne Bay. Adults $C55. See grosmorneadventures.com.