Wild country

7 May 2006

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By Stephen Jermanok, Globe Correspondent

Newfoundland's Long Range Traverse feels remotely high and mighty, and cold and lush.

WESTERN BROOK POND, Newfoundland -- Dark clouds unleashed a fury of rain that pelted our bodies and swelled the volume of water cascading down the precipitous cliffs. We were on the deck of a tour boat with some 40 other passengers taking in the scenery of Western Brook Pond.

Not technically a fiord, since this 10-mile lake (a pond only in Canadian terms) contains no hint of saline, how else could one describe the narrow cliff walls that shoot straight up from the deep blue waters of this glacially carved trough. The only sign of civilization was at the far end of the pond, where a small dock waited for our party of four hikers to disembark and face the music.

''You're not going out there," a petite woman exclaimed with an alarmed face as I gathered my belongings. ''Sure thing, ma'am," came the response.

It was an inauspicious beginning to our four-day trek of the wet wonderland called the Long Range Traverse. Nestled in Newfoundland's Gros Morne National Park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique combination of quartzite rock and wetland terrain, the Long Range Mountains could very well be one of the last remnants of pristine wilderness within a three-hour flight of Boston.

Yes, wilderness, one of the most misused words in the English language. These days, any green chunk of land the size of a suburban backyard seems to fit the bill. But here on Newfoundland's western coast, a mere hour's drive from the airport in Deer Lake, there are no roads, no power lines. The only sign of humanity tampering with the terrain was the dock we landed on and the two lean-tos we passed.

There are also no manicured trails with wooden signs showing us which way to go and exact mileage to get there. The Long Range Traverse is a nearly 22-mile semicircular route where topographic maps and a compass are needed to find your way among the web of caribou paths. Indeed, caribou and moose far outnumbered the four other backpackers we saw on the traverse.

With a limited amount of time, we decided to hire a guide, Bob Hicks, co-owner of Gros Morne Adventures. A native of Newfoundland, Hicks left a high-tech job in Toronto to lead groups of trampers through these hills. He also takes people on sea-kayaking jaunts in the Gulf of St. Lawrence past minke and beluga whales and a site where Vikings once landed.

Socked in by the inclement weather, we delayed the 2,000-foot ascent until the following day and set up camp for the night. The rain subsided, only to be replaced by the buzz of black flies and mosquitoes. We awoke to the sound of numerous waterfalls, grabbed a bowl of oatmeal, and headed to the far end of a valley where the hardest climb of the traverse was waiting.

Paths led in every direction like spokes of a bicycle wheel. Within a half-mile, we followed Hicks through shoulder-high ferns into a lush glen that was as green as billiard felt. Little did I realize that the whole trip would be a study in varying shades of green -- the dark green forest of firs, the lighter blend of ferns and diapensia, the almost yellowish-green of mosses and grasses

Using branches and roots to pull ourselves up the rocks, we made it above treeline, and were rewarded by the views of Western Brook Pond. The speck of a boat that brought us here, surrounded by the jagged faces of rock, looked like a minnow caught in the jaws of a great white shark. Up top, we caught our first glimpse of the rain-soaked terrain we would become intimate with over the next two days. It was a mix of rolling hillside carpeted with peaty moss, and glacial bowls filled with water to create pond after anonymous pond -- reminiscent of the landscape found in the Scottish Highlands of yore, before farming groomed the natural terrain.

Walking on this soggy ground was not easy. You can get sucked into the mud if you are not careful. Naturalist Michael Burzynski, author of ''Gros Morne National Park," says the locals call this the ''wetland waddle." It happens when ''hikers are forced to straddle a wet moose path, one foot on either side of the quagmire."

Above Mark Pond, we would cross the first of two streams, requiring a good 30 yards of rock-hopping from shore to shore. We then climbed up into a pass and camped near a snowbank that refused to thaw in the summer sun. Bone-tired, none of us could resist the chance to jump into one of these ponds and relax our weary muscles. The water was frigid, but we splashed about, naked, alive.

We awoke to another day of sublime solitude up and down the rolling terrain, at every pass peering down at another body of water. Hicks never studied the maps. Instead he would search for familiar boulders alone in the distance and connect the dots. We came to refer to them fondly as ''Bob's knobs."

At lunch, we dropped the packs and took a one-hour hike to the cliffs above the second fiord-like lake, Baker's Brook Pond. Hicks noted that only a handful of Long Range traversers ever find their way to this spot high above the cerulean waters, with the bald face summit of Gros Morne peeking out in the distance. We would camp that night at another stellar locale, above Ten Mile Pond, the last of the fiord lakes etched sharply into the mountainside. But first we had to earn it.

Descending steeply on a twisted route into a valley, we made our second river crossing later that afternoon near Green Island Pond. Unlike the first crossing, where we questioned Hicks's route and hopelessly tried to find an easier way to the opposite shore, we didn't have the luxury of time at Green Island Pond. A swarming mass of black flies descended as soon as we reached the water. As two backpackers looked on from inside the safety of their tent, we shadowed Hicks's every move, making it across the rapids of that stream faster than the Keystone Kops in a silent film.

On the final day, the wetlands abruptly shifted to dry rock. We climbed our last pass where some 20 caribou stood huddled tightly on a snowbank, warming up in the hot sun. Then we began our descent, switchbacking down the dense hillside to a final waterway, Ferry Gulch. Here, we met up with civilization again in the form of day hikers ascending the 2,648-foot peak of Gros Morne. Caribou tracks were replaced by boardwalks and stairs, but the view atop Gros Morne allowed us to look back and see much of the land we had just traversed.

It would be another two hours of walking over quartzite and down far too many staircases before we arrived at the Gros Morne trailhead parking lot. Yet my mind was still in the bog, thinking about a fecund ground where water is ubiquitous. Sure, you slip and slide in the muddy moss, but I'll take the wet over the dry any day. Especially when I can dip my water bottle into a running creek the color of gin and not have to worry about filtration.

Contact Stephen Jermanok, a freelance writer in Newton, through his website at www.stevejermanok.com.