Empty Basket Cove was not empty. A glittering aquamarine iceberg lolled in the sunshine of the walled inlet. I plunked myself near the shore amid wind-gnarled bushes, munched on wild blueberries and watched waves rhythmically stroke and slap the ice.
“See the whales?” asked my hiking buddy, photographer Jim Hutchison. The iceberg had me so mesmerized that I had not noticed a pod of minke whales surfacing in the distance. Icebergs and whales made for a textbook Newfoundland summer day.
We had started hiking the East Coast Trail that June morning last year, setting out from the outskirts of St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s easternmost province. About 135 miles of the trail opened in 2001, and when completed in the next 10 years, it will follow 250 miles of the Avalon Peninsula.
The existing route, which runs from St. John’s to Cappahayden, mostly follows a wild and remote Atlantic seashore. Our starting point was the Cape Spear lighthouse at the eastern tip of North America. All day, we crossed headlands with views of sea stacks aflutter with birds. At times, we were so high, we looked down onto bluffs where bald eagle chicks nested. A solitary puffin — that comical creature that looks half toucan, half penguin — did a fly-by, and a flotilla of eerie, bluish icebergs lingered on the horizon. We skirted bogs whose streams became peaty brown waterfalls plunging into a sea littered with hundreds of fluorescent lobster floats.
Not far off the beaten pathLate in the afternoon, after a seven-mile hike, we stumbled — wind-blown and sunburned — into a fishing village called Petty Harbour. Clapboard houses on a hillside overlooked clusters of working boats. A doting couple, Reg and Mildred Carter, and the aroma of baking chicken welcomed us into the homey Orca Inn.
Exhausted, I settled onto a sofa with a strong cuppa tea, feeling as though we had arrived in some “Newfie” Brigadoon at the end of the earth. Mildred announced as she slipped on sensible shoes: “Just gotta run into town to pick something up. Back in a jiffy.”
“St. John’s, of course, darlin’. Twelve minutes to downtown,” she chirped. That was a shock. Jim and I had spent the entire day traipsing through wilderness without encountering another soul, yet we were barely out of the provincial capital’s suburbs.
That evening, I had arranged to interview Peter Gard, an early East Coast Trail advocate, for another writing assignment.
“We felt this area was the New Zealand or Tasmania of North America yet so much more accessible,” Gard said over coffee. “You spend the day on the trail then pop back out into a community on the coastal road at the end of the day for a comfortable bed or a beer in the pub.” Now that is my kind of hiking trip.
Gard was one of 20 St. John’s hiking enthusiasts who volunteered to build the trail in the early 1990s. They linked bits of old cart tracks, cliff-top military trails, old rail lines and coastal trails used for centuries by priests, midwives, hunters and locals gathering wood.
At first, Gard, a Vancouver native, and his fellow trail advocates met with some hostility from residents who resented CFAs — Come From Aways, as they were called — nosing about their land. To locals, the two main tourist attractions, icebergs and whales, meant little more than destroyed boats and mangled nets.
“Whales competed for fish and were hunted here until the 1960s,” Gard said. “It’s taken awhile to realize they are now worth more alive than dead.”
Opinions began to change in the mid-1990s, when the decline of the cod fishery made tourism an appealing option. Setting out to protect a strip of coastline through the province’s most densely populated region proved no easy feat, though. The Avalon Peninsula is home to more than half of Newfoundland and Labrador’s 500,000-plus residents.
When one landowner denied access rights to his property near Cape Broyle, trail planners were rescued by a woman in her 70s named Elsie, who offered her backyard garden as a detour. She is now a footpath fixture, chatting up passersby and often inviting hikers in for tea.
Seaside sceneryThe trail is divided naturally by seaside communities into 18 sections, some as short as 1.8 miles and all varied in difficulty. The route runs through three national historic sites, by eight lighthouses and past countless shipwrecks.
On our second day, we tackled the longest section, the 10-mile Spout Path. Its reward was an explosive freshwater geyser — the waters of the Spout River, actually — driven 60 feet into the air by ocean waves surging inland through underground caverns.
The hike was strenuous and the day foggy and damp by the time we reached trail’s end. We were relieved to see our ride waiting. Stan Cook (“I’m the good-looking one”) and his son Stan (“I’m the one with the brains”) operate a kayaking business in Cape Broyle. They shuttled us to Elaine’s B&B by the Sea at Witless Bay, slowing along the way to look for chunks of iceberg — “bergy bits” — washed up on the pebble beach.
At Elaine’s, we relaxed in the seaside lounge, watching the sun set through the picture window. Stan Sr. arrived with glasses for all.
“Ten-year-old scotch on 10,000-year-old ice,” he said as a toast.
During a typical season, 2,000 or more bergs float through Iceberg Alley, a narrow stretch of Labrador Current that carries them about 8 1/2 miles a day. The bergs begin arriving off the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts in late June, and they linger as late as August. Hiking weather extends until late September.
Our day on the trail had fired up our appetites, and we were keen to try a highly recommended restaurant nearby: the casual, nautically inspired Captain’s Table near Mobile. We started with the Newfie favorite of fried cod cheeks and tongues, served with “scrunchions,” tiny cubes of crisped salt pork. Then we moved on to a main course of sautéed fresh cod. Newfoundland cod — once one of the most common fish in the world, according to Mark Kurlansky’s book “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World” — is now a delicious delicacy. The fish we ate that night came from the small quota allowed off Newfoundland’s south coast.
In the days that followed, we hiked through an abandoned fishing community called La Manche, which was hit by a devastating storm in 1966 that resulted in no deaths but still washed away most of the town.
The nonprofit East Coast Trail Assn. replaced a 50-foot suspension bridge over a spectacular gorge at the site of the town’s ruins.
One night, we crossed a boardwalk over a narrow waterway called the Gut to camp on an island with a grounded iceberg framed by our tent door. The next morning, high on a headland above dizzying slot canyons, we met a pair of retired schoolteachers who carried breadcrumbs in their pockets and Newfoundlanders’ renowned superstitions in their hearts.
“In case we run into fairies,” one confided with a conspiratorial tone and a wink, “we spread them about so they’ll go after the crumbs and leave us alone.”
Postcard from the wildOne day, the trail took us into Ferryland, where a remarkable archeological dig was underway between the houses, along the waterfront and into the outskirts of this fishing hamlet.
Archeologist Jim Tuck was leading the excavation of Avalon, a colony established in 1621 by George Calvert, later Lord Baltimore, whose son went on to found Maryland. It is one of the richest sources of artifacts in quantity and quality from any early European settlement on the continent, Tuck said.
“We find 1,000 to 5,000 artifacts a year,” Tuck said, leaning over to pick up a piece of four-centuries-old clay pipe in the visitor center parking lot. “At this rate, it will take 50 years to excavate the site.”
What makes Avalon so intriguing is the wealth of its former inhabitants. Among the artifacts recovered are fine china, jewelry, luxury trinkets and even velvet and silk squares — used then as toilet paper at a commode swept clean twice daily by the tides.
On our last day, we joined the Stans for breakfast near their kayaking business, run out of a charming general store in Cape Broyle since 1994. Then we traded hiking boots for kayaks and followed the shoreline along the foot of the steep fiords of Cape Broyle Bay. The East Coast Trail follows the same route but high on the headlands. We paddled through archways, alongside waterfalls crashing into the sea and deep into the damp, dripping darkness of sea caves.
A good five miles along, we spotted whales spouting offshore. We paddled out to watch four humpbacks gorge on tiny fish called capelin, so numerous in summer that they can turn the waters black. We rested our paddles and simply bobbed. Two humpbacks breached in unison, gannets dive-bombed into the water behind them, and a bald eagle cruised by — all to a backdrop of icebergs. The older Stan crossed his arms, sighed contently and turned to me with a grin.
“Now, my dear,” he said, “you’re not going to tell anybody about this, are you?”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
From LAX, Air Canada and Continental offer connecting service (change of planes) to St. John’s, starting point of the East Coast Trail on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland. Restricted round-trip fares start at $593.
WHERE TO STAY:
All prices are in U.S. dollars:
Banberry House, 116 Military Road, St. John’s, Newfoundland; (709) 579-8006, https://www.banberryhouse.com . This antique-filled B&B is near a park as well as downtown. Amiable hosts, excellent full breakfast. Doubles from about $70.
Orca Inn, Petty Harbour, Newfoundland; (877) 747-9676 or (709) 747-9676, https://www.orcainn.nf.ca . Décor is nothing special at this old house across from the waterfront, but the three rooms with bath are spotless, spacious and comfortable. Doubles from about $45, breakfast included.
Elaine’s B&B by the Sea, Witless Bay, Newfoundland; (709) 334-2722. The four rooms in this seafront home share a living room with panoramic views of the water. Simple but comfortable. About $45 single occupancy, $55 double, breakfast included.
TOURS AND ATTRACTIONS:
Trail Connections, (709) 335-8315, https://www.trailconnections.ca . This partnership of businesses in the Avalon Peninsula’s ecotourism industry can arrange itineraries and custom hiking tours. A daily fee of about $90 for one person or $115 for two people includes B&B accommodations, all meals, transportation to and from the airport and trail heads, plus maps and other information.
Stan Cook Sea Kayaking/Wilderness Newfoundland Adventures, (709) 579-6353, https://www.wildnfld.ca . A 2 1/2 -hour tour is about $35; a four-hour tour is about $50.
Colony of Avalon, (877) 326-5669, https://www.heritage.nf.ca/avalon . Archeological site is open daily mid-May to mid-October. Adult admission is about $5.
TO LEARN MORE:
East Coast Trail Assn., 50 Pippy Place, P.O. Box 8034, St. John’s, Newfoundland A1B 3M7; (709) 738-4453, https://www.eastcoasttrail.com . Nonprofit group that built the East Coast Trail and maintains it. Sells topographical maps and trail guides for the most popular stretches.
Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism, (800) 563-6353, https://www.gov.nf.ca/tourism .
Canadian Tourism Commission, (213) 346-2700, https://www.travelcanada.ca .
— Margo Pfeiff