Bicycling the West Coast of Newfoundland
In the summer of 1991, I organized a bicycle tour of the west coast of Newfoundland with Marie-Anne Dostaler, Carole Boucher, Monique Bélanger and my then-partner, Jaromir Born. We drove all the way to Rocky Harbour, crossing the Straits of Labrador by ferry from North Sydney to Port-aux-Basques. We spent our first night in Newfoundland at Osmond's bed and breakfast in Coal Brook:
Mrs. Osmond is a big bear of a woman with an ear-to-ear grin and a laugh that makes the floor tremble. We hadn't been there five minutes when she piled us all in her car and drove us to the local dump to watch four big black bears pawing through the trash. She'll stay up 'til 2:00 am chatting with her guests, then get up at 4:00 to make them breakfast in time for the 8:00 am ferry from Port-aux-Basques. And she still has room in her heart to offer a job to her severely crippled nephew, who comes in twice a week to fold napkins and towels and set the table.
As we drove up the south side of Bonne Bay, the scenery became more sculptured, rugged and colorful. The bald head of Gros Morne leapt into view above South Arm, followed by the startling snow-capped and barren orange tablelands.
This trip was months in the planning, and based on a careful analysis of the terrain and the prevailing winds. We took six days to pedal from Rocky Harbour to St. Anthony, propelled by a strong and steady wind from the southwest. As an experiment, I held open my nylon windbreaker and took my feet off the pedals, and continued to fly up the coast at a solid 20 km/hour.
There was only a handful of motels along the west coast of Newfoundland, and we ended up staying at almost all of them. The most memorable was in Daniel's Harbour, where we all crowded into the only room with windows. There was an unfinished balcony at the back, but no door, so we pulled up a chair and climbed out the window to enjoy the sunset. There wasn't enough water pressure to take showers, but the kitchen faucet popped off while I was doing dishes, creating a small geyser.
The farther north we went, the cooler and more unsettled was our weather. That summer the Straits of Labrador experienced the largest number of icebergs in 75 years. It was a disaster for local fishermen, since the salmon were trapped north of the ice pack, unable to make their way down the coast to spawn in Newfoundland's rivers.
Near the junction of route 430 and Shoal Cove Road, we stopped at Sam's Restaurant — the only one we'd seen all day. It was the kind of place you'd never stop at if you looked at it from the outside and there was any other restaurant within 50 km. Good homemade soup and bread. Real perked coffee, nice and strong, with an actual creamer on the table. On our waitress' suggestion, I tried their special Newfoundland dessert made from canned fruit, leftover cake and two kinds of Jello. It wasn't bad, but what I enjoyed the most was the pride of the waitress who served me her favorite dessert.
On our fourth day out, near Flower's Cove, the road took sharp turn to the right, and suddenly we found ourselves in a dramatically different environment:
We were out of the woods entirely and rolling along a flat stretch of beach dotted by one tiny village after another. At Eddie's Cove, we decided we needed to fill all our water bottles, since from all reports there were no towns for the next 80 km. We knocked on the door of the nearest house and were a bit baffled when the lady of the house led us around the back and filled our bottles from two large plastic buckets. She had no indoor plumbing and gathered her water from the stream across the road. But she was right, it was 'perfect water.'
Past Eddie's Cove, we felt like we were pedaling along the edge of the earth, across a rock-strewn landscape completely scoured of vegetation except for a few twisted bushes that took on the forms of bear, moose and other creatures as the light left us. A storm was brewing and the wind was howling at our heels as we flew across the tundra. We were making good time, but we had no idea where we were. There were no 'points de repère" in this trackless landscape — no houses, no roads, no features of any sort.
I blew a tire, and we sent the rest of the group ahead while Jaromir and I made the repairs. We caught up with them at the St. Anthony airport, 50 km from St. Anthony, on the site of a forest fire, surrounded by hundreds of acres of tiny white tree skeletons. We asked the airport commissioner if we could camp there, and after several calls to his boss — and his boss' boss — he gave us his blessing.
It was strange camping at an airport, with busses pulling up periodically to load and discharge passengers for the tiny Air Nova flights. But we were happy to have access to hot water, toilets and a coffee machine. By then, a big storm had blown in, and we cooked dinner on the gravel in spitting rain, bundled up in our warmest clothes. Two fishermen from Eddie's Cove dropped by to talk to us, in their yellow slickers and galoshes. My friends asked me to translate, but I couldn't make out a single word, so thick were their accents. To the east, we glimpsed a handful of white blotches. Icebergs, packed solid in a distant cove.
During the night, the storm gathered strength and turned into a howling gale. I wondered if the tent would hold, but I was so tired I drifted off to sleep, not noticing that the wind had changed direction and rain was pouring in an open vent.
We ate our instant oatmeal by the coffee machine in the airport. Uniformed staff came and went but none of them looked at us cross-eyed. In fact, as we were packing up to leave, the airport director gave each of us a commemorative pin from the St. Anthony airport.
By then, the rain had stopped, but the temperature had dropped 10 degrees. The wind was as strong as ever, but now blowing from exactly the wrong direction. We had our work cut out for us as we rounded a low range of mountains for the final run into St. Anthony. There were incredible views as we climbed higher and higher into an arctic landscape, complete with patches of snow and fields of bakeapples, Labrador tea, sheep laurel, and multi-colored arctic cotton. The mountains were blue, the sea gray and the wind like pellets of ice penetrating our windbreakers.
In St-Anthony, we holed up at a cozy B & B for a few days of rest and playing tourist, including visits to the Viking site at L'Anse-aux-Meadows, the Jordi Bonet museum and the Grenfell museum. We rented a car and traveled to the nearby village of Griquet, in search of icebergs:
The road twisted and turned, and always looked like it was going to stop in somebody's yard, but we just kept nosing the car forward, and the end always turned out to be just another sharp curve. On the far side of "downtown Griquet," we were creeping up a ridge toward the bay when we realized that this time we really had run out of road. We stopped a woman to ask her how far it was to the top of the hill. One thing led to another, and somehow we ended up with the name of certain Toby Hillyer, whose boat had just pulled into the harbor and who might be willing to take us out to look at the icebergs.
We found Toby, a mustachioed, blue-eyed cherub with twinkly blue eyes, on the dock with several other fishermen. He was more than happy to take us out, since the fishing was no good. For $50, we got a two-hour tour of the bay, where we saw dozens of icebergs, some of them big as houses, and all of them shot through with marble-like veins of green and brown and gray. We also checked Toby's salmon net (0), tried jigging for cod (0) and finally turned up three lively lobsters — the first of the year — in Toby's lobster traps. He was very happy to come back with $50 + tip and a good lobster dinner, and we loved our day in the life of a Newfoundland fisherman.
All too soon, it was time to go home, and we had to solve a challenging logistical puzzle.
We spent most of our last day in St. Anthony begging for discarded cardboard boxed so we could pack the bicycles and ship them by bus to Rocky Harbour. I finally stopped a worker at a furniture store, who offered to get us as many stove and refrigerator boxes as we needed. But while we were measuring bicycles and boxes, Jaromir was sizing up the guy's big blue van. It was going to cost us nearly $250 for bus fare for the five of us, and there probably wouldn't be room for all the bicycles. The furniture seller didn't speak French, but he understood what we wanted, and pretty soon we had a ride to Rocky Harbour for $200.Next
We finished the day with a bike ride to the end of West Street and the mouth of the bay, where we were rewarded by the sight of some small whales playing tag with the incoming tide. After dinner, we took one last walk, this time to the end of East Street on the other side of the bay. The sunset was dazzling — gray sky streaked with orange, clouds hanging low over the snow-capped peaks behind St. Anthony, twinkly lights reflecting off the last of the blue bergie bits in the harbor. A typical Newfoundland deep-bottomed fishing boat was flying out of the bight. The captain waved an orange-gloved hand when he saw us and then held up a big shiny salmon. We all broke out in a round of applause. A fine way to say "farewell" to Newfoundland.