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Cycling Newfoundland’s roller-coaster Viking Trail

The Viking Trail stretches 280 miles (450 km.) along the coast of western Newfoundland from the community of Deer Lake, gateway to the Great Northern Peninsula, to L’Anse aux Meadows, a UNESCO world heritage site, at its northern tip. In a rash moment, we thought it would be fun (and, most of the time, it was) to cycle along a stretch of Route 430. Along the way our knowledge of Newfoundland grew exponentially. Our scenic van-supported roller-coaster bike ride started in Deer Lake and ended 145 miles (230 km.) later in Port au Choix.

The first day of riding dawned bright and sunny, if somewhat chilly. Luckily, by the time our little group was organized and the bikes adjusted, it was mid-morning and the day had warmed up somewhat. Full of enthusiasm, we headed up the Viking Trail. Thankfully, the highway had wide shoulders and there was only minimal traffic. Our guide had promised a good tailwind. This was not to be. Instead into a headwind we pedaled … up one hill, down the far side and then up another. The climbs only got tougher (and our legs stronger) as the day progressed. When we stopped to catch our breath or perhaps to devour a power bar, there were often spectacular views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence on our left and, on our right, sparkling lakes (or “ponds” in Newfinese) and the fir-clad hillsides of the Long Range Mountains. Today’s destination? Gros Morne National Park, another UNESCO world heritage site.

The day we hiked Gros Morne we were blessed with blue skies and sunshine. The French translation of “Gros Morne” means “large mountain standing alone” or, more literally “great somber”. And one can well understand how it got this name. Rising over 2,600 ft. (800 m.) this solitary flat-topped mountain is often capped with clouds or swathed in fog. It’s a strenuous day-hike which can take as much as eight hours. Luckily we arrived early at the trailhead to meet our Park guide, Colin, a “townie”. He explained that in Newfoundland, there are “townies”, those born in the larger cities, and “baymen”, those born in the outlying coastal communities. And we (or anyone not born in the province) were those who “come from away”. Our Newfinese vocabulary is rapidly expanding! We tackled the first four kilometers of the wooded trail at a goodly pace gradually climbing about 1,000 ft. (300 m.) or so to a small wooden platform. Pausing here to catch our breath, we surveyed the next section of the trail … an incredibly steep, narrow boulder-strewn gully. A single file of intrepid hikers was slowly ascending over 1,600 ft. (500 m.) towards the summit. This exhausting scramble, we discovered, would take at least one hour. And then the route back to the trailhead would take another four or five hours. For once, logic prevailed! Both a kayak and an afternoon cycle were scheduled for the next day. So regrettably, my husband and I reneged on this supreme challenge and retraced our steps to the parking lot.

We launched our kayaks into the choppy waters of Bonne Bay on a cool grey morning. A short paddle brought us to calmer waters on the far shore of the fjord. Hugging the shoreline, we passed cascading waterfalls and numerous small inlets. Several bald eagles perched on treetops looked down on our flotilla of boats. Lobster traps bobbed up and down on the water. Nets were set to catch herring and mackerel. On our return route, we paddled past forgotten Gads Cove. Once home to about 10 families, this little community was abandoned after seven fathers and sons were lost at sea during a sealing expedition. The remaining folk floated several of the homes across the bay to either nearby Norris Point or Woody Point. Amazingly, some were then dragged by whatever means possible a further short distance inland from the beach. What a strong and determined bunch they must have been!

A 15-minute ferry jaunt across Bonne Bay brings us to Woody Point and a leisurely spin to the centre of the Earth … the Tablelands of Gros Morne. Dull brown in colour and enveloped in mist, its barrenness is strikingly apparent. The rock’s composition contains few nutrients and so there is practically no vegetation or wildlife in the area. In fact, we were looking at an exposed portion of the earth’s mantle forcibly propelled upward from great depths eons ago … a truly unusual phenomenon.

Back in the saddle again the following day, we headed ever northward up the remote and beautiful Great Northern Peninsula. After leaving town, we almost missed the turn-off to the still-operative Lobster Cove Head Lighthouse overlooking the Gulf. Automated since 1972, this light has guided marine traffic into Bonne Bay since 1897. An interpretative exhibit in the former lightkeeper’s house illustrates how people lived along this coast for 4,000 years. From the docent, we learned that the same lighthouse keeper had faithfully tended the light for more than 30 years. Much to our dismay, the clouds were now becoming ominously darker. Rain was in the air. We paused briefly at the site of the wreck of the SS Ethie. This ship foundered on the rocks in Martin’s Cove in December 1919. Thanks to the courage of the ship’s crew a total marine tragedy was averted. All 92 passengers were saved including a young babe who was taken ashore in a mail bag. Almost 100 years later, the rusted hull and other pieces of wreckage remain stranded on this isolated shingle beach.

Our next stop was at Western Brook Pond, a freshwater inland fjord. Unfortunately, threatening skies, low cloud cover and a cold north wind dulled our admiration of this glacial valley. So on we rode along a windswept coastline and past many tiny seaside communities. An unending number of “tuckamores”, stunted weather-beaten spruce or fir trees struggling for existence, bordered the road. Despite their lack of height, they’ve probably been around for at least 10 or 20 years. Suddenly, a cry of excitement from one of our fellow cyclists causes us to look out to sea. A small pod of minke whales were spouting far off shore. As for other wildlife, we were not so lucky. There must be more moose than people in this part of Newfoundland but so far none has crossed our path. Disappointingly, it was too late in the season to spot even the remnants of one lonely iceberg as it slowly melted on its one-way voyage south from Greenland. Then the rain started. A few sprinkles soon developed into a drenching downpour. It was into the support van for me! And a dry ride to Arches Provincial Park where the action of the waves has carved a duo of arches into the limestone rock. Our accommodation that evening was in a charming inn overlooking the beach. By this time, the weather was truly ugly. Suddenly out of nowhere a stunning rainbow appeared, the light changed and we witnessed the most incredible sunset. The sky was an artist’s delight with swirls, streaks and bands of orange intermingled with varying shades of grey.

The last few miles of cycling under our wheels, we cruised into Port au Choix, the “fishing capital” of western Newfoundland, and jumped off our bikes. Nearby is a National Historic Site where in 1967, after some extensive digging, archeologists uncovered evidence of four ancient cultures that inhabited this peninsula 5,000 years ago. Ben’s Studio is also located in this rural outport. We were fascinated by the unique style of folk art created by Mr. Ploughman. His one-of-a-kind pictures are made of recycled wood and illustrate scenes typical of life in Newfoundland, both past and present.

From Port au Choix it was a 2-hour drive in the support van to our final B&B just outside L’Anse aux Meadows. History tells us that more than 10 centuries ago, Vikings from Norway first set foot on these shores. In the 1960s, the remains of a temporary Norse settlement were uncovered by a Norwegian couple. This was perhaps part of the legendary Vinland. As we toured the site, our Parks Canada guide explained that 1,000 years ago, the grassy area we see today was densely forested. When the Vikings left L’Anse aux Meadows, they burned everything. As a result, a reproduction of the wood-framed sod longhouse is based on an Icelandic model. Inside the longhouse there were exhibits demonstrating the Viking lifestyle, as well as bearded actors dressed as raiding Norsemen. During the past four to five thousand years, many people have lived at L’Anse aux Meadows. Some stayed longer than others. Today there are only 24 permanent inhabitants. There is no future here for young people and sadly the community is in decline.

Viking sod longhouse, Newfoundland

The Grenfell Interpretation Centre in St. Anthony is also well worth a visit. The exhibits honour the life of Dr. Wilfred Thomason Grenfell. In 1892, this young English doctor arrived in northern Newfoundland to provide much-needed medical aid to impoverished families along the coast. One night during his 50 years of service he was called out on an emergency. Adverse weather conditions prevailed and for several nights he was stranded with his sled dogs on an icecap. He only survived that horrendous ordeal by slaughtering a couple of his faithful dogs. Later, he was responsible for the establishment of several hospitals and also founded an orphanage in St. Anthony. Our B&B hostess advised that this very orphanage was the childhood home of her late husband.

Our trip ended with an absolutely delicious dinner at a three-star restaurant at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula. It was a grand finale to an unforgettable journey. We dined on locally-caught fresh seafood and seasonal locally-grown vegetables. The menu also offered some mouthwatering desserts featuring such fruits as bakeapples, partridge berries and crowberries that can only be found in Newfoundland. The quality of the cuisine in a locale that boasts such a few permanent inhabitants was totally unexpected. In the background, one of the villagers played the guitar and sang traditional folksongs as the sun slowly sank below the horizon. All of us will forever remember the rugged and untamed beauty of this land. During our brief visit we gained a better understanding of the harsh realities that have molded the lives and characters of the islanders. Our only regret was that we weren’t “screeched in”. Perhaps next time we’ll be invited to this quaint ritual and become Honorary Newfoundlanders!

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