Keith and I scramble up the steep, muddy slope using roots and tree limbs for purchase. Overspray from the big waterfall just to our left settles on us like a light rain. It’s tough going here in the thick vegetation of lower elevations. But I was forewarned: there is no trail through the Long Range Mountains in Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park. If you want to do this route, it’s all map and compass work, so pay attention.
In fact, the rangers here make you take along a locator beacon, what they call a “caribou collar,” before they’ll even give you a hiking permit. The idea is that if you get lost, they can find you with the transmitter much more quickly than searching through the vast expanse of this remote range that follows the spine of the Great Northern Peninsula. So far, Keith and I are doing pretty well. We’re just a half day into it, and we’ve already encountered a few changes in course and full-on dead ends. But we are definitely making progress.
That becomes fantastically clear when we finally manage to work up above the falls to get our first view back down to Western Brook Pond. This inland fjord, cut off from the sea eons ago by a huge glacial moraine, beggars description. The long, narrow body of water hemmed in by thousand-foot high rock walls is capped today by a low layer of cloud that emphasizes its wild mood. Long, wispy waterfalls pour off high cliffs of exfoliated granite, evoking memories of Yosemite Valley. But this weird inland fjord here on Newfoundland’s wild west coast is a long way from the busy Sierra.
Only in remote and sparsely populated Newfoundland would a feature this dramatic be called a “pond,” but this place is full of understatement, and surprises. A full five time zones from my home in Seattle, the island is actually closer to London than it is to the West Coast. Canada’s most out-there province is rapidly gaining a reputation as the place to come for wilderness outings. (For the record: Newfoundland is an island, Newfoundland and Labrador together make a province.) These days, Newfoundland draws adventurous types from Europe and North America in increasing numbers, winter and summer. After just a few days hanging out with the friendly locals and sampling the backcountry, I’m beginning to see why.
Since this was my first visit to Newfoundland, some expertise was needed. I asked Ed English of Linkum Tours in Corner Brook to help me organize the logistics for my traverse of the Long Range Mountains. He handled my accommodations on arrival in Deer Lake, took care of the permits and trailhead transportation, and set me up with Keith Payne, a teacher and wilderness guide who grew up along this coast. Although he’s spent more time than most in Newfoundland’s mountains, Keith had not yet done the traverse, so it’s a new experience for both of us.
Keith and I were dropped off at the head of the pond by a water taxi, and began the first of four days on the famed Long Range Traverse, a 35-kilometer backcountry route of growing reputation among the cognoscenti. The storied traverse follows the ridgelines and valleys of some of Newfoundland’s highest peaks where they rise above the west coast of the Great Northern Peninsula along the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Climbing up out of that deep gorge from Western Brook Pond revealed to us not just the dramatic fjord below, but a verdant landscape of mountain meadows, rocky peaks and shimmering lakes rolling on as far as one could see. It was a striking expanse of wilderness, but my next thought was more troubling: everything sort of looks alike. Navigating up the gorge was a piece of cake compared to what we faced now: a cross-country venture through rugged terrain with few reliable landmarks but a lot of the dense alpine vegetation Newfoundlanders call “tuckamor,” better known to me as alpine krumholz. The stuff is so thick it’s impossible to force a route through it, so you have to go around it, and that complicates navigation big time.
When we picked up our permits at the Gros Morne National Park ranger stations, we were able to trace the “suggested” route of the Long Range Traverse on our detailed topo map from the rangers’ master copy (they even have a light table for that purpose). That line on the map was basically all we had to go by to navigate the entire distance.
Once we had climbed up out of the gorge and on to the plateau, we took our first bearing, headed out, and right away had to deviate from it to avoid impossible patches of “tuck.” Welcome to hiking in the Long Range Mountains. The next three days would be a engaging combination of map reading, compass bearings, dead reckoning and GPS observations. It was clear there would be little daydreaming on our walk through this national park.
The surprise that first afternoon was the sheer scale of this backcountry. We would carefully navigate from lake to peak to ridge, only to finally peer over and find the lake we thought would be right there was instead way over there. At one point, disbelieving our own eyes, Keith double checked with the GPS unit to confirm what we feared: it was, indeed, way over there.
The upside of that kind of challenge is that it keeps the crowds down: We had this amazing route nearly to ourselves the whole way. Keith and I wanted to shave a full day off the usual travel time, so we hiked all the way to Marks Pond, about seven hours from the boat, probably 14 kilometers in with all the detours around the tuck. On arrival, I was amazed to find a lakeside camp site of pristine quality, in glorious solitude. This was exactly the sort of wilderness experience I had hoped to find here in Newfoundland.
Our camp was enhanced by some of the local cuisine from Keith’s pack, including smoked Arctic char he had caught last week in Labrador and prepared himself, and excellent home-made bake-apple jam. Keith was much more than a teacher. Like most Newfoundlanders he is a jack of all trades: hunter, fisherman, backcountry traveler, builder, and cook. He can also spin a riveting yarn, and entertained me with stories of shipwrecks, rum-running and wilderness survival. This island is unique, and having someone along with a strong sense of the place and its history enhanced the journey. I drifted off to sleep that night to the haunting call of loons across the lake.
Over the next few days I learned a few things about traveling through the Newfoundland wilderness from Keith. Some patches of tuckamor were cut through with perfectly good tracks, like well maintained trails. These “caribou leads,” created by the repeated passage of these animals, would sometimes take us in the right direction, at least for a while. We could save mileage by following them, and then adjust our course as necessary later. And in terrain where the route was obvious, we found a few pretty good way trails made by hikers. But mostly we tramped through an unmarked wilderness at the edge of the alpine zone, alternating between scrub forests and open tundra.
When hiking in the Long Range Mountains, the ptarmigan, fox, caribou and moose we saw along the way remnded us that this is genuine wilderness. And finding the route through this convoluted landscape kept our heads in it as well as our bodies. Gradually, we got pretty good at it. We’d travel by compass, following a vector as much as topography allowed, then confirm our dead reckoning with GPS at our infrequent stops. Keith would read out the UTM coordinates from his receiver, I’d write them down in my notebook, and then we’d pinpoint our position on the map.
We thankfully avoided the infamous fog and bad visibility that is a standard feature of this hike. It’s serious business. In a cloud, there’s no recourse but to stay put until the weather clears. It’s just not prudent to try to travel in a wilderness like this when you can’t see where you are going. Our only misstep came beyond Hardings Pond, in rugged terrain called the Middle Barrens, where we cleverly thought we’d go around a peak on a caribou lead instead of over it. That technique had served us well a few times before but it was a mistake here. By the time we realized we had been lured off the route, we had to undertake a brutal bushwhack to get back on course. After that, we made sure to stay closer to the little black line drawn on our map.
Beyond Green Island Pond the geography squeezed us between a series of lakes and the high cliffs above Ten Mile Pond, giving us the perfect perspective on the fjord-like lake. This was a vantage point Keith had always wanted to visit, even as a kid, so I was glad to be here with him when he finally got that view. “What an amazing route,” Keith said, shaking his head, as we gazed at the pond and the Gulf of St. Lawrence beyond. Continually impressed by the variety of this wilderness, literally hour by hour, we had been saying that to each other the whole way. It’s easy to see why Gros Morne National Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage site for more than two decades.
That final afternoon we hike right by a small herd of caribou, who pay us no mind, and make camp on an open alpine plateau within sight of Gros Morne. The mountain for which the park is named misses being the highest peak on the island of Newfoundland by eight meters, but it is impressive nonetheless. Once again, we have this place to ourselves, if you don’t count the family of ptarmigans running around, seemingly unconcerned with us. Keith shows off his cooking chops yet again, with a pasta and chili number featuring moose meat from his last hunting trip.
A killer sunset starts to build in the west as high clouds roll in. Keith calls it a “mackerel sky” and says it bodes ill for our final day. Bad weather is coming, and if it’s bad enough, we wouldn’t be the first party forced to hunker down and wait it out until visibility improves. Heavy rain on the tent a few hours later confirms Keith’s forecast, and leaves us both wondering if we’ll get socked in.
We’re up at first light in a drizzle and low cloud, but we can see. Not bothering to prepare breakfast, we set off right away to finish the last eight kilometers in the light rain. But the Long Range Traverse never lets up. Without a doubt, the most challenging part of the route is the descent off the high plateau down to the Gros Morne trail in Ferry Gulch. You’ve got to navigate to the top of the descent precisely, then deal with steep drops, wet vegetation, and slick rocks. It is positively dangerous in the wet weather. Keith and I climb carefully, and finally drop into the drainage only to be met by the biggest bull moose Keith had ever seen.
I was fascinated, but Keith showed wise caution. We ended up detouring around the huge beast to join the popular trail that comes off the summit of Gros Morne. Relieved to be on an actual trail at last, we put away the maps and hiked to the parking lot where Keith had stashed his truck. From there it was into the picturesque fishing village of Rocky Harbour for a hearty if belated Newfoundland breakfast of fish cakes and eggs. As we enjoyed the comforts of civilization, overlooking the harbor, Keith told me that this very village was founded by his great great great grandfather, who left the service of a British man-o-war to settle here.
Keith’s family has lived on this coast for generations, and I was beginning to understand just how profoundly Newfoundlanders are tied to their island. More proof of that came the next day. Since we had traveled fast (and been mostly lucky on weather), we finished the Traverse ahead of time. With a few extra days, Ed English offered to show me “his lighthouse.” On the way up the coast of the Great Northern Peninsula, he pulled off in a cove where a shipwreck was visible in the surf. Down on the beach, Ed picked up a piece of rusted metal off the sand and explained that this was the wreck of the Ethie. His grandfather had intentionally run the ship aground here during a storm in 1919 to save her crew.
If grandad’s shipwreck had been a surprise, it was nothing like what awaited. Near L’Anse aux Meadows, the site of the first settlement by Vikings in the New World, we boarded a small boat for the half-hour run out to Quirpon (pronounced Car-poon) Island. “Ed’s” lighthouse turned out to be Quirpon Lighthouse, a still functioning aid to navigation perched on the northern tip of the island, with unobstructed views over the Strait of Belle Isle to Labrador. It feels like the end of the earth.
Ed had purchased the lighthouse keeper’s grand old house and other outbuildings, and turned them into a comfortable inn. A unique feature of the lighthouse inn means that you had better reserve a room well in advance: Situated at the very tip of Newfoundland, the place is a veritable super highway for whales. Humpback, minke, orca and other species swim by so close you can touch them--or like me, get your cameras wet when one suddenly decides to exhale. If that’s not close enough, you can take one of Ed’s kayaks out and paddle around among the icebergs as they float down “iceberg alley” on their way out to the shipping lanes.
I found on my first visit to Newfoundland a place where the natural world has not been sullied. A sparse population has something to do with it, but more importantly those who do live here have great respect for their island. Most of the people I met have deep roots, going back generations. For them, the prospect of living elsewhere comes at too high a cost. I know the feeling. When I was awakened that last morning at Quirpon Lighthouse inn by the deep, almost palpable song of a humpback, I knew I’d have to get up and head for the airport. I hated to leave, but I did have this consolation: Between the Long Range Traverse and the whales at Quirpon Lighthouse, I had ample reason to come back.
Newfoundland is about as far east as you can get without bumping in to Greenland. Air Canada has connections both to St. John’s on the east coast and Deer Lake (near the city of Corner Brook) in the west. Deer Lake is just an hour from the start to the Long Range Traverse. For help in planning a trip, the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial tourism office is a good place to start. For more information on the Long Range Traverse, see the Parks Canada site for Gros Morne. Linkumtours can help with trip logistics, lodging, guided adventures and bookings into two distinctive lighthouse inns.