Circumnavigation of Newfoundland

Tim Soper, April 2003

The island of Newfoundland lies only a short distance off the North American mainland; this proximity notwithstanding, it remains something of an enigma to travelers. Last May, I was aboard Le Levant for Zegrahm's inaugural Circumnavigation of Newfoundland expedition, and after completing the voyage, I can say that, despite its relative anonymity, Newfoundland shines as an adventure travel destination. In August 2003 I'll be leading another circuit of the island.

Roughly the size of Louisiana, Newfoundland has a landscape both striking and diverse. Her scenic coastline covers more than ten thousand miles, replete with coves, harbors, rugged escarpments, and fjords. Our landing at Gros Morne National Park, one of three World Heritage Sites on our itinerary, allows us to take in Newfoundland's geological array -- alpine plateaus, tundra, landlocked fjords, coastal lowlands, glacier-carved valleys. Our expedition also gives us a glimpse into the earth's past. Gros Morne, 20 times as old as the Rocky Mountains, is home to the Tablelands, an almost alien landscape resulting from the collision of tectonic plates, and Mistaken Point, on the Avalon Peninsula, contains well-preserved fossil impressions of early forms of multi-cellular life.

Newfoundland is situated where the arctic Labrador Current and the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream meet, resulting in a profusion of marine life. In the late spring, enormous numbers of capelin, tiny fish, congregate off the island. These capelin, as well as krill and squid, attract pods of whales for a feeding season that lasts through the summer. Twenty-two species of whale have been spotted here, including a population of humpback approximately five thousand strong. Other species you can expect to see include minke, orca, and possibly even blue whales. On last year's voyage we also spotted sea otters and harp seals.

The birds more than match the cetaceans. Newfoundland is often called the "seabird capital of the world," and it certainly earns that appellation. Our itinerary includes some of the largest seabird colonies on the continent; in total, more than 35 million birds flourish here. The high barrens of Cape St. Mary's feature the southernmost colony of northern gannets in the world, as well as murres and kittiwakes. Baccalieu Island's protected reserve holds more than 3.3 million pairs of Leach's storm-petrels (more than half the world's population), and at night the forest resounds with their song. On local boats we will skirt the coasts of Gull and Green Islands, known for their respective concentrations of Atlantic puffins and common murres.

Newfoundland is also the easternmost point of land in North America, and its location ensured it a prominent role in the human history of the continent. The earliest signs of habitation date back 7,500 years, and the island is usually regarded as the Vinland depicted in Viking epics. It was here, probably at Pistolet Bay, that Leif Ericsson made landfall, 500 years before Columbus. Near the bay, L'Anse aux Meadows, another World Heritage Site, is the only documented Viking settlement in the Americas. Discovered in 1960, the excavated ruins, along with adjacent museum and reconstructed buildings, afford a look at Norse life circa a.d. 1000.

The large number of whales brought Basque whalers to the region in the 1500s, and we land on the Labrador mainland to explore the remants of an old whaling base. A raised boardwalk threads among the buildings, and you can imagine what it must have been like during its heyday. You can almost smell the reek of the living tryworks and hear the tapping of the coopers and the shouts and grunts as the men strained to heave full barrels of rendered fat, or "trane," into boats.

Also on Labrador, we investigate Battle Harbour, a now-abandoned fishing village whose restored structures bear mute witness to the lonely existence of its inhabitants. By contrast, we also meet modern-day Newfoundlanders, some in towns so isolated, they can only be reached from the sea. These are some of the most hospitable people you could hope to meet. Last year, they greeted our Zodiacs on the beach, showed us about, and invited us into their homes for homebrewed beer and wine.

Fantastic vistas, profuse wildlife, a journey into history, and encounters with a vibrant contemporary culture. For these reasons, and many more, I look forward to returning to Newfoundland's shores in August. I hope you will join me.

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