Newfoundland: Hiking the Rocks

Rocking the World in Western Newfoundland

By Margie Goldsmith

Dramatic fall colors in Western Newfoundland. CJ Reid photos.
Dramatic fall colors in Western Newfoundland. CJ Reid photos.

Western Brook Pond Gorge, Gros Morne National Park: I am bushwhacking my way behind a guide through dense forest and million-year-old cliffs on the 2,300-foot-high fjord of Western Brook Pond Gorge in Gros Morne National Park, Western Newfoundland.

The trail is muddy, rooty, and in places so steep I have to use the tree branches to pull myself up. From time to time we have to walk around thick tuckamore, fir trees knotted together like a spiky trap and too dense to penetrate.

When that happens, I have to crawl up the slippery granite rock face alongside the waterfalls. We’ve already been hiking three hours. I’m exhausted, am getting eaten alive by the bugs, and the summit is still two hours away.

A bull moose in full velvet in Western Newfoundland. CJ Reid photo.
A bull moose in full velvet in Western Newfoundland. CJ Reid photo.

I keep reminding myself that Gros Morne is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I should try and enjoy it. Here, 500 million years ago, two plates collided and pushed up the ancient seafloor; then, 12,000 to 15,000 years ago the glaciers arrived and carved the fjords.

Now geologists flock here like flies because it holds the most complete sampling of ocean rocks in the world. Of course, from one thousand feet up, it’s hard to think of these slippery boulders as ocean rocks, especially as I often have to drop on all fours to ascend.

“Doing okay?” asks Clem Reid, my guide, and owner of Clem’s Adventures

. Clem, who runs these tours in association with BonTours, flies up the trail like a gazelle.

“Great,” I lie.

“Fine,” say Ian and Rebecca at the same time, a local couple and the only other two people on this hike, probably because this is one of the most strenuous backcountry challenges in the park, ascending 2,300 feet in two miles. My quads are burning but I try to ignore them because I know every sore muscle will be worth it if I summit this spectacular landscape.

Jock’s pond at twilight.

Our adventure began in the parking lot. The moment I got out of the car, the bugs attacked, and even though Ian shared his insect repellant, it didn’t stop the little nasties from dancing in my ears.
We began our walk on a wooden boardwalk over the coastal bogs towards the Western Brook Pond Gorge departure dock. Five minutes into our walk, a cute animal like a tiny prairie dog pronked across the planks.

It was a weasel and Clem said it could kill an entire coopful of chickens faster than a Newfoundlander can say Newfoundland. Soon after, he spotted a moose and calf about 50 yards away.

After a couple of miles we arrived at the departure dock, the end of the line for most visitors, who then board a boat for a scenic tour of dramatic cliffs and waterfalls, some which cascade down 2,000 feet.

The boardwalk
The boardwalk

The four of us piled into a high-speed boat and Clem drove us across the pond. Happily, the wind kept the bugs away so I could concentrate on the waterfalls where a huge rainbow arched across the rocks.

The moment we docked beneath Blue Denim waterfall, the bugs attacked. I swatted away as I tightened the tops of my two water bottles, but Clem said the water in the ponds is some the purest water in the world. Having to carry just one, not two big bottles more than made up for the bugs.

There was no real trail and no trail markers. The entire hike would be bushwhacking through dense forest growth and over granite ledges leading to precipitous drop-offs. Sometimes there was so much water on the “trail” that we had to find an alternative route.

I could see why Ian and Rebecca, both experienced hikers, had never done this hike before –because you can’t do it without a guide. Many have ended up lost for hours and some have been forced to spend the night. A few have had to be rescued by helicopter. I wasn’t worried about getting lost because Clem is an experienced backcountry guide and has been hiking these trails since he was 10.

Suddenly Clem stopped. “Owl,” he whispered. The bushes rustled and a Great Horned Owl with a four-foot wingspan flapped away over the trees. Soon after, the dense trail opened up to a huge flower-filled meadow surrounded by waterfalls. “This is Moose Meadow,” Clem said. “Isn’t she something?” I love the way “Newfies” give everything – rocks, waterfalls, meadows, musical instruments — a pronoun. As we walked through a path of purple Joe Pye weed that came up to my armpits, I felt as though I were in Oz.

That was a spectacular moment, but now it’s three hours later and we’re still climbing. The hike is relentless. “Let’s take a break,” says Clem.

We take off our packs and he hands each of us a packet of homemade trail-mix: licorice, dried fruits, nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds. It’s delicious and gives me a new burst of energy.

“A Sunday’s Caesar would be nice right now,” says Rebecca.

“Salad?” I ask.

“No, our version of the Bloody Mary,” she says.

“It’s twelve o’clock somewhere,” adds Ian grinning.


An hour later, we arrive at a flat granite rock and I throw down my pack.We made it! I look down at the fjord winding through the gorge and snap photo after photo until Clem says, “We better get going, we have another hour up.”

“This isn’t the summit?” I try to hide my disappointment.

“Not yet.”

It’s been four hours since we left the parking lot and my knees are beginning to buckle from exhaustion. My arms ache from pulling myself up branches. But I shoulder my pack and tread carefully on the slippery rock face, following Clem.

Finally, we reach the summit. I snap shot after shot of the iconic land-locked fjord lake snaking beneath the forested cliffs. Then the fog rolls in and completely shrouds the view. A few minutes later, it starts to rain. We put on rain gear and start the treacherous downward trek.

But I’m not complaining. The rain, at least temporarily, keeps the bugs away.

Reaching the summit.A few hours later, they return with a vengeance but I no longer care. I am thinking about the early Newfoundlanders who lived here and worked from dawn to dusk eeking out a subsistence living hunting and fishing. They loved knowing at the end of the day they’d put in a hard day’s work –that’s the Newfoundland spirit. After my nine-hour adventure, I’m feeling pretty much the same way, just like a Newfie.

The next day, I join a complimentary guided park tour to the Tablelands offered by the park service. The Tablelands are so-called because the rocks on top are flat, just like a table. In the sun, the rocks glow burnished copper and yellow and you don’t see a tree or shrub or plant any where. It’s only when you getup close that you can see the tough little plants such as the pitcher plant growing here.

Pied Piper

Cedric Davignon explaining rocks at Tablelands. photo: Margie Goldsmith
Cedric Davignon explaining rocks at Tablelands. photo: Margie Goldsmithv

I’m lucky because park interpreter, Cedric Davignon,who’s been doing Tableland tours for 11 years, is leading our hike. Cedric, the Pied Piper of Gros Morne, mesmerizes us with his passion for this rare section of the Earth’s mantle, the result of a massive continental collision 500 million years ago when old North America (Laurentia) collided with old Europe-Africa (Gondwana) and closed the old Iapetus Ocean.

Most rocks beneath the old ocean sunk and melted back into the Earth’s mantle, but some slabs of oceanic crust were thrust up and moved hundreds of kilometers to the West. They finally landed hereon the eastern edge of North America and are known as the Tablelands.

The dramatic tablelands of Newfoundland
The dramatic tablelands of Newfoundland

To help explain the structure of planet Earth, Cedric uses a mini-planet the size of a Spaldeen ball and cut in half to show how the continents on the planet are in continual movement: drifting away, colliding, subducting or uplifting.

He then plays the Jew’s harp because it’s the oldest instrument he knows, and it’s his way of explaining how the mountains landed here after the massive continental collision. “Your life is going to be changed forever in the next couple of hours,” he says. There will be the B.T. (before Tablelands) and the A.T. (after Tablelands) period of your life at the end of this walk.“

He picks up a rock and touches it gently, smells it, then holds it up to his ear. “Every rock has hours of stories to tell,” he says, “and when you start to listen to them, they speak and the whole landscape.”

He pulls out a harmonica and plays Ode to Newfoundland. After he’s finished, he says, “You know, every day of our lives we walk on the same Earth’s crust, but here you walk on the Earth’s mantle.

Here, the color and the patterns and crystals in the rocks are completely unique. And so are the bonsai-sized plants and flowers that can live here. The Earth is not static like a statue; it’s a living mobile thing. Can you feel it move? Right here?” He holds up his arms and says, “I get to stand on the top of the bottom of the Earth every single day.”

Bonne Bay

That afternoon I take a two-hour guided boat tour to Bonne Bay, which cruises the two connected scenic Bonne Bay fjords. I’m hoping to see Minke whales and don’t, but I do see dolphins and a few eagles. On the tour, I partake in the age-old “screech in” ceremony, a ritual performed to make visitors honorary Newfoundlanders.

First, I must down a jigger of Newfoundland Screech rum, then kiss a codfish (happily this one is merely a plush stuffed fish), and then I am forced to dance the jig in front of the passengers. But then Captain Reg hands me a certificate declaring me an “honorary Newfoundlander.”

Anchors Aweigh and The Ugly Stick

That night, we go to Anchors Aweigh, a music event at Anchor’s Pub in Rocky Harbour Here, talented local musicians play every kind of music from local ballads and sea shanties to rock ‘n roll and sing-alongs. My favorite is musician Wade Jones, who, among other instruments, plays “the ugly stick,” a percussion instrument improvised from an upside-down mop head with a painted face and recycled materials such as beer bottle caps.

Wade is a virtuoso on the instrument and soon has the entire stage shaking, rattling and rolling. Of course, I get up and dance with everyone else, because I feel it’s my duty as a newly screeched-in Newfoundlander. And guess what? There’s now an Ugly Stick hanging out in my NYC apartment kitchen – all I need to do is learn how to play it.

For more information on what to do in Western Newfoundland as well as hotels and restaurants, go to Go Newfoundland’s website.

Clem’s Adventures

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