A Newfoundland hiking experience
That’s what I was looking for — a hike on the edge of the world. Out of curiosity I googled exactly that and up popped the little known East Coast Trail in Newfoundland, Canada. It looked exactly like what I wanted, and I immediately started visualizing and wondering what it would feel like to hike this trail which ran along the rugged shoreline of the Atlantic Coast.
The stunningly beautiful pictures of the East Coast Trail Guide found on the blog “Life in Newfoundland” confirmed that if you’re planning on hiking this trail you can look forward to breathtaking views, exciting wildlife encounters, hidden coves, secluded beaches, and dozens of charming towns that can trace their history back to the early 1600s. And with that, I was hooked, and the planning began!
At first I thought I could manage to hike the entire trail of 215 miles alone, but the longer I immersed myself into the research of local geography, trail conditions, elevation changes, weather patterns, water sources, re-supply opportunities, possible tent places, and the possibility of meeting an 800 pound bull moose in rutting season, the more I questioned the wisdom of venturing out alone at my age with a 40 to 50 pound pack on my back. Everything I read indicated that it was a difficult excursion.
Eventually a more feasible plan emerged: two days of travel to get there and back with six days of trail hiking. With a detailed spreadsheet, I approached Sander, “Life in Newfoundland” blogger and author of the bestselling East Coast Trail Guide, hoping that he would review my plan. To my utter astonishment, three days later, I received Sander’s many comments and suggestions as to how I could improve my adventure. He suggested I focus on more highlights, spend less nights on the trail, and use B&Bs in quaint villages. He shared his intimate knowledge of Newfoundland and the East Coast Trail freely and willingly. I was humbled and grateful. Trail Angels do not only shine on the Appalachian Trail but can be found all over the world.
My revised plan was much less ambitious, featuring mostly day-hikes with only two nights out on the trail. At this point I had a group interested in joining me, but as the planning progressed, many hikers were unable to commit except for one person — my son, Kevin, who began to label the trip as a Father-and-Son Bonding Experience.
In working on more detailed planning for this bonding experience, I struck gold! All our logistics became simplified when we found Harbour House in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland. This gem offered a reasonable Hikers’ Package that included airport pickup, a two-bedroom apartment close to the hosts’ main house, delicious breakfasts, packed lunches, home-cooked dinners, daily drop-offs and pickups from the trailheads, and two of the most hospitable hosts, Shelley and Bernard, you could find!
So we were set. We would be hiking in mid-September between the end of the tourist season and, hopefully, before the beginning of harsh coastal weather in Newfoundland. But as time neared, weather reporters were tracking hurricane Florence and forecasting a likelihood of rains as far north as eastern Canada. Not a problem. We knew it’s not about the weather — it’s about the gear!
Change of Plans
The first day at the first trailhead, it was a little more brisk and drizzling than we thought it would be. We put on warmer clothes and rain gear and took off climbing uphill. Soon we were leaning into the wind and pouring rains, watching our every step until we found ourselves excitedly on the edge of the world 300 feet over the Atlantic on Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America. After taking in the expanse of this, our curiosity led us to explore every niche and corner along this beautiful trail. Taking lots of pictures while listening to the eternal waves of the ocean provided a sense of pioneering solitude, especially since there was not another soul on the trail.
But we had planned for a day hike of about 10 miles and had hoped to finish in about five hours. Strong and cold winds, intermittent rain, boggy and slippery trails with many roots and rocks had slowed our pace. Many short but steep hills up and down required focus and attention to foot placement. What was meant to be a moderate day hike, intended to prepare us for more ambitious trail hiking to come, not only took much longer than expected but seeded doubts in my mind about backpacking in this treacherous, slippery terrain in the rain and wind with 40 pounds on our backs. Over dinner we decided to forgo backpacking and formulated a new plan that we titled “Let’s Play It By Ear.”
An eagle and three laughing hiker girls
The next day, sheets of rain kept us inside over a leisurely breakfast before heading out at noon to the quaint fishing village of Quidi Vidi, a little sheltered corner on the East Coast. We explored the steep hills overlooking the small harbor, but after a couple of hours we took refuge from the cold winds and pelting rain at the province’s largest microbrewery, Quidi Vidi Brewery.
From some trail workers, we heard about the nearby Sugarloaf Path, which had not figured in our original hike plan. They described it as one of the most beautiful hikes in the area. We decided to hike the full trail the next day, and it did not disappoint. It ran along the coastal ridge through low heath, and patchy, low growing conifers, circling deep gulches and leading to expansive viewpoints and magnificent overlooks. As we turned around a trail corner, we were surprised to see sitting on a rock ledge a large eagle looking us straight in the eye. When I fumbled to take my camera out for an epic shot, my hiking poles clattered to the ground and startled the eagle. He spread his wings, steering into the wind-stream that gracefully carried him so high that he slowly disappeared on the far horizon. Behind me I heard, “Dropping the poles was genius!”
At the end of the trail while we were waiting for our pickup, we met three girls who were laughing and chatting as they came walking down the trail. They were on a 10-day backpacking trip on the East Coast Trail. Like us, due to the weather conditions they also had changed their plans by dropping their 50 pound backpacks and switching to day hiking for safety reasons. Kevin and I wholeheartedly agreed when all three of these happy ladies claimed that they never had a more wonderful hiking experience, bad weather and all. One even noted that she had to carry an extra leg. When Kevin looked puzzled, she pulled up her pant leg and part of her prosthetic leg became visible. As they moved on in search of a place to stay for the night, we watched them in awe as they disappeared into the fading day.
The Angry Sea
With the exception of one sunny day, we kept hiking mostly in wind and rain. But, strange as it may seem, the longer we were on the trail, the more exhilarating the hiking was. One one occasion, sudden sharp gales drove cold rain at us sideways as we climbed steeply uphill over wet rocks and boggy patches, resulting in two wet and freezing hikers. We helped each other pull on our rain suits and then ran down the trail at a fast pace to warm our bodies and avoid hypothermia. By the time we reached the ocean, the rain had lessened, but not the gusty winds which howled in unison with the angry sea and crashing rolling waves high up on the rocks. It was a spectacular experience to be witnessing and feeling the fury of the elements until we noticed the darkening of the sky and saw a huge wall of black clouds on the horizon moving towards us. There was no time to lose. We had to get out before this storm engulfed us. We retired to our cozy B&B, exhilarated by our experience that was strangely accentuated by the violent weather.
And Then There Was Sunshine
On our last hiking day the sun finally said “hello” to us and magically transformed the northern part of the Avalon Peninsula into the picture perfect scenery all the colorful brochures had promised. The trails were dry and the sun was warming us. We were in paradise.
Looking back, in spite of the weather and maybe even because of the weather, both Kevin and I would do it again. We were mostly alone with some of nature’s most boundless rugged elements, and we both agreed that we had never felt more alive. A father-son bonding experience for sure!