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Feeling wondrously small in Newfoundland and Labrador

Updated: Aug 18, 2023



Deer Lake to Anse-aux-Meadows, 694km (Tour Total 2,226km)


“Welcome to the Big Land” reads the humongous blue highway placard at the summit of a cruelly steep hill climbing north out of Blanc Sablon, Québec.


“That’s a very big sign,” noticed Heron.


“Are they trying to intimidate us?” wondered Sitka.


“On the other side, it says ‘Thanks for visiting’ if you want just take your photo and pretend you’ve been there,” offered the ladies in the minivan.


No way. Now we were curious. Plus we had five hours to kill before our ferry, a famous lighthouse to visit 66km out and back, and a craving for a bakery.


We were cycling into Labrador, the immense triangular sibling to the island of Newfoundland, nicknamed “the Big Land” (big B, big L) for its dramatic topography and vast untamed space. 



But the moniker could easily apply to the whole of Canada’s easternmost province: big mountains, big wildlife, big skies and big history. Its coastal cliffs represent the dividing line between geological epochs. Its fjords are lined by towering billion-year-old rock, carved out by glaciers from Ice Ages past. And its grassy knolls reveal historic first contact between human civilisations 100,000 years in the making.



Comparatively, we five cyclists - four Yukoners plus Uncle Steve from Ontario, biking the Viking Trail along the rugged coasts of Iceberg Alley and across the scrubby northern barrens to where Norse men first found North America - felt like mere specks in the sands of time and space.


Just happy to be there. Grateful to witness our fantastic, fleeting moment in it all.



Our ten-day trek began off the big ferry in Port-aux-Basques, where we immediately stumbled upon an open-air amphitheatre with a band of locals playing a live rendition of I’s the By next to a strip of snack shacks serving fish ‘n’ chips. (For Ed, who could now say he’s visited each of Canada’s provinces and territories, this introduction to the last square on his bingo card was playing right to stereotype.)


We skipped ahead by bus to Deer Lake to meet Ed’s brother Steve, who had flown in for a week to bravely embark on his first bike ride longer than 10km. For us, it was our first-ever chance to introduce a relative newbie to our love of cycle touring - and we’d chosen a rather rough place for the initiation. Gros Morne translates roughly from French to “Big Mountain with deep, steep sides” - and there are a lot more than just one gros morne in the mammoth National Park with soaring mesa plateaus split by narrow fjords.


“Yesterday (back in Corner Brook) I rode up my first hill with panniers on, and I said Uh-oh,” confessed Uncle Steve. “I should’ve trained more than just bumping up the resistance on my bike at the gym.”


Uh-oh.


Less than a kilometre in, one the panniers on Steve’s rental bike bounced off into the middle of the highway. Soon after, we avoided near-disaster by replacing a missing bolt on his precariously wobbling rack.


Then on the second morning, we discovered he’d pedaled all the first day’s crazy climbs on only his rear gears.


“I was wondering what the shifter on the left was for,” he laughed. “My old mountain bike still changes speeds by turning the handlebars.”


Uncle Steve was rewarded for his mettle, though, with the full glory of Gros Morne.

At our very first campsite, on the shoreline of Bonne Bay at Lomond, we spotted a sleek black, 35-foot minke whale frolicking and fishing a few dozen feet away from our tent. Day Two, after several monster hills up and into the hamlet-lined East Arm, we hiked in the Tablelands - a desert of peridotite rock from the upper layer of the Earth’s mantle thrust up into the floor of the ancient Iapetus Ocean a half-billion years ago. 


Talk about feeling small.



We smartly planned a couple days “off” for activities that we and Uncle Steve both adore: first, an epic sea-kayaking tour with our young guide Zack, from Norris Point to the striking 100-foot vertical cliff of Shag Rock, then along the mountainous contour of the ocean fjord to Woody Point, with its vividly painted rainbow of wood-shingled homes and fishing huts. Afterward, we spontaneously ducked into the Memorial University Marine Research Station for an enrapturing tour of the creepy wolf fish, one-in-a-million mottled lobster, mini flounders and prickly sea urchins in their aquarium and touch-tank with Jacob the encyclopedic undergrad. 



The next day, we trekked eight hours on foot to conquer the 17km loop traversing the summit of iconic Gros Morne Mountain - scrambling up skree to reach the 800-metre-high plateau of barren limestone, crossing over to expansive 360-degree views of the ocean westward, Bonne Bay to the south, and endless highlands stretching into the horizon everywhere else. We lunched on a vast berry-brush blanket overlooking a spectacular inland fjord hundreds of metres below us, with bridal-veil waterfalls misting down verdant cliffs opposite our windblown perch, before descending along the lush gulley back to the base of the skree.


“I can’t believe we climbed up that!” enthused Sitka.


“My legs can,” quipped Uncle Steve.



In actual fact, our new fifth wheel rolled along with admirable resilience as we tackled mountains, headwinds and walls of teeming rain at times through Gros Morne’s captivating landscape. Fitter than most forty-somethings, Steve still had aches and fatigue in muscles he never knew he had - and he couldn’t sit down for meals for the first few days - but he kept pace with our speed, kept us laughing with his wry humour and bottomless pockets of snacks, kept us informed with his compendious knowledge of plants and bird species, and kept us well fed with a series of seafood stir-fries that spruced up our rotation of camp suppers. 


By the end, Steve had set a new daily pedal record of 105km, tallied over 400km over his brief week on team, and made memories with his nephews to last a big long time.



Riding north on Newfoundland’s west coast, we were elated to be on bikes, as every 20-30km pit stop offered a new highlight. At Lobster Cove, we imagined life as an early 20th-century lighthouse operator family like the Youngs, who kept the kerosene lamp lit 24/7 for four decades. Stuck at home by their duty, they would welcome neighbours from near and far, only knowing their visitors were coming by the oil lanterns bouncing ever more closely in the distance. 


At Green Point, we were flummoxed by the geology of the layered cliffs, to where scientists from around the world come to examine rare fossils with insights into the planet’s ever-changing surface. At Arches Provincial Park, we watched the tide crash through tunnels bored over centuries in the grass-topped boulders that glaciers discarded in their retreat. And any time, we could pull over at the seaside for a picnic on a rugged slab-stone beach to watch the whitecaps for whales.



Even our planned highlight stop offered a stroke of good fortune, as a thick fog lifted just as we arrived at the dock for a boat tour of Western Brook Pond. (Everything about Newfoundland is so big that even the largest of lakes are referred to as “ponds”.) The soaring, jagged cliffs of billion-year-old granitic gneiss are taller than the CN Tower and used to be double their height during previous ice ages, then became an ocean inlet before falling sea levels cut off the fjord from the sea and left a freshwater wonder with half-mile-high waterfalls misting down from the alpine “ponds” on the plateaus above - themselves once part of the ocean floor.



Our necks were sore from two hours craning up at the spectacular scenery in all directions, and our minds were sore from contemplating the magnitude of all the time and transformation these rocks had seen - and how relatively tiny our lives (and indeed all human existence) played in the much bigger picture.



Much as we’d heard, in Newfoundland and Labrador the weather is big, too. On our day trip to the Big Land (by ferry from St. Barbe), we cycled headfirst into a constant northerly gale, deep down into cozy cove communities and steeply winding back up to the gusty plateaus - all the way to Anse d’Amour and its 100-foot, 138-step lighthouse (the biggest in eastern Canada, of course). Then the clouds blew in heavier and rained their fury on us, chilled to the bone by what was now a mighty tailwind through the mammoth rollercoaster in reverse back to the ferry terminal. 



Neither word nor camera can capture the feeling of beholding all that space - empty of human presence but teeming with life and colour - in gigantic Labrador that afternoon, and the next day across the forested north peninsula of Newfoundland, onward to St. Anthony. For hours on end, we pedaled with a generous southwesterly at our backs, in ramrod straight lines with broad ponds and stunted scrub on either side, as far as the plains would let us see. We hiked out to the cliffs of Cape Onion to watch a half-dozen magnificent icebergs float by, and spied a dozen humpbacks gracefully breech and fluke in the strait far below. The world of crowded cities with smoky skies seemed a planet away as we got lost in the bigness of pure wild.



The rugged remoteness fosters a culture apart, as well. Those resilient souls who have stayed in the Coves - as nearly every seaside fishing hamlet is named - are as relaxed and graciously welcoming as they are hard to understand under the thick, h-amicable h-accent. The men all call Heron and Sitka “son”, and even the young women call Joce “ma darlin’”. When Ed realized his error in assuming the St. Anthony Airport (from where we were scheduled to fly out in two days) was actually in the town of St. Anthony - it’s actually 70km back west - the owner of the cabin we were staying in (born and raised a few doors down, next to the local pub he also owns) said, “I knows a guy with a truck.”


Problem solved.


And then there’s Clayton Colbourne, our tour guide at Anse-aux-Meadows, and a national treasure himself.


Like a Newfie Robin Williams in a Parks Canada golf shirt, he regaled a group of 50 with his vivid stories and intricate detail from when he, as a young boy living in the little house on the point in 1961, watched Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad unearth evidence of Vikings in North America beneath the grassy mounds he played on. As a teen, Clayton helped excavate the historic landmark, and for his adult life (when not out fishing, as is his preference), he’s compiled and humbly, hilariously shared the story of his backyard with the world - the place where human migration reconnected after 100,000 years apart.


And all the while reminding us at every step that “Remember, though, folks, I’s no hexpert or hanything.”




As though our minds weren’t already in awe-struck overload, we wrapped our trip in St. John’s, with its imposing Narrows, vibrantly painted rowhouses, bustling pub strip, and Signal Hill - a uniquely splendid urban hike along rocky oceanside cliffs, site of the final battle between English and French for Canada’s linguistic destiny, base of Merchant Marine suppliers facing Nazi U-boats in World War, and home to Memorial University’s Geo Centre highlighting more billion-year-old rock carved by glaciers.




What a way to end our 2,226km summer bike ride, which we thought was a pretty big deal. 


And, we guess, it was. We explored some of the most challenging terrain and remarkable places in the east of our beautiful country. We got Uncle Steve to beat his bike-day record by a factor of ten. We visited sites of transformative importance in our planet’s history.


But in The Big Land - this province so immense in space and time and character - we learned that our place in the big scheme of things is infinitesimally small.


Best to follow our curiosity and enjoy every minute of our relatively brief visit.



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