Newfoundland is a very special place that I want to try to portray as best as I can from the perspective of my trips there. Before I dive into gear technicalities or the depths of trail diaries, I want to put together some impressions and thoughts. This is a very personal account of my experience while hiking in Newfoundland, the Long Range Mountains and the International Appalachian Trail. It’s all here: the good, the bad and the beauty.
Newfoundland is green and blue
Many of my pics show a barren, brown colored landscape. It’s no coincidence or random choice, this is Newfoundland too and the screen share of such pics shows the terrain I was hiking through but this is not really representative of the Newfoundland landscape. Newfoundland is green and blue, the green of the endless spruce woods and the blue of the lakes and rivers. Neither the woods nor the lakes or rivers are good places to hike through though so I’d go for the barrens, where available.
The IAT in Newfoundland has nothing to do with the AT1
Geology is the link for the International Appalachian Trail Project different chapters. Nothing else can be taken for granted, not even the presence of a physical trail, not to mention the quality of the trail building. If Appalachian means to you Hercynian orogeny, Newfoundland’s got it. If Appalachian Trail means anything else to you, and it probably does, don’t expect to find it in Newfoundland.
Currently the Newfoundland IAT is an idea under development. In its current state, it represents the character of the land it goes through. The version I hiked was mostly off-trail and rugged.
Thru-hiking the IAT and self reliance
When I hike long distance trails, I like to be self reliant in my traveling, i.e. hike everywhere along my intended route and take public transport whenever I need to get off-trail, if at all. This is often feasible in Europe, often not in North America and certainly not in the route I chose to hike in Newfoundland.
If I wanted to take in all the wildest sections, I needed boat access across the Bay of Islands to a remote cove where I’d pick up my hike again. Not only that, this was only about half the distance across the bay. The other half had no known option over the water and it needed a 70 km road trip around the southern/central half of the bay. There was no public transport for this.
I needed to hitch rides around the bay and I didn’t like it. I’m used to hitch rides to get to town in the middle of a long hike, particularly in North America where there’s often no other option. Newfoundland is a particularly quiet and friendly place where hitching rides should be fine and easy, yet I didn’t feel well about it this time. It felt like my trip didn’t belong to me anymore but to the eventual driver that might stop for me. I don’t usually feel that way. I can only guess it feels different to get a lift down to town, then back again to the same place to resume the hiking from doing actual progress on the road, even though it was technically a detour around water that I could have ideally crossed straight through.
At some point in the planning, I considered walking on the roads around the Bay of Islands, it was 2 days worth of walking but I eventually abandoned the idea, not even in the name of a continuous hike was I gonna spend 2 days hiking on a road. It’s not the distance, not even the traffic: it’s that roads are built for vehicles and they just don’t feel right for hiking, nor physically neither emotionally.
There are no roads into the northern shore of the bay and I needed to contact a local fisherman to boat me across. I couldn’t get a hold of him over the phone so I just hitched all the way to road’s end hoping to find him. It turned out fine and I could cross and be hiking again within the day but the whole operation made me feel like out of control of my own trip. Once again, I didn’t like it.
This time it was worth it, I reasoned, because it was the only way to hike what was the actual core of the trip: Lewis Hills, Blow-me-Down Mountains and North Arm Hills are in a line interrupted by the big Bay of Islands. The whole trip wasn’t worth it if I wasn’t going through all that so I was fine with all the hassle but at the same time I made a purpose of avoiding such dependencies on future trips. I prefer to forget about transport logistics once I start hiking.
Accommodation in town
Newfoundland has proved tricky for town accommodation. It was never a show-stopper but it often became an issue where I’d have expected none.
I don’t like to plan hiking stages in advance and I don’t book accommodation either. I still appreciate the value of town time as a chance to relax, pig out, resupply and get clean clothes. It doesn’t need to be a proper town. Whatever the character of the place, it is important that I can just show up, find what I need and do it on the cheap.
Newfoundland hasn’t been easy: campgrounds are often well off-town and have not enough services to work for me on their own, there’s very limited hostel accommodation and I often found fully booked hotels or B&B’s to the point that getting to town would get somewhat stressful instead of just relaxing. I also needed to stay in hotels more often than I’m used to and that gets expensive.
Newfoundland is also very open as far as camping out goes and I guess you’d always be able to pitch somewhere if nothing else is available so I never felt hopeless but I missed the flexibility of knowing that lodging is a non-issue.
National Park access quotas
My course over the mountains of western Newfoundland sent me across the Gros Morne National Park. This was good and bad: Gros Morne holds some of the most spectacular scenery in the Long Range Mountains but the National Park created the typical loop: it brought the facilities, the facilities brought people and this lent to regulations. They translate into access fees and quotas.
Fees are steep, around 60 CND for the full traverse combo. I was more concerned about access quotas: 12 people max per day on the trail, apparently booked out well in advance. This is a huge show-stopper for anyone meaning to thru-hike the IAT because there’s no alternative to the Gros Morne wilderness sections other than hiking on the road.
I applied for a permit on the spot when I got there and I got a slot just 2 days ahead. Not too bad considering the mandatory, afternoon briefing the day before departure that means at least a 1 day buffer. I don’t know if there were cancellations or if there are slots available where solo hikers can easily fit despite it being declared booked out.
As far as the overall trip goes, the access quota and permit system meant I didn’t have full control of my trip. This is something I deeply disliked. I actually arrived in Gros Morne with little hope of getting in. My alternative plan was to skip ahead to the next section of the range with a suitable foot access. This would have been just as great from a strictly hiking perspective but it’d have meant a big blur of the idea of a continuous thru-hike I’m so keen on.
I wasn’t aware of any dangerous biting or stinging animals in Newfoundland, neither any sizable predators apart from bears. Black bears are present but there must be rather low numbers or they’re very shy or simply have ample room to roam away from humans. I didn’t see any sign of their presence.
I feel relaxed about wildlife (as long as I’m not target prey, certainly not the case in this locale) and this couldn’t be easier in Newfoundland. It was great to feel a quiet visitor in such a wild place.
Hiking consistently off-trail for days in a row had a big toll on my body and mind. As expected, I did distances shorter than usual but that was only half the picture, I also wouldn’t fathom a 14 h day as I can often do when on trail. On the Newfoundland IAT I was physically and psychologically done after 10 h. Carrying about 50% more weight than usual surely had an impact but it’s difficult to say how much. I remember how worn out I was at the end of every day and I relate these memories to the rough environment more than to the weight on my back.
The potential for injury grows exponentially when you mix factors like a strong commitment to long days and the sustained rock hopping. I took great care to avoid trauma injury and I still had a serious crash of knee against rock that left me in pain for several days. That boulder was not meant to tilt.
The woods in Newfoundland are thick and rather chaotic, a mess of branches down to the ground and fallen trunks all over the place. It got really messy at times. I found two key factors for successful crossings, one physical, the other emotional: the physical part was the presence of a trail, which was often faint, sometimes virtually non-existent but certainly helped a lot, I’d desperately cling to it. The main role in this play was mental though: taking it easy and being patient with the slow, arduous progress was essential. It was either that or despair.
Avoid hurrying the woods at all costs, it won’t work. Avoid being time-pressed across a woods section in the first place but if it happens, by all means slow down, it’s the only sane way across.
In the end, no matter how impenetrable it looked, it was always passable.
There’s the peridotite barrens but they’re a one-off, most of the Long Range is “normal” rock (I could recognize some granite) and it’s heavily vegetated but the bush is very different from the that in the lowlands. As far as the hiking goes, it’s both better and worse but really, it’s considerably better overall.
The scene is more varied than in the lowlands. There are trees and there are groves, both stunted and full size. There’s grass, stemmed plants and shrubs. There’s a bit of all that and the choice is easy: go for the grassy areas, no matter how winding your course may become. A mile on the bush feels like 5 miles on the grass, or so the saying used to go. Hiking in the uplands could turn into a fun route-finding affair wherever there were grassy corridors available, linking adjacent meadows through the easiest possible passage.
Shrubs were fine for a short while but very tiring in the long run, still walkable and not strictly to be avoided.
The problem was with the spruce. It’s difficult to say which version was worse, tree or bonsai size. In any case, the tangle effect was much worse than in the lowland woods. The highland spruce were to be avoided at all costs, and I do mean “all”. The only good news about going through spruce were that you could often see the light on the other side so the crossing was short. Meeting a grove with no visible end was unnerving of the “oh, no, not again” kind. Some of these were real hard work to go through.
Newfoundland is a great place to hike if you like to be on your own. I only met backpackers in the Gros Morne hot spot. Sweet solitude, extended.
A quiet & friendly place
Newfoundland is indeed a quiet and friendly place, still out of the way of mass tourism. Newfoundlanders are super nice and hospitable. It’s a great place to go if you need to find some hope for the human race.