It took nothing short of a billion years to craft Gros Morne National Park; its mountainous conglomeration of geological wonders the result of ancient continents colliding and breaking apart, of ice ages and glaciers shaving away soil and carving out fjords, and of course human beings, our contribution at times destruction, regenerative, even humane.
It’s a place steeped in grandeur, infusing an Atlantic Canadian humbleness with earthen majesty. It’s enough to stagger us modest Maritimers, and yet it feels like home, a conundrum with which I grappled this past July.
To visit is to surrender to the lack of local grocery stores, mobile signal and wireless Internet, to the temper of its Newfoundland climate, to the decency and good humour of its residents, and to the magic of its mountains. Every morning their towering presence would spur me into action, and every evening I would find a place to admire them, dark blue or purple at sunset, seeming to move and to rumble imperceptibly.
I arrived with the cold certainty that this would be my one and only visit, a feeling I can neither endorse nor explain, and while it made my eventual departure extremely painful, it made my stay a quest for no regrets. Of all the experiences awaiting the adventurous visitor, three have left their mark on this simple writer.
First were the Tablelands.
Travel west down this park’s Highway 431 and among it bulbous, rounded mountains matted in boreal forest, you will find a monumental upwelling of stark orange earth rising some 700 metres above sealevel, flat on its shattered stone surface and swooping downward at its edges, a decidedly Martian landscape.
The Tablelands, we call them, a portion of the Earth’s mantle (that layer of our planet typically between the crust and the core) exposed to the open air, an incongruity found in only a handful of places – Turkey, Cyprus, Papua New Guinea, Gaspesie and here, in western Newfoundland – its presence a consequence of the continental collision mentioned above. Its dirt is so poor in nutrients and so rich in heavy metals that very few plants venture to grow here, and those who try are either stunted or specially adapted to these unforgiving conditions. Trees grow horizontally here, flattening themselves against stone, their trunks no thicker than your thumb, yet 200 years old. Other plants are carnivorous, feasting on insects, or else belong far to the north, used to arctic soils of similar deadness.
The only marked trail of the Tablelands takes you along the most awesome of its swooping sides to the mouth of Winter House Brook Canyon, where the scale of the Tablelands is on display. Some quirk of its colour and baldness makes it difficult to comprehend just how enormous this mantle truly is, until you see hikers ahead following unmarked trails into the canyon, appearing as specks through the warped air of summer.
Of all this park’s oddities, the Tablelands are perhaps the most scientifically compelling. They allowed geologists of the 1950s and 1960s to test their newfangled theory of plate tectonics, in a time when the Earth’s surface was widely considered fixed and immutable. Throughout Gros Morne National Park was a confounding blend of landscapes which could have been compiled here by none other than the shifting of continents, the opening and closing of ancient oceans, and so settled the matter. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared this entire region a World Heritage Site in 1987, hallowed scientific ground in which only the hardiest plants take root.
Three kilometres separate Western Brook Pond from Highway 430, but even from the road it’s apparent that “pond” is an egregious misnomer. Rising tall and with the grayish hue of distance are the monolithic, sheer sheets of stone marking the mouth of this iconic fjord, some approaching 700 metres from water to summit, bordering a long and narrow lake for 16 kilometres on either side. The bulk of Gros Morne National Park’s promotional material comes from this single formation, and a considerable number of its visitors are funnelled onto a BonTours ferry to boat down its length. There is perhaps no more touristy a thing to do in this park, and yet I must declare it unmissable.
Even a busy ferry has space enough for a standing adult to watch these approaching peaks, seeming at first to be distant and abstract, then approaching to dominate your field of view. Some appear perfectly smooth, while others betray infirmities one might imagine the famous climbers of Yosemite Valley exploiting to international acclaim. Other faces have surrendered to the onslaught of time, collapsing to create space for forests and plains through which march herds of caribou or moose when seasons permit. And then there are the waterfalls.
The day of my visit to Western Brook Pond was easily the clearest of the week, the morning sun peering over the peaks to our north and shimmering on those to our south, and where these beams of light collided with waterfalls, your eyes were inexorably drawn. With every twist and turn of this fjord new falls came into view, throwing off clouds of dancing mist which would fall and then curl upward with the wind. The signature falls of this particular fjord can be found at the very end. It stayed in our view for the better part of 20 minutes as our ferry turned back, glittering and clattering over the sound of our engine. It was there I learned that many of these waterfalls, so elegant and unassuming, were names by the same people who deigned to call this fjord a “pond.” I was dismayed when this torrent of alpine water was christened Pissing Mare Falls, a name which, in that moment, ruined the spectacle.
Gros Morne can be translated from French in a few ways. Morne could refer to a rounded mountain standing alone among early European settlers. It can also be translated as dismal or gloomy, not an unfair description for many of these peaks when suffocating clouds cling to them in bad weather. Taken as a whole, Gros Morne is most often translated as Big Isolated Hill, or my personal favourite, Big Lonely Mountain, and while Gros Morne has since been been adopted as the name of this national park, it was originally applied to one mountain in particular, an 806 metre beast at the park’s centre which, from any angle, stands apart.
Mount Gros Morne is the second tallest peak on the island of Newfoundland, second only to The Cabox at 814 metres. When the region encompassing this mountain, nearby fjords and the Tablelands were initially protected as a reserve in 1973, it was because boreal, temperate and, oddly enough, arctic alpine habitat could all be found here, sharing uncommon company and supporting a provincially significant range of biodiversity. Some of these peaks were so tall, so often shrouded by fog or storms, and exposed to such fierce coastal winds that they supported species typically found far to the north, like Arctic hare, Water pipits and Rock ptarmigan. A full third of Gros Morne National Park is arctic alpine habitat, and Mount Gros Morne is the clearest example.
Here is one of the park’s most punishing hikes, a 16 kilometre loop, almost half of which only takes you to the base of the mountain, through short forests and meadows, grassy plains and glassy ponds. The mountain looms, and is especially forbidding when no clouds obscure its peak as on the day I dared to climb it, its patches of green stretch over bald gray, broken only by the mats of snow still adorning its scalp. Snow falls here in such astounding volumes through winter that the deepest piles survive most of summer.
From its base, only one way up the mountain presents itself – The Gully – a scree slope of frost shattered stone which is very slippery, very steep, and in spite of its mere 400 metre elevation, will test your resolve more so than any other portion of the hike. It is manageable, absolutely, but don’t pack too heavy, and be sure of your footing.
I did pack heavy. Frightened by the literature Parks Canada dedicates to this mountain I was carrying 4 litres of water, lunch for two people, changes of clothing against the arctic chill, 40 pounds of camera gear and a can-do attitude. Two backpacks, poles and a full wardrobe hanging wherever it could be anchored, I felt like a pack mule or sherpa. The hanging clothes felt especially silly, until, of course, I reached the top.
You cannot climb Mount Gros Morne from May 1 until the last Friday in June for the sake of arctic wildlife, so they might give birth and raise their young in the absence of prying people. When this seasonal closure was put in place over a decade back, survival rates for young went up a staggering 41 per cent. Sure, the closure of such an outstanding peak can be disappointing, but the prosperity of life must come first, and I cannot imagine the temperatures of May and June being anything but miserable.
It was late July when I ascended The Gully. The view was captivating, but after my sweat disintegrated in the wind I found my shorts and athletic shirt woefully inadequate. Twenty minutes later, when I’d adorned by jeans, fleece, jacket and winter cap I still shuttered under the stronger gusts of wind. At the very peak, where a sign congratulates you for making 806 metres of altitude, there are stone windbreaks awaiting ten or more parties of people. Most were occupied by my fellow mountaineers, enjoying lunch in relative peace.
Mount Gros Morne bestows new beauty on surrounding country, holding you above the mountain chains and entrancing valleys, even some of the smaller fjords which border its peak.
The hike over its somewhat flattened surface is easy and pleasant, provided you’re appropriately dressed. The hike down is long and challenging, an article of clothing coming off with every kilometre. There is never a moment of boredom on this mountain, never a view less than transcendent, but this hike is 6-8 hours long for the able hiker. Slowed by a knee injury sustained in the White Mountains the summer before, it took me 11 hours, the highlight of my visit, but necessarily the last hike of the trip.
First a reserve and then a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these exceptional 1,805 square kilometres didn’t become Gros Morne National Park until October of 2005, a relatively recent enterprise which did things a little differently.
It was decided from the beginning that, aside from protecting the natural assets of the region, this park would also preserve something of local culture. When the park was founded, for example, locals and their descendants were permitted to harvest firewood on park land as they had before, though only for themselves. On the Green Gardens Trail near the Tablelands I came across a small herd of sheep apparently without shepherd, grazing away on the meadow cliffs of this park’s coastline. I’ve since learned that these sheep again belong to locals, their small herds allowed to meander in and out of park territory without consequence, using the same lands they had for hundreds of years. As well there are moose hunts organized within the park, thinning the numbers of this non-native and in fact detrimental species so local ecology might find some balance. The impacts of these people are gentle, but permitted.
Gros Morne National Park is the undiscovered jewel of Eastern Canada, as well as an exercise in cooperation with the communities it surrounds, such as Trout River, Bonne Bay, Rocky Harbour and Sally’s Cove. What results is a blend, of the charming and the astounding.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.