When the moth starts talking, I know I’m close to breaking point. It’s day one of four of the Long Range Traverse that I’m doing in Newfoundland, Canada’s easternmost island province. But after only four hours of hiking we’re in the middle of a rocky near-vertical ascent that has almost beaten me. I’ve tried every trick in the book: talking, music, breathing, visualisations, zoning out. Now, it seems, my brain has resorted to hallucinations.
Come on, you can do it!, I imagine a white moth hovering over the tip of a wildflower saying, each flick of its powdery wings encouraging me to lift my quivering legs. You’re so close, just a bit further! Whether this is my mind’s last attempt to get my body to react, or whether I’ve just lost it, I’m not sure. Either way, this little moth and its imagined encouragements gets me and my huge red backpack to the top of the mountain.
I am strung out and hot and sweating. I fear I have bitten off more than I can chew. Most of all, though, I am exuberant. Because here, at the end of all the hoisting and pushing and scrambling, our group of five female trekkers and two guides is treated to a view that makes it all worth it. The soaring billion-year-old granite cliffs we’ve been hiking past here in UNESCO World Heritage-listed Gros Morne National Park split open before us, revealing a glacier-carved valley upholstered with forest. Splicing through the middle is the silver snake of Western Brook Pond. The point where, just a handful of hours ago, a tourist boat deposited us on a small wooden dock as we left the world behind. It seems impossibly far away now. And I, almost a trekking neophyte, can’t quite believe I’ve made it.
The rest of the group – a group that includes a marathon runner, a guide who has run this four-day trek in eight hours, and an outrigger canoeist who guts fish with her bare hands – likely can’t believe it either. When we met last night to do a final organization, I was the one who needed to change her pack three times before, like Goldilocks, finding one that was ‘just right’. Who insisted on packing a hairbrush and makeup and whose question, ‘do you think I’ll need my bikini?’ was met with uproarious laughter. Who, when trying her pack on for the first time, stumbled backwards under the weight of those 14 kilograms.
Yet here I am. Pack still on my back, the first frustrating 14 kilometres behind me, with the ghost of the idea that I am actually much more capable than I think I am. This morning we’ve hiked muddy, rocky switchbacks in the rain, pounced over rock-strewn brooks, and scrambled with arms made of jelly up boulders twice the size of our own bodies. It hasn’t been easy. In fact, it has been one of the most physically challenging things I’ve done in my life. But, as a reward, we have glimpsed an extraordinary patch of Canada few tourists ever see, since only 12 hikers are allowed onto this trail each day.
As we set up camp for the night we talk about how, without the support of our guides – two impossibly fit thirty-somethings named Andy Nichols and Steve Wheeler – we almost certainly couldn’t have done what we did today. Hikers wanting to do the Long Range Traverse without guides have to pass a serious navigation test and get a full orientation by staff at the visitor centre. But it’s hard to imagine how anyone but Bear Grylls could find their way through this wilderness, where there isn’t a single trail marker or any phone service, armed with only a compass and a map. Not to mention all the food and extra equipment the guys are carrying for us. Particularly when for good chunks of time the trail is shrouded in mist and shadow, under a sky that’s mostly moody and cloud-strewn.
Nichols and Wheeler aren’t only great navigators. They’re also fantastic cooks, as we discover when they call us to a small orange shelter they’ve erected on the side of a hill for a dinner of shrimp, mango and vegetable risotto. We congratulate them on their diverse range of talents, and they joke that they suppose they don’t fit the usual Newfoundlander profile.
“We’re the newest of Canada’s 10 provinces, we only joined the confederation in 1949, so we’re seen as… different,” says Wheeler, a jolly, pink-cheeked chap with an infectious belly laugh. “And not just because we have a weird accent,” an accent that sometimes sounds closer to Irish than Canadian. ‘Newfies’, he says, are often seen by mainlanders as kind, but a bit backward. Nice, but a bit lazy.
“There’s this joke,” says Nichols, the more fair-haired of the pair, with sharp blue eyes and a berry-coloured birth mark blooming across the right side of his face. “A Torontonian, a Newfie and Jesus walk into a bar. After shouting Jesus some beers, Jesus offers to heal them both. He reaches out to touch the Torontonian, who immediately gets out of his wheelchair, yelling ecstatically, ‘it’s a miracle!’ But when Jesus goes to approach the Newfie, whose hands are crippled with arthritis, the Newfie quickly reels away. ‘Back off, buddy!’ he shouts, ‘Don’t ye ruin me Workers Compensation!’”
There are enough of these jokes to fill an entire book. They’re like the Canadian version of the blonde joke. Whether there’s any truth to the sentiments behind them or not, I haven’t been here long enough to judge. But later, as I lay in my sleeping bag listening to the wind whip the tent flaps, I can feel this wild landscape slowing me down. Already, I’m beginning to understand why long-time residents of this place might want to do nothing but simply sit and listen to the wind.
We awake on day two to golden sunlight filtering through a smattering of clouds. The light remains as we gobble our porridge, pack down our tents and make sure we’ve left nothing but footprints on this ecologically fragile area, but it’s replaced by wind by the time we hit the trail. When we express disappointment, Nichols says we couldn’t have asked for better weather than this. The wind and lack of sunshine are keeping us cool. They’re also keeping the bugs this area is plagued by, especially now in the middle of summer, at bay. “If it wasn’t for the wind you’d be covered in black flies right now, and they give a nasty bite,” says Nichols. The wind is also causing a rapid play of clouds across the sky that leaves me feeling as though life has been thrown into fast-forward, lending the day a slightly surreal atmosphere.
Within half an hour of today’s trek, which is taking us across the most northern section of the Appalachian Mountains, I have fallen into a black, muddy bog so deep it reaches to the top of my thigh. It’s the first of many falls today, as Nichols and Wheeler, who we have already come to depend on utterly, navigate us through a booby trap of a path. If we’re not jumping over peat bogs, and trying to land upright in the mud on the other side, we’re battling groves of tuckamore. The gnarled and tightly wound vegetation is full of holes just waiting to trip us up, like something from Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
But for every painful tumble, every mud bath and every thigh-burning ascent that makes me think this is too much to bear, there’s a moment of great beauty that pushes me forward. There are the spruce groves tucked between knolls of heather and ancient, bare granite. There are the fields of wispy Arctic cotton; of thick, carnivorous pitcher flowers, the floral emblem of Newfoundland; of amber-coloured cloudberries, also known as bakeapples, that we pluck from the earth to snack on while we walk. There’s the small green warden’s cabin at the edge of a lake, which leads to daydreams of what a life lived in there might be like. Waking to misty mornings, kayaking out on the lake, watching moose and bears from the windows, listening to the resident warblers and sparrows singing their sweet songs. The reality is almost certainly much less dreamy, but escaping to the fantasy helps me push through the remainder of the afternoon. By the time we reach our camp for the night – in a fairytale-like gully that, while a little boggy, is protected from the whip of the wind – we are spent. Dinner is quiet, we’re all hurting. The minute darkness falls, we tunnel into our sleeping bags like explorers, and quickly fall asleep.
Coming to Gros Morne National Park and not seeing a moose, I’d been told before embarking on this trek, is like visiting the Australian bush and not seeing a kangaroo. It just doesn’t happen. Moose were introduced to the island just over a century ago and have since, due to an abundance of food, few predators and little disease in the area, spiralled out of control. So much so that Gros Morne National Park started allowing moose hunting in 2011, to help combat deforestation and the knock-on effect that has on the populations of the park’s more than 100 species of birds. Nichols tells us Gros Morne is still home to about 3,500 moose, which means there should be about two for each of the park’s 1,805 square kilometres. And yet, despite Nichols’ committed moose track- and dropping-trailing, we haven’t seen a single one.
Caribou, however – the shyer, less populous species of the two – that we see. On our third morning, as we near the top of a particularly challenging ‘hill’ (the word Newfies like to use for mountains, in the same way they use the word ‘pond’ for enormous lakes), a single caribou emerges over the rise. We laugh, equally from relief at finally spotting an antlered creature of any kind, as from watching his gangly, velvety body skedaddle down the hill.
The sighting buoys us through the afternoon, as we continue walking through fields carpeted with lush grasses, squishy peat bogs and still ponds. Native ptarmigan birds bathe in some of the smaller ponds, their feathers puffing as they wriggle and shake the water over their stocky bodies. Every so often, a brief blanket of sunlight is thrown over the pillows of land surrounding us, lighting them up like a torch. When we find ourselves at the edge of a plummeting cliff overlooking Ten Mile Pond, we take turns laying back in a natural seat right on the edge created by the tuckamore, feeling as though we’re at the end of the world. We all agree that without the distractions of our constantly beeping mobile phones, we can properly appreciate these natural wonders.
Our camp tonight, our final night in the wild, is the most spectacular. Gros Morne Mountain is on one side, a crystalline lake is on the other. The sky, for the first time these past four days, is a heartbreaking blue. By this point in the trek we’re all badly in need of a shower, so after setting up camp my tent buddy and I work up the courage to strip off and jump in the lake. The water is so cold it causes our breath to catch in our throats, and we can’t help but shriek like kids. 30 seconds is about all we can bear, before we scramble back out onto the sun-warmed rocks, the air delicious against our bare bodies. Our skin is numb, but our smiles are wide. We feel brand new.
A few hours later, while eating a cheesecake dessert that Wheeler has miraculously conjured up, the world is suddenly bathed in gold. The guys usher us over to the edge of the cliff to see the setting sun drop out from under the clouds. As we watch it inch towards Gros Morne Mountain, now apricot with sunset, Wheeler tells us that the sands that compose this mountain were found to have originated from the beaches of Africa. Geologists have used this fact to prove the theory of plate tectonics, he says, which suggests that continent-sized plates of the Earth’s crust have collided and separated repeatedly over time. It seems almost magical, and completely befitting of this otherworldly place.
Our final trekking day begins gently enough. We hike along trails weaving through more spruce groves, and up bare hills strewn with enormous granite boulders, some the size of cars. “These are glacial erratics,” says Nichols. “These huge blocks of granite were carried here by glacial ice, often over hundreds of kilometres, billions of years ago. Aren’t they amazing?” We share his enthusiasm for the giant boulders only until we find ourselves at the top of a precipitous forest-clad descent that’s covered with the things. The best way to get down to the lake 300 metres below, says Nichols, is to “get down on your bum and slide” over the mossy boulders. “Just take it slow, you’ll be fine,” he says.
I don’t feel fine. Aside from being afraid of heights, I’m also a chronic catastrophiser, so I’m already envisaging myself tumbling headfirst down the mountain. But then, I take a deep breath. I remember how far I’ve come already, and I make a decision to be brave. I do so because I now know that bravery feeds on itself. And that by doing this one brave thing, I’ll be led to do another brave thing, and then another brave thing.
We start sliding down the contours of the massive, slippery stones, grabbing onto wet tree branches and squishing through the mud as we head south. It feels like it takes forever and it really hurts my knees, which makes me feel much older than my 33 years. But by breathing, by staying present, and by taking it one painful step at a time, we finally emerge from this cascade of boulders. We throw our packs down by the lake and lay on our backs in the grass. I feel shattered. Gazing up in awe at the mountain we’ve just climbed down, I also feel pretty damn powerful. And I know that now, having done this difficult thing, that other hard things in my life will seem a little bit easier in comparison.
As we tramp on through the final three hours, signs of civilisation begin to appear. More defined paths and wooden boardwalks. An increasing number of passing day trekkers, some with babies strapped to their chests. The pinging of our mobile phones. I imagined I’d feel desperately happy about all of this, about being so close to the end. But the feeling of being miles from anywhere is slipping away with every step, and I don’t like it.
By the time we reach Ferry Gulch, a wooded gully filled with neon green ferns and trees draped with wild moss, I can hear the sounds of heavy machinery operating in the carpark marking the end of the trail. When I turn to look back at where I’ve come from, I feel a sudden urge to retrace my steps. To head back into that secret lost world, where I was strong and capable and sometimes unafraid, and disappear all over again.
The writer travelled courtesy of World Expeditions and Air Canada.
How to do it: World Expeditions runs a six-day porter-supported trip to Newfoundland, including the four-day Long Range Traverse. See worldexpeditions.com.au.
When to go: Gros Morne National Park is open year-round, but there can be snow as early as September which can stick around until mid-May. The best time for hiking is between late June and early September.
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