Our plane dropped through the momentary hole in the clouds and made a perfect landing on the St. John’s runway. After a day’s delay, because of fog, we had finally arrived in Newfoundland. Place of my dreams, this island in the sea is halfway to Ireland. And yet here is where our beloved Appalachian Mountains begin.
Not only were we far from Pennsylvania, but we quickly discovered that we were far from the so-called modern world. We felt as if we had returned to the days of our youth before malls and fast food outlets, when motels were small and family-owned, most people were lucky to own one car, homes were neat and modest, and the world was half as crowded as it is now. Newfoundland roads follow the contours of the landscape instead of blasting through it as our interstates do, and the slower pace of life allows folks to engage in conversation as entertainment, even with foreigners like us.
However, all was not idyllic in Newfoundland. Because the cod fishery had crashed, back in the 1990s, due to overfishing by both the Newfoundlanders and foreign fishing fleets, we expected to see crushing poverty. But during our three-week visit to Newfoundland and Labrador, we saw people who make do, catching fish, hunting moose, and picking a bonanza of wild berries — blueberries, partridgeberries, raspberries, squash berries, bakeapples, blackberries, strawberries — that thrive in their bogs, barrens, and forests.
They use handmade wooden sleds to haul out the wood they cut for winter heat, leaving the sleds along the roadsides until they are needed. Garden plots, fenced and guarded by makeshift scarecrows, line the roadsides and are often far from the nearest community. The soil, tilled and enriched with kelp from the sea, yields an abundance of cold-tolerant vegetables, especially potatoes.
Most of the restaurants and motels are run by women. They spend their winters making aprons, jams, and other gift items to sell to the trickle of tourists that visit this remote province. Many of the men have left for the oil sands of Alberta where they can make a living for themselves and their families back in Newfoundland.
Even though Newfoundlanders speak English, every town has its own version of the language and, in one case, we couldn’t understand a word they said. Before roads, villages along the sea were only reachable by boat, and these outports, as they are called, were so isolated that their linguistic heritage — mostly Scottish, Irish, English, and Welsh — has retained the accent and expressions of the 17th century when their ancestors arrived in the province.
European settlement in Newfoundland dates back to the eleventh century when the Vikings built an ephemeral village on the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. Centuries later, in 1497, John Cabot landed on Newfoundland’s Bonavista Peninsula and claimed the land for England. Then Sir George Calvert, First Baron of Baltimore, set up the colony of Avalon on the Avalon Peninsula in 1621 before he left for warmer climes and founded Maryland.
So what possible connections could there be between Pennsylvania and the remote province of Newfoundland and Labrador besides the Appalachians? Well, at least a few folks in the town of Arnold’s Cove are Steeler fans, or so one couple told us when we met them on the Bordeaux Trail. They also asked to take photos of us so they could prove to their town council that folks from Pennsylvania had used their trail.
Arnold’s Cove, like all the towns we visited in the province, has a scenic, well-kept trail open to the public. Many such trails include elaborate boardwalks and bridges that span wetlands and streams. The Bordeaux Trail of Arnold’s Cove, for instance, wound six miles around a series of coves at the head of Placentia Bay. It was on such trails that we traced the connections between their natural world and ours.
We arrived the last week of June. Lilacs bloomed in the dooryards and giant dandelions along the paths at Cape Spear National Historic Park, the easternmost point in North America. A constant breeze kept the dreaded north woods’ mosquitoes and black flies away, and we had, for the most part, glorious weather.
We saw our share of seabirds — close-ups of northern gannet, common murre, and Atlantic puffin colonies, for example. I even had a puffin stand beside me, a highlight for this puffin-lover. But of the 56 bird species we saw, 45 of them either migrate through or also live in Pennsylvania. Many of the plants and trees were the same or closely related to those from areas in the commonwealth.
However, only five of the nine mammal species we saw also live in Pennsylvania — mink, otters, red squirrels, snowshoe hares and woodchucks. But woodchucks, called “whistlers” by the locals, only inhabit Labrador, which is connected to mainland Canada through Quebec, and both red squirrels and snowshoe hares are introduced species. So too are moose, which were introduced in Newfoundland in 1904 to help feed a starving population. They have multiplied like white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania, and Newfoundlanders fill their freezers with moose meat. Mooseburgers, moose stew, and moose soup are popular items on restaurant menus. But talk to park naturalists and botanists, and you hear about how moose are devouring the understory throughout Newfoundland.
Another new species in Newfoundland arrived in 1985 by crossing the frozen Cabot Strait from Nova Scotia. Already the eastern coyote has helped to upset the balance between native caribou and lynx, their historical natural predator, at Gros Morne National Park, according to the park naturalist. In winter, coyotes hunt in family packs, like wolves, and bring down adult caribou when both species retreat to windswept areas of the park that are relatively free of ice and snow. To further complicate matters, native bald eagles, since the fish stock collapse, have been preying on baby caribou. Consequently, their herd is dwindling. In addition, most of the caribou in the Avalon herd, in southeastern Newfoundland, have died of brain worm.
Despite the overpopulation of moose, we found abundant plant life along the trails. In spruce forests and barrens, the understory of blooming Labrador tea — a Pennsylvania rare plant — sheep laurel, and rhodora reminded me of the Long Pond area in the Poconos. The Coastal Trail at Terra Nova National Park wound through a spring wildflower display of bunchberry, yellow clintonia, starflower, sarsaparilla, Canada mayflower, and absolutely gigantic pink lady’s slippers. Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), which is a Pennsylvania threatened plant, was an abundant ground cover. Pitcher plants, the province’s wildflower (like our state wildflower), bloomed in every bog.
But we were especially overwhelmed by the wild lupines that flowered in roadside ditches and abandoned fields, looking as if they had been planted. In a sense they had been. One Newfoundlander told me that lupines produce abundant seed, which they collect and scatter over open land. Here in Pennsylvania, the wild blue lupine (Lupinus perennis) is listed as rare and seeing one is always a special treat.
The forests of Newfoundland and Labrador are primarily evergreen — spruce, balsam fir, white pine, larch — but deciduous trees include white birch, aspen, and red maple, a northern boreal forest. Such a forest nurtures many songbirds that are rare breeders in Pennsylvania, especially blackpoll warblers and yellow-bellied flycatchers, which sang in every spruce forest we hiked through.
But the most common singers in the forests were white-throated sparrows, and I wondered if any that I heard had spent April on our mountain. Newfoundlanders told us that their spring, like ours, had arrived two weeks later than usual, which may be why our white-throats had delayed their migration.
Other spruce forest breeders we heard or saw that breed in Pennsylvania included yellow-rumped warblers, black-and-white warblers, hermit thrushes, and northern waterthrushes.
Of the Pennsylvania songbird migrants that breed in Newfoundland and Labrador spruce forests, fox sparrows, which rarely sing when they migrate over our mountain, regaled us with song. So too did ruby-crowned kinglets, palm warblers, and Wilson’s warblers.
American robins surprised us. They were darker than the ones that breed in Pennsylvania and are a separate subspecies, Turdus migratorius nigrideus. Instead of being familiar, dooryard birds, they breed in the cool, damp, coniferous forests of all the eastern Canadian provinces.
In the more open, often windswept areas of the province, in yards and above the sea on bluffs, white-crowned sparrows sang. We heard the protesting calls before we saw breeding spotted sandpipers in the wetland along the Bordeaux Trail in Arnold’s Cove. Greater yellowlegs were common shorebirds; ring-necked ducks and common loons bred on inland lakes. While we sat on an open, grassy area across from a rocky, grassy sea stack of nesting Atlantic puffins, Savannah sparrows serenaded us. Greater black-backed gulls and herring gulls continually harried the puffin colony. Double-crested cormorants nested on an island beyond that colony. On a rocky islet nearby a greater black-backed, gull chick stood next to its parent. Horned larks bred on the open headlands of Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve. This reserve, near the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, is also a botanical treasure with over 300 plant species, 35 of which are rare or endangered. And, we were told by our guide, botanists from Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences have been studying them since the 1930s.
During our 200-mile drive on a gravel road in Labrador, past bogs, forests, and lakes, we spotted a pair of rough-legged hawks on top of a rocky precipice. Usually these are birds that we see in Pennsylvania only in winter. Other winter visitors we saw that rarely make an appearance in our state were pine siskins, white-winged crossbills, and pine grosbeaks.
Our first pine grosbeaks were hopping around on a parking lot in Pistolet Bay Provincial Park near Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve. While we were waiting for our guide to the reserve, three pine grosbeaks — two males and one female — landed on the ground next to us. I couldn’t believe how tame they were. They seemed to frequent such places because we next saw them under a wooden staircase leading down to a beach and again they acted as if we weren’t there. These were my first pine grosbeaks, and I was thrilled by the sightings. I was also excited to see another first — white-winged crossbills — at the Botanical Garden of Memorial University in St. John’s.
All through our trip, we mixed the familiar with the unfamiliar — birds, mammals, plants –a nd we counted icebergs off the coast — hundreds and hundreds of all shapes and sizes. On our ferry trip along the coast of Labrador the ferry skillfully threaded its way through them during the foggy night and I remembered the Titanic. Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans seemed as awed by them as we were. They hadn’t seen so many icebergs in decades.
What do icebergs have to do with Pennsylvania?
We were seeing parts of the Greenland ice sheet, which is melting at an unprecedented rate because of global warming. The icebergs were a constant reminder to us that we are all connected in this wondrous world and that we ignore such warnings about our warming climate at our peril, and the peril of generations to come.
Newfoundland Photos by Bruce Bonta
(click thumbnails to go to file pages, then click again to view at full size)