Story and photos by Tony Robinson-Smith
There are three major obstacles to navigating in the Long Range Mountains: low visibility caused by cloud capping the highlands, many small streams and ponds look similar to one another and can cause confusion, and the dense tangles of spruce and fir which make walking in a straight line difficult and can easily lead hikers off course. – Parks Canada website
We’re not used to this. Clawing through dense forest, crawling on all fours under half-fallen trees, balancing on moss-swaddled logs, squeezing between shed-size boulders, branches raking our packs, thick cloud of blackflies spinning round our heads. I’m already bleary-eyed and breathing like a locomotive and we’ve only been going three hours. But it’s steep, at times very steep, and humid.
Maybe our packs are too damn heavy: food for five days, tent, stove, canisters of gas, camera, binoculars, umbrellas, bird book, water. But the real problem is there’s no trail. Or there’s a trail, then it’s gone; another trail, but, no, that’s river bed.
We keep one piece of advice from the park warden firmly in mind: “Make sure you pass to the right of the waterfall, not to the left. You won’t make it up the left side.” I say “we,” but right now I’m alone. I lost my wife half an hour ago. Last thing I said to her was “You try that path and I’ll try this one. They’ll probably join further up.” It occurs to me that splitting up wasn’t a terribly wise thing to do. She has the map and compass, half the food, and the car keys.
“NADYA?” The word echoes off the walls of the gorge.
This is our first day on the Long Range Traverse in Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, a “wilderness backpacking experience” that the Parks Canada website says is for hikers with “good navigational skills with a map and compass.” Yesterday, we attended a briefing and had to demonstrate these skills in a written test at the visitor center to gain a backcountry permit. Having only become acquainted with the basics three weeks ago, the test took us all morning and had us sweating (Question 11: “Before adjusting for declination, take a bearing off the map from the end of Western Brook Pond to the top of the gorge. What bearing will you travel on?”).
After completing the test, we were shown a short film about the traverse. It contained a lot of unsettling vocabulary and cautionary advice: “windswept barrens,” “few landmarks,” “you are responsible for your own safety,” “once you leave the boat, you’re on your own.” But the traverse was only twenty-two miles as the crow flies and it was summer. How difficult could it be? The warden gave us an emergency transmitter before we headed out.
“TONY!! How did you get there?” I look up. Ah, there she is. Like me, she has emerged from the forest and found a way up beside the waterfall. She is now spread-eagled on bare rock face, clinging for dear life. But I was in the same spot myself twenty minutes ago. She must backtrack and take the mud path down to the shelf above the waterfall where I now stand. I yell instructions and wave my arms about extravagantly, conscious that we won’t be seeing much wildlife if I do much of this. Apparently, there are some 4800 moose in the park, herds of woodland caribou, black bear, snowshoe hare, arctic fox, lynx, and rock ptarmigan.
While I wait for Nadya, I look back at Western Brook Pond. We have climbed 1800 feet in three miles, and I now have an uninterrupted view of the gorge. The isolated dock where the park boat dropped us is a like a playing card. The near-vertical sides of the granite and gneiss tables that imprison the lake are spectacular. According to Rocks Adrift, a book I picked up in the visitor centre, the Long Range Mountains are the result of two continents colliding a billion years ago, forcing ocean crust and the earth’s mantle to the surface. Over the past two million years, glaciers have ploughed through the rock, leaving deep gorges and hanging valleys and exposing ancient strata. Gros Morne is a geologist’s and palaeontologist’s delight as it is a classic example of plate tectonics at work and fossils date back to Palaeozoic times. The gorge resembles a Norwegian fjord, but a warden on the boat told us that none of the gorges in the park qualify as fjords as they are no longer open to the sea.
Nadya and I take lunch sitting beside an insectivorous pitcher plant at the top of the gorge. From here, to return to civilization, we must head south over the “windswept barrens” to Gros Morne Mountain and descend at Ferry Gulch.
Lost in The Barrens
“I tell you, this trail ISN’T going in the right direction.”
I look down at the trail, reluctant to abandon it. It’s a nice trail, seductively indented with moose tracks and boot prints.
“Well, maybe it swings around and then winds its way up to the saddle.”
“Let’s take another bearing,” Nadya says reasonably. I stop and unfold the map. We have it in a fancy transparent case with a cord that goes over the shoulder; I’ve attached the compass to the corner by means of a shoelace so we don’t lose it. This is the third bearing we’ve taken in ten minutes.
“North is in that direction. No, wait. We have to factor in declination. Add 21 degrees.” I rotate the map. “Now, there should be a pond somewhere… over there.” I point to the east.
“There’s no pond. Why are they called ponds and not lakes?”
“I have no idea.” I think of a pond in town with model boats and a fountain. Our map is speckled with ponds, some of them with funny names like Candlestick Pond and Spike Knee Pond. Ninety percent of them don’t have names.
“Ok, I’ll take a bearing and then you take one and we’ll confer,” I say.
“We should probably go back to the corner of Marks Pond because right now we don’t know where exactly we are on the map.”
“Good idea.” We turn around and head back the way we’ve come.
Twenty-four hours have passed since we ascended the tablelands. I can understand why they call this place “the barrens.” Most of it is marshy tundra, lakes, and tuckamore. Tuckamore is a local term for dwarf balsam fir and spruce trees, arrested in growth by hard frosts and twisted into torturous shapes by the wind, akin to krummholz in the Alps. Apparently, tuckamore can be as much as six hundred years old. The going has been tough, the tablelands far hillier than we expected and the ground so saturated with water it’s like walking on a sponge. Four times porridgey peat bog has swallowed my foot to the ankle.