Saturday, October 28, 2017

Gros Morne Mountain, Newfoundland

Gros Morne Mountain lies just north of Bonne Bay, a fiord reaching fifteen miles into Newfoundland’s rugged western coast. At 806 meters (2644 feet) it is the second-highest mountain in the province, and for anyone with hiking aspirations in the valleys around it, the peak is the elephant in the room, constantly beckoning. And while it doesn’t rise that much higher than some of the high spots atop the plateaus around it, the other peaks don’t have marked trails ascending to their summits; one could certainly get up them, but it would be a great deal more work. While mountains of this height may not sound so big, remember that the hike itself starts at an elevation of just 10 meters, so the elevation gain is akin to some of the bigger hikes in Maine or New Hampshire.

I’ve wanted to get up the mountain on previous visits to Newfoundland, but since those visits have been during colder months, I never had conditions to do so. This visit was beginning to look the same until we got a break in the weather a few days ago: no rain, not much wind, and air temps in the sixties. Judging from the five or six cars in the lot, I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the nice day. The first 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles – I’m doing the conversions as much for myself, since I still think in miles) is a gradual ascent through mossy forest and bog. It’s well-trodden, and well-maintained, with plenty of boardwalks and steps. It isn’t that steep, but I still found myself huffing at some point, something that seems to happen on a lot of hikes. It’s like I wanted to get up here so much that I forgot that it’s work. But then I slow down and it gets easier.

At an elevation of 1100 feet, the trail reaches a saddle below Gros Morne Mountain, where Ferry Brook flows down a valley and forms a series of small, shallow ponds. It is an astoundingly gorgeous spot. The mountains rise steeply above, and stretch below to the towns along the edge of Bonne Bay. I sat and ate a snack, watching a moose do the same down below in a pond. I could also see the tiny specks of hikers beginning the ascent of The Gulley, which looks more like the site of a landslide than a trail.

Getting to these ponds would be a worthwhile hike in itself, and the park signs suggest as much, encouraging those who are less-prepared to call it good and linger here awhile before heading back down. The sign says, in effect “So you think that was a hike, do ya?” The signage also counsels that if the top of the mountain is obscured by clouds, don’t proceed any farther, that the trails are not that well-marked. But when I crossed the bridge over the brook and started-up The Gulley, the sky above was blue and cloudless.

At the bottom of The Gulley, it seems inevitable that you pause and consider the climb ahead. It rises some fourteen to fifteen-hundred feet in under a mile – a steep ascent over a loose jumble of boulders. After such a well-marked trail below, it’s a bit of a surprise to find this stretch almost completely unmarked, almost non-existent in places. Unlike the trails in New England, these have no painted blazes anywhere. There are maybe three stone cairns, each one supporting a post with an arrow that essentially points up. Of course, you couldn’t get lost in the Gulley, but it takes a little more effort to put your feet onto rocks that don’t shift sideways, so you’re always looking for the easiest path.

But you get a lot of bang for your buck very quickly. I kept pausing to look out at the view and down at the ponds where I could still make-out the moose, knee deep, munching away like a cow in a pasture. These pauses helped me slow-down and catch my breath.

At the top of The Gulley, the edge of the plateau is fairly distinct: arctic tundra on top, thousand-foot drops below. The landscape levels-out somewhat, gradually climbing toward the summit over the next half-mile, following cairns supporting fluorescent yellow trail markers. The markers are not that far-spaced, but it's easy to imagine being here in dense clouds, unable to see the next one. It would be very easy, compass or not, to lose the trail and venture closer than you want to some very precipitous drops.

The wind picked-up as I ascended the last gradual stretch. At the summit, a couple sat in the lee of a stone wall and I found another where I ate my lunch. Someone had tied a Canadian flag, inscribed with many signatures, to the summit sign, which had a generic, Department of Transportation look, in both French and English. But it let you know you were in the highest spot, which is good since the rise from the rolling tundra around it is so gradual. After awhile, I noticed a few rock ptarmigans nearby, a grouse-like bird with white arctic coloring that blended-in extraordinarily well.

The couple headed onward and I watched them until they became specks, giving the massive landscape around us some scale, as did, half mile away, a herd of caribou moving slowly across the plain.

The trail continues as a loop, gradually descending the summit along the edge of a huge drop down to Ten-Mile Pond. This stretch of trail takes over three miles to get down to the junction with The Gulley section, so it is a good deal more gradual than the ascent. But the views are over the top the whole way; I often stopped to just take it in. Back at the ponds, the moose (I assume it was the same one, a female) hadn’t moved much from where she’d earlier grazed, and now the light on the mountains began to take-on that late-afternoon glow as I hiked the last few miles back to the car.

We've been sea kayaking a couple of times and I'll write about that in another post soon.

Off Center Harbor, a subscription boating website made an eight-minute video about out summer paddling trip along the Maine coast. For now at least, they're sharing it for free (click here) so that Pygmy Boats can share it with their subscribers. I'll admit it's a little weird to see myself on video, especially as I rhapsodize about the differences between skegs and rudders (not really a favorite topic, but it was of interest to the filmmakers).

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