LOWER LANCE COVE, Newfoundland — It is impossible not to confront the Janus nature of the land. Its rivers run clean and clear; its air spins with the breath of honeysuckle. Its interior is a land without litter. Its craggy edges and joints are lodged with deeply religious Protestants and Roman Catholics renowned for their charity and moral excellence. On a sunny day the place seems like heaven.
Yet the incessant storms, the frigid waters, have snuffed countless lives. The people here are children of their beloved enemy, the sea. Often characterized as optimistic fatalists, they are a thick-skinned and gentle stock who exterminated the Beothuk Indians, hunted the great auk--a penguin--to extinction, and brought the pilot whale to the brink.
For 450 years, the economic mainstay was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of saltfish. Now that has been reduced to a slim fraction of the glory days. Not long ago, chief livelihoods included clubbing young seals to death. At present they include mining, damming wild rivers and felling trees. Despite these intrusions into its wilderness, few places survive with such environmental integrity and harmony. The island is Newfoundland.
I wasn't looking where I was going. Instead, my eyes were sweeping the sky, caught in the sight of seemingly endless skeins and clouds of flickering wings, millions of them--arrow-swift murres, Pillsbury dough-bird puffins with their clown-colored beaks, great-winged gannets flying arabesques betwixt and between until the sky seemed alive with flight.
I continued to paddle as I ogled, until suddenly I heard a thud. It was not more than a tap, really. Looking down I saw I had bumped broadside into Gerald Finger's kayak, and my heart sunk as I saw him teeter back and forth, and then in a slow-motion roll, he poured into the deep indigo blue waters of the icy North Atlantic.
The words of our guide suddenly spun with my paddle: "A person can only function for five minutes in this water; then he goes numb, helpless." I positioned my kayak next to Gerald, and reached to him as he grabbed the edge of my boat, almost turning it over in panic. This wasn't right, I thought, and rocked my hips to maintain balance. We were both saved with the command from our guide, Jim Price: "Richard, move out of the way."
I dug a few strokes, towards the spume of a humpback whale several hundred yards away, but pulled my eyes back around to watch as Jim and his protege, young Doug Marks--with cool, quick professionalism--lined up on either side of the overturned kayak. Placing a paddle between the upright kayaks as a brace, they pulled Gerald's boat from the water, drained it, flipped it over and positioned it in the water between them. Then Jim instructed Gerald to pull himself on board as the guides stabilized his craft. In 4 1/2 minutes, Gerald was back on board, the rescue a memory of finesse, and we all continued our paddle to Great Island.
Newfies call it The Rock or the Granite Planet. The explorer Jacques Cartier christened it "the land God gave to Cain." None does it justice. A garden of wildflowers, a sanctuary for moose and caribou, host to the greatest fish pastures in the world, a landscape of tall trees and hard splendor, Newfoundland is much more than a slate stopper thrust into the bellmouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
It is the 10th largest island in the world, the most easterly land in North America. It turns its back upon the Canadian mainland, barricading itself behind a 300-mile-long western coast as tattered as an old fishing net. Its other coasts all face the grim ocean, and are so slashed and convoluted that they present more than 5,000 miles to the sweep of the "Big Pond," a favored Newfie name for the Atlantic.
Newfoundland is of the sea, and so I felt there could be no better way to explore the narrow gaps bitten in its foreshore--its coves, bights, inlets, reaches, runs and fiords--than by sea kayak. So it was that I found myself with Canadian Canoe Adventures, traveling through the glacially scoured scapes that define an old land some insist has yet to be found.
Our weeklong sojourn started in July, on Friday the 13th, at Lower Lance Cove on Random Island off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland. The first thing Jim Price, our guide, did was go through our gear and winnow out 75% to be left behind.
"This is not a cruise or a raft trip," he said. His eyes crinkled at the corners as he spoke.
Besides, as I later discovered, he wanted as much premium space as possible to pack Margie's (his wife's) cooking, and for good reason.