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Trail is the tip of the iceberg

Bergs and whales lure hikers to Newfoundland's East Coast Trail, with modern conveniences just around the bend.

August 15, 2004|Margo Pfeiff | Special to The Times

St. John's, Canada — Empty BASKET COVE was not empty. A glittering aquamarine iceberg lolled in the sunshine of the walled inlet. I plunked myself near the shore amid wind-gnarled bushes, munched on wild blueberries and watched waves rhythmically stroke and slap the ice.

"See the whales?" asked my hiking buddy, photographer Jim Hutchison. The iceberg had me so mesmerized that I had not noticed a pod of minke whales surfacing in the distance. Icebergs and whales made for a textbook Newfoundland summer day.

We had started hiking the East Coast Trail that June morning last year, setting out from the outskirts of St. John's, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada's easternmost province. About 135 miles of the trail opened in 2001, and when completed in the next 10 years, it will follow 250 miles of the Avalon Peninsula.

The existing route, which runs from St. John's to Cappahayden, mostly follows a wild and remote Atlantic seashore. Our starting point was the Cape Spear lighthouse at the eastern tip of North America. All day, we crossed headlands with views of sea stacks aflutter with birds. At times, we were so high, we looked down onto bluffs where bald eagle chicks nested. A solitary puffin -- that comical creature that looks half toucan, half penguin -- did a fly-by, and a flotilla of eerie, bluish icebergs lingered on the horizon. We skirted bogs whose streams became peaty brown waterfalls plunging into a sea littered with hundreds of fluorescent lobster floats.

Not far off the beaten path

Late in the afternoon, after a seven-mile hike, we stumbled -- wind-blown and sunburned -- into a fishing village called Petty Harbour. Clapboard houses on a hillside overlooked clusters of working boats. A doting couple, Reg and Mildred Carter, and the aroma of baking chicken welcomed us into the homey Orca Inn.

Exhausted, I settled onto a sofa with a strong cuppa tea, feeling as though we had arrived in some "Newfie" Brigadoon at the end of the earth. Mildred announced as she slipped on sensible shoes: "Just gotta run into town to pick something up. Back in a jiffy."

Which town?

"St. John's, of course, darlin'. Twelve minutes to downtown," she chirped. That was a shock. Jim and I had spent the entire day traipsing through wilderness without encountering another soul, yet we were barely out of the provincial capital's suburbs.

That evening, I had arranged to interview Peter Gard, an early East Coast Trail advocate, for another writing assignment.

"We felt this area was the New Zealand or Tasmania of North America yet so much more accessible," Gard said over coffee. "You spend the day on the trail then pop back out into a community on the coastal road at the end of the day for a comfortable bed or a beer in the pub." Now that is my kind of hiking trip.

Gard was one of 20 St. John's hiking enthusiasts who volunteered to build the trail in the early 1990s. They linked bits of old cart tracks, cliff-top military trails, old rail lines and coastal trails used for centuries by priests, midwives, hunters and locals gathering wood.

At first, Gard, a Vancouver native, and his fellow trail advocates met with some hostility from residents who resented CFAs -- Come From Aways, as they were called -- nosing about their land. To locals, the two main tourist attractions, icebergs and whales, meant little more than destroyed boats and mangled nets.

"Whales competed for fish and were hunted here until the 1960s," Gard said. "It's taken awhile to realize they are now worth more alive than dead."

Opinions began to change in the mid-1990s, when the decline of the cod fishery made tourism an appealing option. Setting out to protect a strip of coastline through the province's most densely populated region proved no easy feat, though. The Avalon Peninsula is home to more than half of Newfoundland and Labrador's 500,000-plus residents.

When one landowner denied access rights to his property near Cape Broyle, trail planners were rescued by a woman in her 70s named Elsie, who offered her backyard garden as a detour. She is now a footpath fixture, chatting up passersby and often inviting hikers in for tea.

Seaside scenery

The trail is divided naturally by seaside communities into 18 sections, some as short as 1.8 miles and all varied in difficulty. The route runs through three national historic sites, by eight lighthouses and past countless shipwrecks.

On our second day, we tackled the longest section, the 10-mile Spout Path. Its reward was an explosive freshwater geyser -- the waters of the Spout River, actually -- driven 60 feet into the air by ocean waves surging inland through underground caverns.

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