Between the Rock and a Boggy Place
Between the Rock and a Boggy Place: Hiking Newfoundland’s Long Range Traverse
Soon after moving to Halifax from Vancouver, my boyfriend Greg and I discovered that the closest “real” mountains around were the Long Range Mountains in Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park. We had also heard that the must-do trip in the park was a 35km off-trail traverse from Western Brook Pond to the base of Gros Morne Peak. Of course we had to do it! Our friends G and R (both also Vancouver ex-pats) decided they couldn’t miss out so they decided to join us. In the few months before our August long weekend departure date we worked out the transportation issues, booked our campsites, dehydrated mountains of food, and took one brief overnight training hike with G and R to Nova Scotia’s Kejimkujik National Park. When the time came to leave I felt only slightly prepared and quite scared since we hadn’t really ever done any off-trail hiking. Nevertheless, I had never been to Newfoundland and was craving some mountains, so my enthusiasm for new places and being a good distance above sea level won out, and off we went.
Day Zero: Halifax to Gros Morne National Park
Our trip began on a Friday night with a long drive to Sydney on Cape Breton Island to catch the overnight ferry to Port-au-Basque, Newfoundland. After a few hours of driving on Saturday, we arrived at the park headquarters at Rocky Harbour in the late afternoon. Gros Morne National Park has an orientation process that you must go through before starting the Long Range Traverse. As part of our orientation we were required to watch a humorously outdated video, get a briefing from a ranger and pass a map and compass test. We were also issued a transceiver to carry in our packs so they could find us with a helicopter if we failed to come back on time. The whole process seemed rather daunting and we weren’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into – especially the part about needing a helicopter rescue. Like the orientation for the West Coast Trail, the purpose of the orientation for the Long Range Traverse seems to scare you out of going.
Having survived the orientation process, and still determined to go, we checked into the car campground at Berry Hill to sort gear and prepare for the traverse. After dinner we went for a walk around Berry Hill Pond near our campsite and were excited to sight a beaver near its large dam, as well as our first moose of the trip. She didn’t seem at all bothered by us and continued to feed directly in our way on the trail, despite all of our attempts to get around her. As we watched her munch away on the vegetation we were treated to a beautiful purple sunset. It was our first night there, yet already Western Newfoundland was a magical place for me.
Day One: Western Brook Pond to Little Island Pond
The journey really began on Sunday morning with some transportation logistics. We drove our car to our end point at the base of Gros Morne Mountain and hopped into the taxi we had arranged.
From this point onwards, we would be trying to get back to our parked car.
The taxi took us to the northern part of the park to the trailhead for Western Brook Pond, a ride of about 30 minutes. From there it was a 3km walk to the dock to catch the boat tour that takes tourists up the former fjord that is Western Brook Pond, and which would drop us off at the head of the fjord. After about 40 minutes on the boat with the tourists, we were dropped off to the sound of the tour guide explaining to the group the long and arduous journey we were embarking on. I believe I even heard a few gasps from the crowd!
After dramatically waving goodbye to the tourists, we shouldered our packs and set off. The path was obvious at first, but it soon disappeared into a meadow of vegetation taller than me in places. On the other side of the meadow we discovered we were on our own navigation-wise. Although there is no official trail, there was a beaten path in a few places (and the odd piece of very welcome flagging tape). Since we were in a gorge and all we needed to do was head up and out of it, route-finding was fairly straight forward. The only tricky section came right at the base of a waterfall. We had been warned about this waterfall and that we needed to stay to the right of it. Since we didn’t feel like doing some rock-climbing with expedition packs on, we heeded that advice and took the beaten path to the right. This section involved the most sustained use of hands I have ever done on a trail – perhaps 45min of climbing up the steep hillside, hand over hand. We ascended 550m in about 2.5km and I sure felt it later.
Eventually, we got to the top of the climb to the place where all the famous pictures of Gros Morne National Park are taken. After looking at tourism brochure photos of that spot it was exhilarating to actually stand there. The landscape at the top of the gorge was also drastically different from the trees, roots and rocks we had encountered on the way up. On the plateau it was all rolling hills, granite outcrops, patches of tasty berries, and little pocket ponds. There was also a beaten path to follow the few kilometres to our first campsite on Little Island Pond, which was nice since we were far too tired for route-finding.
We pulled into camp and set up on the provided tent pads, which were a necessity due to the huge amount of mud. We also discovered the Gros Morne version of a backcountry outhouse. Apparently they don’t do the ‘house’ part. At each campsite there was a lovely green plastic throne with gorgeous views in all directions. It took a little getting used to. Apparently, they chopper out the thrones, with their contents, at the end of the season since the rocky soil makes digging a pit of any depth close to impossible.
After checking out our campsite we began cooking the first of our yummy home-dehydrated dinners. As we were cooking we were joined by a couple from Saskatchewan and their determined eight year-old son. We crossed paths with them and hiked with them throughout the trip and they were a great example of the wonderful people you often meet in the backcountry.
Day Two: Little Island Pond to Hardings Pond
The next morning after a short and cold swim in the pond and some tent pad yoga for a few of us, we set out on our first major route-finding task – to make it to our next campsite on Hardings Pond. We started out following a beaten path in the direction of our first landmark, St. Mark’s Pond. We soon discovered that this trail led us off in the wrong direction and we had to backtrack. Apparently the moose are responsible for making more of the trails in this area than the people! We stopped and regrouped and vowed to cease following trails blindly and start paying more attention to our map and compass. Soon we were on our way again, doing our first creek crossing and winding up at our lunch spot at the St. Mark’s Pond campground only a little behind schedule.
As we ate lunch the wind picked up despite the continuing sunshine. Throughout the rest of the day it became difficult to walk into it on ridges or talk to each other without yelling. Concerned about getting lost, I had one our maps in a sealed plastic map case strapped to my chest. In the wind, the map case became a madly flapping flag and sometimes even a sail, which led to much mocking from my companions.
After lunch we hiked up and over a ridge until we could see down to Hardings Pond. Even though the weather had been beautiful for days, the mud we contended with on this section was fierce. At one point I fell into a mud puddle that looked shallow but actually wasn’t since it sucked me in over the knees. That wasn’t our only adventure for the day: we also almost literally ran into a cow moose who growled at us (so fiercely I thought she was a bear at first). Later we also engaged in combat with the tuckamore – the gnarled and tightly woven vegetation that grows on the plateau. A large stand of it stood between us and our campsite and there didn’t seem to be anyway around it, so we went through it.
Going through the tuckamore didn’t help us get any closer to the campsite though, but after some detours and almost falling in the lake we finally arrived. The campsite was even more of a quagmire than the last one and soon after we got there it began to sprinkle. I was glad we used all our guy wires in securing my new Hubba Hubba to the tent platform since it was windy and rainy all night.
Day Three: Hardings Pond to Green Island Pond
We had been told the third day would be our hardest navigation day and waking up we were devastated to find that we had the worst weather for it. Two ridges needed to be ascended and descended and we also had to navigate through an interconnected system of ponds. At the top of the ridges the fog was extremely thick making navigation difficult. Despite the area being billed as a plateau all we did this day was climb up and down a series of steep and rocky slopes.
The constant rain throughout the day meant that the ground was extremely soggy. It seemed like too much work to set up a tarp in the swampy ground and there were no trees for shelter so we couldn’t stop to get much warmer or to eat – we had to keep going. We got increasingly cold, wet, and miserable. Eventually we got within a few hundred meters of our campsite, but we became lost in the fog in a maze of little ponds. The ground was boggy, there was bear scat everywhere and we were damp and freezing.
Somehow after going in circles for a while trying to get out of the pond maze, and yelling at each other in frustration, we managed to get out of there and get down from a bluff to our campsite.
We didn’t get into camp until 5pm that night. We were so tired that we only had energy to rehydrate some bean-dip and eat that with power bars for dinner. The family from Saskatchewan came into camp around 7:30, which we were quite relieved about since we were afraid they were lost in the same boggy mess we had been in. The sun came out for a few minutes just around sunset, which gave us a glimmer of hope after the bleakest of days. Almost everything we had was wet – Greg and I even had to sleep in our fleece jackets to attempt to dry them out a bit.
Day Four: Green Island Pond to Ferry Gulch
The widest river crossing on the trip was the starting point for our fourth day. Due to the heavy rain the day before the river was running fast and deep,
but it still was only to just above our knees at the highest. We hiked together as a group with the Saskatchewan family after the river crossing, mostly since we felt there was safety in numbers after fog related navigation mishaps in the never-ending rain the previous day.
Despite our apprehension, the going was quite easy on fourth day, our last real day of the traverse. All that we had to do that day was an easy walk along the plateau to a view of 10 Mile Pond and then a descent to a backcountry campsite along the Gros Morne Mountain trail. We easily found the viewpoint and stopped for lunch. The view down to 10 Mile Pond was spectacular and we could see numerous people over on the top of Gros Morne, scurrying around like little ants on an ant-hill. We also saw several caribou hanging out on an outcrop on Gros Morne, out of sight of the many day-hikers. The view was so nice that we had a long lunch to enjoy the view.
From the viewpoint it was supposed to be an easy descent to the campsite at the bottom of Ferry Gulch. The ranger had warned us that there was really only one way down that we should take, otherwise we would have to contend with bluffs that cliffed out. Apparently the ‘trail’ we were looking for was fairly easy to find. Ninety minutes of looking later, we finally found it. It was located in a different spot than the ranger had indicated on the map, and it was quite close to straight down. Descending was murder on our knees.
When we finally got down into Ferry Gulch we found the pleasant little campsite in between two small ponds. It even had an outhouse, complete with the “house” part. After setting up camp and laying out our still wet gear in the sun to dry, we began cooking up a huge backcountry potluck feast. It is recommended that you carry a few days of extra food on the Long Range Traverse in case you get pinned down by weather and need to take extra time. Since that didn’t happen to us, we had lots of extra food. So we ate it. And ate it. And ate it some more. We went to bed on our last night extremely full and happy to be finished the off-trail portion of our trip. We planned to hike Gros Morne Mountain (which we were camped on the side of) in the morning and then head down the trail to our waiting car.
Day 5: Ferry Gulch to Gros Morne trail parking lot
I was awoken on our last day at 6:30am by Greg yelling “Everybody get up! There’s moose chasing me!”
At first I didn’t believe him, but lying in the tent I could hear the sound of hooves on gravel and some grunting and snorting.
Needless to say, I didn’t get up! After some shouting and arm waving,
and Greg hiding behind the tent to get away from the charging moose,
the bull moose crashed off across the pond and started feeding on a bush. We found out later that since it was neither calving season nor rutting season there was no explanation for the moose to chase Greg. He was wearing a big black fleece so perhaps the moose mistook him for a bear. A more likely rationalization is that the moose was an adolescent having some fun and/or protecting his territory.
After the moose incident, we lazily had breakfast and packed up camp. We stashed our packs in some bushes and set off to climb the tourist trail up the backside of Gros Morne. After four days of muck, moose trails and tuckamore, the graded path and stairs (complete with handrails) were a welcome change, as was walking with daypacks instead of expedition packs. The hordes of day-trippers in jeans with purses and bottles of Coke were a bit annoying though.
We soon reached the summit of Gros Morne, Newfoundland’s second highest peak at 807m. The top was actually quite flat and strewn with rocks. To me it looked like the surface of another planet. After posing for some summit shots, we returned to our backpacks at the lake and had a quick lunch of whatever scraps were left in the food-bag. We reluctantly started on the long downhill trip to the car in the blazing sun. It was only 7km or so, but it took us quite a long time since we were tired and the trail was quite steep in places. After finally reaching our car in the parking lot, I was ecstatic to find a package of lovely salty sour cream and onion mini rice cakes waiting for me. The littlest things are so satisfying after time spent in the backcountry. Checking our GPS while we waited for the rest of the group to arrive at the car, Greg and I discovered that the advertised 35km distance for the Long Range Traverse is definitely an “as-the-crow-flies” distance. We had walked closer to 50km.
After everyone had arrived, we made the quick trip back to the ranger station to sign in with the parks staff and return our transceiver. Finally, we checked back in to Berry Hill campground, queued for the shower, and made our way into the village of Rocky Harbour. We had a late gourmet dinner of caribou lasagne, seafood vol-au-vent with lobster and other Newfoundland delicacies at Java Jack’s Restaurant. Divine!
The next morning we all went our separate ways. We dropped G and R off in Deer Lake to catch the bus back to the ferry and then on to Halifax. The Saskatchewan Family headed back to St. John’s where they were to attend a conference. Greg and I headed off for a week-long driving and camping tour of Newfoundland, first stop, the Viking sites around St. Anthony in the north. After spending 5 days in the magical Long Range Mountains, I couldn’t wait to see more of Newfoundland. As I write this, months later, I’m trying to figure out when I’ll be able to go back to Gros Morne and the Long Range.