Nestled just off the east coast of Canada’s mainland is an island all to itself; a land farther apart than one might first think. Jutting out into the North Atlantic, its endless rocky coast was the first land encountered by seafarers venturing from the far side of the ocean. Vikings and settlers, historic and modern alike, continue to come upon these rough shores with appreciative eyes; sanctuary after a long crossing. Newfoundland is a name given to these rocky shores, and it literally explains itself.
Newfoundland is an old place, both in terms of its geology and humanity. It is a solid rock pushed up and out of the North Atlantic’s turbulent waters by the slow, powerful, and unyielding force of colliding tectonic plates – a stark contrast with the fertile soil of the Maritimes further east. Many who first came upon it moved on quickly, but a special few chose to stay and call it home; strong people to match the equally rugged land beneath them. The capital of St John’s is tucked away in a rocky harbour on the east shore and, founded by John Cabot in 1497, is Canada’s oldest city.
Speaking of Canada, Newfoundland’s relationship with the rest of the country is a complicated one. Fiercely independent, they begrudgingly were the last province to join confederation in 1949 – recent enough that many people still living recount the shift firsthand. The vote for unification came at a time of hardship and need, and, even when feeling backed into a corner, it only passed by a slim 51% to 49% margin. To say that some people remain suspicious of a conspiracy around the result would be an understatement. Federal laws such as the cod moratorium of 1992 that banned locals from fishing in their waters only fuelled the smouldering fire.
If it weren’t for the odd Tim Hortons along the highway that crosses the island, Newfoundland feels like a country unto itself. The culture, the people, the industry, the accent…all remain distinctly their own. A tightly knit community, the Newfoundlander view of the world is that you’re either “from here” or you “come from away.”
Exceptionally kind, a chance locking of the gaze with a Newfoundlander oft turns into a meandering 30 minute conversation. On the street, in the pub, at the grocery store…the culture is unhurried and serendipitous. Beyond talk of the weather and the world are the quieter discussions about the slow transition out of a failing resource-based economy and the ongoing exodus of young adults from rural communities or even the island entirely. I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the phrase, “Stuck between a rock and a hard place,” originates from here, because it certainly fits. Still, all are welcomed with open hearts despite perhaps some underlying political friction.
There are more than a few question marks regarding Newfoundland’s future, but I remain optimistic. In my time on the island I glimpsed what the land and people here have to offer; there is an untapped potential that’s been largely overlooked in lieu of the plentiful resources at their fingertips (the ‘3Fs’: fishing, farming, and forestry). But resources aren’t infinite and the heavy lean on them simply was not sustainable in more recent years. Transition is tough, and doubly so when it’s forced, but so are Newfoundlanders. Locals are shifting their mindsets to creatively carve out opportunities in innovative new ways and a new evolution of the island is afoot.
I come from away, but I can say with certainty that I will return once again.
Fort Amherst stands strong at the entrance to the harbour of Newfoundland’s capital city of St John’s.
Houses cling to the side of the Battery, saying silent hellos and goodbyes to passing ships.
The harbour of St John’s is a natural wonder; a sheltered refuge amidst an otherwise solid wall of rock facing the brunt of the North Atlantic. I can only imagine how welcoming it must look to the weary eyes of sailors returning from the sea.
These classic Newfoundland dwellings are known as Jellybean houses. Colorful, sturdy, and welcoming, they line the hilly streets of St John’s.
The dwelling of a townie.
The dwelling of a bayman.
Looking across the Gulf of Saint Lawrence towards the mainland and seeing nothing but a blank horizon, Newfoundland is still a land apart.
Lobster traps sit on the shore waiting for their season.
Late summer wildflowers find a place amidst the rocks.
Grey day over the bay.
A rocky point fades into the distance.
A weathered fishing cabin, used seasonally by the Mudge family since 1941.
Kids amble along the harbour of Middle Arm. This town faces the same challenge as most rural areas of Newfoundland: curbing the exodus of children moving away in search of education and economic opportunity as soon as they turn 18. While still skewing towards an older demographic, Middle Arm is maintaining a vibrant everyday life much more so than other neighbouring towns.
The rugged shores are a challenge for most flora to get a foothold, but brush of all sorts thrives on the exposed rocks. Summer is also known as berry season in Newfoundland, where they erupt in abundance from August until October.
I spy with my little eye a few tasty foragables: blueberries, bunchberries, and a little shrub named labrador.
Newfoundland is not known for its vegetables. Salads are few and far between here, but fresh berries are plentiful for any who care to look for them.
A bright fishing stand is nestled in a calm ocean inlet, shelter for a fisherman who ventures daily out into the wild waters of the North Atlantic.
As part of the deal negotiated in joining Canada, Newfoundland is the only province in the country that is allowed to serve wild game. The local grocery stores have filled an interesting gap between home cooked meals and the restaurants, doing up grandma’s recipes in the back and offering them as take-away meals in a way Whole Foods will never be able to compete with.
A fireside version of “boiling” eggs.
Embers, food, and fresh air – as it used to be.
Lights of both the old and modern sort light up an otherwise dark ocean inlet.
Textures and tones on both sides of the horizon.
Homes in a picturesque rural fishing town dot otherwise rugged shores.
Each fishing stage is full of character, imbued with the character who works out of it.
Fishing boats on the bay. One of these particular three used a speaker to project Newfoundland folk songs throughout the bay until another boat would come up. Then, the speaker was turned down, a conversation had, and subsequently the music was turned way up again for all to enjoy (or at the very least, hear).
Sailing across shades of infinity.
Heavy surf surges over rocky shore.
A rugged coast of endless rocky inlets and bays.
A picturesque cove…
…and its penned memory.
The beach, Newfoundland style.
A tidal pool visitor.
A collision of the sun’s cycle with the cycle of water.
Last light on rural Newfoundland.
The road beneath, some tuckamore to the right, and the earth’s bare mantle to the left. Moving west across the island of Newfoundland, the landscape shifts as you make your way from one tectonic plate to another. The ancient collision point between the two in Gros Morne National Park is a geological wonder, and this road that cuts through it showcases its wide diversity from north to south and east to west.
These are the Tablelands. Here in western Newfoundland lies the Earth’s exposed mantle; ancient rock that is usually hidden from humanity except in theory. This special rock was forced up from the depths of the planet during a tectonic plate collision several hundred million years ago, and this place was the proving grounds for plate tectonics theory through geological work spearheaded by Bob Stevens beginning in the 1960s. Now, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a place sought out by both scientists and the general public alike.
This is Gros Morne: a mountain that is the namesake for the national park it lies within and also the second tallest point in Newfoundland. “Gros Morne” is a French title that roughly translates to “large mountain standing alone” – an apt description for an old mountain that is very different from the familiar young peaks of western Canada’s Rocky Mountains.
Looking down at the little details, the flora in Newfoundland bears a striking resemblance to that found further north on the Canadian tundra. Though at a significantly lower latitude here, the harsh environment yields a strikingly similar ecosystem.
Getting up on to the rolling tops of the Long Range Mountains, the sensitive ecosystem continues to bear striking similarities to the tundra even more so with elevation.
A hiker takes advantage of clear weather to access Gros Morne’s peak through an approach up a rock strewn gully.
The lofty plateaus of the Long Range Mountains can be quite windy, but makeshift shelters abound for the committed hiker who wants to take time and enjoy the vistas their heights offer.
A landscape carved by glaciers and moulded by time.
Last light on the last valley of the Long Range Traverse; a backcountry route that attracts hikers from around the world to spend many days navigating its wilderness route devoid of paths.
Gros Morne National Park is a wide wilderness, a lot of which remains untouched, untamed, and difficult to access. Much of its map remains blank.
Moon rising over undulating valleys.
Unsheltered western shores, where only the most hardy grasses survive in an otherwise grey landscape.
Small homes seemingly cling to rugged shore, dwarfed by both land and weather.
A lighthouse shines bright against a darkening sky; both night and an approaching storm are on the horizon.
The tides ebb and flow at the entrance to Bonne Bay.
At the southern edge of Gros Morne National Park, the landscape is strikingly different: a fertile volcanic sea coast.
Sea stacks by the seashore.
“I used to think it strange that visitors from the mainland would spend so much time gazing out to sea, but then I visited the prairies and had a similar experience of being drawn into the vastness of a blank horizon. Now, I get it.” -A kind stranger on the beach
The sun sets and moon rises over a seaside town on the westerly shore.
A common nickname for Newfoundland is “The Rock,” and it’s easy to see why when heading back to its rugged east coast. Both the plant life and people that call this place home are hardy, akin in features and spirit to what I’ve seen in other places of Northern Canada. The issues they face moving into a future where they can no longer depend upon resource extraction bear many similarities as well.
Life in Newfoundland exists in a special space between land and sea…
…but not all docks continue to be manned. The fishery isn’t what it once was and other local resource based economies are struggling as well.
All eyes look out to the horizon as they have for many generations, but now what is seen in the distance lacks the clarity and certainty there once was.
The powerful North Atlantic waters continue to surge.
Full circle, the harbour of St John’s is both the beginning and end of the journey for those who come to Newfoundland. This is the story today, not so different from 500 years ago or even a long time before that.