Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 21, 2017
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The Mists of Avalon

Animal sightings are the holy grail on this foggy Newfoundland circuit

It was mid-morning in July on the southwestern tip of the Avalon Peninsula. We were groping along a trail in a fog so dense it was hard to see more than a few feet in front of our noses. We had come to Cape St. Mary’s on a weekend getaway from St. John’s to see and photograph one of the most spectacular and accessible seabird colonies in the world -- the only one in Newfoundland that’s not situated on an offshore island. The birds were there all right; we could hear them squawking their heads off somewhere beyond the steep cliffs that drop suddenly into the Atlantic only a few yards away. The only problem was we couldn’t see them.

Finally tired of our carping, Mark McCarthy, our guide, said with a seraphic smile, “Look, I promise you. The fog will lift. It always does.”

Mainlanders like us don’t expect foggy weather in July but here, surrounded on three sides by water with a cold Atlantic beyond, fog creeps in with army boots on more than 200 days of the year. In the summer especially, warm air flowing over the cold water creates the perfect conditions for the swirling vapour that enshrouded the cliffs. By the time we reached the end of the trail where a sea stack known as Bird Rock sits like a giant granite egg only a few metres beyond the cliff, Mark’s prediction came true. The fog lifted miraculously and we were left with a gentle mist that surrounded the 100-metre sea stack in a gauzy light.

Strictly for the birds
The rock was almost completely covered by white goose-sized gannets conducting their daily business -- preening, nesting, mating, soaring -- totally unimpressed by the gawking humans on the other side of the chasm. A census in the mid-’80s recorded 5485 breeding pairs on the rock; today experts say there are 72,500. The gannets are only one of the many species of bird here -- we could also see black-legged kittiwakes, common murres, razorbills, cormorants, black guillemots and thick-billed murres, wheeling, soaring and perched on what looked like avian apartment towers.

Peeping at birds was the weekend highlight for us but only one of many encounters with wildlife and extraordinary scenery possible during a swing through the Cape Shore and Irish Loops in the lower half of the Avalon Peninsula. This peninsula hangs onto Newfoundland’s vast land mass by a tiny isthmus, and stretches into the ocean like a bloated H. The two loop drives can easily fill a weekend away from St. John’s not only with wildlife but also dramatic coastline, cliffs, coves and what you’d swear are villages airlifted from Ireland -- inhabitants and all. Both drives can be done in two days but three days are better, with overnight stops in one of the many lodges and country manors in the area.

Leaving St. John’s, take Highway 1 and head southwest for 60 kilometres to Highway 90. The first stop is Salmonier Nature Park which lies 25 kilometres south at the junction of Highways 90 and 91. This 40-hectare park started out as an environmental education centre but has added wildlife rehabilitation, research and environmental monitoring to its mandate. It’s also a favourite with tourists.

The park is laid out like a nature walk with 30 species of birds and animals in very large, naturally landscaped enclosures scattered along a winding trail -- a little like the San Diego Wild Animal Park, only here visitors walk rather than ride. As we followed a boardwalk trail we came to four immense snowy owls gathered around an old stump, shooting the breeze. Just a bit further, a yearling moose lay in the swamp grass mulling things over. There were bald eagles, great horned owls and peregrine falcons, mink, otter, arctic fox, lynx and snowshoe hare. It was like a nature trip into the backwoods of Newfoundland and Labrador without the mosquitoes. Many of the animals and birds here are part of the park’s rehabilitation program and were brought in injured or orphaned.

Sailors, Pilots and Politicians
Continuing west for 15 kilometres on Highway 91 we stopped at Colinet where a bridge passes over a series of small waterfalls at Rocky River. You can usually watch the heroic leaps of Atlantic salmon up a man-made salmon ladder, but that day the salmon were not in a leaping mood. After bouncing another 25 kilometres down an unpaved road, we hit Placentia Bay, the largest town in the region and one that spills over with history. Basque fishermen were the first to come here in the 16th century in pursuit of rich fishing grounds. By 1662, the French had founded a colony called Plaisance, remnants of which can be found if you hike up to the old fort on the hill. The O’Reilly Heritage House in town has a good collection of period furniture, a 300-year-old Basque tombstone and lots more.

Argentia, just a few kilometres north, is a favourite with American visitors because of the military base that was here during World War II; US servicemen endeared themselves to Newfoundlanders, especially young women, many of whom left as war brides. At Ship Harbour, there’s a plaque on a grassy knoll that marks the location of one of the most clandestine war operations in the 20th century. On August 9, 1941, US president Franklin Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill seemed to mysteriously go AWOL; history now records that they were sitting offshore at Ship Harbour signing the Atlantic Charter in which the US agreed to join the Allies and work together to build an atomic bomb.

Continuing south, the Cape Shore Loop contains a string of typical Newfoundland villages that seem straight out of Ireland and long sandy beaches, coves and cliffs that stretch all the way down to Cape St. Mary’s. After a day with the birds at Cape St. Mary’s, we headed up to Highway 10 to link up with the Irish Loop south of Salmonier.

Wildlife? What Wildlife?
Our objective was to photograph the world’s most southerly herds of caribou, which Mark assured us hang around the highway in the hundreds “all the time.” It was also July, the prime time to see feeding pods of humpback, fin and minke whales who were supposed to be everywhere because the capelin (tiny, silvery smelt-like fish upon which they feed) were running. Everywhere, that is, except where we happened to be at that moment.

By the end of the drive, Mark was apologizing with every stop -- we saw none of the caribou on the Avalon Wilderness Reserve, kept missing the whales especially at St. Vincent’s (where they’re almost always visible) and the fog had rolled in so we couldn’t even see the puffins. Everyone else we met en route had though. By the time we got back to St. John’s, the 5000 caribou, whales and birds were being referred to as mythical beasts. One of our group said to Mark, “Well. You can at least find us a Newfoundland dog.”

Most people who drive the Irish Loop are luckier -- they get to see the world’s largest puffin colony, those elusive caribou and whales, and in the spring 10,000-year-old icebergs. We did manage to catch a spectacular display of seabird diving skills at St. Shotts as a huge flock of gannets dive-bombed for capelin. We plunged into local history at Bay Bulls, one of the oldest communities in Newfoundland and Labrador. As a big Amelia Earhart fan, I was particularly keen on Trepassey, just north of St. Shotts because the famous aviatrix began her historic transatlantic flight in 1928 there, becoming the first woman to cross the Atlantic.

Ferryland, on the home stretch back to St. John’s, was closed so we missed one of the big attractions of the Irish Loop. Here archeologists have been excavating the colony of Avalon, one of the first English settlements in North America. You can take a guided tour through 17th-century gardens and the remains of the settlement, or watch food being prepared in a historic kitchen.

During our final meal together, the ribbing about Newfoundland’s invisible wildlife was fierce, but we congratulated Mark for his exhaustive knowledge and humorous anecdotes. Then, just as we were about to leave, there was a thud on the stairs and a Newfoundland dog as big as a horse ambled in and gave us a welcoming lick.

“You see,” said Mark. “I told you we had wildlife.”

 

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