Up and down and tossed around on Newfoundland’s west coast
Newfoundland’s west coast
The wind pushed me up Bonne Bay Road, through the Mars-like terrain of the Tablelands, where massive shifts exposed the Earth’s mantle to the sky. Not an hour ago, I was descending the same road, white-knuckling as the wind repeatedly shoved me out over the median strip. That was just the start of the pummelling. The extreme and unpredictable conditions of Newfoundland’s west coast are matched only by the majesty of the sights on Highway 430, a.k.a. the Viking Trail, which includes Gros Morne National Park, seaside outports, a freshwater fiord and breathtaking lookouts. Biking the Northern Peninsula is all about letting go and enjoying the ride. (Just mentally, though – definitely keep your hands on those brakes.)
Before you start out, consider making an offering to the Anemoi, Greek gods of wind – you’ll want them on your side. “The wind is what it’s all about here,” said Kevin Flynn, president of Bicycles Newfoundland and Labrador. “If you can get the tailwind, heavens, it’s wonderful.” Flynn and a friend cycled the Viking Trail in 2016, part of his project to bike all corners of the province. “To be honest, we weren’t prepared for what was ahead of us. Going down over the long hills in Gros Morne National Park, we got a headwind, and were going 12 or 15 km/h so we wouldn’t be blown across the road and into traffic. I was looking forward to pedalling up the hills for a break. Twelve hours later, the winds were on our shoulder, and they just blew us up the coast.”
The Viking Trail stretches 526 km from Deer Lake up to
“The wind is what it’s all about here. If you can get the tailwind, heavens, it’s wonderful.”
St. Anthony via L’anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, where Leif Eriksson is said to have made the first European landing in North America around 1,000 AD. The route is at once quaint and otherworldly; I felt like I was riding on the edge of the landscape and history. The changeable winds and weather and surfeit of sights make tackling it over a couple days a tough task. It’s best to choose a section and make sure to leave time to explore off the bike. From Deer Lake, it’s 32 km of false flats to the edge of Gros Morne National Park, the unesco Heritage Site that’s home to the eponymous peak. To get to the Tablelands, you can veer off onto Highway 431 and ride the hills to the trailhead. Or continue to Norris Point and take the ferry to Woody Point. Just don’t be late – “It’s a 5:30 ferry and a 5:31 swim,” the boat operator warned. This is Flynn’s favourite section. “Cycling through the park, you get some beautiful vistas. The white caps of Bonne Bay are just spectacular,” he said. Back at Norris Point, stop for a snack and a beer at The Cat Stop, then ride north past the sleepy, salty towns of Rocky Harbour, Lobster Cove and Sally’s Cove to Western Brook Pond. The shoulder isn’t wide, but the quality of the road is good, and drivers will usually give you a wide berth.
If you can get off the bike here, do. A 45-minute walk will bring you to the entryway to the 16-km-long lake, once a fiord that was carved by glaciers and then cut off from the ocean by rebounding land. The two-hour boat ride will take you past waterfalls that tumble over steep cliffs, and several areas where rock collapses have caused major waves.
“What makes this area unique is that every day you’re seeing a new piece of scenery you’re never experienced before,” said Julien Anderson, who biked the Trail this past summer. “Each day brings a completely different view.”
From here to L’anse aux Meadows, it’s all open road, spruce and lupins against the backdrop of the Long Range Mountains. If you catch the prevailing southwest wind, you’ll fly. We rode by dozens of fenced-in, roadside gardens growing in peat-rich soil, cars stopped on the side of the road while people tended to cabbage, carrots, onions – the makings of a Jiggs’ dinner.
More frequent than the roadside gardens are abandoned houses and fishing stations left by the cod fishery collapse. The land that was fished and worked for centuries, first by Paleo-eskimos, then by French, Basque, English and Irish settlers, is now home to fewer and fewer humans – the population of many coastal towns has dropped by 10 per cent or more since 2000.
But there’s no shortage of humour and warmth. At the picture-perfect Entente Cordiale Inn in Portland Creek, we asked our host to share a traditional Newfoundland expression. “Fuck off,” she deadpanned without missing a beat.
What other surprises might you encounter? Breaching whales, passing icebergs, blueberry fields, lighthouses and moose sightings, of course.
below The Tablelands and Woody Point from across Bonne Bay in Gros Morne National Parkopposite L'anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
above The rolling terrain from Deer Lake to Rocky Harbour