A short walk on a grand trail
Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail takes you to easternmost edges of North America — and you don’t have to do all 220 kilometres to experience the thrill
Hikers are always on the lookout for a hidden gem — that unassuming trail that leads the traveller away from the ordinary. On a fine day last August, we found such a trail on the southern shore of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. In a province rich in hiking trails and grand vistas, this short hike was a delight that yielded its magic at every turn. It was also a reminder that Newfoundland’s wonderful East Coast trail can be enjoyed in small doses.
We had come to Newfoundland to visit friends and family and, as usual, couldn’t go back home without driving one of our favourite routes — the Irish Loop. It’s a lovely day’s drive that runs parallel to the East Coast Trail for part of the way. After too many hearty meals of fish and chips and partridgeberry jam, we were looking for the redeeming grace of a brisk hike. As we drove into the small village of Renews, we caught sight of a sign for the East Coast Trail and decided to hike the portion of the trail that leads towards Fermeuse, a neighbouring community.
It was a beautiful sunny day. A few strands of white clouds trailed across an endless blue sky and that ever-present Newfoundland wind was blowing in from the sea in gusts of salty air. Anyone who has ever lived near the Atlantic Ocean will recognize this as a perfect summer day — glorious and not to be squandered.
A lovely century-old green-and-yellow house, called Emerald Cottage, stands before the entrance to this section of the East Coast Trail. The trail begins very humbly in a small hollow surrounded by grassy knolls. As we followed its gradual climb between a few rocky outcrops, nothing in its modest appearance prepared us for the superb view it was about to give us.
When it came, it took our breath away. We were suddenly perched on the edge of the continent, between the earth and the sky and the stunning blue of the Atlantic Ocean.
As our eyes tried to take it all in, we could feel the sea pulling us toward its wide horizon of endless possibilities. In that instant, it was easy to understand the powerful attraction these waters must have exerted on the hearts and minds of our seafaring ancestors.
An interesting interpretive site informed us that we were standing on a historic site called The Mount. Several cannons still stand on guard, enduring reminders of Newfoundland’s often embattled past. These guns were sent to Renews in 1778 to defend its harbour against attacks by American privateers who seized and burned local fishing boats and took their crews prisoner. Not wanting to let a good story go unembellished, local lore has it that during these skirmishes, the people from the south side of Renews stole the gunpowder used for the cannons in the hope the American raiders would capture them and take them back to the States. Is this true? Maybe not, but as Mark Twain said, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
From The Mount, the East Coast Trail heads out of the harbour, sheds its modest beginnings and becomes a drama queen.
Over and over again, we found ourselves on the edge of high cliffs while, below us, jagged Cambrian rocks jutted out into the rolling sea like steadfast guardians of the island. Looking down at this treacherous rocky coastline, it was easy to see why Newfoundland is often called “the Rock.” The meadows, the small spruce trees leaning away from the ocean winds, the berry bushes that cling to the thin soil — these are all camouflage to lull us into forgetting that we are in fact standing alone in the middle of the Atlantic on a big piece of sedimentary rock sheared from the continent billions of years ago.
For the next few hours, we followed this spectacular coastline, rising high above cliffs that plunge dramatically into the sea, then dipping gently into small coves with names such as Boat Bottom Cove, Sculpin Bay, Capelin Cove. The soothing sound of water rolling over the smooth pebbles and the bright sunlight shimmering off the water were irresistible enticements to sit awhile — which we did, like two lazy seals, warming our backsides on the sun-baked rocks.
As we resumed our walk, we met two young women who were also hiking the trail. They told us they were from Sherbrooke, Que. and were doing the whole 220 kilometres of the East Coast Trail from St. John’s to Cappahayden. This was their 13th day on the trail and they had only one more to go before finishing. They looked remarkably fresh despite their heavy backpacks and being on the trail for so long.
“Don’t come too close to us”, one said. “We haven’t had a bath in 12 days.”
They told us this had been the best hiking trail they had ever done and thought it deserved more hikers.
Soon after we parted company, the trail veered away from the coastline into the forest. Here, the trail bed is well cushioned with red spruce needles and everywhere are beds of crackerberries, their bright red clusters shining in a sea of green leaves. While this part of the trail is lovely, we missed the ocean, the sound of the waves and the salty tang of sea air.
It was time to turn around and go back to our car. We never did reach the village of Fermeuse, but for us, it was the journey rather than the destination that mattered. For a few glorious hours we had stood on the edge of our continent — on the same high cliffs that welcomed ancient explorers to the new world.
The East Coast Trail is gradually gaining a reputation for being an excellent destination for hardy hikers. But for those who don’t want to do the whole 220 kilometres — like the two hardy young hikers we met that day — doing it in smaller sections can be a great experience.
If you go to Newfoundland, take a drive along the southern shore of the Avalon Peninsula and watch out for the small wooden signs that indicate entry points into the trail. There are 18 such paths and one of them may very well lead you to your own perfect trail. Charlotte O’Dea is a former Ottawa resident who now lives near Georgian Bay.