Ocean Kayaking in Western Newfoundland

By Keith Nicol, The Atlantic Advocate, Vol. 81, No.11, July 1991, pp.14-17

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Bonne Bay, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland. (photo Keith Nicol)

"Look Whales" I shouted and we began to cautiously paddle toward the pod of pilot whales (Globicephala melaena) that was travelling ahead of us along the edge of Humber Arm. Although pilot whales are not large by ‘whale standards’ (four to six metres in length), the sheer number of whales was intimidating and we slowly edged closer.

A quick count put their numbers at 40-50, although evidently pilot whales do form groups in excess of 1,000. After watching and taking several pictures we tried to follow the whales but soon gave up as they sleekly sped through the water, probably more concerned with catching a squid dinner than two people in a Klepper ocean kayak.

They are so accomplished at finding squid that dolphins and even fishermen will let these whales "pilot" them, not just to squid, but also to the herring and capelin that the squid feed on. The best time for kayakers to see pilot whales is when they move to inshore waters during June, July and August in western Newfoundland. This whale is locally known as the ‘pothead’ whale since its large forehead makes it look like it is wearing a pot.

Sea Kayaking in the Bay of Island

Ocean kayaking is growing in popularity along both coastlines of Canada and there is even a large ‘sea’ kayaking fraternity that paddles on the Great Lakes. Although the sport is flourishing on Canada’s West Coast, Newfoundland must be one of the sport’s best-kept secrets. New-found-land, known for its cod and fog, is also an ocean paddler’s paradise if you know where to look.

One particularly good area is the protected bays near Corner Brook. This area is composed of three fjord-like arms which lead to the wider island-studded bay. An early explorer, Captain James Cook, appropriately named this area the "Bay of Islands" in 1767, a name which is still used today.

Surrounding these arms are the Blomidon and North Arm Mountains. This provides a diverse visual back-drop for the pods of pilot whales, soaring eagles and diving osprey that frequent this area in summer. Access is provided by two highways which traverse both sides of Humber Arm, and numerous launching points exist depending on the length of trip desired and prevailing weather conditions.

One of the advantages of ocean kayaking in the Bay of Islands is the variety of destinations open to both the novice and experienced ocean kayaker. Since the area is relatively well protected, beginning paddlers can practice a variety of skills and gradually improve their abilities without putting themselves in danger.

Numerous Island

A favorite destination is a paddle to Woods Island which is accessible from either Frenchman's Cove or McIvers. Woods Island was settled in the 1880s and traditionally was a centre of population in the Bay of Islands. In fact, at one time it housed numerous lobster factories. However, Woods Island fell victim to the government s resettlement program In the 1960s and today has only a few summer cabins for local fishermen. Besides lovely sand beaches, there is a superb natural harbor for larger vessels. Just off the north end of Woods Island, several islands provide additional places to explore. It is here that the ocean kayak really comes into its own since the water is often quite shallow between the islands and the rough cobble beaches prevent many types of boats from landing.

On one idyllic summer day we spent a whole afternoon exploring these islands (Puffin Island is particularly worth visiting), and just as we were about to leave a light north-westerly wind sprang up and allowed us to set up our sail and return to Frenchman's Cove assisted by the wind.

Other islands which are more suited to a morning or afternoon paddle are Governor's Island and Seal Island, located in York Harbour. Seal Island is covered with a grassy turf that makes it ideal for exploring. In contrast, Governor's Island is almost impossible to explore due to the thick tuckamore (wind-stunted spruce and fir) which is found behind its beaches. These islands can be reached from a collection of summer fishing cabins located on the south shore of York Harbour or from Blomidon Provincial Park located on the north shore.

The Bay of Islands is a large body of water with an extensive shoreline. Novice paddlers may want to make trips along the shore so that they can reach land quickly if they need to. Most parts of Humber Arm are accessible by road so "put in" locations are numerous.

Along the south shore, the Bay of Islands Yacht Club is a favorite place for a relaxing evening paddle. On the north shore of the Bay of Islands an interesting shoreline destination is the abandoned settlement of Apsey, starting from the Gillam's waterfront.

Careful exploration will reveal old gravestones and other historic remains.

Routes for Experienced Paddler

The nearby islands serve as interesting destinations, providing a rich historic setting as well as a scenic lunch spot.

For experienced kayakers, trips to Middle Arm and North Arm are suggested. Middle Arm is particularly interesting since it further divides into Goose Arm and Penguin Arm. Access to both these areas is from the community of Cox's Cove. Rugged mountains, waterfalls and remains of abandoned settlements are highlights of these ocean kayak routes.

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Trout River Pond, Newfoundland (photo Keith Nicol)

However, paddlers contemplating trips to these areas should be skilled in wilderness camping and experienced in paddling rougher water which may occur over a multi-day kayak trip. Bottle Cove and Little Port (located at the end of Highway 450) provide access to the Gulf of St.Lawrence which is suited to the more experienced paddler, since this area is more exposed and steep cliffs extending over 500 feet above the water frequently create very chaotic seas near shore. The rugged shoreline, striking sea caves and 'secret' coves make this area an ideal launching point for sea kayakers, particularly in light wind and swell conditions.

This area also has a long history of settlement. Its first settlers were French who noted its good location with respect to passing trading ships and nearby fishing grounds. Batteau Cove and Petit Port, as they were once called, have changed greatly with resettlement. Today no one lives permanently in Bottle Cove, but a day park with washrooms and a sandy beach is located here.

Sea Kayaking in Gros Morne National Park

Another scenic area for ocean paddling is Bonne Bay located in Gros Morne National Park approximately 70 kilometres north of the Bay of Islands. The Bay of Islands and Bonne Bay are the only large inlets along the entire west coast of Newfoundland. Both regions received large out-pourings of glacial ice during the last ice age and hence these fjords are quite substantial.

Humber Arm extends inland 50 kilometres from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and East Arm (part of Bonne Bay) is a 30-kilometre-long indentation. Bonne Bay is surrounded by the Long Range Mountains and Newfoundland's second-highest peak (Gros Morne at 2,642 feet) is within view along much of this route. Roads have been built along either side of Bonne Bay so that this area lacks the "wilderness" appeal of the outer Bay of Islands. However, for the novice paddler some very pleasant trips can be made along this scenic coastline.

One recommended trip is to start at the Lomond campsite in Gros Morne National park and to paddle along the coast to the community of Norris Point. This 12-kilometre trip is along an untouched shoreline and is suitable for novice paddlers since only a small open crossing is required to reach Norris Point.

Inland ‘Fjords’

A possibility for kayakers wanting to add another dimension to their paddling trip in western Newfoundland, is to try one of the spectacular inland ‘fjords.’ Locally known as ponds, these freshwater lakes were at one time connected to the ocean. However, uplift of the land after the last ice age has raised the coastal plain in relation to the ocean and these former fjords are now steep-sided lakes.

The most easily accessible is upper and lower Trout River Pond which is reached by following Highway 431 to the community of Trout River. The put-in is at a campsite located at the very western end of the Pond and from there Trout River Pond stretches for 15 kilometres back into the Long Range Mountains. There are possible wilderness campsites along much of the northern shore of the Pond and the peridotite barrens make hiking into the adjacent mountains relatively easy.

St.Paul’s Inlet is another worthy destination located at the north end of the park. With its seals, interesting scenery and waterfalls, it makes an ideal one-day paddle with plenty to do for an overnight trip as well.

Hazard

Although the Bay of Islands and Bonne Bay are relatively protected from the open Gulf of St.Lawrence, winds can funnel up or down these fjords creating large waves and difficult paddling. In the Bay of Islands watch for sudden winds, especially in the waters affected by Blow-me-down Mountain. Evidently early fishermen gave the mountain is name since their sailing schooners were frequently blown over by the strong gusty winds created by the mountain.

Paddlers should watch the weather and avoid any major crossings, particularly of the outer Bay of Islands, until they are comfortable in three to four-foot seas and gusty winds. Often paddling in the morning and early evening is best since wind speeds are usually less at these times. On most coastlines, getting off the water is not a problem if the wind comes up but keep an eye to the weather.

Kayakers Welcome

There is archaeological evidence to suggest that the forebears of modern Eskimos explored Newfoundland’s coastline, probably by kayak, several millennia ago. Today’s kayak is much improved and still provides an efficient, yet relaxing way to explore this coast. Newfoundland has 10,9000 miles of coastline in comparison to 6,000 miles of highway.

If you go

Corner Brook, Newfoundland’s second-largest city has lots of motels and hotels, car rentals, and restaurants. Daily ocean-paddling excursions in the Bay of Islands are offered by Eastern Adventures; otherwise bring your own kayak. For those travelling by car, Corner Brook is a two-and-one-half-hour drive from Port-aux-Basques, the ferry terminal which connects Newfoundland to Nova Scotia.


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