Burgeo: The Pearl of
Newfoundland’s South Coast

By Richard Alexander
Photos courtesy of Kevin Redmond

"Leave no trace - take your garbage home with you, and leave nature the way you found it"

Nautical Chart: 4637, La Poile Bay to Ramea Islands

Burgeo is the quintessential historic fishing outport. The people of the community have used the sea as a livelihood and means of travel for generations. It was here that Canadian Author Farley Mowatt lived when he wrote his book, A Whale for the Killing. The diversity of paddling is phenomenal. Ancient Beothuck, Dorset Eskimo, and Maritime Archaic Indian sites litter the coast and outer islands. To the east, mountains cut by ancient fjords rise out of the sea. The west is almost entirely white sand beaches, secret channels, and sheltered bays. The area is a haven for a multitude of bird life, seals, caribou, and shipwrecks. Scott Cunningham of Coastal Adventures in Nova Scotia has called this area, "the prettiest paddle in Atlantic Canada." I would have to agree!

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My wife’s family originated from the Ramea Islands, which lie about 14 km off the coast of Burgeo. We had visited both places several times over the years, but despite this family connection, neither my wife, Michelle, nor myself had ever paddled it. We were anxious to do so. The Labour Day weekend in September was our last opportunity of the season and we were determined not to miss it. Saturday morning, we made the trip down the Burgeo road, 147 kilometers of paved highway that rises over the Long Range Mountains, crosses the interior barrens and then drops back down to sea level at the community.

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As with most paddling destinations, the most scenic spots in this area are also the most exposed. Burgeo and Sandbanks Provincial Park to the west take the brunt of the southerly prevailing wind; however, there are havens where paddlers have options during big seas. Our plan was to do a loop and cover as much of the varied topography as possible. Aaron Arm is the typical put-in as it provides safe access to a sheltered bay to the west called Big Barasway. From there we would make our way along the exposed coast and out to the islands surrounding Burgeo. Our final day would take us back to the community. If the wind was agreeable we would have attempted to make our way to the islands first, then to Big Barasway, doing the trip in reverse. When the conditions in Burgeo are good, you have to take advantage of them. On the day we put in, the winds were gusting up to 35 knots from the southeast so Aaron Arm was our only option.

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Paddling west we entered the Canal - a human-made channel between the Arm and Big Barasway (see footnote 1) . Bird life abounds in the area. Dozens of Greater Yellow Legs and Spotted Sandpipers followed us along guarding their territory. A short portage from the end of the Canal took us into the Barasway. At one time the Canal provided uninterrupted passage into Big Barasway. A high sand dune protected boats from the wind and waves of the open sea. But what Mother Nature provides, Mother Nature can take away! One winter, a fierce storm battered the sand dunes and washed out the uninterrupted channel.Camping spots are easy to come by in the sheltered Barasway. We chose to camp on a point hoping to get a little breeze to keep the flies at bay. As with most areas of Newfoundland, the shores of the upper Barasway can be damp. Waterproof footwear is an asset. The bottom of this sheltered bay is almost entirely white sand making it a perfect habitat for a species of soft-shelled clam. A promising commercial aquaculture project was proposed for the area but fell apart due to financing.

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The next morning a friendly Otter paid us a visit. Scurrying around our boats and seeming unafraid of our presence, he searched for left overs from the morning’s pancakes. Otters are not the only wildlife common in this area. Woodland Caribou make their way down from the interior to the water’s edge during the fall months. Although we didn’t see any on this trip, the signs were all around. Harbour seals are also very common and much easier to find. Around 9:00 AM we headed across the bay and up between the two big islands that dominate the middle of the Barasway. Several dozen seals lay basking on the seaweed covered rocks. They have not been hunted in years and as such, are quite tolerant of man. We glided by quietly so as not to disturb them, snapped a few pictures and watched them enjoying the morning sun.

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The wind had dropped off completely and we were anxious to paddle the exposed outer shore. The coast along this stretch is a tricky one to paddle. Seas can continue to run for long periods after the wind drops and the shallow beaches make strong surf landing skills essential. The rule of thumb for fishermen in the area is to wait overnight after strong southerly winds drop. Strong southwest winds can cause confused seas in some areas, particularly around Little Barasway Head and Fox Point. To top it off, strong tides run out of the two entrances to the Canal. I have estimated that at maximum flow, the tide can run at about 3 knots. This causes eddies and very confused and choppy seas at the entrances to the sheltered paddling area. On this day however the sea was like oil. A gentle swell was all that was left from the previous day’s weather.

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White sand for miles and miles and miles is the only way to describe this day’s scenery. You look down through the aqua blue water and see nothing but powdered white sand. This is a rarity in our province. Newfoundland and Labrador’s shores are characterized by high-energy waves that typically pull the sand off the beach and deposit it far off shore. The unique geography, currents and winds in this area have left the sand exposed and shifting constantly. For miles in either direction crescent beaches, like something out of the Caribbean, provide a soft contrast to the islands and headlands of exposed bedrock. A few hours of paddling brought us back to the community.

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Burgeo is an archipelago of over 100 islands. The community is a maze of bridges and tickles that make for some very interesting paddling. In Mercer Cove we looked down through the calm water at the remains of an old schooner. The magnificent ship had been anchored during a big storm but was unable to stay moored. She was blown through the cove and onto the rocks dragging her anchor all the way. We crossed to the outer islands and made our camp on one of the largest, Rencontre Island. There is a very small stream on the island that typically runs dry so bringing water with you is a must. The sides of Rencontre’s harbor are steep and camping spots are few but there are a couple of very good reasons for using the island. High in the cliffs overlooking the back of the island is a Beothuck blind built for hunting birds, and a classic example of a Beothuck grave site. First discovered in 1847, nothing is left in the way of artifacts but the locals still find things like scrappers and even arrowheads all along the coast. The Maritime Archaic Indians and the Dorset Eskimos also called this area home, and more than likely camped on Rencontre and many of the other islands that paddlers camp on today. At the west side of the harbor there is another shipwreck easily visible from the seat of a kayak. This ship however, has a less colorful story. She had apparently outlived her usefulness to the owners who towed her out to the little cove and deliberately sank her.

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The final morning we woke to 15-knot southwest winds. The paddle past Boar Island and around to the far side of the community was pleasant and easy. One of our last stops was at Aldridge’s Pond. It is a saltwater pond with two entrances to the sea. Years previous, a Fin whale chased a school of herring into the pond and became trapped when the tide fell. The locals attempted to put the whale out of its misery and killed it. Later they towed the carcass out to the little harbor on Rencontre Island. This is where Farley Mowatt came up with the title to his novel, A Whale for the Killing. Farley is not a well-liked individual among residents of Burgeo. His portrayal of the local population in his novel was less than complimentary. From the upper end of Long Reach, it was a short 2-kilometer walk back to the put in at Aaron Arm. We loaded the truck and stopped in at Sandbanks Provincial Park for a much welcome shower. There is a beautiful Bed and Breakfast in the community called Burgeo Haven. Ann and Bill Parsons, the owners, have that typically superb Newfoundland Hospitality that is so common in outports along the coast. A quick spot of tea with Ann and Bill was mandatory before heading out. Burgeo is quickly becoming one of the premier paddling destinations in the province. Currently there are four companies running trips in and around Burgeo. The big draw of this area is the scenery. It is no less than spectacular! The exposed coast between Big Barasway and Burgeo was the highlight for both Michelle and myself. Our trip to the area was made memorable partially because of the great conditions we experienced. If paddlers were to strike bad weather many of the exposed crescent beaches could be hiked. If you would like more information please drop me a line at 709-726-0516 or nfkayakco@nf.sympatico.caPaddling distance: Day 1, 7 km
Day 2, 22 km
Day 3, 12 km

Footnote 1. In reference to the original version of this report, David Calder stated "I just thought you might like to know that the "canal" that you referred to is not a natural connection from Aaron's Arm, (or the little Barasway), to the big Barasway. It is in fact a man-made canal, hence the name. It was dug by the people of Burgeo sometime in the 1800s to get easier access to Grandy's Brook because until then the only way to get to the brook by boat was to go all the way around to the entrance of the big Barasway, several miles further west, which was then the main outlet of the brook, and keep in mind that they didn't have any motor boats in those days!" (e-mail correspondence, 16 June 2001).

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