Trip Report - Bonavista Bay

August 24-31, 2003
By Tim Hollett

Photos by Richard Chisholm, Tim Hollett, Glen Rose and Jim Warren

After indulging in some nuptial celebrations the prior night, I was a little under the weather come departure day. And it was a busy one. Richard Chisholm, Glen Rose, Jim Warren and myself were preparing to head out on our second annual kayak vacation.

Glen had dropped Richard and Jim off at Trinity, Bonavista Bay (not to be confused with the artsy little town of the same name in Trinity Bay), at 9:00 am, and now he, my lovely wife (and shuttle driver) Lisa and I were traveling north from Clarenville. We felt a little bad for Jim and Richard. Glen had left them sitting at a boat launch hours ago in an unknown small town with their kayaks and gear and some pretty nasty showers and wind.

At approximately 1:30 pm, we arrived in Trinity. Jim and Richard were doing fine and had just had a jigs dinner compliments of some new friends (the Roger’s). Newfoundland hospitality is alive and well in Trinity, Bonavista Bay!!!

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Richard (right) posing with our new friends at the put-in. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

Having loaded our gear, under the watchful gaze of our new friends, we shoved off at about 2:10 pm under partly cloudy skies and a diminishing tailwind. The general plan this year was to explore the outer islands of Bonavista Bay over a nine-day period.

Why Bonavista Bay? The decision was based on a combination of curiosity and pragmatism. First, we had all done minimal paddling in the area before. Lisa and I had been to the Flat Islands by kayak from Burnside and Jim and Richard had enjoyed an afternoon iceberg paddle near Salvage a few year’s back. Other than that this was new territory with inviting looking islands (at least on a topo). Second, we are all working stiffs and a little “vacation-limited” come August. For this reason, we wanted to stick to something relatively close to home to ease the car shuttling time and other logistical burdens.

As we paddled east out Trinity Bay, Bonavista Bay, (confusing…I know!), we enjoyed a westerly tailwind and spotted our first of many birds of prey (a bald eagle). Our goal for the afternoon was the Fair Islands.  The topo showed a cluster of buildings there, which normally means a resettled community with decent meadows to camp in.

Unique looking white rocks loomed to the east of the Trinity Gut area. Geologically, this area no doubt has some significance to those with an eye for rocks (not us unfortunately!). The Dover Fault, a geological formation caused by the collision of the European and North American continents several hundred million years ago, is just south of here in the town of Dover.

We paddled north of Lewis Island and Saint Island to the Fair Islands. The outside island in this little archipelago was resettled in 1961 and with the density of cabins present today it looks as much like a small coastal village as it does a resettled community. The ground looked to be very open, low, rocky, and unlevel (not too camping friendly), so we decided to check out Pork Island.

Pork Island is, relatively speaking at least, a little higher with contours to 100’, and some small forest, so we felt it may offer some better camping options. Sure enough, on the west side of Sydney Cove we found a quiet little campsite with conveniently flat cooking rocks in the centre, soft ground around the outside for tents, beautiful purple wildflowers, blueberries and raspberries in abundance and even a few red currants. The landing site was rough, with large rocks of the coarsest hull-eating conglomerate I’ve ever seen, but it was certainly manageable if done with care.

That evening we set up camp, enjoyed the first of many meals of fancy noodles (aka Lipton Sidekicks), before turning in early to some light shower activity.

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Early Morning at Sydney Cove camp. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

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Cabins in the Fair Islands. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

The next morning dawned with more unsettled weather, a mixture of fast moving heavy dark cloud and some sunny breaks. Jim and I hiked across the island. There were several cabins nearby in Sydney Cove and a few others on the opposite side of the island along route “A19”. The locals apparently appreciate the humour of using highway-like signs and alphanumeric names to mark their trails. On the return trip, we enjoyed a few red currants and I had my first encounter of the trip with stinging nettles.

We put in by mid-morning. Our first priority was finding water for our next campsite. There were no streams or ponds to be found on the Fair Islands and our next stop, the Deer Islands, didn’t look much better. Having decided our best bet would be a well, we paddled out to the resettled village on the easternmost island that we had seen on arrival. Given the time of the week (Monday), the cabins were largely deserted except for one, so we paddled over to investigate.

These folks displayed the usual friendliness and curiosity that kayakers still evoke in many parts of this province. A young lady, in flannel pyjamas, came out of the cabin videotaping us and enquiring as to where we called home. Thirty minutes later, after some friendly chatter and a little exploration of an old church foundation, we were paddling off with 5 gallons of fresh water from their well .

We paddled around the outside of this island enjoying the swell and rounded white conglomerate rocks and cliffs that seem to dominate these islands. A graveyard came in to view on the southern side of the island, before we started our crossing below Southwest Island to Lewis Head on Lewis Island. We then changed course to due south bound for Deer Island under light head winds and partly cloudy skies.

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Richard paddling by white rock in the Fair Islands. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

As we neared Deer Island, we spotted, and heard, a large loon. After stopping for a quick stretch and a bite, we headed east through a small tickle that separates Deer Island from several smaller ones to the north. Here we found two additional cabins. One, on Deer Island, is set in a large inviting meadow that was obviously the remnants of an old community. An outhouse, designed to look light a lighthouse, complete with the light no less, was the highlight of this property.  The other cabin, on one of the islands on the north side of the tickle, was occupied by a gentleman and his rather excitable black Labrador called Cindy. Once Richard’s excitement waned (his wife bears the same name!), we exchanged greetings and enquired as to suitable campsites. The gentlemen suggested we explore Long Reach. Long Reach, though not named on the 1:50,000 topo, is the narrow tickle that runs south and east of Deer Island for about three kilometers.

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Lunch stop on Deer Island. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

As we traveled east, and turned to run southwest through Long Reach, the scenery changed rather dramatically. Traveling through the reach, which is no more than 20 feet wide in places, felt more like paddling the steady of an inland river than on the saltwater in the middle of Bonavista Bay. Both sides were barren and had apparently been ravenged by a brush fire. There were plenty of tuckamore-sized rampikes, and the low barren hills were lined with white snake-like dry twigs that looked as though they could come alive at any moment. There were noticeable current effects in the more narrow portions of this channel, but certainly nothing unmanageable.

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Paddling up long reach. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

At this point, we were on the watch for campsites, and getting less picky by the minute. We finally settled on a rough wilderness site in a little bay on the south side of the reach (about 2 km in). Amenities consisted of a very small beach where we could lift the loaded boats up on the barrens for unloading, some rocks at the shoreline for cooking, and relatively speaking of course, level barrens for tents. The barrens, as in all places on this island, were strewn with dry brittle wood, so any tent sites had to be carefully picked clean of these “kidney pokers” before laying a groundsheet.

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Long Reach Camp. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

After setting camp we cooked up our next gourmet meal, and hiked to the east side of the island. From here we could see some cabins in the area of Bragg’s and Popplestone Island, the outside islands in the Deer Island chain.

That night the winds came up heavy from the southwest. The barrens actually made a perfect mattress for me that night (I was lucky as Richard and Jim would attest), and slept well despite the howling winds, which gusted to 30 knots or more, rattling the tent. The next day we all stayed in the tents a little longer, quite certain that this would not be a good day to cross Pitt Sound Reach to Cottel Island.

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Glen contemplates another night in the Deer Islands with Pitt Sound Reach in the background. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

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Sunset at Long Reach camp. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

At about 9:00, we crawled out of our tents and secured them to rocks or brush for added safety. With the wind and the poorly holding pegs in the barren ground, we did not want to risk having one of our tents head for Greenland.

After a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we took a short hike to the southern end of the island. From that vantage point, we could see that Pitt Sound Reach was covered with whitecaps and decided it would be prudent to take advantage of one of our three planned storm/rest days. While returning we took a bit of a different route through several small lightly forested valleys in the hopes of finding some form of water that we could treat and filter. However, the island proved about as arid as things get in Newfoundland with not even a bog to wet sneaker-clad feet.

Richard and I volunteered to paddle out the protected reach to the area with the light/outhouse in search of water. The only water on the Deer Islands, according to our topo, was a small pond and stream immediately west of the cabins location. We packed up 6 one-gallon bottles and departed, while Jim and Glen stayed behind and relaxed.

Paddling out the reach proved quite easy as the strong southwesterly winds channeled in our backs. When we got to the meadows, we pulled up in a small cove east of the cabin and hiked in search of the stream.

The stream proved disappointing, with a few brackish pools around the high tide mark diminishing to nothing 50 feet into the bush. We bushwhacked further in, and found a few boggy areas, but little in the way of sensible drinking water, though Richard did manage to inadvertently find a waist deep bog hole.

Upon returning to the meadow, we located several old wells one of which was still in use. After filtering enough water for another night’s stay, we were off again. For the return to camp, we explored a slightly different route through low rock gardens and shallows, and around the outside of one of the islands which border Long Reach. Given the shoals and rocks of this area, just east of Bragg’s Island, it would no doubt prove a dramatic sight in a heavy northeasterly swell. That day, it made for an aerobic 30-minute paddle against strong channeling headwinds.

Upon returning to camp, we made tea and supper while watching the activity of a pair of Osprey. At one point, we were treated to the sight of one of these beautiful fishers flying above our campsite, with prey in its talons and a small hawk in pursuit. An eagle could also be seen riding the thermals.

The next day dawned calmer and relatively clear. After a quick breakfast we departed for the crossing to the easterly tip of Pitt Sound Island. As the topos would indicate, Pitt Sound Island, though certainly not mountainous, proved a contrast to the 50’ elevation common throughout most of the Deer Islands. We then changed course to round Hair Cut Point on Cottel Island and enter Male Cove (St. Brendan’s Harbour).

St. Brendan’s, along with several other communities on Cottel Island, somehow escaped the resettlement program of the 1960’s and continues to be serviced by a ferry from Burnside.

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Horse and abandoned home just inside Male Cove on Cottel Island. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

After having a chat with yet more friendly locals and restocking our water supply, we headed along Hayward Cove. Before reaching Hunch Island we came upon a curious looking kayaker in a homemade fiberglass whitewater boat (circa 1970) with a whalebone skeg. We learned that he was visiting St. Brendan’s from Ontario. He had fashioned the skeg recently, from materials found on the beach, to aid the tracking of his new craft. Though we could all appreciate his friendliness, apparent ingenuity and carefree attitude we couldn’t help but question his preparedness. We bade the happy-go-lucky seafarer goodbye and warned him of coming weather, as 30 knot southerly winds and thundershowers were forecast for later that evening. At this point we were looking to make tracks to beat these winds which would make for a difficult punch on the crossing due south to the Flat Islands, the next scheduled stop, on our magical mystery tour.

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The rarest sighting of our trip…another kayaker (middle)!! Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

The crossing to the Flat Islands took us through several low unnamed islands and shallows southeast of Cottel Island and along the western side of Great Black Island. On the south west side of Great Black Island, we noted an inviting meadow and beach that looked as though it would make an idyllic campsite, albeit without water, but that had been the story of the trip so far. Despite our aching paddling muscles, and the heat of the day, we decided to push on another couple of kilometers to Flat Island. Here the old settlement would provide some interesting sightseeing opportunities and places to explore.

We set-up camp in a meadow on the southeast side of Flat Island, close to a narrow tickle which opens up to the south. After setting up our tents, the sunny skies gave way to clouds and rain that would continue intermittently throughout the remainder of the afternoon. Luckily, an abandoned concrete root cellar proved to be a useful cooking shelter in the inclement weather.

That evening, after hiking around the old graveyards, we watched an Osprey repeatedly doing its awkward hover and unsuccessfully diving for fish. Soon after turning in, we were treated to heavy rains, the forecasted strong southerlies and, while laying in wet aluminum supported structures on a flat treeless island, lots of bright lightning.

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In the root cellar….I’ve looked better!! Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

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This discovery on the roof of our little cookhouse caused Glen and Jim to question its intended purpose…locals later assured us they were indeed for storing food!!! Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

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Flat Island Camp. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

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The Harbour on Flat Island. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

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Looking south from the tickle on Flat Island towards Ship Island and the Eastport Peninsula (our next crossing). Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

We could all hear the wind howling the following morning and made no rush to arise. We took a walk around the tickle to view the white caps and rough water along our planned crossing route. The sky was still layered with heavy dark clouds, causing us to question whether we had seen the last from the night’s convective storm.

As the morning progressed, conditions improved as forecast, so we put in by 11:15. Our plan was to paddle west to Bessy Island, assess the conditions and then decide whether we would take the direct route to Ship Island and Salvage or a more conservative option in around Willis and Morris Island. The 1st option proved quite feasible, however, so we set course due south for Ship Island crossing it on its eastern side. With slim to no landing options on Ship Island in the swell, we pushed on in the chop, against building afternoon breezes, on an identical course to Salvage on the Eastport Peninsula.

Immediately outside of Salvage, we spotted a Minke, our first whale of the trip. We took a short body break in Bishops Harbour, before paddling around the peninsula and across Broomclose Harbour, and Little Barrow Harbour en route to our next planned camp in Padners Cove of Barrow Harbour.

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Padner’s Cove Camp at Barrow Harbour. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

Padners Cove is an idyllic little campsite conveniently located on the hiking trail between Salvage and Sandy Cove. There is a stream (the first campsite water of trip), and a pond, though muddy, that provided an opportunity for a much needed wash before hiking to Salvage.

The hike to Salvage from this camp is about 5 km. The trail is fairly well maintained, though sometimes poorly marked (watch for the cairns in the open areas). The return trip was done entirely by headlight under a clear moonless sky that offered a spectacular view of Mars on one of its closest approaches in tens of thousands of years.

The following morning dawned sunny and warm and we hit the water around 11:20. We paddled west along the north shore of Keats Islands and through a sea arch between Keats and Goodman’s Island. We also explored some narrow, deep slot-like passageways in the cliffs amongst interesting sea stacks in Hammer Head on Keats Island.

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Sea Arch in Arch Tickle (go figure!). Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

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Richard, eyeing a way through the slots at Hammer Head. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

The next crossing that lay ahead took us directly from Hammer Head into Terra Nova National Park and East Point on Swale Island. Upon reaching Swale Island, after battling yet more progress slowing headwinds, I found myself gazing at the inhospitable swell beaten cliffs, wondering where would be a good place for a body break. Luckily, Jim found one small beach in Hobb’s Cove that proved a great spot for a 20-minute rest. The next reasonable option, given the cliffy nature of this exposed side of the island, would have been to sacrifice my water bottle for another purpose!

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Crossing to Swale Island in short swell and yet more building head winds. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

The section of Swale Island up to Burnt Point offered some shelter from the headwinds, but we were soon punching again. Once again, we chose the direct route across Swale Tickle to Hurloc Head. As we crossed this channel, there appeared to be noticeable current flowing out from Newman Sound as a ferry angle of 20 degrees was required to maintain course. Our plan was to round Hurloc Head and then start looking for a campsite in the Lion’s Den, as we were all getting tired on what was turning out to be one of our more challenging days.

As we rounded Hurloc Head, and continued into the Den against the stiff headwinds, it became apparent that a natural wilderness campsite was going to be difficult to find in this area. The vegetation (small trees and scrub) persisted to the rocky shoreline with not a meadow or, even good barren, to be found. We soon realized out best bet for a comfortable night would be to locate one of the two wilderness campsites maintained by the Park. We had no knowledge of the location, but trusted the parks descriptions of a “coastal” campsite at “Lion’s Den North” and “Lion’s Dens South” and figured, if nothing else looked suitable, we could grab one of these if vacant.

As we got further in the inlet, I decided to go direct to the head of the inlet while Jim combed the shoreline. The first one to find the campsite would use the trusty Fox 40 to signal the others. At virtually the head of the bay, in fact the most distant point that could still qualify as “North” in the Lion’s Den, I finally found a small break in the now forested shoreline that looked promising. Upon paddling in, three Eagles immediately flew up from my chosen landing spot at our long awaited campsite. A quick inspection revealed a concrete block for cooking, a structure for hauling food out of the reach of black bears, and, in another clearing, a nice meadow for tents. This was Lion’s Dens North and we were pleasantly surprised to find it vacant on Labour Day Weekend.

I made my way back to my boat and, not wanting to break the quiet of the evening or disturb my two white-headed feather friends eyeing me from nearby trees, I tried to signal the guys by waving my paddle. However, the sun, now low in the western sky, was obscuring any view they would have had of me. I finally gave a shout (I couldn’t bare to blow that shrieking whistle unless my life was in danger) and the guys starting moving in my direction. It was now 6:20. We had been on the water for over 7 hours, paddling against stiff headwinds, with less than 30 minutes for breaks, and we were hungry. After setting up camp, cooking, and safely stowing our food on the bear sticks we did a little sky watching in the moonless/cloudless sky. Mars was glowing red through the trees, several shooting stars were spotted and, much closer to earth, bats were flying about overhead.

I awoke early to the sound of birds…many birds…some completely unknown and others familiar, like one particular group of “dueling” loons that seemed incredibly excited. As we all crawled out and slowly gathered at the cooking pad, we  discussed our plans for the day. A unanimous decision was easy at this point….rest day!

Jim and I geared up late morning to check out a portion of the Outport Trail, the route that gave birth to this lovely campsite. Just outside the campsite, a sign gave us the option for two one-way hikes; Broad Cove at 5 km or Lion’s Den South at 2.7 km. We were a little curious as to whether or not we lucked into the best campsite of the two so we decided on the shorter of the two jaunts.

The first thing that struck us about the trail was how unused it was. There were no human footprints to be seen and the trail, over bog and forest floor, was barely discernable in places. This was definitely not a well-traveled route.

The trail traveled through boreal forest, along ponds and cliffs, with some seriously hilly sections, and flocks of black ducks on into the Lion’s Dens South camp. As expected, it too was vacant. It seemed a bit of a shame that no backpackers were availing of the Outport Trail, and these magical campsites, on this, the last long weekend of the summer.

We returned to camp around 1:00. Richard and Glen had been busy as well, adding some improvements to our cook tarp for the following morning as rain was forecast.  We then kicked back in 25 degree + heat, and killed a good part of the day listening to DNTO on CBC, reading, writing and relaxing in the shade. The fair weather also provided an opportunity for a much needed wash in a small tidal pool and brook just west of our campsite. We turned in shortly after dark, under low cloud. By 9:30 it was raining hard, and continued to do so for most of the night.

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Hiking the Outport Trail. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

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The boats at Lion’s Den North with the cook site in the background. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

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Camp at Lion Dens North. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

The rain stopped as we were waking up, and the skies quickly cleared, making our breakfast tarp unnecessary. We ate our breakfast to the sound of cackling eagles and shoved off at about 9:30 under a light tailwind and sun. Our plan for the day was open. We were pretty sure that we could make the 30+ km to Summerville comfortably if the winds were fair, but decided to play it by ear. On the one hand, there was a great forecast so another night in a tent would have presented no hardship. But on the other, a day to relax and clean up some gear before work on Monday also had its advantages.

As we paddled out of the Lion’s Den and around Park Harbour point we entered a huge school of thousands of densely packed moonjellies that lasted for close to a kilometre. These transparent jellyfish, the larger ones the size of serving plates, were so thick that, at times, it was difficult to get a paddlestroke in without feeling their resistance.

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Moonjellies as taken from the cockpit with a waterproof disposable. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

As we paddled through the Overs Islands, a flock of black ducks, easily 30 to 40 birds, took flight momentarily, circled away from us and settled back on their rocky perch, as we paddled away. A small cabin could be seen on a south facing shore. Later, as we chatted with some cabin owners in the Pudding Cove area across Chandler Reach, we learned that this structure was put in place by the park and was used as a cookhouse by locals. It is now, however, in a state of disrepair, and, based on the descriptions provided to us, tenting is still a better option.

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Paddling through the Overs Islands. Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

The day was warming up splendidly as we crossed Chandler Reach with a favourable tail wind. This was the first tailwind we had since day one, and it was certainly welcome. We stopped for a break in a small cove just west of Pudding Cove where some characteristically hospitable cabin owners invited us for tea. As I sat at an immaculately kept table, in a chair for the first time in a week, I was immensely thankful for yesterday’s brackish bathing opportunity!

As we paddled towards Chance Head, we saw several cabins in the Deer Island area and even surprised one poor lady who was quite obviously not used to the stealth-like nature of our craft. She had been sunbathing on her deck, European style, and had made a hasty retreat as we rounded the point and came into view.

The area of Chance Head and Cutler Head proved a stark contrast to the low coasts of the Lion’s Den and the Overs Islands that we had been paddling a few hours earlier. These exposed cliffy headlands, have several small caves and other interesting rocky features that I never tire of exploring.

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Chance or Cutler Head (I can’t quite remember!). Thumbnail - click on image to enlarge.

We opted not to explore the area of Sweet Bay this time around. Though it looks quite appealing, it is an area easily explored on a leisurely weekend so we left it for another day. Instead, we passed from headland to headland rounding Katie Head and on to Summerville at about 3:30 pm. This, our eighth and final day, totaled 31 km, and was actually our easiest since leaving the Deer Islands in the northern part of the bay. Mother nature, at long last, had provided a little push to help us home.

Trip Summary

The approximate paddling route of our trip is outlined on Map 1.

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Day 1 Trinity to Pork Island (16 kms) with camp in Sydney Cove. 

Day 2 Pork Island to Long Reach in Deer Islands (17 km). Camping on the barrens.

Day 3 “Rest Day”. A little exploration in search of water. 

Day 4 Deer Islands to Flat Islands via outside of Cottel Island. (21 km). Cooking in an abandoned root cellar on Flat Island

Day 5 Flat Island to Padners Cove in Barrow Harbour on Eastport Peninsula (22 km)

Day 6 Padners Cove to Lion’s Den via southeastern side of Swale Island (23 km)

Day 7 “Rest Day”. Hiking on the Outport Trail

Day 8 Lion’s Den to Summerville (31 km)

 Total Route Length: Approximately 130 km

 General Notes

Like most of Newfoundland’s Coast that I’ve seen, the best wilderness camping options are usually where people once lived. Otherwise trees and scrub generally go right to the beach rocks.

The northernmost islands of our route are generally low, and as the topos suggest, have little fresh water apart from the wells of resettled communities and even these are sparse at times. It is not difficult to get along, but, if in the area, it is always good to scout out some drinking water early in the day and take it on to your next campsite. Good tenting and fresh water will, more often than not, be difficult to find in the same place.

All of our crossings were uneventful, though at times lengthy given the headwinds. Most notable was the crossing from the Flat Islands to Salvage. Though Ship Island does break up this 9 km or so crossing about 3 km in, there were no easy landings, at least on the eastern side of the island, which would offer much refuge should the winds come up from the north east. There is also good potential for strong channeling amongst the many islands and reaches, and as noted, there appeared to be considerable current in the Swale Island area that may make things choppy should you get a stiff opposing wind.

A late summer trip to the area offers several advantages. Berries were plentiful and ripe for the picking. The water is relatively warm, though, as expected, not as “balmy” as more southern waters, such as Placentia Bay, at this time of year. The Labrador Currentnever really relinquishes its grip on the north and east coast of the island. Wind conditions, as summer draws to a close, do tend to get a little more unpredictable as well, but southwesterly flows still prevail. We chose to go against these winds for a change (and for shuttling convenience), but, if you like coasting, you may be better off betting on the opposite direction.

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