Paddling in the Bay of Exploits, Newfoundland

By Keith and Heather Nicol

August 2000 Trip

With over 17,000 kilometers of shoreline, Newfoundland and Labrador has a host of sea kayaking possibilities. Much of Newfoundland’s eye catching shoreline is scenic and you never know when a whale may surface or a flock of sea birds may add to your sea kayaking experience. Icebergs are another common feature of paddling in Newfoundland and sea kayaks are ideal craft to venture up close and personal to these beautiful, glistening shapes which are swept down by the Labrador current into Newfoundland waters. On a sunny day with light winds, a kayaker could put in just about anywhere in the province and have a fine day. Its almost like a kid in the candy store. Where should you start with so much to choose from? From my experience, a paddler couldn’t go wrong with a trip to the Bay of Exploits, in Notre Dame Bay.

The Bay of Exploits is located on Newfoundland’s northeast coast and offers up an area of over 1000 square kilometers with over 30 islands to add interest and variety to a sea kayaking excursion. This area is tucked into a large bay with the Exploits River - Newfoundland’s largest river - draining in at the south end. It has a long history of settlement and was once home to the extinct Beothuk Indians. Because of the maze of islands and the protection of the adjacent headlands, paddling is generally in protected water. Most islands are within 3 km or less of one another which means that you can almost always go paddling no matter what the wind direction. This is an important consideration when you consider that Newfoundland has a reputation for fast weather changes and high winds that spring up quickly. That is why for our first trip to this area we chose to go with Gros Morne Adventure Guides (GMAG), a sea kayaking and hiking company that pioneered sea kayak trips to the Bay of Exploits. They offer 1 week trips throughout the summer with each having its advantages. In the early summer, trips are more likely to encounter whales and icebergs but paddling in wet suits will be mandatory. We did our trip in early August, 2000 and paddled in shorts and t-shirts, went swimming in the ocean but saw no whales or bergs.

After a welcome dinner and orientation in Norris Point on Saturday August 5, we headed for Lawrence’s Harbour, our put in point, on Sunday morning. Our main guide was Dean Howell and he was ably assisted by Margo Eaton. Another couple from Calgary, Alberta, Marion Harrison and Peter Thompson, joined us to make a small but comfortable group. We arrived at noon and alternately off loaded the kayaks and ate lunch in the bright sunshine. Like Marion and Peter, we opted to use GMAG’s double kayaks which amply held our mountain of food, clothing and gear. By mid afternoon we were ready to go and set off for Northern Harbour into a light NW wind.

Once we left the inside of Lawrence Harbour with its small cottages and wharves, we paddled along a pristine, rocky shoreline. The low hills to the west were cloaked with spruce and fir, typical of Newfoundland’s boreal forest. To the east we could see the maze of islands which compose the Bay of Exploits. We arrived in Northern Harbour, our first night’s destination, in the late afternoon. Like many remote areas in Newfoundland, Northern Harbour once housed a small settlement which over time has been abandoned. This has created an ideal camping area with deep grass on an elevated marine terrace.

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Paddling across ship run to Exploits Island

Today there is still one house which is standing and appears to be used periodically by a local resident as a summer cottage. We set up camp while the shadows progressively lengthened and then Dean prepared a huge stir fry with fresh shrimp and fresh vegetables in a black bean sauce. Yum , Yum. Even after seconds and thirds there was still enough for 2-3 more people. "We have never had a complaint about food on our trips" said Dean and we could see why.

The next day dawned sunny and warm and we quickly broke camp for a paddle around Exploit’s Island. It is adjacent to Burnt Island and together they once housed over 600 people. But changes in the fishery and a government programme of resettlement means that now virtually no ones lives here full time. We headed toward Burton Cove on Exploits Island which was 5.5 kilometers away paddling past cliffs of bright orange lichen and pillow lavas.

Much of this area is composed of dark volcanic rock and pillow lavas record a time when this area was much more geologically active than it is today. Pillow lavas form when hot lava comes in contact with cold ocean water, cools quickly and the results are ‘pillow’ shaped lumps of lava. Newfoundland itself is a fascinating example of the earth’s plates in motion and was formed 450 million years ago when North Africa began to collide with North America. In the process, the Long Range Mountains of Western Newfoundland were formed, igneous rocks of various sorts (including pillow lavas) which compose much of the central part of Newfoundland came into being and eastern Newfoundland has been formed from a part of North Africa which was ‘sutured’ onto Newfoundland when this collision took place. Then 200 million years ago the ocean reopened, forming the Atlantic Ocean of today and now North America and Africa are moving in opposite directions at a few centimeters a year!!

After a leg stretch and juice break at Burton Cove, we paddled around Exploits Island exploring clefts and coves and watched as an eagle soared overhead. Closer to the water, common murres buzzed around looking for food for their young. These are amazing birds which can fly nearly as well under water as they can above the water! We rounded the tip of the island and then proceeded to enter a narrow slit of water which led to our lunch spot at the northern end of the island. We were surrounded by the historic community of Exploits, with many abandoned houses but also many houses that are now being fixed up by former residents as summer cottages.

After lunch we explored the local cemetery and hiked to the Lookout Hill where we could alternately see out into the Northeast Atlantic in one direction and back toward the old community which lay partially on Exploits Island and partially on adjacent Burnt Island. Exploits/ Burnt Islands was settled in the early 1800's but there were frequent skirmishes with the Beothuk Indians in the early days. The Exploit’s River system and this bay seemed to be a focus for the Beothuks but unfortunately by 1829 they were all killed, the result of starvation, disease, and battles with the incoming white fishermen.

Settlement on the islands peaked in the late 1800's at just over 600 people. By 1966, most of the remaining 289 people began to move to nearby communities as part of a provincial government resettlement programme. There was and still is much controversy in Newfoundland about this government resettlement programme. Between 1954 and 1965, 115 communities were resettled and families paid anywhere from $150-$600 to move. From 1965-1975, another 148 communities were abandoned with residents now being paid up to $1000 per household to move. So the experience on Exploits Island occurred in many places around the province.

We continued exploring the old community and walked along an old trail to the school which at one time went up to grade 9. It must have been hard for the students to keep their heads down at their work since the view out the large windows to the south was very impressive. The desks are still there along with pages of text books and left over homework which our group had a good chuckle over since we could remember the same books! After a stop to refill our water jugs at the community well, we paddled to Garden Cove to set up camp and we enjoyed our favourite dinner of the trip-fresh scallops with linguine and broccoli. Before dinner several of us went for a refreshing swim in the ocean and the water was remarkably warm.

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Garden Cove--great camping

Garden Cove used to be the community garden and so like Northern Harbour, is composed of deep grass making for a very comfortable sleeping surface. That evening after supper we paid a visit to Richard Wells and Lydia Budgell, 2 residents who decided to stay behind when the rest of the community was resettled in the mid 1960's. Over the years they have done some fishing and raised sheep for wool to support themselves. "We were never fond of the government’s resettlement scheme" Richard told us as we chatted on the back deck of their house which overlooks the water. "We dug our heels in and decided to stay.....but I guess now after all these years we could move off the island since we made our point". During the summer their house is a hubbub of activity as old friends and family drop in for a visit. Watching night fall we said goodbye and we paddled back to our camp site by headlamp.

The following day was overcast and windy so we decided to go for a 7 kilometer paddle around the Duck Islands where we discovered some interesting tidal pools and Dean pointed out some of the mysteries of the sea creatures in this area. "Imagine for a moment that you are a sea star " Dean said as he reached down to pick one up. " You have just had an accident at work where you have cut off your arm. Instead of getting concerned and rushing to the hospital you simply grow back another.

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Old School House at Exploits

At supper that night you put your foot on the table to smell the food and deciding that it is something you like you bring your stomach out through your mouth and eat away". Besides sea stars, Dean pointed out some sea urchins and even picked up an arctic red jelly fish the size of a small plate. "As long as you avoid the tentacles you hardly notice any sting" he said. In the afternoon we hiked 6 kilometers (one way) along an undulating forested trail to visit the manned lighthouse on Exploits Island. It is one of 24 manned lighthouses in Newfoundland and when we arrived, the keepers thought they had just seen some sperm whales in the distance. We scanned the water with our binoculars but the choppy water made it difficult to see them. Sperm whales are rare in these waters so a sighting here would be significant. We then hiked back to our kayaks and while we paddled the short distance to Garden Cove we heard thunder crack. This got us churning the water and we paddled as fast as we could and got under the large cooking tarp just as the rain and more thunder cut loose.

The weather on Wednesday did not improve and the northeast wind has picked up even more. We decided to head out around the south end of Burnt Island but soon reached waves that are becoming difficult to paddle into and so we turned around to seek out more protected water along the south side of Exploits Island. Once we turned the corner we are again hit by large swells coming in from the open ocean and so decide to turn around and head back to camp. The afternoon is spent reading in our tents and that evening Peter Thompson tells us about some of his caving escapades in Mexico and other countries.

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North end of Exploits Island-lunch stop

Thursday dawns sunny with moderate winds but the high clouds on the horizon signal yet more poor weather is on its way and so we pack up quickly and head for our previous campsite at Northern Harbour. We made good time along the protected south shore of Exploits Island and then we have the ‘big crossing’ back across Ship Run. At first Dean is hesitant since the some waves are breaking but we all say we should go for it so we stayed close together and paddled quickly across. We paddled the 8 km from Garden Cove to Northern Harbour in just 1.5 hours and it was just in time since we no sooner set up our tents and cooking tarp and the wind and rain started. It proceeded to pour all day but the combination of the numerous preparations needed for the evening’s dinner-a local favourite called fish and brewis- and swapping ski touring stories kept us occupied and laughing well into the evening. The rain gradually died out over night and the wind fortunately has dropped as well.

Friday started out with a light drizzle and we slowly broke camp. Just as we were about to pack up the cooking tent, the skies opened up so we decided to have another cup of coffee and wait out the downpour. Then the weather began to clear and we pushed off now thankful for the northeast wind. Although the wind was in our face to start with it soon becomes a tail wind as we turned the corner and we paddled and even surfed our way toward Lawrence Harbour. All to soon the cottages came into sight and we pulled up on the beach that we launched from just 5 days before.

We drove back to Norris Point in a convoy for our farewell dinner, a hot shower and clean sheets. Dean apologized for the weather and said our group didn’t get in nearly as much paddling as they normally do but we agreed it had been a great trip and we did get a chance to explore a special part of the province. And it certainly whetted our appetite to return to this area for more sea kayaking since we had seen how much more there was to see.

If you would like more information about paddling in Exploit’s Bay contact Gros Morne Adventure Guides, P.O. Box 275, Norris Point, Nfld, Canada AOK 3V0 or phone 1-800-685-4624. They can also be reached at or at their web page They also run sea kayak and hiking trips in the Gros Morne National Park.

Contributor Keith Nicol runs the winter Outdoor Pursuits programme for Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Heather Nicol is an avid photographer and outdoor person.

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