As our IcelandAir jet flew over a piece of Newfoundland well on the way to Reykjavik, my mind drifted back down to Port Aux Basques over fifty years ago.
On June 3, 1958 we arrived at North Sydney, Nova Scotia to board the car ferry early in the evening bound for Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland. The ship pulled out of a very foggy harbor at 11 p.m. for a seven- hour journey to a wonderfully wild Newfoundland, now part of the Province of Newfoundland-Labrador.
Newfoundland was part of the Dominion of England until 1949 (just nine years before our arrival) when it joined the Dominion of Canada. Two small off-shore islands named Saint Pierre and Miquelon still belong to France to this day.
I joined an ornithological expedition of the Newark Urner Club to get a chance, before my senior year at Rutgers, to experience some true wilderness of maritime Canada. Before we left Newfoundland, we would observe 86 different species of birds. Our final destination by car from Port Aux Basques would be the Argentian Peninsula (not far from St. John’s) with its immense sea cliffs housing countless thousands of subarctic shore birds.
We got off the ship at 6:30 a.m. Newfoundland time which is a half-hour ahead of the Atlantic Time Zone for New Brunswick, eastern parts of Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. I well remember the bald cliffs of coastal Noofy (as we called it) with the colorfully painted homes and buildings of Port Aux Basques, each building being a different color. It reminded me very much of Inuit villages upcoast in Labrador or Baffinland. After a hot mug of coffee and a sweet roll, we proceeded north on the wide dirt road of the Trans-Canada Highway for about five miles beyond the harbor to see clumps of spruce forest in protected nooks away from the icy winds of Noofy’s seacoast. We stopped by a small grassy meadow surrounded by forest to see Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Water Thrushes, Blackpoll Warblers and listen to the ah tee-tee-tee notes of White-throated sparrows. We spent the rest of the day birding, except for a grocery stop in Corner Brook where I practiced my French to purchase some basic necessities for camping nine nights on Newfoundland from Port Aux Basques to Argentia on the eastern shore.
All the while that we were in Corner Brook, a Newfoundland Hound puppy dog barked and barked in a very high and annoying pitch. To this day every time I hear a similar kind of barking, I am brought back to the chilly, foggy, spruce-clad hills of Newfoundland. It’s sort of a time anchor that all of us experience in one way or another. For the French novelist Marcel Proust, it was the taste of absinthe.
We pushed onward along the dusty Trans-Canada Highway to look for a suitable campsite. The four of us spread out our sleeping bags on the open tundra studded with a few spruce and fir trees. I slept soundly until pre-dawn when I sensed that something stared at me. When I opened my eyes, there stood a huge wild horse looking down at me and snorting. No one ever got out of a sleeping bag as fast as I did early that morning. The horse, along with a few others, lingered around our camp and slowly ambled off into the fog.
The next morning, a day later, after birding and driving north by east, we all woke up with a heavy frost on our sleeping bags. Though we camped not far from a “highway,” we could not help but sense the immense wilderness that surrounded us. To our north roamed a herd of 45,000 caribou who migrate from the northern-most peninsula to the southern shores in winter and the reverse in summer.
On our fourth or fifth day the Trans-Canada Highway came to a roaring halt at river’s edge. The only way across was via a one-car cable ferry that took about ten minutes. As we crossed we spotted Red-breasted Mergansers, Spotted Sandpipers, Winter Wrens and Fox Sparrows. Somehow this river crossing made me feel like I was somewhere out West in frontier times.
Arriving at Gambo, we had another surprise coming. The highway ended at Gambo! We had to drive our car up onto a flatcar of the Canadian National Railway and walk forward to a passenger coach for a 90-mile ride all the way to Clarenville. They called it a “train ferry.” Again I felt that I was in the frontier West. That night we camped under tundra-clad cliffs and I immediately dozed off into a deep sleep until I was awakened by a loud cawing of a crow early the next morning. But it wasn’t a crow, it was Don Kunkle, head of our expedition, making sure that I did not over sleep.
At last we arrived at the foggy, rainy sea cliffs of Argentia where we would watch the graceful flights of Herring Gulls and Great black-backed Gulls, Gannetts, Razor-billed Auks, Puffins and Kittiwakes. Though we quickly became as wet and fog-soaked as the landscapes, we remained unconcerned about the weather, because each of us had become entranced with the birds of Newfoundland.