canada,  north america,  travel

Western Brook Pond Hike in Newfoundland

The entire impetus for my trip to Newfoundland started with Western Brook Pond in Gros Morne National Park, and ultimately that insane view looking down into the gorge. I knew I wanted to experience that for myself and set about finding out how to make that happen. It turns out that the only way to get there is to book a guided hike, which will run you about $300 CAD. This includes the boat ride across the “pond” and taking you up the backcountry trail to the ridge overlooking the gorge. The tour operator had sent a preliminary email before the hike, outlining what one should bring and also warning of the need for good physical fitness, as the hike would be a demanding one.

The day began bright and early at 7:30 am. Armed with multiple layers, bracing for the unknown variable that is Newfoundland weather, and a day pack with just the essentials, I walked over to the Out East Adventures offices in Rocky Harbour to meet up with the tour. There, I met our guides for the day–Brad, our jovial team lead who was quick with a joke or a sly zinger, as well as Faith and Brad #2, younger support guides who were similarly good-humoured. I was joined by 6 other hikers, a family of 3 up from Vermont as well as 3 solo hikers from Saskatchewan and Ontario.

After signing our life away, we drove about 30 min to the Western Brook Pond parking lot. We were graced with gloriously sunny skies, which were a relief given the rain the day prior and forecast for the day after. The day’s hike began with an easy 3 km walk to the lake, on a wide gravel path, cutting through bogs and marshes. It wasn’t long before we caught sight of the lake and the imposing mouth of the gorge rising from it. Brad informed us, rather tartly when many of us guessed, that it was not in fact a fjord but a gorge (because it no longer has access to sea water). The steep gorge walls, making up the northernmost part of the Appalachian Mountains, had been carved away by a glacier during the ice age about 20,000 years ago. The rock itself dates to 1.25 billions years ago!

We piled into a small speedboat and were soon whizzing off across the lake. Because of its low nutrient content, the lake has the distinction of being classified as ultraoligotrophic (Brad happily drilled that term into us). As a result, it is very clear, with very high drinking-quality water, which we would later experience firsthand during the hike. Brad slowed every so often to point out various geological features and also for a photoshoot, which was our first taste of Brad the Photographer, who cheerfully directed us and shouted out praise and encouragement like any good portrait photographer (“Looking fabulous! Great shot! Beautiful!”).

We passed by a cliff, where what looked like a ladle had scooped out a a large chunk. Apparently, in 1911, a portion of the cliff broke off and fell into the lake, causing a nearly 100 ft tsunami and decimating the surrounding foliage.

As we approached our dock, we came upon Pissing Mare Falls–a rather inelegant name for what is a stunning waterfall. At about 1125 feet, it’s the highest in the province (and one of the highest in eastern North America). We disembarked and set off into the trees, following a game trail. Moose is apparently the major game of the area, though we ultimately were never lucky enough to see one.

This was my first experience with backcountry hiking, and I understood very quickly the necessity of having guides. Brad led the way, and the younger contingent took up the rear. During our orientation, we’d been informed that there were 3 phases to the hike. Phase 1: relatively gentle. We picked our way over roots and rocks, down trails that were often not a full person wide. Eventually, we came across Moose Meadows, so named for…well, you know.

As a self-proclaimed slow hiker, I appreciated the regular stops, either for rest/water or narration. Brad would point out flora and occasionally have us sample the flavours of the Newfoundland woods. We slowly gained in elevation, carefully making our way across a massive rock slide, which we learned had occurred within the last few years. Apparently the guides started the hikes one season and were shocked (and more than a little stressed out) to come across a completely new geological layout in their hike.

Phase 2: rock, water, and grade. When we finally graduated to phase 2, things got noticeably more intense. We were warned that our feet would get wet–and they were definitely true to their word. We crossed streams, pools, and waterfalls. The nice thing, in some respects, about getting one’s feet wet, is that you no longer worry about getting your feet wet. So often when you come across a stream or pond, you try to hop-scotch your way across rocks to avoid the water. But once wet, you stop worry about it, and it’s ultimately safer to just wade through rather than risk slipping and twisting an ankle. I did manage to slip whilst trying to traverse a sheer and wet rock face. Thankfully, my ass broke the fall, so I was able to hop back up and continue without missing a step, so to say.

We were all perpetually marvelling at Brad, who would seemingly float across the rocks and watery trails, all while carrying a 50 lb pack with emergency supplies. At one point, I told him that his sprite-liness basically meant he was a woodland nymph (much to his chagrin, as I suppose it’s not the most “manly” moniker but to the delight of his younger colleagues who assured me he would not live that name down). It became a running joke for the rest of the hike, and eventually he declared that we were all Team Woodland Nymph. The trail’s grade steepened increasingly, and we huffed and puffed, as we pulled ourselves up rocks, squeezed ourselves through holes, and scrambled up waterfalls. I’d been using my trekking poles for most of the hike, but at this point in the trail, they had just become a nuisance/liability. Brad kindly offered to just carry them for me, and my desire to not slip and impale myself on them outweighed my desire to not impose.

Mercifully, a tall waterfall signified the end of phase 2, and we found ourselves a bit of rock to sit on and wolf down some lunch. As I couldn’t find any pre-packaged sandwiches in town, I’d bought fixings and made cheese and mayo sandwiches. Basic, but it did the trick. I stared up at the waterfall with some apprehension, as I knew the lookout we were headed for was atop it. We were told to leave what we could behind, as we’d be coming back down and could pick it up again. I stripped down to just my jacket and no pack, as Brad offered to take my camera in his pack. Phase 3: holy shit! It was by far the steepest part of the hike, which had become basically rock climbing. It was a team effort, as we’d often turn to grab the hand of the person behind us to help them up or steady them. Thankfully, Brad stopped regularly to allow everyone to catch up and also catch their breath. At each stop, he’d declare “just 5 more minutes!”, which we knew to be bullshit every time. After about 45 minutes of clawing our way up, we finally caught sight of the rocky clearing and cheered in victory.

It was truly a breathtaking vista. The aches and wet feet and all of that faded away, as I soaked in the epic expanse. We were also able to see just how far we’d come that day (and how far we’d need to go back again!). Brad hopped into photographer mode once again, and as I was already taking photos, I was first up. He spent about 10 minutes with each of us, taking us through a series of poses and locations. I appreciated his diligence (and his commentary)–certainly got our money’s worth of shots!

We probably spent about an hour at the viewpoint, resting and being photographed. The clouds had started to roll in and cooled things off, and we mentally braced ourselves for the descent. If knees could panic, mine would’ve been in anticipation of the jarringly steep journey they were about to embark upon. I asked for any advice on how to get down–Brad joked “don’t fall”, followed by the more genuine suggestion of not being afraid to “bum-scooch” down steep bits. As we made our way down, I was definitely grateful for that advice. I feel like it wouldn’t have occurred to many of us to not just try to take the descent fully standing–but it was so much easier to just crouch or even just sit and spider our way down, bracing ourselves with a combination of arms and legs.

This was not to say we didn’t have the occasional spill. One woman slipped behind me and apparently did a kind of somersault, before face planting in the dirt (mercifully, she didn’t badly injure herself nor did she take out the rest of us below like bowling pins). We slowly picked our way down, grasping root and rock, until eventually we made it back to the base of the waterfalls, where we’d left our belongings. We continued downwards, pleased to come across milestones from our journey up to mark our progress. We went through a particularly deep pool of water (a different route than when we’d went up), which submerged us past our knees and filled my boots with water. Because Brad #2 had been bragging about not having gotten his feet wet the entire way up, Brad admitted we really went this alternative route to get Brad #2’s feet wet. I didn’t mind the joke, but my boots did proceed to make a hilarious squishing sound for the remainder of the journey, as water sloshed around inside.

Eventually, we made it back down to the boat. While I changed my wet socks to an extra dry pair and re-layered myself with my warm clothes, the two younger guides and one of the other hikers decided they’d strip down to their skivvies and jump in the lake. The rest of us were happy to remain warm and dry, particularly once we started off on the 30 minute boat ride across the water. We hobbled out of the boat and still had the remaining 3 km to the parking lot, which, for many of us, seemed interminably long. When we finally creaked into the parking lot, I was grateful to give my knees a rest and bid the other hikers a fond farewell.

All in all, over 10 hours later with a body feeling more than a little broken, it was a journey well-worth taking. Good company and great views, not to mention the feeling of accomplishment at having tackled a muddy, rocky, watery adventure.

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