Wilderness training in Newfoundland gave Julia Stuart the skills to explore the stunning landscape by herself. It's the perfect way to feel closer to the natural world
Saturday 03 September 2005
I am hanging upside down in a nippy lake in Newfoundland, my stout legs firmly wedged inside a kayak. Just days before, a moose wandered out of the surrounding fir and spruce trees and swam across these waters, its quivering, velvety nose pointed heavenwards. I am very much hoping not to meet four thrusting, shaggy knees while I'm down here.
Were I upright, the only sign of human life would be the two log cabins of Tuckamore Lodge on the edge of the lake, which is called Little Pond despite stretching for two miles, where I have come to take part in a women's wilderness skills training programme. I have already learnt how to map-read (though it made my head hurt), fathomed how to operate a global-positioning system - a hi-tech navigational aid based on satellite signals - and can recognise a poisonous berry at 50 feet. But will I master the intricacies of getting out of a capsized kayak alive?
Before I deliberately plunged headfirst into the water, Craig, my 28-year-old instructor, assured me that contrary to my fears, my legs wouldn't break as I struggled to get them out. Hanging upside down, my nose filling with water, I suddenly notice that my eyes are open, which wasn't part of the plan. It's rather green down here. Suddenly my legs start fighting their way out and once released, my head breaks the water's surface.
Back inside the kayak, I paddle victoriously to shore, feeling that I have earned the maple syrup-glazed salmon being served for supper at the lodge. It's a glorious spot. Set in a forest about a 30-minute drive from St Anthony on the north-easterly tip of the island, the lodge, bordered by lilies, has an outdoor wooden sauna on the shoreline and two tiny jetties where you can sit moose-spotting in the evening sun with a drink, hatching improbable plans to ditch Blighty and move to Newfoundland.
It sleeps 24 in 12 cosy rooms that are so spotless you assume everything is new. Part of the joy of staying here is the staff. Barb Genge, the 59-year-old owner, is the sort of woman who hugs you goodbye when you leave. Guests eat the fine, hearty fare together, cooked and served by local mothers in pinnies with their names stitched on. Another pleasure is trying to work out what on earth they're all saying. Newfoundlanders speak 66 dialects (and enjoy only two degrees of separation) due to the fact that the first European settlements were on the coast and only accessible by boat. No one moved around much. Hence the fact that many in Conche, a fishing village of pastel-coloured clapboard houses about an hour's drive away, speak in a broad Irish accent.
To brush up my wildlife skills, I spend a very happy morning on the boat of Paul Bromley, a Conche fisherman with striking red eyebrows. Dolphins arch in and out of the wake, while bald eagles, eider ducks and stubby puffins with bright orange feet zip by. This is usually the place to see icebergs (or "hicebergs" as the locals pronounce them). Around 50, some the size of apartment buildings, float by each year on their three-year journey from Greenland. This year, however, there has been just one.
Back at the lodge, I yank on a pair of waders, and cross the pond in a tiny boat with Viva, my fishing instructor. After trudging through bog land, we reach Salmon River, a place so tranquil that the only sound is the splash of salmon showing off. Viva shows me how to cast and I start flicking my line back and trying to land my fly where the fish are crowding with the nonchalance of teenagers in a shopping centre.
Over the course of three hours around 30 salmon launch themselves into the air - one bugger even leaps over my line. But despite choosing the sort of flies that even I would be happy nibbling on, there are no takers. It would be easier to just wade in and lift one out. But, that, apparently, isn't cricket. Trying to catch a fish was such fun that I don't feel I have missed out as I leave empty-handed.
I say farewell to Tuckamore, and, after an hour's drive north on deserted roads boarded by forest, past electricity pylons with nesting osprey, I arrive at the village of Quirpon, pronounced "carpoon". From there I take a 20-minute boat ride - in a vessel so tiny I can almost lick the salty waves - to Quirpon Island, which stretches four miles long at the northern tip of Newfoundland.
Until around the late Thirties it was home to a small summer fishing community. Today, however, the only buildings are the now-automated lighthouse and two houses in which the lighthouse man and his assistant lived with their families. Since their departure in 1996, the homes have served as Quirpon Lighthouse Inn, which sleeps 25 in 11 rooms from May to October. The only permanent residents on the island are two moose which either swam across or came over on the "hice".
Try to stay in the older house, which was built in 1922, and has much more character. The basic rooms, fortunately void of television or phone, are panelled in dark wood and come with handmade quilts. The two functional bathrooms, supplied by rainwater, are shared between 10, which rather adds to the fun of it all.
When the sun shines on Quirpon (you can experience four seasons in one day in Newfoundland, which has several words for fog) there is nowhere else in the world you would rather be. It reminds me of Scotland - seal-coloured rocks poke out between springy vegetation crouching below the wind. Wild flowers include harebells and alpine milk vetch. Map in hand (and now able to read it), I spend two days hiking round the island, completely alone, bouncing over mattress-like flora, sometimes stopping to pick juicy bakeapples - a yellow berry resembling an engorged blackberry. While I'm picnicking on a cliff top gazing out at Labrador, slim seagulls cruise by overhead without a single flap.
With the help of Hubert Roberts, a former fisherman with an almost unpenetrable accent, who runs the inn with his wife, Doris, I eventually find the granite headstone, written in French, marking the resting place of a French sea captain who died here in 1861, as well as the grave containing the bodies of four children from the Manuael family who died between 1852 and 1858. Dead Sailors' Pit is said to mark the spot where the bodies of five visiting sailors were thrown after they died from drinking bad beer.
By the lighthouse is an enclosed viewing platform with telescopes for whale-watching. Otherwise, sit in a bakeapple patch with a book, with one ear cocked, for you will hear whales before you see them. Twice, a minke snorts its way along the coastline followed by a family of killer whales.
Meals - fabulous home-cooking by Doris, whose motto is "don't go hungry" - are taken communally in the older house. If you're lucky you'll hit a night when she's serving cod tongues, traditional Newfoundland fodder. If you ask, she'll do them for you specially. She makes the partridgeberry and bakeapple jams for breakfast with berries from the island, and if you pick some she will offer to turn them into jam to take home with you. The ice in the water jug on the table comes from an iceberg that Hurbert nipped over to in his boat for supplies for the freezer. When it's time to leave, again there are hugs goodbye.
It is something of a jolt to the system returning from a week in the wilderness to the provincial capital, St John's, whose residents are called "townies", and where Russell Crowe, Meg Ryan, Clint Eastwood, Carrie Fisher and Catherine Zeta Jones have all been spotted this summer. To acclimatise, I twice hike the North Head Trail, a gorgeous walk that takes you through the old fishing village and along a steep coastal path up to Signal Hill, where Marconi received the world's first transatlantic wireless signal, from Cornwall.
Those who can't bear the idea of staying in a modern hotel should opt instead for one of the cheerily painted Victorian clapboard houses that have been converted into B&Bs, such as the splendid Banberry House Heritage Inn, which has much of its original 1892 fittings.
Certainly not to be missed are The Rooms, opened in June and home to a museum, archives and a fabulous modern art collection. An architectural triumph sitting on top of the hill on which the city is built, from the outside it resembles the historic fishing rooms where families came together to process their catch, yet has a stunning ultra-modern interior.
Those after one last fix of Newfoundland cuisine will find cod tongues and scrunchions (fried diced pork fat) at Velma's, a friendly family restaurant with plastic tables, or exquisite partridgeberry-glazed caribou with rosemary and garlic touton (fried dough) at the chic Restaurant 21.
It is with a particularly heavy heart (and stomach) that I board the plane back to London. They say you can always tell a Newfoundlander in heaven - he's the one who wants to go home. My only hope is that he takes me with him.
Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.ca) flies daily from Heathrow to St John's. Return flights start at £520.
Provincial Airlines (001 709 576 1800; www.provincialairlines.ca) operates daily flights from St John's to St Anthony. The journey takes an hour. A return costs £157.
Tuckamore Lodge, Main Brook, Newfoundland (001 709 865 6361; www.tuckamorelodge.com). A six-day outdoor women's wilderness skills training course costs C$2,741 (£1,282) including all meals and airport transfers. The training includes hiking, fly-fishing, orienteering, kayaking and wilderness survival skills. The writer undertook a three-day taster course. The lodge also runs a number of other packages, including Viking tours and snowmobiling.
Quirpon Island Lighthouse Inn, pictured below (001 709 634 2285; www.linkumtours.com. Doubles start at C$323 (£151), including all meals and a boat trip through Iceberg Alley.
Banberry House, 116 Military Road, St John's (001 709 579 8006; www.banberryhouse.com). Doubles start at C$164 (£77), including breakfast.
Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism (001 800 563 6353; www.gov.nl.ca/tourism).
Canadian Tourism Commission ( www.travelcanada.ca)
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