The Happy Camper: Kayaking a Newfoundland Tickle

When the gang at Birchbark Media signed me up for a film project along the eastern shore of Newfoundland, I didn’t have an issue with using kayak to float along a portion of its rugged ocean shoreline. After all, paddling a canoe on the Atlantic would be just darn silly.

I wouldn’t call myself a kayaker. I prefer paddling a canoe, even if I do have to portage now and then. But I also wouldn’t consider myself a canoe snob either. Any soft-path vessel is fine by me as long as it gets me into a wilderness area.

So, when the gang at Birchbark Media signed me up for a film project along the eastern shore of Newfoundland, I didn’t have an issue with using kayak to float along a portion of its rugged ocean shoreline. After all, paddling a canoe on the Atlantic would be just darn silly.

Agreeable or not, however, I still had my trepidations. Send me along a flushing wild river in a canoe and I’m tinkled pink — but squeeze me into tight neoprene suit and slide me into the cockpit of a kayak adrift on the cold waters of the Atlantic, and I’m apprehensive to say the least. I guess it’s all about being comfortable with the familiar.

The butterflies continued to move about freely in my stomach when we landed in St. John’s. We had scheduled two days of filming here  – gathering footage of tourism hotspots like Signal Hill and the crazy antics that happen during the annual George Street Festival. Two days became three. The producer kept claiming I was messing my lines up to avoid heading out on the kayak portion of the trip. And he may have been right. Newfoundland is a beautiful but rugged landscape. There’s more rain, snow and fog here than anywhere else in Canada. When we arrived on the island, the weather was brutal — so for that reason I might have been stalling a bit. But this magnificent province also has the most generous people. Nobody does hospitality better. I really enjoyed my time in St John’s and was reluctant to leave simply because we were having fun.

St. John’s has an addictive quality to it. There seems to be more musicians, writers and poets here than in any other province in Canada… and what better place to meet them then at the annual George Street festival. This two block chunk of St. John’s is home to nothing but pubs and restaurants… there’s more places to wet your whistle here per-square-foot of any street in North America, and only pedestrians are allowed to stagger — I mean walk — the streets. For six nights, the city hosts 120,000 people (population of St. John’s is 150,000). It’s the Mardi Gras of the north and its been mentioned in countless bits of pop-culture from Great Big Sea’s “The Old Black Rum” to the song “The Night Paddy Murphy Died.”

The city definitely has an Irish feel to it, which is probably why I felt so comfortable here. I’m half Irish. It comes complete with coloured rowed houses, cobbled streets and black-haired pub waitresses. It’s also full of chaos and clamor and a great place to go boozin’, kiss a cod and get screeched in.

The Newfoundland experience isn’t all about socializing in St. John’s, however. Nature called and I eventually had to break away from the fun and go paddling. After all, that’s what most Newfoundlanders do here — play out in the ocean.

We chose to paddle Terra Nova National Park, located along the eastern shoreline, which makes it Canada’s most easterly National Park. The protected area was formed back in 1957 to safeguard the natural splendor of the rugged coastline and prominent inland boreal forest. It measures 400 km long and takes its name from the Latin term for “Newfoundland.”

Our hired guide from Happy Adventure, Grant Cudmore, helped ease my anxiety of kayaking on the ocean. He met us at the boat launch at the park’s visitor centre in Newman’s Sound and went over a few safety tips before we paddled off on our trip along the coast. The sea was somewhat calm that day, thankfully, but I was shocked at how cold the water was. Freezing actually, and full of sea creatures I knew nothing about.

The camera man (JJ Wyllie) and producer (Scott Adams) had it easy the first day out. They got a lift in Happy Venture’s pontoon boat so they could film without bobbing up and down in the moderate swells. I was jealous at first but changed my tune when I found out a bear had given them a visit when they were dropped off to set up camp for us at Minchin Cove.

The bear never did come back. Well, that’s not true. He did wander into camp again sometime during the night while we were sleeping and left a big pile of steaming poop beside the cameraman’s tent. But that caused me little concern. The amount of blueberry seeds in the scat meant he was well-fed. I was more on edge about the dropping temperatures and increasing wind then bear poop. Again, I was more familiar dealing with a nuisance bear in camp than kayaking in large ocean swells. The camerman wasn’t though. He was in a hurry to hitch a ride in the Happy Adventure boat and film all day, away from the bear infested shoreline — that is until he got sea sick.

Our plan that day was to reach a remote campsite out at the tip of Swale Island, through what’s called the Swale Tickle (“tickle” means inlet or link between two sections of water). It was a long haul for a greenhorn kayaker like me. But I have to say, I absolutely loved it. We moved far quicker paddling a kayak then a canoe and were far safer in the open water. Paddling the ocean itself was also less intimidating than some of the large freshwater lakes I’ve travelled on. It seemed to me that the swells are farther apart and much more manageable. There’s been times I felt far more vulnerable in lesser conditions while canoeing on lakes like Lake Timiskaming or even kayaking Lake Superior.

Our second day out, the sea was getting too rough to handle, even for our guide. So the owner of Happy Adventure, Chuck Mitcham, made room for Grant and I on the boat and took all four of us across the expanse of Bonavista Bay. We warmed up at Chuck’s rustic cottage and from there Chuck and Grant left us to play on our own for awhile. We spent a few days paddling and camping, without the help of locals, in more isolated bays and inlets (in Barrow Harbour and Broomclove Harbour) just south of the town of Salvage.

…to be continued.