The remote south coast of Newfoundland has been on my to do list for quite sometime, but until now I haven’t had the time to check it out. The silver lining of a global pandemic for a wedding photographer turns out to be a ton of free time in the summer, and I’m happy to make use of that free time by heading out on adventures!
On a Sunday in late July, myself and Kush the wonder dog, along with good friends Matt and Colin, made the 3 hour drive from Corner Brook to Burgeo. We arrived just in time to enjoy a delicious fish and chips at Lisa’s Roadside Restaurant before catching the 1:45pm, passenger only, ferry to Francois. Heads up, if you are on time for the ferry, you are actually late. The weather was quite foggy and rainy upon departure so unfortunately we didn’t get any views of the beautiful scenery along the coast heading east. Just as well, as I was busy staring out the small port hole window in the corner of the passenger cabin, focusing at what I could see of the horizon to help from turning completely green and losing my lunch. In hindsight, maybe getting weighed down by fish and chips with added gravy, cheese, dressing and onions just before getting on a boat for the first time in years, wasn’t such a good idea.
After a quick stop in Grey River to drop off a few passengers and an ATV, which is the only mode of summertime land transport in the outport communities that dot the coast, we arrived at Francois right around 6:30pm. Kush dog was super excited to get off of the ferry as he was confined to a rusty metal kennel in a small cabin at the stern of the boat, which he didn’t much enjoy. We were on land just long enough to walk a little ways to another wharf, where we jumped in a small fiberglass boat with an outboard motor belonging to a local fisherman named Gavin, who had agreed to bring us to Devil’s Bay.
As we left the dock and headed out the mouth of the fjord towards the open Atlantic Ocean, I asked our driver, “Do you have any lifejackets we could use?”
“Nah” he chuckled, “Don’t you know how to swim?”
His casual demeanour, and also wearing a hoodie and sneakers, while heading into choppy seas with rain and spray soaking us had me thinking that, this was indeed, not his first time. I later learned that lifejackets aren’t worried about too much in these parts.
We motored for about 25 minutes through the fog and rain and then into Devil’s Bay fjord. I was hoping to gaze upon the famous big wall climbed by, among others, professional climber Alex Honnold and friends, called Blow Me Down wall aka Javo, but of course there was zero visibility as we passed by. We got dropped off at the back of the bay, with a nod and a “good luck!” from Gavin, as if he figured we would not be heard from again. As we found a spot to pitch our tent the weather started to clear and the steep granite walls of Devil’s Bay were revealed in stunning golden hour light.
We took our time in the morning making a nice breakfast with coffee and drying out our tents, but finally started to meander up the river, out of the fjord by 11am. As we got further up the river, we past several stunning water falls and the view behind us continued to get better and better. Once atop the fjord we enjoyed amazing panoramic views of barren landscape clad with granite slabs, peaks and ponds for as far as the eye could see. We made our way to Sugarloaf mountain, for a late lunch with a gorgeous view looking down into Little Bay, which opens up into Rencontre Bay. We hiked back inland and towards the back of Rencontre Bay for a few hours before deciding to make camp beside a pond for the night. It’s was a pretty slow first day with the late start and a long climb out of Devil’s Bay, so we only managed just over 12km, which was below our average needed to complete the route in 4 days. None the less it was a fantastic day with great weather and beautiful landscape unlike anything I’ve seen on the island. We were stoked for more!
Hoping to make up for the previous day, we got on the go fairly early and were making tracks by 930am. The plan for the day was to make it around 18km to the resettled community of Rencontre, where we hoped to camp. Even though the forecast we got before leaving Burgeo, told us to expect rain on the first 2 days, we were again lucky to enjoy fair weather, although a little cloudier than the day before. We crossed over Rencontre Bay at the very back of the fjord where we stopped for a quick photo op and then continued on bearing south onto the peninsula between Chaleur Bay and Rencontre Bay. The landscape became a little more rugged, with increasing thick vegetation in hidden gullies, sketchy, slippery slab traverses and tons of mosquitos. After nearly 10 hours of hiking, at 15km in we were faced with the decision or either going all the way around the mountains between us and Rencontre, which would be 5-7km, several hours and have us in the dark, or make a descent 3km to a beach followed by a super sketchy bushwack traverse exposed above cliffs. Not willing to accept such risk with low chance of rescue and not wanting to be hiking into the dark, we decided to abandon our goal of reaching Rencontre and call it a day. We hiked up to the high point above Herringnet Cove in hopes of finding a breeze for some relief from the flies, and were rewarded with amazing views of Rencontre Bay and surrounding mountains, as well as 4 bars of cell phone service. I still have no idea where the service came from as there aren’t any towers for at least 100km, but we were happy to update our friends and family on our progress. It was surprising, how calm and not windy it was for such a high and exposed position. Drunk with the views and evening light, we setup camp right on the granite and used (not large enough) rocks to secure our tents. 15km and another great day of hiking completed, even though we didn’t reach our intended destination.
After being woken up every hour by the feeling of laying on hard rock to reinflate my leaking sleeping pad, at 5am I woke again, but this time to strong winds threatening to buckle and blow the tent apart. The boulders we pegged out tents to were not at all sufficient, so we decided to pack up and start our day, before the weather that was behind the wind got to us. The silver lining was getting an early start, on what ended up being the longest, wettest, most difficult day of our journey. It rained more or less all day and I didn’t get any photos, as my camera stayed in its dry bag. We changed our intended route along the ridge overlooking Chaleur Bay, because there were no views to be had today with the pea soup fog that had rolled it, and decided on a more direct route to take us around the back of the fjord. Using a gps with topographic map and visual route finding to avoid small cliffs, crevasses, dense tree filled gullies, rivers and ponds worked great, but that was pre-fog. Now, the low visibility and the topographic map’s limited 20m resolution made navigating very difficult and frustrating. Multiple times we were cliffed out or bush wacking through densely pack gullies or finding the long way around impassable gorges.
12 hours and 14km later, wet and tired we descended down to the river that leads to Chaleur Bay. We were surprise to find the river easy to cross, as it was shown on the map to be quite large with rapids. I later learned from a local that the water level was the lowest its been it years and we would normally have to go 5km up river to cross. The rain and fog cleared up briefly, as we spent an hour resting, eating and soaking our feet in the cool river water. We were looking to be about 20-22km away from Francois and didn’t want a super long last day through unknown terrain and possible bad weather to start with a large ascent out of the fjord. We decided to continue on for a few more hours and make our way up, west of Chaleur Bay and be on route to head south towards Francois for morning. The rain and fog socked in again as we started the steep ascent up the valley wall. Through thick vegetation and slippery moss we scrambled up on all fours, with a mix of rock climbing moves and punching fingers first into moss for handholds. Out of the valley, nearly 18km and 13.5 hours total for the day we quickly setup camp in the rain, got dry warm cloths on, cooked supper and passed out hard. Intense thunder and lightening hit sometime after midnight, but after counting the time between lightening strike and thunder clap, and feeling confident that the tent was secure from wind this time, I went back to sleeping like a dead person until morning.
Feeling rejuvenated, we woke up to a slight drizzle, packed up camp and had a quick oatmeal breakfast before heading out. With plans to reach Francois before the store closed and buy beer and chips, we were hoping to make good time. despite low visibility, 4.5 hours later we were 10km closer to our destination and the rain and fog began to clear as we approached Cooper cove. I was finally able to get my camera out again for the last 7km heading into Francois. 17km and 8.5 hours from the start of day 4, we reached Francois! The store was closed, but after asking the first person we saw(who oddly said he was expecting us), the owner opened up the store just for us. Turns out, the whole town were waiting to see if we made it back in one piece. In the words of the store clerk, “Now what would make you fellers want to do that?”. We setup camp on a free campsite near the church and enjoyed our beer and chips as a few locals came by to hear how our trip had gone. Super friendly people, in a lovely town on the most stunning part of the island.
If you have read this far, I thank you! I am not much of a writer, but really enjoyed creating this blog post. If you are interested in doing something similar and have any questions, feel free to reach out.