All photos by Andre Gagne.
“D’ya’ know what da’ hardest thing about a dolphin race is?” Todd asks, checking his rear-view mirror again despite my having not seen another car on this stretch of road for at least an hour.
“No. What?” I reply, eyes scanning the woodlands we kept passing for possible moose sightings.
“Getting the saddles on ‘em, b’y!”
One grin, a short chuckle and a laughter eruption later I realize, while usually I am working to control a stomach attempting to learn the tango with my spleen on long car rides, I’ve spent a lot of this one smiling. Thus was the drive to Trinity with master storyteller Todd Shirran, owner of the taxi service that shares his last name. He does the 4 hour run from St. John’s to Bonavista daily, often logging twelve hours on the road shuttling tourists and the occasional islander visiting friends and relatives further up to coast in vans fueled by buckets of used vegetable oil he collects from area restaurants.
Related: Chips Off the Rock: Random Musings From a Come From Away – Part 1
He’s the kind of encyclopedic local you want to do this ride with as he’s an attic-full of information and history. You can read it on his face. This guy loves his homeland. He’ll tell you about how hard his town was hit by the closing of the fish plant in Bonavista, hold in no emotion as he speaks of what the controversial seal hunt means to area and, with a sly smirk, chortle out the tale of the lady who called back in the mid-90’s wanting to see the actual iceberg that hit the Titanic. Who knows if that one’s true?He admits that sometimes he does have his fun with the tourists spinning yarns like the dolphin race story or the whale graveyards out by Trinity. That just happened to be my current destination though not to pay my respects to the fallen in the great Minke War of ‘77.
I had come to Newfoundland to escape the city life and despite St. John’s being not your typical hustle and rush atmosphere it does still have seven Starbucks. Trinity, on the other hand, is a fishing town first used by ships in the 16th century, shaped by the sea, and still maintains much of its natural beauty. No logos, billboards or buildings larger than a church steeple. Current population: 191. That sounded perfect to this traveler looking to make it 192, at least for a few days.
My escape-it-all hostel was across the bay in Trinity East which, I would learn the hard way, was actually a bit of a slog from Trinity itself if you didn’t have a boat, wheels or wings. Pondering how to get to my bedroom bunk was firmly rested on the mental backburner, however, with Trinity providing so many distractions in the form of historic homes, walking paths and at least one amusing road sign. “Deaf Dog NO VEHICLE TRAFFIC”, the sign warned. This is not only a wonderful courtesy for the hearing impaired canine but also a good name for a gangsta’ rapper and his first posthumous release.
Sarah Rochacewich and some tasty treats.
“We first came to Newfoundland for a friend’s wedding and kept coming back for vacation after that. We quickly fell in love with the province and while on a holiday we decided to step away from our corporate careers and open our own business,” says Come From Away now Trinity resident and business owner Sarah Rochacewich in her shop surrounded by chocolate.
Aunt Sarah’s Chocolate has been in business since 1980 and is some of the best chocolate that will ever pass between your lips. Seriously, popping a Butter Crisp or Trinity Lemon Loop Truffle onto your tongue is like tasting artwork. While it’s not a wise choice to attempt to lick the Mona Lisa, I highly endorse snagging a few bags of these delights to munch on while taking in a production at the nearing Rising Tide Theatre.
Rising Tide Theatre.
Formed in 1978, the red barn-like theatre on the Trinity Bay shore is one of the longest running in the province and its annual Trinity Pageant has become an institution for the town.
Actors in period costume step outside the theatre and will tour you around in story and song.
Think of it as what would happen if you took a play, a Trinity history book, a guided walk, traditional music and a lot of heart and knitted them together to pull over you like a nice, warm sweater.
I was fortunate enough to experience the dinner theatre where, along with your cod au gratin or roast beef, you will be entertained by the various talents in the company via short skits and, of course, more music that will mist you up as much as it makes you want to jig. Founder Donna Butt is a member of the Order of Canada and also directs some of the season’s productions. Also, if you’re like me and stranded in Trinity after a play, she may even give you a lift right up to your hostel door before scooting back to setup the next production. The kindness of Newfoundlanders never ceases to astound me though, by this point, it really shouldn’t.
Like everything else in Trinity, the marvelously blue Skerwink Hostel feels warm and welcoming even when you’re standing on the Rocky Hill Road looking up the driveway. The path leading to the door is flanked by a small garden with little signs reading beets, thyme and kale and the quaint painted labels above the bedroom doorways not only evoke a comfortable night’s rest but also stir up thoughts of the nearing villages like Sweet Bay and Heart’s Content. There’s a guitar near the front entrance as area residents like to visit the hostel from time to time and play for the guests. Of course they do! There’s a table made out of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and, in the corner, a vintage radio one of the owners rigged up to some computer speakers.
Gavin and Martha fire up the barbecue.
The hostel is run by Martha Nelson and her partner Gavin Clark, both Scottish Come From Aways that were seeking an escape of their own. Martha fell in love with the area, as most people with any working senses will when coming to Trinity Bay, and found that the house had been lying vacant for the last ten years. It had been built by a local crab fisherman who relocated his family to Alberta after the moratorium that saw so many fishers leave the island life.
“The most memorable thing about starting this business to me has been the reception from the community,” says Martha. “We were nervous to begin with as to how we would be received because we didn’t know anyone here, but everyone was so welcoming and encouraging.”
Skerwink Trail steps.
They named the hostel after the nearing Skerwink Trail which is named after a local seabird though that seabird is actually called a Haigdown. Still with me? Some also say the name could have migrated with the English settlers who found the area coastline reminded them of home. What they saw remains. The Skerwink Trail is a checklist of natural beauty: beaches, cliffs, the scent of ocean and woodland, views to sporadically dislocate your jaw and wildlife close enough to touch like that bald eagle that swooped just a little too close to my head as I rounded one cliff-side turn. Then there are the moose that periodically cross the path blocking hikers from a return to civilization.
Though out of breath and sweaty from the climb, standing on one of the hills overlooking the bright homes resting on Trinity Bay as the sunset kisses them in a glow that makes you instantly want to take up painting, you wonder why you would want to return to the hustle for the bus, the office cubical clacking and cacophony of continuous city-life construction, anyway.
“Kind of makes you want to just live here doesn’t it?” asks fellow hiker James, reading my mind.
The current Torontonian from Alaska had been traveling around Newfoundland with his wife when their camper broke down near the trail. It was just another excuse to explore, something that’s not necessarily easy for him as he’s had all of his toes amputated. Climbing the steep jaunt to catch that Trinity sunset next to a dude with no toes is inspiring motivation to stifle any gripes and grievances my legs may have wanted to file.
The ocean tide comes in.
Skerwink Trail moose crossing.
The trail provides ample rewards like the peaceful beach that meets you at the end, bonfire wood already in place and a sky full of constellations above. Tilt your head just right and you can hear the ocean whispering you in for a swim. Mine lasted about three glorious minutes in the frigid night water but, the next day, sitting atop the trail outlook, I found myself transfixed by a moose crossing a lake, a tiny brown ink drop in motion. I could have watched him for hours.
Despite the claim that one could also see whales from this vantage point, my squinting and cup-eyed peering at the ocean for any type of black speck yielded no results. That’s where Mitch and Yannick came in. Traveling tends to produce a lot of happy coincidences if you do it enough. These two whale obsessed guys sharing my room were from Ottawa and just happened to be going up the coast and back again to places this none-driver would have missed. Faster than I could blink my camera and I were welcomed on as passengers to Bonavista where we’d stop along the way to see puffins, lighthouses and the curiously named Dungeon guarded by bewildered cattle. Oh, and whales, lots of whales!
Mitch and Yannick were full of tips on how to spot one of them from the shoreline. Look for the water on the surface to turn turquoise, for example, or be ready to see spouts from a distance out of your peripheral vision. Of course, doing this sometimes means glancing away from the views offered by the Bonavista Peninsula. The first time you see a tail flip out of the ocean as a humpback dives to feed is something you won’t soon forget, though. The coastline isn’t going anywhere. The whales are. Thankfully, however, this year there were always at least three more behind the last one you saw.
Elliston puffin colony.
After our whale-overload, we headed to Elliston where one of the closest land views of the official Newfoundland bird awaited us. You kind of feel sorry for the puffin as you watch them vigorously flapping their little wings next to the gulls swooping in effortlessly on the strong, ocean winds. It’s like placing a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk chopper next to a pinwheel. Well, like the pinwheel, these little birds are colourful and they abundantly fill the grassy cliffs and rocks here between May and September. Elliston is also the Root Cellar Capital of the World, a claim, I have to believe, which has never been contested mainly because, let’s be honest, most people are here for the birds.
What has been questioned by historians, however, is the town of Bonavista’s assertion that Genoese navigator John Cabot landed there in 1497 becoming the second European (after Columbus) to discover North America.
500 years later both the Canadian and British governments decided to accept this as fact despite there being no proof of it having transpired, Todd Shirran had told me on the drive up.
By that rational, I thought, I could decree that Magellan once docked in my linen closet, sit back, and await the steady stream of tourists to knock on my door.
After a stop at the area coffee shop, Two Whales, we returned to the hostel where Gavin and Martha were holding a barbecue supper for the volunteers and guests. I don’t know what you all believe heaven to be like but there, on the porch of the Skerwink, a warm plate of food in my lap and another gorgeous sunset painting the sky above to bay, I had to believe that this was pretty damn close.
Trinity East swimming hole.
One of the other’s told me that there was a lot more to discover away from the trail and, the next day, I found myself lost –no easy feat in such a small area– looking for a waterfall cascading into what was said to be a wonderful swimming hole. Sure, I thought to myself, I can still remember the up, down, up, down, left, right, left, right pattern that began the code for Contra but directions given to me roughly ten minutes beforehand needed an accompanying map.
It was later sketched out and the little escape within the escape was well worth the journey off the beaten path. On the way you can collect shells and still see some of the aftermath of 2010’s Hurricane Igor that decimated some of the bridges and homes closer to the shoreline.
An email from Martha would pull me out of the water for a quick change and sprint back to the hostel. The Champney West cardboard boat races were about to begin! I had no clue what that actually meant but it seemed too interesting to pass up. On the ride, it was explained to me that the towns in the area all have their festivals on different weekends so as not to overlap and each have a little something unique to offer.
The town of Champney West, though, gets extra points for creative lunacy.
Paint, duct tape and cardboard are the only tools in your arsenal when it comes to building what you hope to be a vessel mighty enough to set sail off the shores of town and make it just far enough out of port to round a buoy before trying to return. That’s the easy part. Keeping afloat? Not so much. Most boats, sporting colourful names like What the Duck? and Piece of Ship, don’t get very far before venturing down in a southward splash much to the amusement of the gathered crowd which, on this day, could have been the entire town with the amount of people filling the pier.
“There they go, b’y, there they go,” shouted a man beside me as though he were watching the first few seconds of the Kentucky Derby and not some wittily named pieces of cardboard being wildly paddled by locals for unknown glory, a year of fame and, mainly, the sheer fun of it.
Later, Gavin led a few others from the Skerwink and I around English Harbour to a place called Horse Chops. He’d been told the whales were returning to the area in abundance. Standing there on the edge of another cliff as the group pointed out whale after whale breaching the surface, I smiled. It was one of those moments where the world sort of fades out around you leaving you with this euphoric sense of calmness. I thought of the friendly people I’d met and the beauty I’d seen on this far to short a trip.
Newfoundland has a way of making you feel at home even if you weren’t born there and your citizenship status was obtained by way of making out with a dead cod. Now, back in Ottawa, typing this I can almost feel the wind on that cliff, smell the ocean, and, like the whales, I could easily see myself returning there every year. Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true because, in all actuality, I don’t feel it would take many returns to make the choice the Gavins, Marthas and Sarahs did before me and this Come From Away becomes just another Here Now to Stay.