Whether your idea of a leisure activity is curling up with a good book and spending the day immersed in a fictional wonderland, sitting at a coffee shop and catching up with friends, or pedaling 100 miles on backcountry roads, the role of leisure activities in our lives has been suggested by some as critical to happiness and stress-reduction (Caldwell 2005). For me, my preferred setting for engaging in leisure activities is in the outdoors. Being outside has a number of benefits, including increased Vitamin D intake (which promotes healthy bone growth, proper brain function, and several other benefits), improved mood (think Seasonal Affective Disorder during the winter), and better sleep.
In a world so increasingly dependent on technology, where our culture is exceedingly connected to screens and the digital world, it would seem that many are losing touch with the outdoors. Instead, television, Facebook, Twitter, and video games dominate the playing field. So much of our lives revolve around these things, whether we like it or not, that it can be extremely difficult to break away from them. I definitely struggle with this on a daily basis.
Sometimes you just have to force yourself to disconnect. This doesn’t necessarily mean entering the wilderness and living off of berries and bugs for a week, but it may mean driving to the country, turning off your cell phone and going for a walk. Or plan a trip somewhere to do something that will force you out of your comfort zone…
Gros Morne National Park
A year(ish) ago, Newfoundland friends of ours got engaged and immediately there was discussion about a wedding in their home province. The couple grew up about 2.5-3 hours from Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which they recommended we visit. Such a designation is placed on an area to protect exceptional cultural or natural heritage “of outstanding value to humanity.” Basically, the highest form of flattery possible for a place.
Our research revealed a place of tremendous beauty and diversity: coastal habitats, scrubland, meadows, dense spruce forests, mountainous terrain, fjords, rivers, and exposed rock straight from Earth’s mantle (peridodite). But with only three nights to spend in the park, where should we begin? The Parks Canada website proved very useful (http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/nl/grosmorne/index.aspx) as did simply Googling “Gros Morne hiking trails”. We began piecing together various hikes and crafting a game plan. I was even beginning to picture the hikes in my head. Eventually our itinerary was set. We boarded the 6-7 hour ferry to Newfoundland from North Sydney, Nova Scotia and began the journey!
Green Gardens and Wallace Brook Trails
One of the most highly recommended trails to hike was the combination Green Gardens and Wallace Brook Trails near Trout River. Meandering through mustard-colored peridodite – which is actually material from Earth’s mantle pushed to the surface (one of only a few places in the world you can see such a thing) – and thick scrub-brush, the trail eventually takes you to the coastline. To my surprise, there were sheep all over the cliffs! I actually shouldn’t have been that surprised, as lots of the literature says you’ll see them (reading comprehension fail?). These sheep are part of a traditional style of farming by residents in Trout River where the herds are allowed to graze freely along the coastal grasslands.
There are three backcountry camping areas along the trail (two along Green Gardens, one at Wallace Brook) and because we began our hike late, we chose to camp at the first site. Each area has three or four designated spots to pitch a tent at and since we had no company, we were free to choose whatever tickled our fancy! Room with a view, anyone?
The next morning we continued on our journey, and the hike became even more enjoyable than the day before. A narrow trail led you through coastal meadows mere feet from steep ledges, down to rocky beaches, up forested slopes and finally down again to the outlet of Wallace Brook. Sarah couldn’t resist a swim and while she frolicked, I busied myself collecting and purifying water from the stream. We had to ford the brook here and continued up the trail, climbing steadily in elevation. After several kilometers, we descended again to the Wallace Brook riverbed. One could easily see where high water had scarred the landscape and the collection of boulders along the dried riverbed was a reminder of the power of moving water. After fording the river a second time, we began a steep ascent up 265 meters. This was probably the hardest part of the entire hike and took close to one hour, but once you reach the top it is easily sailing from there back to the parking lot. All told, both trails with a loop back to the parking lot was approximately 16 km of hiking, the majority of which we completed in about six hours of hiking on our first full day in the park.
Gros Morne Mountain
Without a doubt, the most famous hike in the National Park is the day-hike up to Gros Morne Mountain (GMM). It is rated as “difficult” due to uneven terrain and the elevation gains up the mountain. Having finished the Green Gardens/Wallace Brook Trails by early afternoon, we obtained a backcountry camping permit for a campsite at the rear of GMM and set out around 1700. Our goal was to get to the campsite by mid-evening, spend the night, hike to the top in the morning without our large packs, return to pick our equipment up, and hike back down to the parking lot by early afternoon.
Some “hiccups” caused a delay, but eventually we made it back to our campsite near sunset. The unexpected delay allowed us to hike along the side of GMM in pretty evening light, which danced colorfully on wispy clouds in the sky. In fact, the entire hike was enjoyable, albeit physically exhausting after around 10-12 km earlier in the day. Uneven terrain and steep cliff-side trails proved challenging, but the views were worth the effort. Unfortunately, Ferry Gulch – being, well, a gulch – is nestled in between GMM and another large mountain. The wind direction barreled down the trough all night long, which made for unpleasant sleeping conditions (we had to move the tent twice in the middle of the night before finally shoving it into a bunch of stunted spruce trees). The stars, however, were glorious and we listened to moose stomping around in the sub-alpine pond as we tried to fall asleep.
I woke early in the morning again to the sound of moose traipsing through the shallow water outside our tent. They (mother and calf) bolted when I exited the tent (my movements were akin to a bull in a china cabinet), but another pair of moose took their place about 30 minutes later. After a lazy morning trying to recuperate from the day before, we decided it would be best to forego the climb to the top of the mountain in favor of spending our energy hiking another trail elsewhere in the park. GMM – 1, Sean and Sarah – 0. We shall be back, mark my words…
Snug Harbor Trail
Our trip’s goal was to cram as much hiking and sightseeing in as possible without killing ourselves (or getting lost in the woods). With one night left, we went to the Visitor Centre and purchased our final backcountry camping permit for the Snug Harbor Trail. Although marked “difficult,” there is little elevation gain. The designation is thus a reflection of the unmaintained trail, muddy terrain, and obstacles that must be navigated in order to reach the campsites.
The trail begins at a parking lot and follows boardwalks over a large bog, with beautiful views of the former fjord known as Western Brook Pond. Long ago, glaciers cut a deep trench through the landscape that connected with the ocean. Over time, however, the land rose and cut off the connection to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With no more saltwater influence, the water eventually lost its salinity and became pure freshwater. Thus, today it is merely a giant lake 400 feet deep!
The boardwalk finally splits; one path takes you to a 1-hour boat cruise through the fjord and another leading you to the outlet of Western Brook Pond. We took the latter, which forms the beginning of the Snug Harbor Trail. The trail meanders through forest and ends abruptly at a fast-flowing river. Fortunately, park staff have installed a coated wire running the width of the river that you can use to maintain balance while you ford across. This would be a good time to have water shoes or neoprene booties.
While fording across the heavy current, I couldn’t help but think of the old computer game “Oregon Trail”. Anyone familiar with that video game will remember having to get their wagon across the river. I lost a lot of people and goods doing that… Luckily, nothing was lost in our real-life ford!
But I digress. Once back on the trail, we immediately encountered a spruce deadfall. The trail suddenly became very faint, looking much like a game trail. Little pieces of fluorescent pink flagging tape provided beacons of hope that we were on the right path. After at least 30 minutes of scraping our arms and legs on fallen spruce trees and trying to interpret gently bent grasses for signs of the trail, our path disappeared into the actual trail. Apparently, we zigged when we should have zagged and followed a trail laid down by moose. Reconnecting with the intended trail was very welcomed and we had smooth sailing the rest of the way. The path winds through very “moosey” looking habitat; I felt like seeing a moose or several was inevitable, but as it turns out we saw none the entire trail!
Lots of weather was moving through the area. We could see rain in the distance and dark ominous clouds kept us moving steadily along. I was concerned we would be caught in a thunderstorm, and began walking pretty far ahead of Sarah, who was taking in the scenery and snapped some great photos with her iPhone that I admit, I wish I had in my portfolio. My camera stayed in my pack until we came to a river with a spectacular view of the fjord. I nearly tripped on a moose antler running to capture some fleeting light on the hills around Western Brook Pond. We took a much-needed break, which included saving a bunch of stranded stickleback in a disappearing puddle before hiking the remaining 1-2 km to the campsite.
Arriving at the campsite offered more stunning views of Western Brook Pond. Gros Morne National Park has red Adirondack chairs placed at various scenic locations, including here at the end of the Snug Harbor Trail, and we took full advantage of them on our final evening. It was very windy again and we were forced to put our tent up on a ridge overlooking the other campsites. This worked flawlessly and I felt sorry for everyone else that had to bear the brunt of Mother Nature’s breath.
Our hike out in the morning meant our time in the park had come to an end. We left simultaneously tired and energized. A spark was struck in each of us over the last three days. Where a desire to experience more of the outdoors once lay dormant somewhere in the soft tissue of our hearts, it now came blasting out of our arteries with a vengeance! Immediately we began talks of returning to hike either the longer, more technically demanding Long Range Hike within the park or to complete a multi-day traverse through the International Appalachian Trail sometime in 2015 or 2016. This coming fall we are planning on completing hikes in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, and/or New Brunswick.
I would encourage you all to get out into nature. As stated in the beginning of this blog post, the health benefits of being outdoors are numerous. And again, there’s no need to necessarily undertake something like I have described here. My guess is somewhere near your home there is a designated walking path through or around a natural area – be it forest, prairie, hill, river, or lake – that is beckoning your presence!