Some of our Provincial Parks are among the best in North America. Here’s a look at two of them.
“I would rather be able to appreciate things I can not have than to have things I am not able to appreciate.” – Elbert Hubbard
Summer has finally arrived in Newfoundland, albeit like a waited-for friend who cheerily arrives late, blissfully unaware of the frosty stares of his comrades. While most of my columns are critical calls for environmental action, I take a little break in the summer and write about some of my favorite green spaces. In my last column, I wrote about the unparalleled East Coast Trail and encouraged everyone to explore it. In this column, I write about two of my favorite provincial parks – Butter Pot and Barachois Pond. But, before I do so, a few words are necessary to highlight how important these remaining parks are and how their continued existence is by no means ensured.
It’s often said that parks are for people, while stricter protected areas like ecological reserves are for nature. While I understand the sentiment, I disagree with it. Such as statement can lead to broad black and white assumptions that, in a very real sense, can lead to disastrous decisions. I have often written about how the provincial government got rid of 56 provincial parks in the 1990s, a decision that occurred while the rest of the world was racing to establish new protected areas. I worked for provincial parks at the time. In the early 1990s, government established the Provincial Parks Task Force, whose unstated mandate was to identify which parks would be eliminated. This secretive committee of bureaucrats finally released its report in 1994 (ironically the 50th anniversary of the first provincial park). The report repeatedly echoed the idea that parks are for people with the explicit message that their contribution to conservation was minimal. This was a grievous error and one that was simply wrong.
Newfoundland and Labrador provincial parks were giants. That is, they were far larger than their mainland counterparts. Size is important in conservation and, on average, our parks dwarfed most other parks. In Nova Scotia, for example, the average size of their provincial parks was about 200 hectares, while our average was more than three times larger at 700 hectares. (A hectare is simply a square with each side being 100 metres long. 100 hectares make up a square kilometre). We lost parks – many over 1,000 hectares – that contained natural features protected nowhere else. The idea that parks were simply camping loops, and that they had little conservation value, carried the day.
With this in mind, join me now as we visit two of my favourite parks. And bring your goat rubbers because we’re leaving the camping loops for the backcountry wilderness each of these parks contain.
I call Butter Pot the king of provincial parks for several reasons, not the least of which is its size. At 2,833 hectares, it is as large as some small national parks. A series of excellent trails starts right next to campsite 58. One takes you all the way to the top of Butter Pot Hill. At 303 metres, it is one of the highest points on the northeast Avalon and the view is well worth the 2.5 hours of hiking. Or, you can try your hand at a bit of trouting. That’s right, you can fish in provincial parks. This little known secret ensures that, if you leave the beaten path with your rod and worms in hand, you will likely find a fishing spot without another soul in sight. I put my success rate at fishing in provincial parks at about 70 per cent. It would be 100 per cent, except I’m an embarrassingly poor fisherman.
In my mind’s eye, I view Butter Pot as stern, largely because much of the park consists of treeless barrens. Dotted by large sentinel boulders called erratics, the barrens evoke a seriousness that is buffered by the gentle forests found in sheltered areas. Once, most of Butter Pot was forested but what must have been a terrible fire in 1889 burned not only the trees but also the thin topsoil, ensuring that the area won’t be completely forested again until many hundreds of generations in the future. Still, even the barrens have their own beauty and they are the best place to escape the flies for the few days that they make an appearance. Keep your eye out for willow ptarmigan – they are among the more than 200 bird species which have been recorded in the park. Located just minutes outside St. John’s, this treasure is perfectly situated for day trips. One final word: book ahead. Unlike most parks, this one has an occupancy rate of over 90 per cent.
Nestled under the Long Range Mountains, which stand like some sort of fantastic giant’s castle wall, Barachois Pond is our largest provincial park. Nearly 3,500 hectares, this park contains the most varied and diverse landscape in any of our remaining parks. Think of a mini-Gros Morne and you would not be far off. Like Butter Pot, this park is close to the nearest major centre, about 45 minutes west of Corner Brook. Unlike Butter Pot, the lower portions of Barachois Pond are covered with a tall, rich forest. Countless hours of my youth were spent under the shadows of these giants. In this park, there are still trees that can make you feel small. A wonderful sandy beach lies on the shore of the park’s namesake. I vividly remember my dog Freckles racing down the beach with some lady’s bikini top in her mouth. Even the people chasing her were laughing. The pond is joined by several small brooks and other pools. Before you try your hand at fishing here, check with the park office. Some of these waterways contain salmon.
As with Butter Pot, there are several excellent trails throughout the park. The most challenging and rewarding is the hike up Erin Mountain. At more than 340 metres, the steep climb rewards you with a view of Bay St. George that will literally take your breath away. When you encounter a bog, look closely and you may see the beautiful fairy slipper calypso orchids. These fragile flowers share habitat with two plants that are the terror of insects – the pitcher plant and the sundew. Remember though, it is illegal to pick plants in any provincial park.
I call this park the warrior queen because, for all of its astonishing natural beauty, it is still a wild place. Take care when hiking and make sure someone knows where you’ve gone. Tragically, lives have been lost in this park. We must tread carefully and treat it with respect.
Could we see another round of park closures like we saw in the 1990s? Could we actually lose one or more of the crown jewels of provincial parks I described here? Surely not, you say. We’re not in the poor-house like we were then and, besides, there would be a public outcry. Well, consider this: the Provincial Park interpretation system, which took more than 50 decades to build, was abolished in the 2013 budget. Only a few voices decried these cuts and they were arrogantly ignored. All that is needed to lose more of our remaining parks is to elect a government whose ideology abhors protected areas. One way to avoid this is by visiting one of the parks I’ve described. By simply immersing yourself in the serenity of the natural world, you will gain a greater appreciation of our few remaining parks, and much else besides.
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