Having walked over the course of several years through various parts of the Avalon Wilderness Reserve, I felt that something essential would have been omitted were I to never traverse its length from south to north in one go. So in mid-September of 2012 I decided it was finally time to embark upon this long-imagined journey.
This is the story of that journey, in seven installments. Whether you’re an experienced hiker or yearning to make your first trip into our island’s gorgeous interior, I hope this account will inspire you to follow in my footsteps.
I planned for seven days of walking. At close to 100 kms, it would be the longest walk I’d ever undertaken. I originally determined to follow a route through the middle of the Reserve from the Hawke Hills, just south of Holyrood, to Trepassey, near the extreme southern end of the Avalon Peninsula.
The Hawke Hills, a high ridge of land extending for several kilometres along a north-south axis, are perhaps recognizable to many for the unusually high concentration of communications towers that sit atop their northern extremity, near the Trans-Canada Highway about 65 km west of St. John’s. However, on the day of my departure, and pretty much at the last minute, I decided against starting there. The thought of beginning my walk in the midst of those ghastly towers spooked me. I figured it would be better to have the towers at the end of the journey. After seven days of hard walking their spookiness would hardly matter anymore. Besides, climbing Inside Hawke Hill, which as far as I know is the highest point of land on the Avalon, would be a satisfying reward on my last day of walking. So in the afternoon of September 17 I arranged a ride with Clarence Molloy’s Taxi to Trepassey. By the time he dropped me off at the head of Northeast Brook it was already pitch dark.
I set up my tent in the cool damp air next to the river, then prepared a quick supper of potato and kidney bean stew. I was more than happy to eat some of the weight of food in my pack. I had never before carried such a heavy rucksack on a camping trip. Settled away in my tent with a full belly after supper, I was in high spirits and anxious to begin my walk. I heard the occasional chirp outside the tent, like a bird in the bush. A pumphouse next to the brook thumped out a steady slow rhythm reminiscent of an Indian drum. The river’s rush made a calming sound that lulled me off to sleep.
The Northeast Trail
The next morning I left Trepassey at about ten o’clock, taking the Northeast Trail into the country. The Northeast Trail is a well-developed ATV trail. It runs about 11 km from Riverhead in Trepassey, past Bear Hill Pond and Goose Ponds, and ends up in the vicinity of Saddle Pond and Chidley’s Ponds, near the border of the Reserve. I saw no animals while walking the trail except for a lone shrew. Late blueberries and early partridge berries were not scarce. The damp, earthy, sweet and sour fragrance of autumn was everywhere.
Several ATVs passed me as I walked the trail. One of them stopped. The rider was a jolly fellow with an English setter on his lap. He told me about another ATV trail that I could pick up near his cabin which would take me to Northwest Pond, which was where I planned to camp for the night, and invited me to stop at his cabin for a visit along the way. His dog was getting fidgety, so he took off. A couple of hours later, in the early afternoon, I found him leaning on the rail of his cabin’s patio.
This was a man who enjoyed his time in the country in extravagant fashion. His cabin was enormous, with two or three outbuildings around it, an eight-wheeled ATV, seven or eight English setters, a four-wheeled ATV, and an inflatable boat with an outboard motor moored on Northwest Pond. Cheerful and sentimental, he seemed to genuinely appreciate the pristine nature of the country around his cabin. He hunts partridge, but claimed to relish more than anything just being out on the land, enjoying the expansive views and drinking fresh water from secret springs. (He recommended a couple of these springs to me, but I found neither of them.) He told me that he was against the recent upgrade of the Northeast Trail. He doesn’t want to see the place become too developed. The fact that he has the most luxurious estate in the area didn’t seem to cause him any dilemma. I appreciated the guy, despite his extravagances. He seemed a thoughtful fellow and showed real affection for the country.
I followed my new acquaintance’s advice and took the trail from his cabin to Northwest Pond. Walking with my heavy pack was exhausting, but made easier by the trails, so I was glad to have their help. As I came over a ridge into sight of Northwest Pond I turned around and saw one of the English setters standing on a rock looking at me inquisitively. He seemed satisfied to have found me in good shape and ran off towards home.
Approaching Northwest Pond I left the trail and bushwhacked my way through the woods to the southern end of the pond. There I found some sunny boulders in the middle of Northwest Brook on which to eat lunch. Re-energized, I began walking up the western side of the pond. The barren ground there made for good walking and there were caribou trails to help me through patches of tuckamore. A partridge flew up close in front of me, then off to my left and behind me. I saw it fly for quite a distance before it disappeared. It would flap its wings quickly for a spell, then arch them stiffly for a glide, during which the wings appeared as two brilliant white arches, thin and sharp against the bird’s mostly brown feathers.
It was with great relief that I finally reached a good camping spot at about 5 p.m. – a lovely stretch of pebble beach at the northern end of Northwest Pond, sheltered by a shady grove and right on the border of the Reserve. I set up my tent on the beach at the water’s edge. The cabin-owner I’d met earlier that day had told me that I would find a picnic table tucked in the woods next to this beach, and so I did. Apparently, it was brought by snowmobile. There I made my kitchen and cooked one of the tastiest suppers I’ve ever had: a beef burger topped with onion, avocado, sun dried tomato, mushroom, feta cheese, red pepper, and olive oil, with pasta and cheese on the side. While cooking supper two loons on the pond made odd noises and came near to check me out. Eventually they flew off, their wings flapping momentously in the still of the evening. In the gloom of dusk I heard the distant sounds of geese.
While exploring the woods adjacent to the beach I was lucky to find some remarkably large chanterelle mushrooms. I didn’t dare eat them right away, being too uncertain of my skills in identifying mushrooms to take a chance while alone in the woods. So I laid them on some beach rocks to dry. The next day I took them with me, although I was loathe to add weight to my pack. They would stay with me for the duration of the trip and finally find their way into an omelette back in town.
After supper I spent a couple of hours watching day turn to night. The sun dropped below the barrens and glowed there a while. Then the moon appeared for a spell: a waxing orange crescent in the western sky. Dusk darkened imperceptibly until it was full-on night. The Milky Way extended itself brilliantly from north to south. Its stars shone unobscured by cloud and doubled on the surface of the pond. Cygnus stretched his wings directly above my head.
From the east came the hushed and distant sound of a river, its loudness varying with the breeze. Every now and then something chirped in the dark woods behind me.
To be continued…