Photo Feature: Gros Morne

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What I did on summer vacation

This summer, I vacationed with my family in Gros Morne National Park, on Newfoundland's west coast. It was my first visit to the park in more than 20 years, and I was determined this time to hike as many trails as possible (having missed most of them the first time around).

I was packing my new Nikon D80 digital SLR, a wonderful camera with which I am quite infatuated. Not surprisingly, I went snap happy, shooting anything that moved, and many things that didn't.

I am presenting some of the results here, my first photo feature in several months. You can click on each image for a larger view.

For visitors to this blog from outside the province, I am hoping these images might help demonstrate why Gros Morne National Park was selected, in 1987, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for its natural beauty and contribution to our understanding of the earth's history. It was here that scientists developed early ideas on the theory of plate tectonics, and scientists still flock from around the world to study its incredible geology and natural history. It truly is one of the earth's special places.

On our first full day, we took the hike and boat tour through Western Brook Pond (photos 1 to 3), a massive fiord that was carved by glaciers in the last ice age. The cliffs seem to go on forever, reaching a full eight miles to the back of the pond, and are almost incomprehensibly high. It's difficult to judge depth and perspective, looking straight up at mountains that soar two thousand feet from the water's edge. And the trees, being so far away, blend into a carpet of green that the brain can be fooled into mistaking for grass.

But look at it this way: the cliffs are 700 feet higher than that most-recognized and unfortunate symbol of height the World Trade Centre. Imagine the Twin Towers, dwarfed in the foreground.

Everything in the park is like that: so bloody big, as to be almost incomprehensible.

Take Gros Morne Mountain, for example (photo 4). I hiked this with my son, despite warnings from some that the hike might be too much for my middle-aged frame. (He is proud to say that it wasn't not at all.)

The mountain is innocuous from a distance; a rounded hump of mashed potatoes that looks in no way dangerous. However, a sign at the base reminds you not to underestimate the mountain, which is 806 metres high (2500 feet) at its summit (and this is true height, as it begins pretty much at sea level). Indeed, people have died on the mountain, and an acquaintance of mine once had to be rescued by helicopter after attempting a short-cut on the way up.

You ascend the first 300 metres through forest, on a bracing uphill trail, which takes you to the base of the mountain. Then the actual climb begins, up a 500-metre gulch (photo 5) littered with massive chunks of frost-shattered granite.

Even at the base of the gulch, looking right into it, one really can't appreciate how high and difficult it is. It sank in when I looked for people I knew were on the trail, but couldn't see them they were simply too small to make out with the naked eye. If you photo 5, in the lower right corner, you can see some people flecks of colour just beginning their climb. That helps bring into focus the scale of the scene.

Such is the reality of the Gros Morne landscape.

It sinks in even more during the climb, when you look back and realize how far you've come, but how much there is still to go. For example, when looking into the gulch from the base camp' platform, we decided that the narrow part of the trail, where the trees converge, was about the halfway point. But if you go back and look at the first photo of the mountain (the gully is to the right), you can see that the trees converge at a low point about one-quarter of the way up.

This is the most exhausting part of the climb, beginning at about 25 degrees, then tilting to what seemed like a 40 degree angle (photo 6), steepening to 50 degrees near the top. I stopped numerous times to enjoy the view', catch my breath and slow my heart rate. My son didn't break a sweat.

It was a hot day, and the cool breeze at the top was welcoming. There were other hikers, but many wandered off to the shoulder of the mountain for better panoramic views. However, we stayed on the trail, kept moving and crossed the top of the mountain quickly, to get to the highlight the remarkable view of Ten Mile Pond (photo 7).

Because of its elevation, Gros Morne has an unusual arctic-alpine habitat, with arctic hare, rock ptarmigan, caribou and a windswept arctic terrain. The highlight of the hike, in fact, was spotting this pair of caribou (photos 8 and 9) resting and grazing near the shoulder of the mountain. I didn't get this close to the animals hikers are requested to give them a wide berth. I was able to use my zoom, then crop and enlarge the image.

The descent starts at the back of the mountain, and is more gradual than the upward climb. However, it is in many ways more difficult; a grueling, three-hour clamber down a rocky, uneven trail where one has to be constantly vigilant against falling or twisting an ankle. I wore good hiking boots, and the day before purchased some gel insoles to cushion the bottoms of my feet. This was a wise move, believe me.

What made the downward hike bearable was the spectacular view of Ferry Gulch (photos 10 and 11), and the hills on the other side. When we came to a pond on the valley floor (that tent is a back-country campsite), we thought that the worst was over. But it was just a hanging valley. Further ahead, there was a precipitous drop of an additional 200 metres or so. My aching feet were not pleased about this news. (In photo 11, you can see the trail on the flank of Gros Morne, at right.)

The Tablelands (photos 12 and 13) are also a must see' in Gros Morne and, thanks to an old roadbed, are easily accessed. It's a short hike to the base of the hills, which loom 700 metres high. The most important geological site in the park, the Tablelands are actually a part of the earth's mantle, pushed to the surface 450 million years ago by subduction, or the collision of continental plates. The result is a rusty-orange soil in which few plants can survive. It's a barren, but eerily beautiful place. One of my boys remarked that "even the rocks seem dead," which made total sense at the time. I like the interplay of clouds, blue sky and ochre-coloured earth in photo 12.

Again, it was difficult to comprehend the scale of the panorama that surrounded us. While the family was taking a breather, my son asked if he could run up the side of that hill over there. I tried to explain that that hill' was much larger than he realized and that it would take hours to get to the top if he didn't take a painful tumble on the loose, unstable rock.

Finally, to close out this album, a shot of Baker's Brook Falls (photo 14). It's at the climax of a good, 10 km hike over gentle terrain that was diminished, in my view, by the vast tracts of dead trees, killed by hemlock looper.

There is a spirit that possesses one's psyche whilst exploring Gros Morne, manifesting in washes of wonder and tranquility over the soul. A return trip is definitely in the cards.

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  • wayne
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Great article on the area! thanks! We make a few visits to the area each year.