For years I haven’t been able to keep the Skerwink and Spurwink trails straight. So, this summer I decided to do some research to figure out why their names were so similar.
I took out my trusty “Dictionary of Newfoundland English” and looked up Spurwink. All it said was “See Skerwink.” But those two words were music to my ears. No wonder I’ve been confused all this time — Spurwink and Skerwink mean the same thing. But what the heck was the meaning?
For that I skipped back to Skerwink, which the dictionary explains comes from old English Skirwingle bird and refers to a shearwater (or hagdown, as it’s sometime known in Newfoundland) which is a seabird that lives offshore. There. Clear as mud.
Whew. What a massive relief it was to gain this knowledge. But still I had to think twice whenever I explained I was going to Port Rexton to do the — which trail was it? Skerwink? Spurwink? It was threatening my sanity. I had to get them straight. That’s when I came up with a plan. I would do both trails in quick succession to solidify their names in my thick noggin.
These are my research notes.
The Skerwink Trail is in Port Rexton in Trinity Bay and takes hikers around Skerwink Head, a rocky headland dividing Trinity’s harbour from Port Rexton’s. It’s just over five kilometres long and is, in my view, relatively easy.
Spurwink Island Path, on the other hand, is on the East Coast Trail between Aquaforte and Port Kirwan and takes hikers by Spurwink Island at the mouth of Aquaforte Harbour. It is over 17 km long and quite difficult.
Although the Skerwink Trail is short and can be done in under two hours, it took six fit ladies about five hours from the time we left the Fishers’ Loft Inn until we got back for our celebratory dinner. This is not because we found it difficult but rather because you can’t help but stop often along this trail to take in views of Port Rexton, English Harbour and the Champneys to the north, and spectacular Trinity to the south.
Sea stacks with great names like Naked Man, Music Box and Flat Fish provoked intense debate as to which was which. We also had a photographer with us, so that doubled our time right there.
In my view The Skerwink Trail has the best of what a summer Newfoundland hike has to offer, all mashed into one small area. Ocean views with crashing waves and treacherous cliffs, whales and sea birds, inland forest and headland tuckamore, steep climbs, blueberries and even a moose. I fully understand why Travel and Leisure Magazine called this trail “one of the top 35 walks in North America and Europe” in its August 2003 World Best Awards issue.
When you go, wear sturdy hiking boots and bring water and a snack. But here are two more hints for hiking this trail: bring a camera for some postcard shots and bring some money to stuff in the donation box at the end so the towns of Port Rexton and Trinity-Trinity East can continue to maintain this gem.
Now for the Spurwink. The East Coast Trail notes that accompany the map for Spurwink say that if you can’t start this hike until later in the day, choose another trail. No sense beating around the bush, is there? This trail is long and strenuous with no easy bail-out points. My daughter, her friend and I did it in two chunks, taking advantage of the sleeping platforms and toilet next to Spurwink Island, which is much smaller than I expected, but picturesque all the same. Breaking the trail up into two manageable pieces means you have to carry a lot on your back, however. And both teenagers felt the weight of their packs.
We did the trail backwards starting at Port Kirwan and making our way north towards Gallows Cove campsite. The fog was so thick when we began we could hardly see the water crashing against the cliffs below. We had to crawl under or over a couple of dozen trees along the trail that were felled by tropical storm Leslie.
Within three hours a blister had formed on one tender heel. It got nipped in the bud, however, and no real harm was done. By noon the fog had lifted and by the time we got to Berry Head a long break was warranted.
Although the trail is named after Spurwink Island, what is more impressive is the sea arch at nearby Berry Head. Chiseled and sturdy, it almost looks like something the Romans would have made. It was here we came upon three of the four other hikers we passed in our two days on the trail. They were going in and out in one day and thus only had small packs. Like us, they had done most sections of the East Coast trail but were just getting around to doing this hike because, as residents of St. John’s, it requires a little more time and preparation to get the one and half hours from the city to the starting point.
Hints for the Spurwink: bring lots of water if doing a day hike. We passed only two streams (one on each day) suitable for replenishing water supplies.
The water close to our campsite was an iron-stained brown with lots of floaty bits. We were so thirsty, however, we happily drank it after boiling and straining out the twigs and needles.
I did leave the two teenagers at the campsite in an attempt to travel an extra 2.7 km to Bruin Cove River to get better water. At 2.2 km along the trail, I came upon a moose grazing (read: noisily ripping branches off trees and devouring them) right next to the trail and was too wimpy to attempt to pass him. It was getting duckish and I had already been gone more than half an hour. So, I turned around empty-handed and ran back to the campsite.
The independent teens had already gone to the close-by stream and had the brown water strained of twigs and ready for boiling for supper. You couldn’t even tell the water was a funny colour once the chocolate powder was added. It was the best hot chocolate ever.
The next morning, after packing away supplies and a quick breakfast of porridge, the teens hoisted their packs onto their aching shoulders and soldiered on. This part of the trail was much damper with slippery moss causing not one but four soakers. One hiker even disappeared off the trail momentarily when he slipped and fell out of sight.
It was like George Bush (Sr.) when he went fishing with Craig Dobbin in Labrador. One minute security staff had a fine visual of him, next minute he had disappeared into the bog.
“President down!” they barked over the radios. Panic ensued. Until, upon reaching the president, they established that Bush had just gone to do what people have been doing since the beginning of mankind. He was taking a whiz in the bushes.
Our guy was not relieving himself but was none the worse for wear after he emerged from the bushes. He did have a sore leg and I made him eat a Clif Bar to bring up his strength before continuing.
I could tell not only by their faces and movements when the teens were tired. After a couple of hours of hiking they wouldn’t even feign excitement when I pointed out a huge moose print in the mud. I could also tell they were running out of steam when they stopped animatedly discussing “Doctor Who” and a dozen other TV shows I’ve never seen. The trail became silent — only the trudging of hiking boots slipping off moss-covered rocks.
About five hours in on Day 2 those teenagers were mighty happy to see a power line in the distance, indicating we were approaching the highway and the end of the Spurwink Island Trail. We had a view of Spurwink Island in the distance and they couldn’t believe how far away it looked.
When they reached the road, they tossed off their packs, thwumped down on the damp ground and high-fived to commend themselves on a job well done. I was proud of them both sitting there with their wet socks and mud-soaked hiking boots, their wet pants stuck to their legs.
As for me, I was delighted. I had worked out the difference between two trails and cemented their names in my mind. I now know that the Skerwink Trail is a walk in the park (as long as you’re mobile, heart fit and don’t mind heights) — an easy half-day spent enjoying the best nature has to offer.
After yesterday I also know The Spurwink Island Path is a tough slog not to be attempted by the unprepared.
I also know that Torchwood is an anagram of Doctor Who used by creators when they initially sent completed shows over the Internet so they wouldn’t be intercepted by avid fans. Torchwood eventually became its own series. It’s amazing what tidbits you can pick up along the trail.
As for seeing the trails’ namesakes, we didn’t see any spurwinks, skerwinks, shearwaters or hagdowns on either trail. And it’s doubtful you will, either, as these sea birds are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their time on the open ocean.
So that’s it. Sperwink and Spurwink. I challenge you to keep them straight.
Susan Flanagan lives to hike. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org