Lew Coty's Western Brook Pond Circumtrek
During summer 2014, Appalachian Mountain explorer Lew Coty from Vermont, U.S.A. returned to Newfoundland for another great backcountry adventure, this time circumtrekking Western Brook Pond in Gros Morne National Park. Lew began his 5-day trek in Sally's Cove on Route 430 (Viking Trail) and followed a clockwise course from the western end of the "pond".
In His Own Words:
Western Brook Pond, in the northern section of Gros Morne Park, is the quintessential inland fjord of Newfoundland. Its description squeezes out superlatives: it is the most visited, most photographed and most spectacular (though not necessarily the most beautiful). It can be easily accessed by a short 3k well-groomed trail, at the end of which you can hop on a ferry that will take you up this narrow meandering canyon with 2000’ sheer rock walls and their accompanying waterfalls on both sides. I had taken this ride a number of years ago, where I was dropped off at the head of the pond to do a 20-mile traverse through the Long Range Mountains ending at Gros Morne Mountain. A few years later I hiked the pond’s North Rim Trail, a cut trail on the western end, and then headed briefly down the south rim before crossing over the Big Level to Bakers Brook Pond, ending at Berry Hill. I had pleasant memories of what I saw of the south rim, which seemed more open and hiker friendly than the north side, and after receiving a good weather forecast for several days, decided this was the time to do a Western Brook Pond circumtrek.
August 11/2014: I set out early from a gravel pit near Sally’s Cove, and traversed over the marshland that separates this fjord from the ocean. The vistas east into the mouth of WBP canyon and the array of brightly-colored sphagnum mosaic keep this spongy slog interesting.
I eventually worked my way to an abandoned Park trail, complete with still-sturdy boardwalks thanks to their pressure-treated construction. This led me to the main drag ferry dock trail, where I had my brief and only contact with civilization for this trek. Soon after, I was crossing Western Brook, through which the pond drains into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This put me on the North Rim Trail, which follows the pond’s shoreline out to Snug Harbour before heading up onto the North Rim. This poorly maintained and often hard-to-follow trail passes through old growth boreal forest where I saw colorful Bunchberries and Red Admiral butterflies competing for attention on the forest floor. I also found some Lacarria laccata mushrooms that like this boreal habitat, and despite their common name “The Deceiver”, are edible. I have no gift for remembering Latin names with the exception of this one, because of how nicely it rolls off the tongue.
A timeworn log walkway led me up the final pitch onto the alpine barrens where a parched white antler marked the end of the trail.
This western end of the North Rim has gentle slopes with wide swaths of tuckamore (closely knit and stunted growths of spruce and fir) that must be avoided if one is to remain integrated and sane. I passed areas of succumbed tree ghosts, and further east, crossed over large rocky barrens where the Ptarmigan blend seamlessly into the background. I was rapidly approaching the eastern end of the rim, and spent the night nestled on the shore of one of the many nameless lakes that dot this region.
August 12: I had always wanted to see the northern headwaters of the famous Humber River, and as I proceeded southerly to the head of the WBP Canyon on the usual trajectory, I decided to veer east towards the Humber Valley. I am often a victim of wanderlust and this was no exception.
The highlands at the upper end of Western Brook are corrugated with countless ridges, peaks, cliffs, ponds, fens, and tuckamore bands, which make for a challenging and meandering navigation. Rounding one corner, I came face to face with a Caribou; we eyed each other uneasily trying to decide who had the right-of-way. Unlike moose, they are native to Newfoundland. It is odd that this is the only member of the deer family in which both sexes grow horns, though horns as developed as this would be male.
I eventually topped out at a communications tower, and it was obvious why this spot was chosen. The 360-degree view was unobstructed, from the fading precipitous walls of WBP in the west, to the Humber River and its many tributaries to the east. I crossed Halfway Gulch directly below the tower, and traversed a well-defined ridgeline of glacier-scraped bedrock, and delicately balanced boulders, before descending into one of these tributaries. Near a pond surrounded by grassy fields, I spent my second night.
August 13: The air was heavily saturated next morning; the ubiquitous condensation highlighted the low-lying cobwebs. As the rising sun diffused the mist, I made my way down to the main branch of the Humber, not far above Middle Camp Pond. Highbush Blueberry and Juneberry or Sugarplum bushes thrive in these fertile waterways, and were welcome juicy treats. Red-bellied Brook Trout that are native to most streams and lakes in North America began to reveal themselves basking in the illuminated deeper pools of cold, pure water, which is essential to their survival.
At Middle Camp Pond I grilled one for lunch and was grateful for the nourishment and exquisite fresh-broiled flavor, as it became obvious I had bitten off more than originally planned on this trek, and food would be in short supply at the end.
The river in this area is slow, broad, and meandering with only a few minor rapids; it zigzags through a confusing array of lakes and wetlands.
After a spine-chilling dip in the deep eddies of the short cascades spilling into the pond, I began my return journey west through mostly gently-rolling grassy fields and rocky barrens, aiming for the narrow connection between two lakes, located at the southwest end of Halfway Gulch.
As I walked the shore of the first lake heading for this causeway, I spooked a loon on the bank that suddenly charged into the water directly in front of me, nearly knocking me over with its thunderous flapping wings before instantaneously diving. A loon’s ability to hold its breath would make a pearl diver jealous, and it was only a dot when it finally surfaced.
I barely managed to cross the connector, over a very narrow strip that was just shallow enough, and was quite relieved to have avoided going around the second lake, which would have added a number of tedious kilometers to my mission. I ascended to the upper plateau, passing a snowfield still thriving in its north-facing recess, and soon the towering cliff bands of WBP were rising in the west. The iconic eastern end of this canyon is saturated with vertical rock walls, and climbing the precipitous slopes onto the south rim I was washed in vertigo.
Hiking into the setting sun, I proceeded a short ways down the rim and set camp on a relatively smooth shelf. With a clear view of the defile below, the sunset show did not disappoint.
The blowing mist from Pissing Mare Falls, which spills off a 1150’ cliff about two kilometers west of camp, turned into an orange neon fire-fall as the sun set.
August 14: I was greeted by a cold damp wind and overcast sky as I proceeded west down the rim, eager to visit the top of Pissing Mare Falls. Following a likely stream down to the rim’s abrupt drop off, I realized I was looking at another waterfall just west of PMF, which is probably bigger volume-wise, but not as spectacular since it doesn’t leap off the cliff with such wild abandon. It had been a steep slippery struggle to get down there, and I wasn’t about to leave without a photo. I tentatively perched myself at the falls’ edge and quickly took the photo. It wasn’t until after the shutter released that I realized in the center of the photo was a returning ferry. Considering that possibility only existed for a few seconds each day it was astounding I captured this scene without an extensive wait, and that is definitely not a location where I would want to wait. This waterfall probably already has a name, but I will always call it Ferry Falls.
About halfway up the canyon there is a cliff-faced promontory that has a commanding presence when viewed from either direction, and it became my next lure. I drifted onto the northern end of the Big Level to ease the hiking, spooking a bear (and me) in the process, and then dropped north towards this prominence.
I climbed up onto it skirting some tuckamore, and jumping a crevasse in the process. After landing, I did a double take looking back at the fissure, and was thankful I hadn’t tripped as it appeared to be at least 80’ down to the ice below. The panorama of WBP from this prominence is unparalleled, with drop-away views of the chasm looking both up and down the canyon.
Heading west down the rim, the terrain became gentler, and my k/h increased. I found pockets of Labrador Tea, which I began chewing for the aromatic boost.
Soon after crossing Deer Gulch I was afforded my last view of the pond, with Western Brook Hill to the west, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence beyond. I had hiked to WB Hill a few years before, and due to the amount of surrounding tuckamore, I had no desire to include it on this trek.
Instead, I set course for a large swath of open barrens that rise above the headwaters of Grassy Brook. There was tuckamore to forge on the east side of these barrens, but fortunately its impenetrability was mitigated by well-worn moose trails. As usual, Moose are a trekker’s best friend, and at times like this I am grateful they were introduced to NL. I marched across this beautiful grassy plateau in the fading light, as the looming cliffs and bottomless crater of WBP faded and disappeared behind me. I set the final camp on the western edge of this tableland with the Gulf of St. Lawrence spread out before me from the north to south horizon.
August 15: Hiking west, as the ocean horizon closed in, I had the dizzying feel that my next step might be from this high plateau onto the shimmering blue one below.
My exit ramp from this highland was a picturesque grass-lined brook, which with the help of another well-worn moose trail lower down, brought me to Stag Brook. I followed this brook for a few kilometers as it drains north to the lower end of WBP, before heading west onto the marshlands. I was soon retracing my four-day-old footsteps back to Sally’s Cove.
The End......til next summer!