First Solo Trek of Devil's Bite and Indian Lookout Trails
Looking back on the IATNL highlights of 2010, no list would be complete without the solo trek by American hiker Lew Coty from Vermont. In August, Lew completed the first solo trek of the combined Devil's Bite and Indian Lookout Trails. The feat was especially impressive given that the former trail is still largely incomplete and both are generally unmarked, and he did it in 4 days instead of the recommended 6.
In his own words, here is Lew's story:
I had been coming to Newfoundland for several years to hike the stellar terrain the island has to offer. I had spent much time hiking into remote regions along the south and west coast, and was always looking for more areas to explore. While searching the Internet for new trails, I started reading about the routes being created by the International Appalachian Trail organization. A lot of these were in areas I had already explored, but a few new ones really caught my attention.
Two loops in particular, the Devil's Bite and Indian Lookout Trails, were particularly compelling; their names alone were enough to make you fantasize. From the short descriptions I knew only generally where they were located. They seemed to be fairly close to each other, connected by a few relatively level kilometers along the Flat Hills. Indian Lookout on the north end, is a 40 Km loop around Portland Creek's Southwest Feeder Gulch, and can be accessed by boat or via Five Mile Road off Route 430. On the south end, 45 Km Devil's Bite Trail circles around Parsons Pond watershed, and can be accessed by boat or from Indian Lookout Trail across the Flat Hills.
On the IATNL website I found a large-scale Google map that showed the basic outline of the trails, but my printer couldn't print it. Because the trails were still under development and incomplete, no official maps were available. In desperation I took a fuzzy digital photograph of the map on the computer screen to use as my guide, and purchased the four topographical maps I would need to explore this territory.
In Newfoundland in the early afternoon of August 1, I stopped at the Gros Morne Visitor Center to inquire about the new IAT trails, but they knew nothing. However, I was informed that the beautiful sunny weather of was forecasted to last the next three or four days. This was the hiking window I had been praying for and I wasn't about to let it slip away, just because I wasn't fully prepared yet. There was no time to try to find a proper description or map of these routes, so I quickly scribbled a trail onto my topo maps from that vague Google map. I knew I had just enough time to make it to the Five Mile access road before sunset, and enough dried food, and hard-boiled eggs I had cooked that morning, to last several days in the backcountry.
Late in the afternoon I drove down Five Mile Road as far as I dared and parked next to a newly built log cabin with an inviting wrap-around porch and a fire engine red steel roof. The owner was not there but it was obvious that more money had gone into this building than most of the shacks I had passed on that winding, rutted dirt road. I had encountered a few fishermen who owned one of those shacks and inquired if they knew where the new IAT trailhead was located. They were quite friendly and knew very well where all the best fishing holes could be found, but knew nothing about any new hiking trail. In fact, the subject of hiking seemed to bore them. I was a misfit in this out of the way locality. Such was the inauspicious start to my hike.
On August 2, I arose before sunrise and quickly packed. I am getting too old to hike in demanding terrain with a heavy backpack, and set 30 lbs as the maximum load, including my camera, fishing gear and food. I accomplish this in part by not bringing a sleeping mattress (I can most always find soft ground to sleep on in Newfoundland), or cooking stove and pots. I detoxify on these treks by giving up such things as automobiles and cell phones, so why not cooked food as well? I also hike with lightweight, fast-dry river shoes and nylon socks and pants which allow me to barge through brooks and bogs without worrying about wet feet. Heavy leather boots and gaiters are old school. I had food enough for three days, and four topo maps covering the whole region in case I "wandered". I had decided to do the Indian Lookout loop, as the terrain looked easier (though not as spectacular), the trail was listed as more complete and shorter, and not knowing the territory. it seemed more sensible. I allowed for two easy days, or maybe a third if the going got tough.
At sunrise, with beautiful weather, I continued up the ATV road with the Flat Hills floating above me, looking for any signs of a trailhead. According to my scribbles and GPS, I should have been within a kilometer of it. I came to a well-worn side road and flagged down some locals on their ATV's to ask them if this might be the trailhead. They asserted the road went in "forever" towards the Flat Hills and was likely to be what I was looking for. Fortunately, I only went a short distance before my intuition told me this muddy ATV trail was probably not part of the IAT. Slightly further up the main ATV trail I came to a cleared area where a cemented stone footer (for a sign?) had been poured. I decided to try my luck here where a narrow footpath had been trampled through the grass. Happily, I quickly found IAT markers on a nicely cut trail and was soon on the Flat Hill highlands.
From the top I had a commanding view of the St. Lawrence Seaway and an intriguing shot of the Parson Pond Canyon. This proved too seductive, and in an instant I was off across the Flat Hills to hike the Devil's Bite Loop.
The Flat Hills are easy walking and averaging 5 or more KM an hour is possible. On the south end near East Brook Gulch, the view ahead became dramatic as I hiked into scenes of alpine lakes, waterfalls and the Parson Pond Fiord. Ahead the route was to cross Middle Brook that connects Parsons Inner and Outer Ponds, and then to proceed up through Western Brook Canyon, exiting out the top onto the south rim of Parsons Inner Pond. As this canyon is lined with 2,000-foot cliffs, this exit looked formidable both from afar and on my topo map. I could only hope I had scribbled in the right route.
Coming off the Flat Hills down the side of East Brook was easy thanks to a freshly cut trail through the tuckamore. Crossing East Brook and hiking through the adjacent barrens, I was on and off the cut trail as it can be difficult to find at the edge of open terrain. I emerged on the shores of Parsons Inner Pond with its towering cliffs and proceeded on to the outlet of Middle Brook where there is a cluster of cabins. I asked a fellow there if he knew where the Devil's Bite was. This is a local landmark that can be seen from miles away on the high ridge above Parsons Inner Pond, where it looks like a monster has taken a huge circular chomp out of the ridgeline. It did not show on my topo map and I didn't want to miss it. We looked at the map and he pointed out a spot with sharply dipped contour lines along the north rim and said that must be it. If I (or he) had only known it was looming on the horizon directly over our heads on the south rim!
Middle Brook was quite swollen from the preceding week of rain, and I began to wonder whether I would be able to cross. I had to hike upstream around several bends before finding a braided section where I could wiggle myself with backpack across without taking a cold swim.
After some bushwhacking, I stumbled back upon the IAT trail that led me through some beautiful open birch forests toward Western Brook canyon. Here, on a grassy bank with some moose grazing in the distance, over a trout-filled lake at the entrance to the canyon, I set up camp.
8/3 As I approached the upper end of the canyon I saw that climbing out was going to be easier than feared. To proceed, I entered a cascading brook that led me up and over the canyon lip into the majestic barrens leading to the south rim of Parsons Inner Pond. Had I known, I could have taken a side jaunt heading west along this rim to see the Devil's Bite up close. Near here lives a very intriguing waterfall (Five Island Falls) that pours directly into a narrow, deep rock fissure, which seems to swallow it whole before spitting it out sideways.
A short hike east along the barrens brought me to Freake's Falls that spills 1000' down into the top of Parsons Inner Pond Canyon. I found a magnificent rocky perch slightly below the top of the falls where feeling dizzy, I could peer directly down this impressive free-leaping waterfall. From there I followed the trail over Parsons Pinnacle with its radial views of canyons and lakes, and then lost it again as I descended into Corner Pond Valley where I could look back at Freake's Falls from above. As the afternoon progressed I wasted several hours looking along the north rim in vain for the Devil's Bite before having it suddenly highlighted on the horizon by the setting sun across Parsons Inner Pond.
There in the shimmering golden light I set up camp. The last two days had been fairly warm and as I reached for my dinner of hard-boiled eggs my nose instantly told me they were well past being edible. My main source of concentrated calories had just been eliminated.
8/4 Leaving Parsons Inner Pond Canyon, hiking over some rocky, lake-strewn barrens heading north towards the top of Main Gulch, I was rounding a boulder when I came head to head with an old bull caribou. Fortunately he was as startled by me as I was by him and he quickly bolted. It turned out he was the tip of the iceberg, and I was soon wading through multiple herds of caribou of all ages, parting like the Red Sea before me.
As I approached the larger lakes near the top of Little Gulch, I caught glimpses of the Flat Hills and Southwest Feeder Gulch against the horizon. I was into my third day and quickly running out of food, but as I continued, my curiosity about the Indian Head Loop became overwhelming. Against better judgment, I soon found myself slipping between two pristine lakes, heading over the dip down into the top of East Brook, and across the Flat Hills with visions of Indian Lookout dancing in my head. I came to the Indian Lookout Trail near the south fork of the Southwest Feeder just above the high leaping Partridge Pond Waterfall. I camped on the high barrens between the north and south forks of the Southwest Feeder Gulch. I had been hiking three twelve-hour days over mostly challenging terrain and could only hope the limited food I had left would be enough. That night I dreamt I suddenly collapsed due to lack of nutrition and couldn't go on.
8/5 The dream, still in my mind as I awoke, seemed to vanish with the darkness as the sun rose.
It was comforting that I was oddly not that hungry despite my rationing and vigorous workout the past three days. I still had a Larabar, two apricots, a spoonful of granola and gorp, and a carrot. I was determined to make it out that day even though I wasn't even half way around the loop, and had no idea what kind of nasty terrain might lie ahead. Two more long days could be trouble.
The trail to and over the north fork was straightforward. At that point, there was a nice clean looking ridge above me heading in the direction I desired, but the way there was peppered with tight tuckamore patches, and I could not find the trail. Weaving through the tuckamore with one final lunging session aided by swearing brought me out onto the exposed eastern rim with an excellent open route ahead towards Indian Lookout. I passed multiple ptarmigan which blend so well with their rocky surroundings, and followed huge mounds of crushed stone that looked like cairns for giants down to the side trail to Indian Lookout.
Despite my time frame, the panoramic view from this highland knoll overlooking Portland Creek Pond Fiord was well worth the extra hiking.
There is a trail leading down from there across a charming peninsula where you can access this route by boat. Heading west from here over naked barrens and around forested terrain I was on and off a cut trail. I felt fortunate for the whole hike in always being able to find a cut trail through the tuckamore whenever it became totally overwhelming. I reinforced my diet with a peculiar combination of bakeapple, rock tripe and spruce gum.
As the day progressed, the beautiful sunshine of the last three days was giving way to inclement weather. As I started up a long sloping rocky ridge, I was soon surrounded by dense fog. This is not at all unusual for Newfoundland, which I have been told produces all the fog for the rest of North America. With the view totally obscured at the top of the ridge, and my pace considerably slowed, spending yet another night on route became a distinct possibility. Light showers were moving through as I consulted my GPS, which I consider essential for efficient navigation under conditions like this. As I descended off the ridge, much to my delight, I abruptly dropped out of the clouds and through intermittent bursts of sun had my first glimpse of the ATV trail leading to the red roofed cabin in the distance. The rest of the hike out was straight forward, as I crossed the barrens to a cut trail that led off the highlands to the marshes below. There I got onto the ATV trail and easily crossed the Southwest Feeder where it was divided and shallow.
As I approached my car the sky became very threatening with thunder and lightening to the west. I ran the last half-kilometer and with unbelievable timing opened the car door just as a torrential downpour hit. It rained so hard I had to wait twenty minutes before I had sufficient vision to drive away.