As the helicopter rises gently above the Humber Valley, we look down on a tapestry of subtle colours, imposing granite mountains, meandering rivers, and placid lakes whose shores are unblemished by impertinent human structures.
As we continue to rise, the view becomes even more ethereal. Cocooned in the whirlygig aircraft and wearing a headset through which the low, slightly disembodied voice of the pilot begins the narrative of this wondrous geological spectacle, I begin to feel subsumed by the grand natural theatre surrounding us. There is also a profound sense of timelessness and eternal qualities in this primordial landscape. Human time is of no consequence here.
As if he were silently intoning the First Movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, the pilot artfully turns his aircraft into a slow 360 degree sweep. Looking out and beyond, I see that we are surrounded by an uninterrupted, cloudless sky — and infinite horizons. This is the prelude to a very privileged view of Western Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula.
The expansive terrain below reminds me once again of that quintessential Canadian sense of place; so integral to our collective psyche. We are where we live; landscape shapes culture. The latter is especially true in Newfoundland and Labrador, in particular on the island known affectionately and quite rightly as The Rock.
And here on the west coast of Newfoundland where close-knit communities like Cornerbrook and Deer Lake provide the genuine down home hospitality that is bred in the bone of Newfoundlanders, it becomes abundantly clear how land and sea have shaped social behaviour and community-centred cultural values; and spawned self-determination. This land and its adjacent seascapes also demonstrates why humans who have struggled and flourished in such challenging terrain invent myth-like stories to personify their larger-than-life environs.
Geology and history in Western Newfoundland are inseparable. And here the visitor is also a time traveller. The great tectonic forces, earthquakes, glaciers, and eons of geological time that have sculpted this monumental terrain are inherent in the recurring themes and stories of the people.
At the core of Western Newfoundland lie the now silent forces that clashed violently long before our species made an appearance anywhere on the planet. Here you will still find evidence of the Earth’s mantle having been pushed up to the surface over 1200 million years ago during the Precambrian era, when two competing continents collided; one slowly slipping beneath the other. Many may be surprised to learn that the Long Range Mountains that were eventually formed during the upward thrust of Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula are actually part of the great Appalachian chain that begins as far south as Georgia.
And the ancient core of what today is North America eventually became a supercontinent which began to break apart, eventually splitting and fracturing. The flow of molten rock from the Earth’s core filled the gaps, cooled, and the magma that remained can still be seen and touched in Western Newfoundland.
And then began the continental drift northward. The process was inexorable; but the end result was the emergence here of a land of majestic glacier-carved fjords, ancient forests, and in the fullness of time ubiquitous wildlife. What also eventually emerged was an uncommon human culture forged through adversity in a harsh but magnificent environment.
As is the case in much of Newfoundland, here you will also encounter solitary outport fishing villages that are models of the tenacity and endurance of the people of The Rock. Today wildlife abounds: Arctic hare, rock ptarmigan, woodland caribou, and moose, to name a few. And yet, none of these animals are indigenous to the island that for so long was set apart in an immense basin, which in turn became the Iapetus Ocean, a precursor to the Atlantic. But animals and humans eventually came to the island over the last 15,000 years. They swam, flew, or walked across the pack ice. And it is their presence here that invested the land with its essential life force.
When you interact with the affable and unaffected people of Western Newfoundland, whether in cities like Cornerbrook or Deer Lake; or in more remote communities such as Frenchman’s Cove, Rocky Harbour, or St. Anthony at the northern tip of the Peninsula, you will encounter hardy, funny, and generous people whose stories inevitably make reference to their physical environment and to the human character strengths that it begat. You will also encounter what may be the most important human trait — common sense. The people are the stories; they are the myth-makers.
And there are many stories to be told: the transmigration of the Maritime Archaic Indians who arrived here from Labrador some 5000 years ago; the eventual arrival of 239 species of birds just in Gros Morne National Park alone; the undertakings of explorers John Cabot and Jacques Cartier in the 1500s who like Basque fishers and whalers discovered the region’s wealth of natural resources; the visit of James Cook sent by the British Admiralty 200 years later to survey Western Newfoundland; the ongoing negotiations for fishing rights between England and France following Britain’s gaining of sovereignty over Newfoundland in 1713; and of course — to return to even earlier times — the arrival of the Norse who established L’Anse aux Meadows, the first known European settlement in the New World.
As the aircraft turns towards the northwest and heads for the Tablelands surrounding Gros Morne National Park, we see the first part of the “Viking Trail” leading eventually to L’Anse aux Meadows. And then we rise again and float over the most beautiful fjord in the world.
Photographs courtesy of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism
This article was first published in Dreamscapes magazine.