Best Field Trip Ever: Newfoundland Circumnavigation

At sunrise, we early risers are treated to humpback whales blowing and breaching as the ship glides toward the Narrows and St. John’s harbour—a fitting finale to a restorative, uplifting tour of Newfoundland—the best field trip ever!
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© Marian Dodds

The recently abandoned outport village of Little Bay Islands, Newfoundland and Labrador

Note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of BC Retired Teachers' Association's PostScript Magazine on pages 28-31.

Newfoundalnd circumnavigation expedition map showing the ship route around the island of Newfoundland

© Adventure Canada

July 2022: After two housebound years, it feels like a miracle to be standing on the deck of the Ocean Endeavour with 175 other guests, gliding through the Narrows of St. John’s Harbour under a pinking sky, while passing the iconic ‘jelly bean’ houses perched beneath Signal Hill. A near-full moon over Cape Spear beckons to open ocean. Our eleven-day small-ship expedition to circumnavigate Newfoundland is underway!

Bobbing through swells in Zodiacs the next day, and keeping a respectful distance, we circle bird nesting areas around the Wadham Islands, marvelling upward at swirling kittiwakes, gannets, gulls, and murres. Puffins careen like wind-up toys beneath sundogs and cirrus clouds.

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© Marian Dodds

A thrilling Zodiac cruise near an iceberg in St. Anthony (Editor's note: This photo was taken with a telephoto (zoom) lens and may appear closer to ice than we really were. We always keep a safe distance and follow mandated regulations.)

That night in traditional “kitchen party” style, two musicians share ballads celebrating their idyllic childhoods in the tiny community of Little Bay Islands and the sad inevitability of youth forced away for opportunities elsewhere. One of the performers, unable to hold back tears, recounts the collapse of his family’s business, built over generations, and their unsuccessful attempt to convince the government to transform it into a living museum. The next morning, these same men guide us around their abandoned outport village, bringing home the impact of the 1992 cod moratorium that put 30,000 fishers out of work and necessitated a resettlement process, that reverberates still.

Sailing north, we disembark near L’Anse aux Meadows—the iconic Norse village made famous by Newfoundland and Labrador tourism ads. Interpreters lead us past grassy indentations where the original settlement was excavated and reburied. Inside the replicated sod and timber village, costumed guides take us back a thousand years. Wind on my cheeks, peering out to sea, I visualize European adventurers, sheep and all, making perilous journeys to this new world.

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© Marian Dodds

Small-ship expedition at sea

Further along we visit St. Anthony (“Snant-ney” to locals) to tour a museum and view a video lauding the legacy of Sir Wilfred Grenfell, a British doctor and missionary who dedicated his life to the people of Labrador, establishing hospitals, orphanages, schools, and handicraft enterprises in the first half of the 20th century. In the gift shop afterwards, fingering bolts of tightly woven cotton twill Grenfell cloth, I remember it as the wind-resistant covering for the warm duffel cloth parka I wore as a child in the Arctic. I also recall the 2017 apology from the Canadian government for the abuse, and the loss of language and culture of thousands of Indigenous children removed from their communities between 1949 and 1979 and forced to attend residential schools run by the International Grenfell Association or Moravians.

Crossing the Strait of Belle Isle to Labrador, we reach Red Bay—a whaling station from 1550 to early 1700, where Basque whalers harpooned, flensed, and rendered whale blubber into oil—until North Atlantic right whales and humpbacks neared extinction. Our Parks Canada interpreter brandishes jars of raw and refined whale oil, describing the stench; we unanimously decline a sniff. Viewing a chalupa, a four-hundred-year-old boat used to harpoon whales, then walking the length of a right whale skeleton, makes the endeavour seem impossible; no wonder the waters were littered with shipwrecks and corpses. Wandering alone on the land, I happen upon a patch of Labrador tea and impulsively lied down, gazing up at pure blue sky, stirring sensory memories from my Kuujjuaq childhood in similar subarctic tundra.

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© Marian Dodds

A windy selfie of Marian Dodds atop Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, after the expedition

Look—capelin! Should see whales now! Someone spots swirls of tiny fish under the dock at Woody Point in the heart of Gros Morne Park. But we’re here to collect bagged lunches (moose sandwiches!) and hike with our parks guide through orange rocks laced with serpentine in the barren Tablelands—a massive piece of the earth’s mantle thrust above the earth’s crust, half a billion years ago when continents collided.

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© Marian Dodds

Serpentine rock on the Tablelands, Gros Morne National Park

As we bounce back to the ship, a frisson of danger, waves wash over the sides and splashed our rain pants. Taste of place, we joke licking our salty lips, trusting we’re in capable hands. Safety first, though afternoon Zodiac rides are in fact cancelled due to the increasing swells. Instead, a seamless transition to on board offerings by expedition team members ranging from knot tying, marine navigation, marine mammals, geology, and photography to regenerative tourism.

After a night of rocking and rolling at sea, waves calmed enough by morning for a leisurely wander around Woody Point to sip a cappuccino and chat with artisans about traditional hand-knit mittens, socks, quilts and hooked rugs. Then afternoon cruising in a protected fjord to admire the cliffs, with a surprise attack by pirates bearing cocoa and Baileys.

An unanticipated benefit of COVID-19 restrictions—being assigned to Table 83. Sharing stories in a companionable bubble of four women and one man becomes our touchstone, three meals a day. Tastes of lobster, moose bolognese, halibut potato casserole, cod and chips on the buffet. Captivated by icebergs in sunset pinks, blues, and mauves, Glen vows to add an iceberg carving by a St. John’s street artist to his collection. Ruthanne is delighted to add greater shearwaters to her birder’s list. Jean’s sharp eyes alert us to whales and dolphins. A photo of Alison’s spontaneous head-dip under an icy waterfall is shared at our evening debrief.

Masked when indoors, we spend most of our time on deck, in Zodiacs, or on land, relishing fresh air and wind. A Zodiac cruise in mauzy morning mist to explore rocky shorelines remains a highlight. Peering down through water like clear tea. Profusions of berries and miniature flowers nestle low to the ground, hidden treasures to observant eyes. Imagining glaciers millions of years ago, sculpting this land into dramatic formations of volcanic rock, limestone, and shale striated with pinks, blacks, and greens–the Appalachian Shield. Look, there’s a bald eagle–see the white spot up that tree at six o’clock? Ah yes, now I’ve got it. walkie-talkie crackle from another driver alerts us to a mother bear with three cubs atop the cliff. Fragrant spruce and fir trees cling to inhospitable rock—survivors just like the Norse, Irish, Scots, British, French, Spanish and Portuguese sailors who journeyed seasonally to these wild shores to harvest fish, whales and lumber, and were followed in the early 1600’s by British and French settlers. Soon to feud over land taken without permission from the Indigenous inhabitants.

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© Marian Dodds

Four-hundred-year-old whaler’s chalupa at the Red Bay Basque Whaling Station

Music, singing, storytelling and silliness—including games like Newfoundland bluff for those so inclined, fill evenings on board. Author and expedition team member, Kevin Major overviews the history of Newfoundland and Labrador using highlights from his non-fiction epic As Close to Heaven as Sea. One evening, after screening an adaptation of his novel Hold Fast, we're treated to film set anecdotes. Later, he read from his newest mystery, due for release this fall, which is set on Fogo Island, and possibly involves quilting shears as a weapon.

On National Indigenous People’s Day, in preparation for our visit to the Miawpukek First Nation at Conne River, Saqamaw (Chief) Misel Joe comes aboard and joins Inuit cultural educator, Randy Edmunds to share perspectives on truth and reconciliation. At their Powwow Grounds, self-assured youth drum and dance, women offer tastes of moose, fried cod and eel, Bannock and partridgeberry jam. We all join hands for a final circle dance. Exploring the grounds, I find three gleeful little boys chasing each other inside a giant teepee, the white canvas made brilliant by filtered sunlight. A wander past their new school makes me for one brief moment, imagine myself inside, teaching again. Later, our on-board auction raises thousands for school sports equipment.

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© Marian Dodds

Cruising to view icebergs at sunset

The next morning, we dock in Saint Pierre, stepping foot in France, serenaded by accordion players and a sign: Welcome—it’s been too long. I find a boulangerie, order café au lait and a sable (not that I needed it) and become seized with wanderlust for all things French. Maybe, just maybe, international travel will again be possible. On deck that evening, pure magic: refreshing breezes on my cheeks, a spectacular slow motion sunset tints feathery clouds pink, then mauve, apricot, until the sun is swallowed into the calm silver sea.

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© Marian Dodds

Sunset en route back to St. John’s after visiting St Pierre, France

At sunrise, we early risers are treated to humpback whales blowing and breaching as the ship glides toward the Narrows and St. John’s harbour—a fitting finale to a restorative, uplifting tour of Newfoundland—the best field trip ever!

About the Author

Marian Dodds

Marian Dodds

Retired Teacher

While studying at Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio, Marian Dodds embarked on an Arctic expedition with Adventure Canada, seeking to re-embody her childhood recollections of bracing winds, pastel skies, and tundra landscapes. Her story, "Ship Time in the Arctic: Quest to see the magic ship", was published in Above and Beyond/Canada’s Arctic Journal.

Adventure Canada’s 2022 Newfoundland Circumnavigation expedition, infused with history and culture, buffeted by invigorating winds, and an unexpected tundra moment in Labrador, inspired her to write "Best Field Trip Ever" for Post Script Magazine. Currently, Marian is completing a memoir about the existential underbelly of her three years working in Ethiopia. Next, she intends to delve deep into her Arctic childhood, connecting more dots between past and present.