His bright eyes locked onto mine, glistening like black pearls set in an all-white landscape. We each stood poised for a face-off, frozen like the hooded shapes around us. Then, quite unexpectedly, he looked down at my feet from the end of his long nose, scrunched it up in taunting disdain, and scampered off into the undergrowth. I can’t say I blame him. The Showshoe Hare’s enormous back feet are the inspiration behind snowshoes — their size is what stops the animal from sinking into the snow — and the shoes strapped to my boots were not an elegant sight. But without them, this extraordinary part of Eastern Canada would be virtually inaccessible. Thanks to the Snowshoe Hare, I was discovering a land of beyond: Beyond time. And beyond imagination.
I was snow shoeing in Gros Morne National Park on the West Coast of Newfoundland, a wilderness supreme that is usually enjoyed in the summer for its alpine hiking and scenic, land-locked fjords. Our group, however, was daring to be different. We were urban Canucks, intent of discovering ‘the other’ Canada: the one that marches to its own time zone, a half-hour ahead of the rest of us; the one of legendary hospitality; of screech and figgy duff; and of quintessentially Canadian snowscapes.
Twenty times older than the Rockies, Gros Morne is one of the great natural wonders in the world with a unique geological history. Most of the area is part of an ancient seafloor and preserved ocean avalanches that were exposed by the collision of the Earth’s tectonic plates 500 million years go. Geologists had long posited that the earth’s crust was comprised of vast plates that shifted and moved to create, and recreate, our continents and ocean basins. And it was here at The Tablelands — a mountain of flat-topped rock of a kind usually found only deep in the earth’s mantle, that the theory of plate tectonics was proven. It earned the park the designation of an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Much of the Tablelands is too harsh for plants to colonize so in summer the mountain rises as a barren monolith from colourful alpine meadows and forests of scented pine. Come winter, however, the Tablelands seem melt into its snow laden surrounds which through the darker months, nature sculpts into an ever-changing monochromatic beauty. So when the kinder climate of March arrives, Nordic skiers and snow shoers are out in force, eager to see the artistry of the season. And what a mosaic it is. Snow swathes boulders and plants into silent sentinels. The wind carves curves, hills and hollows into drifted snow which in places elevates the land so trails can be broken through the tops of trees.
As we tramped across the terrain, the dry powdery crystals crunched and squeaked underfoot, sparkling in the spring sunshine like a sea of diamond chips while ice-locked waterfalls glinted prisms of colour. Occasionally there were moose tracks, the zig-zag brush of a white willow ptarmigan and the telling shoes prints of that hare. Only the soft flow of water beneath the glass-clear ice of rivers murmured through the frozen hush.
But a word to the wise. However adventurous your spirit, exploring these landscapes takes savvy, and should only be tackled with an experienced outfitter. In these parts, you can’t beat Scott Walking Adventures which, based in Newfoundland, has made all-inclusive adventure hiking trips a tour de force, not only in Eastern Canada but in other great (and offbeat) walking destinations such as Iceland and here, in Gros Morne.
Although my own webbed feet didn’t afford the nimble dexterity of a Snowshoe Hare, they did enable me to travel with ease across the mountainsides, around fishing villages, to snow covered harbours and along the region’s spectacular coastline. And to my surprise, the experience has forever changed my inner landscape. When once, Newfoundland was simply “the island on the edge of the Earth”, this land beyond now engenders a quiet envy. I realize Newfoundlanders are the custodians of a remarkable corner of the world which to my chagrin, they always get to see one half an hour before anyone else does in North America!