by STEVE COHEN
"Did you hear the one about the Newfie who locked his keys in his car?'' asked my guide, Mark Tsang, an admitted Newfie himself. "It took him an hour to get his family out.''
I was standing with the self-deprecating Newfoundlander beside a dark, flat-topped mountain called Gros Morne, watching a trio of moose. Several hundred yards distant, five caribou grazed -white humps I would have mistaken for rocks without a guide to correct me. A bald eagle wheeled overhead. It was early October. The 700-square-mile Gros Morne National Park, named for the 2,644-foot mountainous rock in the middle of Newfoundland's west coast, appeared otherwise deserted.
I crept closer to the moose, angling for a photo in the dim light. Gros Morne means gloomy hill in French. It filled the background, looking about as bright as a blackboard. The moose, three of 125,000 (comprising the high-est concentration of live Bullwinkles anywhere), eyed me. They were perhaps 20 yards away.
Keeping a Distance
"That's close enough,'' warned Tsang. "If one puts his ears down, get to the car, fast.'' I'd heard the horror stories. Up here, gangly 1,200- pound moose routinely contend with cars. The car usually loses.
Located in Atlantic Canada, Labrador and Newfoundland comprise one of four Maritime provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are the others). Labrador is part of mainland Canada. The island of Newfoundland is the easternmost land mass of the North American continent.
Although moose, caribou, and fjords are rare in North America, they are not considered the most wondrous attractions of Gros Morne. The park's most unusual aspect is a geological feature called the Tablelands, a World Heritage Site, just like America's Yellowstone and Egypt's pyramids.
Similar in luster to the treeless hump of Gros Morne, the Tablelands once lay below the ocean floor. Movements of the earth's crust thrust up 2,000-foot high slabs of mantle rock, the earth's inner crust. To experts, these gray, lifeless outcrops lend credence to hard-to-prove scientific theories of plate tectonics -the constant, slow shifting of continent-sized masses, called plates, under the surface of the earth.
"The geological history of North America is visible in Newfoundland,'' said Tsang, as we walked a short trail. Every rock at this extreme northern tip of the Appalachian Mountains seemed to contain a fossil from an ancient inland sea.
Lay of the Land
Signs of more recent life in this little-visited and lightly populated area were almost harder to find. According to Tsang, undiscovered Newfoundland is "one of the most exotic wilderness areas in North America.''
I was beginning to agree. It certainly felt remote. And I was pleasantly surprised that utter solitude could be found so near to population centers in the northeastern United States.
My personal, unscientific theory about why western Newfoundland has remained exotic and not overexposed is because of the weather. It's glorious when the sun shines, but that occurs, charitably speaking, rarely. Otherwise, it's one of the most wickedly exposed seacoasts anywhere, an attraction in itself, if you ask me.
"The temperature is 5 below Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit),'' reported the skipper of the Western Brook Pond boat tour earlier that afternoon, while the sun on my Newfoundland experience un-characteristically shone for an hour or so. Unfortunately, its warmth didn't penetrate very far into the narrow reaches of the pond. The reference to "pond," by the way, could be another Newfie joke. This body of water was 10 miles long. Actually an inland fresh-water fjord, it plunged 540 feet deep, kept in cold shadows by towering 2,000-foot, waterfall-laced cliffs.
"You should have been here all summer,'' said Delilah Reid, the fantastically talented baker and chef at Sugar Hill Inn, a spotlessly clean, cozy, oak-and-cedar B&B in Norris Point, as she handed me a brimming bowl of moose stew, surrounded by slabs of fresh baked bread. The moose, a rarity - bring your lunch to Newfoundland if you don't like seafood - tasted like gamey beef. "The weather was beautiful just about all of July.''
Not much of a summer, I thought to myself, chewing seriously on moose, imagining icebergs, whales, and other summery floating things beneath blue skies. At this time of year, I could barely see tiny wood-frame fishing villages scattered throughout the park, obscured as they were by rain and ground-hugging clouds.
In most of Canada's other national parks, residents have been relocated. Within Gros Morne, several communities, such as Norris Point and Trout River, which is farther south and close to the Tablelands, have been allowed to remain intact.
They're characteristic of modest villages found along Newfoundland's west coast. The interior of the island has never been developed, and remains practically uninhabited, with few roads. Along the water, tiny outposts are strung along every cove and inlet offering anything resembling protection from the rugged surf. In the fall, rickety piers or driveways contain towers of wooden or wire-frame lobster pots.
"It's so beautiful here,'' said Tracy Oldford, a native Newfoundlander from St. John's, the island's largest city. She was a guest at the Sugar Hill Inn, with her husband, Todd. "It's like we're the only ones in the world.''
"We were kayaking in St. Paul's Inlet and we came across 30 dolphins,'' said Todd, grinning. "They wanted to play. I had to beat the paddle on the side of the kayak to keep them away.''
"Doesn't the dark weather bother you? The rain? How do you Newfoundlanders still smile without seeing the sun?'' I asked.
"It's the quietness we enjoy,'' Tracy said simply. "We've lived elsewhere in Canada, in Halifax, Toronto, and on Prince Edward Island. There's no-where else like this.''
"We were in and out of the rain all day,'' Todd said. "It didn't bother me. Seals followed us wherever we went.''
Statistics corroborate that while few people are moving here, very few Newfies, who generally have learned to tolerate but not encourage the use of the not-always-kindly-meant abbreviation, are leaving Newfoundland.
Every other Newfoundlander I met claimed to love it, too. "I'm sorry, I said it would be clear weather'' was the friendly clerk's sincerely tendered apology when I returned my rental car. "We call it clear weather if it's not raining,'' she added, laughing.
Perhaps it's all this water that chiseled the faces of some of the local people I saw, like private Grand Canyons. I imagined that many squinting, 60-year-old men were only 40, aging Popeyes, but with cigarettes, not pipes, dangling from puckered lips. Some of the women might have been weathered kin to the Cabbage Patch doll, a tough, blue-eyed, Scotch-Irish rendition.
A tidy cemetery occupies a prominent site in each little town in western Newfoundland. Infants and shipwreck victims are too easily found among white crosses.
Cod, the historic lifeblood of Newfoundland's coves and harbors, were once so plentiful in these waters that they impeded shipping. Eighty-pound catches were not uncommon.
This decade, commercial cod fisheries have been closed due to over-fishing. The end of centuries-old lifestyles is why resilient, thick-skinned Newfies, like Mark Tsang, and Vince and Marina McCarthy who own the Sugar Hill Inn, are not joking at all about staking their futures on tourists discovering this unique part of the world.
For information on tour operators and programs, see our Geographical Index under "Newfoundland."
Photo courtesy of Newfoundland Tourism.