For two days we had explored the eastern Avalon around St. John’s, in glorious sunshine punctuated by a profusion of blooming fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) that provided vibrant color against the green and blue of forest and sea.
Our host for our comfortable accommodations (one Mr. Louis Armstrong) explained that the flowers for some reason just showed up in great profusion this year; i.e., we were witnessing something unusual. We didn’t mind. What a blessing for us to enjoy those two days of brilliant color and sunshine!
Our third morning in Newfoundland dawned a bit more . . . stereotypically. I awoke in the dark to the sensation of sleeping in a cloud – a literal cloud, as in enveloped in water vapor. Eventually the dull gray morning brightened enough for us to decide that visibility was too poor for our planned jaunt to Portugal Cove South. We waited a bit for the fog to lift (it didn’t) and began our trip west to our destination for the night: Placentia Bay.
We bid a sad farewell to Armstrong’s Suites in Witless Bay (actually on top of a hill above Witless Bay), and drove west across the Avalon. The lure of Placentia Bay was actually the former town of Argentia.
Argentia was ultimately the reason I was in Newfoundland at all. The family reunion that brought me here united Davis and Murphy, Argentia families that were displaced when the town was given over to the US Navy in 1940. My Davis family connection relocated to nearby Placentia, and some of that clan moved farther south to New Bedford, MA and to Hewlett on New York’s Long Island, from whence I found my lovely bride.
The Naval Station at Argentia was a launching point for Allied defenses against German U-Boats in the North Atlantic, and it was not decommissioned and returned to Newfoundland until 1994. Today it seems to serve ORV enthusiasts and hikers. We spent an hour or so poking around a strange mix of piled rock, twisted metal, and other indications that this natural area had once been the scene of bustling and urgent activity.
Argentia was a great place to get a little closer to some of the trees on the Avalon Peninsula – especially considering that we had finally escaped the fog. The great forests are dominated by just a few conifer species, notably Black Spruce, White Spruce, and Balsam Fir. In places one can also encounter great profusions of Speckled Alder.
Eventually it was time to head down to Placentia for a pleasant night and a truly wonderful family meal at the Three Sisters Pub. For me it was a cod tongue appetizer and some barbecue ribs that surpassed anything I’ve sampled in Texas or Oklahoma. The clear afternoon had darkened into a blustery and cloudy evening, however, and portended another foggy dawn . . .
Accurately, at that. Our plan for the day was to drive down the peninsula from Placentia to Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, one of the North Atlantic’s premiere seabird nesting areas, and one accessible from a safe mainland trail. We drove gingerly down toward the Cape, with visibility probably no more than a half mile. We did get to see a moose on the side of the road as we drove, and we knew that there were caribou out there somewhere too, but unless it was in the road up ahead we had little chance to see it. By the time we actually pulled into the parking lot at Cape St. Mary’s we faced a decision: where to go. We could not see the trail, the headquarters, or even the other side of the parking lot. This didn’t bode well for photography or birding, but we weren’t going to let a little fog keep us off the trail after coming all this way. We ultimately felt our way to visitor’s center, watched a promotional video, zipped up our rain gear, and started walking.
The soggy trail through the upland meadow felt like some dreadful English moor from which the wolves would soon howl. Again, there might have been caribou close enough to see, but we were limited to the sheep along and a short distance from the trail. Our first encounter with actual native wildlife were some highly accommodating American Pipits along the trail.
Before long we began to hear the distant braying of Northern Gannets and Common Murres, and there was an occasional acrid whiff of guano on the wind. A ghostly gannet appeared overhead, but only for a moment as it drifted past us in the fog. At this point the visibility was probably no more than about 200 m.
We reached the end of the path after about a 1-km walk and were awed by the cacophony coming from Bird Rock and its thousands of gannets, close enough to see (somewhat) clearly despite the cloying fog.
On the soggy walk back, we took a detour on a secondary path to a chasm from which emanated the sounds of another seabird colony. I could hear, but not see, any of the birds in that colony. As luck would have it, the naturalist at the visitor’s center informed me that that colony is the one that supports the 2000 or so Thick-billed Murres that nest on the Cape! So I heard them, but still didn’t see and cannot count Thick-billed Murre as a lifer. Next time . . .
With this exhilarating experience behind us, we shook off the water, piled into the cars and headed back up the peninsula. We were all ready to enjoy the chance to dry off and warm up, and my bowl of moose stew at the Gannet’s Nest was just the ticket. Warmed, dried, fed, and amazed, we began the trek inland to Salmonier and our next adventure at The Wilds . . .