Puffin courage on the Irish Loop: Cape Spear, Bulls Bay, Witless Bay, Protugal Cove South

September 5th to 7th

St. John’s to Witless Bay
Bulls Bay to Portugal Cove South
Portugal Cove South to Salmonier

Driving back from Fogo island I took it nice and easy to really absorb the countryside even though i had seen it when I cycled in a week ago. It really is hilly and I can appreciate even more what I went through to finish the journey. The rental car desks are right in the arrival area where you collect the bags and I just walked my fully loaded bike right in there without a second glance from security. I am sure in other places I would have been tackled but not so in St. John’s. I chatted with the front desk lady at Hertz for quite a while as she was quite interested in the trip. I always love talking about it since I don’t get to tell my story and experiences verbally as often as I like, I guess I am a lot more social than I think I am. Back on the road was a little awkward at first which is normal and I come to expect it now. I rode back into St. John’s to get a couple things for the bike such as air for the tires and one of the pedals has been busted for the last 5 weeks. I made my way to Canary Cycles at 294 Water Street ( http://www.canarycycles.ca/) . They pumped my tires and did what they could with my pedal for free. Paul Collet who works there donated a few bucks online and scolded me for jumping in the harbour.

Leaving the downtown I was torn on whether to go to Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America or make my way onto the Irish Loop. At the bottom of the hill two guys saw me contemplating and asked if I was going to do it. I told them I wasn’t sure and they mentioned it was really steep. I knew there were steep hills and part of it I would have to double back on but a little Albatross had set me straight a few days ago about seizing the moment regardless of how tired I was. I addition my own thinking concluded there is no guarantee I will be back even though I love Newfoundland! In a few moments my lungs were bursting even though my legs felt alright and I passed the two guys who yelled “Right on brother”. That kind of stuff fires me right up. They could have said nothing but instead were supportive knowing what I didn’t know was coming. The switchbacks varied in steepness but there were some that were easily 12% grade. Luckily those were early on but it is a hell of a ride to Cape Spear but seeing the Atlantic thrash the huge red volcanic rocks of Cape Spear is totally worth it. I didn’t go to the lighthouse but walked down to a lower section for these stunning views.

As mentioned I had to double back which I did but then I turned South toward Petty Harbour which is a narrow inlet with small white bungalows hugging the mountainside all the way into a tiny little harbour. There is a sign indicating they won the tidiest town in 2007 and I bet the competition is stiff. This is quaint cozy little town that I recommend seeing. Leaving the town you discover that the old river there is dry since they have a small hydro electric dam powering the town. In fact this would turn out to be the case for many of the towns along the Eastern part of the loop. I wonder if they were Salmon runs at one point or not since they seem to be steep rivers. On and on I went along the Loop which is very hilly and quiet challenging and also busy with traffic. Eventually I made it to Bulls Bay which according to the town history, they don’t know why it is named this way. It has the distinct notoriety of changing hands more than any other port when it comes to the old colonial powers battling out. Eventually it was mostly settled by English and Irish who used to through stones at each other near the bridge over the river near the harbour.

Finding accommodation proved taxing at this point and I was cycling around in the dusk which was frustrating because well, I had to poop and I didn’t think I would find accommodation. I will spare you the details other than to say I found a place in Witless Bay called the “Witless Bay Suites” which is run by Sheila who is a fabulous host who washed away all of my frustrations. For $100 a night you get a full kitchen and living room. For a couple travelling together this is a perfect location to catch tours and explore the Irish Loop and cook your own meals and have a nice room for a very reasonable price.

The next day I reserved a bird and whale watching tour out of Bulls Bay (back the way I came over the hills and far away) since the ones in Witless Bay where closed for the season. We took a sail less catamaran out to the ecological reserve which is three islands inhabited by birds and whales in the surrounding waters. Leaving the harbour the boat was jogging up and down which for a land lubber like me was more than enough to make me tense. The crew obviously thought nothing of it and the guide who was speaking with a microphone causally walked about as we all held on. As we approached the island the water became calmer and I noticed little black birds darting around the surface of the ocean.

The Puffin:
A sea bird living in the Northern Atlantic from Maine, Newfoundland, Greenland all the way to Scotland with a high concentration found in Newfoundland. But more importantly a bird full of courage that beats the odds.

First the fun stuff:
Puffins are only about six inches tall when standing. They aren’t known for their flying ability and can not take off flat land, rather only steep hills where they can jump off or water where they flap against the water to get momentum. When their bellies are full fish they can’t even do that and I witnessed a few of they flapping madly along the ocean surface for 20 or 30 meters before giving up on flight. Very Pug like in my opinion. They seem to dart around with fish in their mouth with no real destination. The fish (capilan) which are about 3 inches long just flop around off of the Puffin beak as they await certain death. Since they are kind of bad flyers they flap their wings at a thousands miles an hour just to get going and flap at full speed all the time and never glide. They also have a small frock or tail feathers if you will and set their webbed feet back to steer like an airplane.

The life of a puffin (do not read this section if you are sensitive):
While I visited there were two eagles perched on the top of the ridge above the puffin nesting area. They wait there and eat puffins when the opportunity arises. What is worse is seagulls wait outside the puffin nests, which are holes in the side of the hill, for puffin chicks to wander out to far whereas they knock them off down the cliff and then eat them. Still worse, the seagulls chase the puffins that have caught fish and pluck their tail feathers in mid air hoping they drop their catch.

The Heart of a puffin:
During the main breeding season puffins and other birds will pester the eagles so badly that they leave. The Puffins fly into the nest at full speed and will fly up to 50 miles to catch capilan to feed their young. Sometimes they have to approach the nest several times to make it in. When chased they land on the water and can dive and pop up in other areas saving their babies food and sometimes death. In fact the puffin lives right on the ocean in the non-breeding season, they simply follow their food. Puffins will use the same nest for a lifetime which could be up to 18 years, have the same mate and only have one egg per mating season. Despite all of this they flourish!!!!!!

More good stuff. Puffins use the moon for navigation (not making this up) but some baby puffins fly into Bulls Bay thinking they are going toward the moon. They used to end up being run over but a German man years ago organized the local youth who go out in reflective clothing, catch the puffins and release them in the day time. Over 700 were saved last year.

A sun fish – weird looking fish that eats Jellyfish!

Why so much about a bird. To some this may be a surprise but I have always been underestimated in my abilities. Part of it is human nature, when people can’t imagine doing it themselves they figure others can’t do it either especially if they are smaller physically but perseverance is everything. You can do whatever you want to do if you really want it. The puffins are not free thinkers they are just survivors but a lot can be learned from them and I think they in some ways are a metaphor for Newfoundlanders who despite the odds continue to survive and in some cases thrive in a hostile environment. They are a proud people but they are not braggarts by a long shot, they just live with whatever comes their way.

That would be a great ending to a post but there is one more thing worth mentioning. Because of the boat tour I left Bulls Bay pretty late and since I made poor progress was eventually riding into dusk. The East coast is very hilly but at one point it cuts across West skipping the very tip. It flattens out here and I was hauling pretty good but it got too dark and I stopped in Protugal Cove South. The unfortunate thing was there is no accommodation there so I came to a quick conclusion to stop at the visitor centre and wouldn’t you know it they had a kind of deck out one side of the building where I put my tent. Surprisingly there were mosquitoes here but I fevershily put my tent up on the rocky gravel ground and pitched everything inside. There was a local doggie wandering around which I first thought was a coyote until I saw his collar so I was safe for now. The wind picked up for a noisy sleepless night but I was dry despite the weather turning wet mid night. Since I had no shower I had to wipe down myself with rubbing alcohol before changing into my dirty bedtime clothes.

The next morning was fogged in and raining little pellets. The lady opened the tourist office early so I could clean up a bit and then I headed into the rain and wind for miserable 40 kilometers. Eventually I cut close to the ocean again and stopped for some incredible views, though wet and miserable it didn’t phase me, this was the Atlantic in pretty good force which is just as good as the Cabot trail in many ways. Since there are fewer and fewer places to stay I had to stay at a golf resort kind of place but it wasn’t too expensive. I have one more ride to the Argentia ferry and though I am happy to close another chapter since I miss home, I highly recommend visiting Newfoundland, you will not be disappointed.