Barren "the barrens" aren't. The table has a tablecloth of wild flowers in vibrant colours: fluff-headed cotton grass, diapensia, tundra bilberry, cloudberry, Labrador tea, alpine azalea. I feel guilty tramping over this, especially on the sundews, the very essence of fragility with their pink, pin-cushion heads. This is surely one drawback to letting hikers roam freely over the highlands. It's a good thing the park only allows nine a day to do the traverse.
There's no path going southwest from Marks Pond. Our bearing sends us squelching over water-logged sedge meadows then up through tuckamore. The meadows we manage, but there is no way through the wood. Ignoring the compass, we veer left and head to where the trees seem thinnest. Clouds darken the land ahead, and I look up nervously. The weather has been kind to us so far. I expected it to be more variable. "Snow, rain, and fog can all happen in the course of one day on the Long Range," the film had warned. How would navigation be in driving rain or thick fog?
The tuckamore wood turns out to be tuckamore thickets, and, as we draw close, we find we can weave around them. There's even a path. Gaining altitude also means we can make better sense of the landscape below. Distant ponds declare themselves, and we match them with those on the map. It takes us an hour to reach the saddle, another to descend to Hardings Pond on the other side. Here we pitch camp and swim, glad to be rid of the squadron of biting flies that has kept us company the past two days. Pitcher plants must do well on the highlands.
"Impenetrable Elfin Forests"
"You know, I'm not sure this is such a bright idea."
I am suspended mid-stride, right foot clear of the riot of undergrowth blocking my way, left trailing behind, elbows sticking out like wings and buried in branches, fans of fir flicking my face. The lid of my backpack must have got hooked on a spike. This is not forest like I know forest. There are practically no gaps between the miniature trees, and the branches are stiff and unyielding and go right to the ground. Many of the trees, I notice, are dead, but still stand proud, their barkless branches eroded to rounded stumps or sharp spikes. Impenetrable. I dangle for a moment, recalling the word from the Gros Morne visitor's guide: "tuckamore forms impenetrable elfin forests." The way up the gorge the day before yesterday was a picnic compared to this.
"What's it like your way?" I holler with a hint of urgency as it's beginning to rain.
"Impossible." My wife's head pokes through the thicket. "Do you remember which way we came in?"
We had been careful taking our compass bearing after breakfast. The map said we had to cross a flat area called the Middle Barrens and then climb 600 feet up a hill. The bearing to the summit was 245 degrees and our route free of forest. What could be easier? We could see the hill from our campsite. Once again, a trail offered us a promising trajectory at first till we found ourselves round the side of the hill and looking up at tuckamore. "No problem," we said, unwilling to retreat and remembering our experience with tuckamore from yesterday. "We'll simply weave our way to the top from here."
With scratched knees and scraped arms, we retreat the way we came, skirt around the tuckamore, and then push to the top of the hill. There we find ourselves above the obstruction, out of the rain miraculously, and in the company of a female moose. She has just emerged from the thicket and stares at us astonished, ears swivelled our way like periscopes, nose twitching suspiciously. "Well now, what have we here?" she seems to be thinking. "Curious, hump-backed creatures lurching about on their hind legs and hyperventilating. How novel." I expect her to gallop off. Instead, she flicks her ears a few times, looks over her shoulder, and urinates. We encounter ptarmigan too, a hen, speckle-backed and white-bellied, with four chicks hiding in the heather. The chicks scatter in all directions as we approach, which causes the mother to start charging back and forth across our path, squawking and flapping her wings, to distract our attention. We move slowly towards a lichen-crusty boulder marking the summit.
The view is of cloud, ragged and racing east across corrugated, pond-studded tableland. Every now and again, we catch a glimpse of our destination, Gros Morne Mountain (Newfoundland's second tallest at 2644 feet), a bald, grey crown shaved by glaciation, Ferry Gulch to one side, Ten Mile Gulch to the other.
After this, we don't screw up — despite fog rolling in on the fourth day, reducing visibility to twenty feet. We take bearings from one pond to the next, estimate the walking time in between (allowing for gradient and detours around tuckamore), and treat all trails with scepticism. "The barrens" have taught us a thing or two.
Tony Robinson–Smith spent six years circling the planet without flying, the subject of his travel book Back in 6 Years. He has written travel stories for The Globe & Mail and Druk Air's in–flight magazine Tashi Delek. Fond of sticking with the ground regardless of terrain, he is currently writing a second book about a month–long charity marathon across the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
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