Digging Deep in Western Newfoundland
words :: Feet Banks
photography :: Mark Gribbon
Newfoundland is no stranger to strangers.
The Vikings landed sometime around the year 1001. The English showed up in 1497, followed by Portuguese fishermen, Basque whalers, French rum runners, Caribbean pirates, Canadian confederates and, smack in the middle of 2015’s snowiest winter on record, us — a crew of BC riders searching for undiscovered pow and rumours of big mountain riding on the East Coast.
But wait a minute… Caribbean pirates in Newfoundland?
“Yes b’ye, you’ve never heard about the Man in the Mountain?” Jon Thorne is a born-and-raised Newfoundland snowboarder and adventurer. As he recounts this 300-year-old lore John eases his sled-loaded Ram 2500 (aka: The White Moose) off the Trans Canada Highway and into a narrow lane of blowing spindrift and steep snowbanks. If there are lines on this road, they’re invisible under the snow, the road signs are nearly buried. Jon continues.
“The story goes, the Pirates would sail up to Newfoundland, and all the way up t’ Bay of Islands to the mouth of the Humber river here. Then they’d row upstream to Shellbird Island and bury their treasure. And right above the island there’s this huge cliff, you seen it right there on your way into Cornerbrook. Big sheer cliff with a face in it—in the shades of the rocks, face of an old man. So the legend is the pirates would always be able to find whatever it was they left there —The Man in the Mountain would always be watching over. No b’yes ever found it though…”
Jon’s story is completely believable because over the past five days of guiding us around Western Newfoundland we’ve already visited a place where the entire crust of the earth has folded up onto itself, a chairlift that was struck by lightening, and a key location of the great Viking-alien wars (okay that was in the B-grade Sci Fi film Outlander, but it was filmed in Lark Habour, Jon’s hometown).
The mysteries of Newfoundland continuously amazed us, days earlier Jon had pointed out a rare geographical anomaly while we were scanning his map of the Long Range Mountains in search of backcountry snowmobile spots.
“Newfoundland is an island, right?” he’d explained. Then pointing to a isolated lake addied, “and right here is a lake with another island, Glover Island. And on that island is another pond, with another island. An island in a pond on an island in a pond on an island— They call it a tertiary, I think. There’s only a few of those in the world, my friend flew a couple of b’yes in there, wealthy fellas — they just wanted to stand on it.”
The only thing we wanted to stand on was snow. A 3-degree-too-warm winter on the West Coast had forced our hand and Beau Bishop, Mark Gribbon, the Salmon Brothers (Trevan and Keegan) and I had crossed Canada to the snowiest, and least known snowboarding destination we could find.
The Man in the Mountain’s buried pirate booty sounded awesome, but we were much more interested in burying ourselves in waist deep pow. And we’d come to the right place.
Marble Mountain – Old Sam, New Buds
Surrounded by the North Atlantic Ocean, the Labrador Sea and the ice-clogged Gulf of St Lawrence, in the winter Newfoundland is under almost constant attack from wind and weather. And just off the Western coast, tucked into the Long Range Mountains (the only mountains) Marble Mountain gets all of it so where better to get our first taste of Newfoundland pow?
“We usually open at 10 AM on a week day,” explains Kristyn Titford, the one-woman marketing team at Marble who invites us into her office and gives us shelter from howling morning of blowing snow. “But with these winds…. Patrol will make the call at 11.”
The call was to open at 12:30 and so we slide up to the fixed-grip quad chairlift at quarter past. The lifty hasn’t set up the maze yet but there are two dudes in line for first chair. Friendly dudes, one ends up being Dru Kennedy, Newfoundland’s premier shred photographer and usually the first guy to buy a season’s pass the day they go on sale.
Marble Mountain is owned by the Provincial Government and they keep the lifts turning on slow days as a service to the citizens of Newfoundland. Today is a slow day —the reason the lifty didn’t build a maze is because there’s no need for it. When the lift cracks there are 32 people in line for 39 runs cut into 225 acres with over 1700 feet of vert. The mountain is literally empty.
“Welcome to Marble,” Kristyn shrugs as she joins Dru for first chair. “Our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness.”
And just our luck. With no rush and no fiendish crowds we simply head down the closest run to the top of the chair— The Corkscrew, an aptly named twister of banked corners and steep fall line with no cat tracks, obstacles or reasons to slow down. On a regular day this might be one of the best speed cruisers in the country, with 15 cm on top it was the run of the year, even for seasoned pros like Beau and Trevan.
Up again and into the trees, where Trevan and Beau plugged in for some POB (Point of Beau) follow-cam laps through massive twisting birch trees reminiscent of Japan.
“This is the best snow of the year!” Beau shouts as he airs a fallen tree into deep white perfection. This is exactly what we came for.
On the next lap we have to get some photos Marble Ski Patrol boss Jamie Robertson sends one of his crew to carry the shovel and pack down our take-offs. With an empty hill, blower pow and the legendary Newfoundland friendly vibes at every turn, Marble is starting to feel like the greatest little ski hill in the country. Little did we know it’s about to get a lot better: tomorrow is Old Sam Day
Historically, Rum was the currency of trade along the Atlantic seaboard and casks of “Old Sam” Caribbean rum have been floating up and down the coast since 1797. These days Old Sam is blended and bottled in Newfoundland and, since 1953, they’ve been sponsoring Newfoundland’s biggest party on snow.
In perfectly simple Newfoundland style Old Sam Day consists of two things— a GS race and drinking rum. Once registered, riders (mainly skiers but snowboarders have their own categories) have all day to show up and throw down a single lap through the gates. The fastest skier will take about 19 seconds, the rest of the day is for freeriding, socializing and drinking rum in Marble’s expansive Knotty Pine Lodge, a behemoth of a building built for the 1999 Canadian Winter Games.
Prizes for the Old Sam race are bottles of rum and the entire tribe of Western Newfoundland mountain lovers comes out to celebrate. The oldest competitor is well into his 80s and the fastest skiers are a pair of brothers who’ve had a rivalry going for over 20 years. The fastest snowboarders are us: Trevan Salmon takes first place in the under 30 category with Beau nabbing third. Dru Kennedy ensures the local presence with a second place showing and Jon Thorne claims second in the over-30s category. High fives are thrown, rum is quaffed and it quickly becomes apparent how strong and special Marble Mountain’s community is.
“Last year was 25 years of snowboarding on Marble,” says Kevin Vincent, part of a small crew who built Newfoundland’s first snowboards out of plywood and countertops back in 1989. “Out here you make due with your what you’ve got. We’ve been isolated so long we’ve always had to come up with ways to do it ourselves.”
Despite the modest elevations, Newfoundland’s frigid climate breeds very real mountain passion. Marble’s core group of skiers and snowboarders are more than happy to share and show off their mountain culture. Because like nearly everything on the Rock they’ve had to build it themselves, by hand.
On the drive north to Gros Morne National Park Jon Thorne tells a story about two American hunters who’d come up to Newfoundland in the early 2000s and released a pair of cougars in hopes of tracking and hunting them for sport. Neither hunter ever fired a shot.
“A b’ye I know swears he saw one of them cats though,” Jon says. “Big mountain lion leaped right over two lanes of highway, gapped it in one bound. Six-foot long tail he says. None of it’s ever been confirmed by Forestry but I can tell ya without telling ya, you know what I mean.”
“How long do cougars live?” Trevan asks form the back seat. “Are they still around?”
“Well, that was quite a time ago,” Jon says. “And the story is they were brother and sister, so any offspring’d be sterile. Could be an old mountain lion still kickin’ around the backcountry but we’ll be ok, I reckon.”
Newfoundland is not known for it’s backcountry snowboarding but the entire island is crisscrossed with snowmobile trails, power-line cuts and secret stashs slopes that get hammered with dry arctic pow. Beau and Trevan had been chasing winter for months filming a web project called Turn and Burn. They’d definitely been burned plenty by the winter out West and were keen on finally bagging some turns. We weren’t about to let some big mountain lions get in between us and some big mountain lines.
And Gros Morne National Park is a big-mountain hotspot in Newfoundland. It’s also a globally recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the best places on the planet to see, study (and snowboard on) tangible evidence of the theory of plate tectonics. The Tablelands are huge swaths of the earth’s mantle, rock thrust up from beneath ancient ocean floors when North America and Africa collided around 1.3 billion years ago. To backcountry rippers they’re also 2000+ foot ridges riddled with steep couloirs all within walking distance of the highway.
But timing is everything, even with billion-year-old mountians. We show up to find thin, weather-ripped bands of snow clinging to the ragged, orange-hued mountains. Beneath that snow is nothing but rocks, ancient shards of granite and gneiss that would give geologists wet dreams, but also shred a snowboard base into curly fries. No vegetataion grows in the Tablelands, ever. It’s like snowboarding on the moon, only colder.
While good outerwear and two or three layers of merino wool could keep the knifing arctic winds out long enough for a test lap, the snowpack on the Tablelands has been wind-stripped literally to the crust of the earth. When Jon suggests we postpone our big mountain plans and explore some nearby “urban” riding the heater in the rental van quickly melts any disappointment.
Trout River is one of those storybook Newfoundland fishing villages full of lobster traps and crayon-box coloured boathouses. The kind of place Tide laundry soap goes to film their commercials; the ones where the rugged but very tidy looking Newfoundlander heads out into the sea-sprayed great beyond while his wife waves proudly from the porch, with a Tide box sitting on the windowsill catching the morning sun. It’s so picturesque that ,if it were anywhere but Newfoundland, Trout River would look fake.
But it’s real. A quiet little town to cliff-drop into the harbor or mini-shred steep chutes that end in dense pack-ice and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Few tourists would ever want to snowboard here, but we ran into a couple of local kids hitting a booter above the harbor. The old timer watching curiously watching them, and us, gives Trevan and Beau a nice example of the local dialect. “ How ye gittin’ on b’yes? Y’ll wan’ be on the rood ‘for tha’ storm comes in. Last one buried th’ rood, she did.”
Outrunning an impending snowstorm and heading back inland, Jon finds time to unhitch the sled and tow us into one his secret spots. “The Neck” is a protected forest ridge with natural lines ending in a frozen swamp of moose-nibbled pine trees. We face-punch a few laps, hiking straight up beside each pow line. It’s the perfect end to a wind-beaten-but-amazing day of exploring Gros Morne, one of Canada’s national treasures. To keep things awesome, The Jackladder Pub has mooseburgers on the menu and that fuels the drive back to Marble, a place that is already starting to feel like home.
Blowmedowns & Boil Ups
Like moose, kitchen parties, and waiting for mail/food/everything to arrive on the ferry, snowmobiles are a way of life in Western Newfoundland. Outside the city streets of Cornerbrook it’s not unusual to run packs of sleds parked beside cars at gas stations or kids rooping old beaters up and down the streets of town. With an average yearly snowfall of over 4 metres it only makes sense that sleds are everywhere.
But there’s a difference between riding your machine up a power line cut to get firewood with your buddy and punching deep into the most notorious backcountry terrain in Newfoundland. The legendary Blomidon Mountains are almost universally known as “The Blowmedowns” named after the nasty unexpected squalls of hurricane strength that come out of nowhere and hammer down Newfoundland’s steep fjords.
We’ve been waiting for over a week but access into the Blowmedowns requires the right weather and the right snowmobiles. On our final day of the trip Mother Nature gave us a hint of blue sky and Craig Borden took care of the rest.
Craig runs Rugged Edge Mountain Lifestyle Emporium, a sales and service snowmobile holy land that feels a lot like a core snowmobile shop out West, only twice the size and with seal skin gloves.
There are more MacGuyver’s per capita in Newfoundland than anywhere else in Canada— when something breaks Newfoundlanders fix it. And if they can’t fix it, they come to Craig, who without hesitating pulls machines from his showroom floor to ensure all us visitors have a solid machine for the trip into the Blowmedowns. With the sleds loaded on trailers and trucks and departure imminent, Craig grabs a 5-gallon metal cooking pot and bungees it to his cargo rack.
“That’s for the Boil-Up,” he explains, and off we go.
The Blowmedowns are impressive– steep banked treeless ridges and canyons criss crossed with half frozen rivers and moose-chewed forests. All the b’yes we’ve met this trip are guiding us on their own sleds— Dru Kennedy, Paul Templeton, Craig, Jon T’orne, John Patten even has his dog Trigger, a Siberian/Labrador so accustomed to deep mountain snowmobiling he knows when to lean into the turns. It’s a Newfoundland backcountry all-star team that leads us straight to the goods (we even spot a couple moose!) but Mother Nature has other plans. While Jon leads the hike up a perfect ridgeline in stunning light, she lowers her skirts and within minutes the Blowmedowns are a white chowder of fast moving cloud and blowing snow.
We wait but the blue pockets remain elusive so Craig guides us to a stand of trees, procures and axe and has a fire blazing in minutes. Despite the howling gale ripping through the bare ridges above we are sheltered, warm and even get a few sled drop tree laps in before lunch.
And lunch is ridiculous. Where us BC boys are used to a gas station sandwich or maybe a wrap heated up under the hood of a sled, a Newfoundland backcountry Boil-Up is pure gourmet. Ten pounds of live mussels go into Craig’s massive pot while foil-wrapped moose sausages cook fireside. A true Newfoundland tradition, the Boil-Up is more than a meal. It’s time spent around a fire with good people, warm conversation, delicious food and tea. Craig passes around jam-jam cookies and Peppermint Nobs, a candy so sweet it’s almost inedible but which every Newfoundlander present says is an important part of any Boil-Up. “Those are traditional, that’s for sure,” Jon affirms. “Like grandma candies.”
While slurping back fresh mussels each of us BC riders share a common thought, one that photographer Mark Gribbon finally vocalizes, “We really need to step up our game back home, boys.”
Post Boil-Up, the decision is made to get out of the Blowmedowns while we can still see. The clouds are everywhere but they remain at ridge level, with all the creeks and open water in the valley no one is keen on trying to lead a pack of “CFA’s” (Come From Away’s) back to the highway in a total whiteout. So we make tracks while we can and once again the fabled Newfoundland big mountain riding has slipped through our gloved fingers.
But that’s the way it goes. The best places, the really true adventure spots are like that. Places as special as Western Newfoundland will always require commitment and time to fully enjoy, a lifetime even. Which may be why every Newfoundlander that leaves the island, for work or adventure or whatever, always dreams of returning, and usually does.
“I’ve been lucky enough to drive across the country, twice,” Jon Thorne says. “But this is home. In Newfoundland it all comes down to the basics – food, water, the outdoors, and people.” People —Newfoundland is no stranger to strangers. But there are few places in this country as welcoming. The buried pirate booty of Shellbird Island may be real or it may not, but Western Newfoundland holds endless treasures– every winter, buried right there in plain sight.
This was kind of the trip of a lifetime because, living just 4-hours and $350(ish) dollars away from Hawaii, British Columbians don’t often eye-up Newfoundland as the top vacation destination. We were brought out as guests of Western Newfoundland Tourism and they really made us feel welcome in a way no other province can do. Turns out Newfoundland is actually a lot like BC–wild spaces, good fishing, sick snowboarding and tonnes of adventure–but the locals there are nicer than anywhere else in the country, undeniably. The only hitch of the trip came long after we got home when the magazine we were supposed to write the story for ended up going out of business. We’d promised Newfoundland to tell the world they do have big mountain riding and so much pow and suddenly…nothing. Luckily, the good people at Mountain Life snatched this one for their annual Resort Guide issue, and all was well.
If you ever get a chance, go to Newfoundland (it’s fucking cold in the winter though, be warned.)