Stepping back in time on the loveliest walk in Canada

Stanley Stewart
Witless Bay, Newfoundland - This content is subject to copyright.

The town of Dildo, in Trinity Bay on the shores of Newfoundland, is a good place to contemplate the law of unintended consequences. Strange stuff has happened here. New worlds were created. Tragedy befell an entire people. And back in the early 17th century, Beothuk natives and English settlers, meeting for the first time, danced together on an empty beach in this bay, a sort of shimmy shimmy to celebrate what seemed like a novel encounter but what would become a clash of civilisations.

A new three-day hike exploring this encounter – launching in September 2018 – follows the first explorers in Newfoundland. I was the first journalist to trial the historic trek led by Bill Gilbert, a prominent Newfoundland archaeologist, who makes the journey every year in homage to the early settlers, the guys who had jived with the Beothuk.

In the spring of 1610, some 42 men from Bristol landed on the empty windswept shore at Cuper’s Cove – the town is now called Cupids – and started to build a fortified village. It was the first English settlement in Canada and one of the first faltering steps that marked the beginning of the British Empire. 

In the excavation trenches at Cupids, archaeologist Bill was introducing me to life here in the early 17th century, the background for our epic trek. While we gazed down into several unpromising holes in the ground, he conjured a whole rustic world – a cod store, a sawmill, a brewhouse, a forge where men gossiped and warmed their toes, a rough gloomy tavern full of West Country accents, pork pies, and tobacco smoke, fortifications to keep out the pirate Peter Easton who haunted these waters. The clues that piece together early European life on these shores is the stuff that seemed to have fallen out of pockets or dropped down the back of the sofa – 17th-century wine bottles, Portuguese cups, clay pipes made in London, and an Elizabethan groat or four penny piece.  

But Newfoundland itself makes it easy to feel the atmosphere of those early years. Cupids is still a straggling settlement on a rocky shore. Weather-beaten houses turn their backs to the interior to look out over the long reach of the Atlantic. Ocean winds rattle their shutters. Old boats are drawn up between weathered fishermen’s shacks. I stopped at a tea house where I was served warm scones with cream, as if I was in Devon. Beyond the window, the plume of a minke whale appeared in the bay. 

"Newfoundland still feels like a bit of Britain that has fallen off and drifted across the Atlantic" Credit: getty

Cupids was a contemporary of Jamestown in Virginia, the first settlement in America, founded three years earlier, in 1607. Things had gone rather pear-shaped down in Jamestown when the native peoples, after their initial welcome, had turned hostile. In the end the colonisers had been obliged to slaughter the entire Paspahegh tribe, the first act in the long genocide of native Americans that would culminate in the Wounded Knee Massacre in the distant Black Hills of Dakota in 1890.  

Up in sweet-natured Canada, the Cupids settlers were keen to avoid such unpleasantness. And so, a small party led by Henry Crout set off from Cupids, on September 1 1612, to trek through the forests to Trinity Bay in the hope of establishing friendly relations with the Beothuk, rumoured to be camped on the other side of the peninsula. Every year Bill recreates this historic trek. Last year, the 405th anniversary trek, I blundered along at his heels.  

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Bill was in the fine 19th-century tradition of archaeologists who were swashbuckling adventurers, not mere desk-bound academics. He led the way with an axe over his shoulder in case it was necessary to cut our way through the wilderness. A few keen hikers had joined the party, as well as the local priest, possibly a worrying sign. Bringing up the rear were two hearty bearded chaps dressed in the manner of Crout’s men in 17th-century costume, bearing muskets of the period. Meant to lend our expedition a bit of historical atmosphere, the Two Musketeers read aloud from time to time from Henry Crout’s diaries and letters. With Crout’s words ringing in our ears, we made our way through forests where the Beothuk had once ghosted on moccasined soles. In the historical records, their silence was profound. 

"I watched flotillas of blue icebergs, dispatched every spring from the Arctic, as stately as royal barques" Credit: getty

For a long time the island of Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada at all, preferring to maintain its status as an independent self-governing dominion. Then in 1948, by way of that great democratic gamble – a referendum – it threw its lot in with “the mainlanders”, becoming Canada’s 10th province. Many feared it would signal the end of Newfoundland’s special character. It didn’t. Newfoundland still feels like a bit of Britain that has fallen off and drifted across the Atlantic. So much about the place – music, food, customs and, most notably, accents – owes more to the West Country and to Ireland, than to Ontario.  

The island is wedded to the sea. In the 19th century an American clergyman described Newfoundland as akin to “a strange thing from the bottom of the deep, lifted up, suddenly, into sunshine and storm”. This sense of a place bathed and battered by the ocean is still its abiding character. Settlement in the province is coastal. On the few roads that penetrate the interior, the chief traffic problem is wandering moose. 

"The island is wedded to the sea" Credit: getty

With a population smaller than that of Poole, St John’s seems more market town than provincial capital. Colourful houses climb the steep hills. Streets run down to the harbour where fishing trawlers knock against one another in the Atlantic swell. The town has a youthful bohemian vibe, shops full of outdoor gear, pubs where Celtic fiddlers play the reels and the airs of the old country, and a proud sense of the island’s unique and separate identity.    

A drive of a few minutes takes you out beyond the last suburbs to Newfoundland’s rugged coasts. To prepare myself for the awfully big adventure of Crout’s Way, I set off around the East Coast Trail, which follows the shores of the Avalon Peninsula, around rocky headlands and cliffs, past seas stacks and crashing waves. It is one of the loveliest walks in Canada. 

Cape Spear Credit: getty

At Cape Spear, I watched flotillas of blue icebergs, dispatched every spring from the Arctic, as stately as royal barques, floating past the early 19th century lighthouse. Further south, off a rocky coast of deep fjords, humpback whales were breaching. In Witless Bay, millions of kittiwakes, storm petrels and Atlantic puffins were packed as thickly as Tokyo commuters on their traditional nesting sites. In fishing villages, trawlers were tucked into sheltered coves and men were gutting cod on the quaysides, the cod had brought the first settlers here.   

"Atlantic puffins were packed as thickly as Tokyo commuters" Credit: GETTY

But the East Coast Trail was just a warm-up. Serious adventure awaited. A few days later I set off with Bill and his walking party to retrace Crout’s Way from Cupids to Trinity Bay. We trekked through what Crout had called “faire woodes” and “champion countrie”. In forests of larch, black spruce and pine, draped with Old Man’s Beard, we followed needle-strewn trails that saw little traffic beyond deer and moose. We crossed wide boggy ground skirting black lakes known here as ponds, where Crout and his party probably caught the six ducks they enjoyed for dinner. On a rocky outcrop, set like an island above the wet ground, we stopped for lunch. Pewter-bellied clouds rolled over the northern horizons where lakes glinted among distant forests. A soft rain was falling, hardly more than a fine mist. One of our musketeers was reading from the 17th-century diaries. Crout too was complaining about the rain, and was worried their precious bread might get wet.    

The Two Musketeers put on a brave face

The Two Musketeers were not finding the 17th century easy. While we hikers were all light-weight modernity, the Musketeers were slogging it in attire straight out of the archives of the V&A – linen shirts that extended to the knees, doublets with dense rows of 20 buttons, wide-brimmed hats the size of dust bins lids, and voluminous breeches that looked like cast-off theatrical curtains. To complete the look they were carrying heavy match-lock muskets over their shoulders. But most challenging were the knee-high 17th-century boots. Their 21st-century feet were suffering. 

For two days we trekked through pine-scented woods, clambering over fallen trees, crossed the aptly named “barrens”, open mossy ground with their wild palette of colour – rust, green, brown. We crossed streams on logs, lunched by rainbowed waterfalls, and skirted the shores of beaver-damned lakes. Resting his axe for a moment, gazing out over a lake patterned with lilies, Bill said, “not many people see this”. In two days hiking, we seemed to be the only people to see it. We met no one on our trail.   

On the third day, we arrived at Dildo on the shores of Trinity Bay and took a boat for Dildo Island. A word about the name. Newfoundland is a great place for eccentric place names. Come by Chance, Blow Me Down, Leading Tickles and Virgin Cove all feature on Newfoundland maps. Cupids on Conception Bay is joined by the three communities of Heart’s Delight, Heart’s Desire, Heart’s Content on Trinity Bay, also home to Ass Rock. Perhaps disappointingly, Dildo was nothing more than an oblong piece of nautical gear back in the day. 

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These days Dildo Island is uninhabited. But Bill had excavated here more than 20 years ago and found evidence of Beothuk settlement – fire pits for smoking fish, arrowheads, trading beads.  

When those first settlers finally met the Beothuk in Trinity Bay, it proved to be one of the strangest scenes in the long, often tragic encounter between Europeans and indigenous peoples. Two of the men from Cupids approached two of the Beothuk, a little warily at first, waving white banners and speaking loudly in languages that neither understood, the Englishmen in the doublet and hose, the Beothuk in skins and furs. 

The natives presented the Englishmen with a chain of periwinkle shells and stuck feathers in their hair. For their part, the Englishmen handed over gifts of a linen cap, a hand towel and a knife. And then, in the words of the European diaries, “all four together danced together, laughing & making signes of joy & gladness, sometimes striking the breasts of our companie, and sometimes their own.” This odd waltz on the shores of Newfoundland was a pivotal moment for both parties, a beginning for one and the beginning of the end for the other. 

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Some people speak of genocide but there was never any deliberate attempt to eliminate the Beothuk. European illnesses ravaged the tribe, notably tuberculosis and smallpox. As more and more settlers arrived over the decades, the Beothuk withdrew, unable or unwilling to adapt to a rapidly changing world. In 1829, just over two centuries after the beach dance, the last Beothuk died, a woman known as Shanawdithit, and the tribe was declared extinct. Here was the unintended consequence of European settlement. 

On an island beach we grilled sardines. The Musketeers got the fire going in the approved 17th-century manner – a flint spark, some dry moss, several failed attempts and a great deal of hard blowing. Later Bill led us into the bush of the interior; he wanted to show us something. Pushing aside branches, we stepped into a mossy clearing. Excavations had revealed this as the possible site of a Beothuk sweat lodge, a kind of native sauna. Large flat rocks were half buried in the long grass; these were the seats the Beothuk would have used. 

We sat, where the Beothuk had sat together. By following in the footsteps of the early settlers, our trek had been a tribute to their perseverance and ingenuity. In this dappled glen, our final stop, it had also brought us closer to the native people they were hoping to meet, to the ghosts of the lost tribe of Beothuk. The trek was also about them.  

Take me there

Stanley Stewart travelled as a guest of Atlantic Canada (atlanticcanadaholiday.co.uk). Bridge and Wickers (020 3051 8098; bridgeandwickers.co.uk) can arrange a 12-day self-drive Newfoundland itinerary from £4,425pp based on two people sharing including flights, car hire, park fees, ferry tickets and plenty of opportunity for hiking. Westjet (westjet.com) flies direct between London and St John’s starting at £300pp.

The new guided three-day Crout’s Way trek for 2018 starts from £125pp including a visit to Dildo Island, three picnic lunches and return transport from Cupper’s Cove Plantation, departing on September 7. To book, see newfoundlandlabrador.com/plan-and-book/festivals-and-events/29142345. For other treks in Newfoundland, go to newfoundlandlabrador.com/things-to-do/hiking-and-walking