By Peter Armitage
"Leave no trace - take your garbage home with you, and leave nature the way you found it"
1:50,000 scale NTS maps Eastport 2 C/12 and St. Brendan's 2 C/13 & 2 C/14
Click here to see a map showing the route of the trip. This map contains "hot spots" (yellow circles) which will link you to photographs taken at each spot.
Linda Hruszowy, Mark Dykeman and I began our trip at Burnside, Bonavista Bay, on Saturday, 4 October, 1999. It was Labour Day weekend and also the last weekend of the Newfoundland food fishery. The public wharf at Burnside hopped with activity as a series of boaters launched their craft and headed for cabins at various locations around the bay. We would later pass a good number of these cabins as we made our way into Mishes Cove and Long Reach.
We launched from a paved slipway to the side of the St.Brendan's ferry dock. There's a "his & hers" outhouse at this terminus that one can use for a last minute pee prior to departure.
Linda and Mark paddled a fiberglass Seascape double kayak and I paddled my Sea Lion which handled beautifully with its full load. We left prepared for a four day trip; 2 tents, sleeping bags, air mattresses, gas stoves, first aid kits and emergency flares, axe, saw, spare clothing, food and several litres of water safely stored in our watertight compartments.
Departing Burnside at about 2:00 pm on Day 1, we paddled across the head of Fair and False Bay, by the entrance to a bay leading to the Magic River, to Mishes Cove and then up Long Reach a short way until we found a suitable place to camp. Mishes Cove is well populated with cabins meaning that all the best camping spots for itinerant kayakers have already been taken. One must head north up Long Reach in order to find more secluded camping locations.
Besides Mishes Cove, cabins have been built on Long Reach, Willis Island (Upper Gander Cove), Broad Island, Coward Islands, Flat Islands, and Damnable Bay. A new one is being built in Stock Cove. Some of these cabins are quite palatial, so if you're expecting a pure wilderness experience when you paddle in Bonavista Bay, you'll be terribly disappointed when you stumble on one of these architectual wonders.
Our camping spot at the end of Day 1 was a small cove on the west side of Long Reach where someone had build a log cabin some time before. A small creek emptied into the cove. The cabin had apparently been abandoned and was starting to disintegrate. Bald eagles perched on the cliffs just to the north of our camp spot.
Linda Hruszowy pointing north up Long Reach in the direction of our paddle. Day 1 camping location (photo Peter Armitage)
The next morning (Day 2), we headed northeast up Long Reach, crossed Morris Channel, travelled further north between Card Island and Broad Island, and then turned east toward Varket Channel. At this point we became disoriented, so Mark triangulated our position with his compass, while I retrieved the GPS for a fix. We quickly concluded that we were indeed on the northeastern tip of Hail Island from which we could see Varket Islet to the east. This Islet is an important land mark in the area given its two pronounced hills. Henceforth, we travelled up the west side of Willis Island where we had lunch just across from the St.Brendan's ferry terminus on Cottel Island. A road from this terminus takes one to St. Brendan's on the north end of Cottel Island.
Coward Islands was our next destination. A narrow tickle separates two of the Coward Islands, and it's here that we encountered three fishers on the porch of their cabin, enjoying a few beer and the results of their successful cod fishing that day. One of the great pleasures of kayaking is the ability to cruise up on fishers, cottagers and villagers and strike up a conversation about the local history, wildlife or current events. The locals often express surprise at the silent arrival of the strange seafarers in their tiny craft (on Day 4 of our trip, we met an elderly man on his stage in St.Chad's who asked where we had come from. When we replied that we had travelled from Flat Islands, he was astonished. "In that?" he exclaimed, looking in wonderment at one of our tiny kayaks).
We knew that a group of kayakers, travelling with Terra Nova Adventure Tours, had established a camp somewhere in the vicinity, most probably on the Flat Islands. So we paddled along the southern shore of the Islands in search of them, by Puffin Island, Belle Island and into the harbour on the north side of the Islands, arriving there at about 6:00 pm that day. The Terra Nova kayaking gang had established a large encampment in the grassy meadows of the former community and were well on their way to preparing supper.
Flat Islands provide many excellent locations to set up a tent, however, there are few sources of drinking water. One must travel to a well on the northwest corner of the main island or snitch some water from the rain buckets left under the eaves of various cabins. There's also a shortage of places to dispose of body wastes. We used an outhouse belonging to one of the cabin owners (permission of the owner?). Had we not used this outhouse, we would have been obliged to head for the scrub bush on the top of the hill overlooking the harbour. This would have lead to hygiene problems with large numbers of kayakers encamped at the spot.
Air photo of Flat Islands showing camping area on northeast side of one of the islands.
Air photo of Coward Islands. Several cabins are located in the narrow tickle between the islands.
Some derelict buildings along the northern shore of Flat Islands (photo Peter Armitage)
View north toward Berry Head by one of the cabins on Flat Islands (photo Peter Armitage)
One of the cemetaries on Flat Islands. View southwest toward Bessy Island (photo Peter Armitage)
Another cabin on Flat Islands. Bad weather on departure on Monday morning (photo Peter Armitage)
In any event, when camping at these abandoned communities, one needs to respect the local people who continue to inhabit them on a seasonal basis by disposing of body wastes and garbage appropriately, by being careful not to chop down vegetation (try to burn driftwood), by not building camp fires in conspicuous locations, etc.
We departed Flat Islands at 10:30 on Day 3. Weather conditions had deteriorated considerably with drizzle and a strong easterly. Paddling west across the north side of Bessy Island, we made quick time over to the shore of Willis Island. By lunch time, we had reached Lower Gander Cove, where we landed by a cabin for a bite to eat. A small stream empties into this Cove just at the side of the cabin. The NTS map indicates that this stream drains two small ponds, which may well contain trout and provide some swimming possibilities on warmer summer days.
From Willis Island, we headed southwest across Varket Channel in rough seas, stopping briefly in the lee of Varket Islet for rest, before continuing to Morris Island. We had originally planned on camping on this island, but the lack of good landing places and camping spots altered our plans. Instead, we headed across Morris Channel to Stock Cove, which is about 5 km from Burnside by sea. What appears to be the best camping location in Stock Cove has been taken for cabin construction by a local minister, so we had to settle for inferior accomodation on the southern shore of the cove; a location lacking good camping places and fresh water, but providing a reasonable landing beach and shelter from the easterly winds.
On Day 4, the last day of our trip, the wind had shifted to the southwest and the sun had returned. We headed out from Stock Cove along the shore into Damnable Bay and then west to St.Chad's which is a most charming little village. St. Chad's would be a good location to start day trips. We paddled up to a couple of stages where we conversed with some children about the resumption of school, and a more senior member of the village about the success of the food fishery, etc. Refusing the latter's offer of tea and coffee (tiny bladder syndrome in a kayak?), we headed back out into Damnable Bay, then north to Stock Cove Island and back to Burnside.
while we had little trouble finding water on the islands during our trip, it's advisable to bring 4-5 litres to provide more flexibility in camping in places that lack water;
many of the channels (e.g. Morris Channel, Varket Channel) are exposed to the open Atlantic which means that the water can get very rough when strong easterlies are blowing;
the ferry and other large vessel traffic between St. Brendan's and Burnside could be dangerous especially if crossing Willis Reach or Morris Channel in the fog. There appears to be a great deal of motor boat traffic on the weekends as people travel to and from their cabins. This traffic could be hazardous to kayakers as well especially when the visibility is reduced in fog or drizzle;
there are very few good landing spots on Morris Island and there appear to be no suitable camping locations (although we did not explore the north side of the island);
VHF radios work over most portions of this part of Bonavista Bay. Cell phone coverage is possible as well I believe although it may well be spotty (we didn't test this);
too many kayakers camping on an island could damage its vegetation and harm other biota. On Flat Islands, many kayakers used an outhouse belonging to one of the cabin owners, but I have no idea whether permission had been obtained in advance to use the facility (the owners were not present). Obviously, kayakers must respect the property and privacy of the cabin owners on these islands.
Distances (as calculated by MAPINFO GIS):
Trip total - 76 km
day 1 - 14 km, day 2 - 27 km, day 3 - 23 km, day 4 - 12 km
Mark Dykeman rated this area as one of the best kayaking locales he'd experienced anywhere in Newfoundland. Certainly, the relatively high topographic relief in the area (e.g. the ridge along Long Reach) adds a great deal to the beauty of the place.
We were extremely fortunate to have had the wind behind us for the duration of our trip. We never really had to paddle into the wind. On Day 3, we easily could have reached Burnside from Flat Islands by 5:00 pm despite an 11:00 am departure, given the wind direction.
Wildlife encountered during our trip included Bald eagles, osprey, mackeral (jumping out of the water), and various aquatic fauna including corral, limpets, starfish, and crabs.
Lack of drinking water was never a problem on the trip as most of the islands we visited had streams or other sources of drinking water. The only time we really made use of our stored water was at Stock Cove because our camping location did not come with a stream.
The Burnside-St.Chad's part of Bonavista Bay provides numerous paddling possibilities which our 4-day trip certainly did not exhaust. We're eager to return to the Bonavista Bay area to explore other islands, coves and reaches.
To save time and energy, one could take the ferry to St. Brendan's and then paddle to Gooseberry Island. Alternatively, one could depart Burnside and travel northwest to Bloody Reach, then southwest to Northeast Arm and around to Sandringham at the edge of Terra Nova National Park. Of course, the National Park offers many great paddling possibilities, but descriptions of these will have to await future trip reports.
Europeans were apparently not the first people to inhabit the Flat Islands area as there is some evidence of pre-contact Aboriginal peoples having been there. The islands have not yet been surveyed for archaeological remains, however, Linda Callum found a "Beaches Complex" projectile point on the shore of Flat Islands during the summer of 1999. The Beaches complex is named after the Beaches site in Bonavista Bay and refers to the cultural remains of a people ancestral to the "Little Passage Complex" which is itself ancestral to the Beothuck Indians (for more information on the archaeology of this area, visit http://www.heritage.nf.ca/aboriginal/recent.html).
Kayakers who find arrowpoints, scrapers, or other artifacts should not disturb them. They are best interpreted in situ; removal of artifacts can make it difficult for archaeologists to identify the artifacts and frustrates research on the larger site. If you find something of interest, record the location of the artifact on a map, take its coordinates using a GPS or map and report your find immediately to Ken Reynolds at the Newfoundland Historic Resources Division, telephone 709-729-4303.
The Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador (1984, V.2, p.204) describes the Flat Islands as follows:
A cluster of rocky islands, named Flat (Samson) Island, Berry Head, North Island and Coward Island, in central Bonavista Bay, the Flat Islands together form a narrow, land-locked harbour, well-protected from storms. The Flat Islands derive their collective name from the flat-topped metamorphic and volcanic rocks of which the islands are composed and which are strongly folded and faulted from the northwest.
The islands were first recorded as occupied in the "Register of Fishing Rooms in Bonavista Bay" in 1806. In its heyday, the inhabitants prosecuted the small-boat, inshore cod fishery. Expansion of the fishery was made possible by a shift to the Labrador fishery by the 1850s. Feltham reports (1986:24) that in 1857, four schooners carrying 39 men were engaged in the Labrador fishery, and by 1911, the number of schooners had increased to 24 carrying 123 men. "Practically all the men were engaged in the Labrador fishery. All the schooners sailed for the Labrador on the same morning, unless some emergency prevented it" (ibid.: 24). Fish were brought to Flat Islands from Labrador "to be made" from whence they were taken to St. John's to be sold. At the same time, salmon were canned at the Samson and Samon cannery on Flat Island. Furthermore, the men the island had "a widespread reputation as boat builders and so are in great demand as carpenters on construction work" (Newfoundland Fisheries Development Committee, 1952).
Flat Islands in the 1950s prior to resettlement. View east, Puffin Island in the background (photo courtesy Bruce Turner).
There is virtually no timber, and little top soil on Flat Islands. However, the residents did manage small subsistence gardens growing potatoes and small quantities of cabbage and root crops. They also kept sheep and poultry. Wood for heating, house and stage construction, and boat building was obtained from neighbouring islands such as Great Black Island, Bessy Island and Willis Island (Newfoundland Fisheries Development Committee, 1952).
I'm told that a large number of young men from Flat Islands served in the First World War and were casualties at the infamous slaughter of Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916 (Bruce Turner, personal communication).
The population of Flat Islands reached 891 in 1901, but decreased to 492 by 1951 with the decline of the Labrador fishery. St. Nicholas' Church held its last service in 1958 and the schoolhouse was closed the same year (Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, V.2, p.206). In remembering Flat Islands to posterity, Feltham says "This island community, with its tremendous spirit of independence, its strong individualism, its inherent honesty, its community trust, self-reliance and pride is a part of our heritage that we can ill afford to forget" (1986:24).
Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador
1984. Vol.2. St.John's: Newfoundland Book Publishers Ltd.
1986 The Islands of Bonavista Bay. St.John's: Harry Cuff Publications Ltd.
Newfoundland Fisheries Development Committee
1952 Fishing Communities of Newfoundland: Report of a survey sponsored by the Newfoundland Fisheries Development Committee. Governments of Canada and Newfoundland.