Newfoundland is kind of inkblot-shaped, with peninsulas jutting out in every direction from the line traced by the Trans Canada Highway. Here, everyone just calls it the TCH, which makes it sound like a mind-altering chemical compound. We’ve mostly been following the TCH, since it’s the only way to get from west to east in most parts of the island.
Based on overwhelming recommendations, we made a detour for Gros Morne National Park. The park is situated on the largest of Newfoundland’s many protrusions, and to get there from the TCH is a day’s worth of cycling on hilly terrain. We were obliged to add 3 days to our journey: one day there, one day to hike, and one day back.
Gros Morne Mountain is the 2nd tallest peak in Newfoundland, a 806m summit. The hike is 16km to the top and back, and it’s described as ‘strenuous’ in the information booklet. We were stationed at the nearest campsite, a hilly 13km away from the trailhead — a warm-up for our rest day. With pedal clips on our shoes and a pannier for a backpack, we headed up.
We won’t lie — it wasn’t easy. Our legs were sore for the next few days. But the unique tundra landscape made it all worthwhile.
Lately we’ve been doing a lot of ninja camping. It’s called ‘ninja’ camping because the idea is to remain well hidden, possibly because you are not technically supposed to do it. In Canada, though, it’s legal to camp on crown land, and most people with huge properties wouldn’t care or know you were camping there. It’s free, it can be more peaceful than paid camping, and it’s very easy to do in remote places. However, one forfeits access to a shiny (or not-so-shiny) flushable toilet, sink with running water, laundry room, wireless internet, a manicured lawn or wooden platform to put up your tent, and other goodies that might be available at a paid campsite. We have found that ninja camping is a good excuse to spend extra money on pies.
The fall weather has moved in already: we had another wet and windy day. It felt like cycling through a cloud with the wind spitting the misty precipitation in our faces. It was a relief to finally arrive in Gander, where we couchsurfed with Randy and Sharon. They were wonderful hosts, and made sure we got plenty of calories for the road.
Randy told us about the job situation in Newfoundland. Historically, cod fishing was the main industry, but in 1992 the government put a moratorium on cod fishing and compensated the fishermen who lost their jobs as a result. Since then, there’s been a trend for people to go work in oil extraction “out west,” that is, mostly in Alberta. A job in the oil sands pays significantly more than an equivalent one in Newfoundland. Randy has worked in Fort McMurray and shared his first-hand experiences with us.
“Fort Mac” is not a fun place to be: that’s why the pay is so high. It’s hard work in an unpleasant, toxic environment. There is not much to do besides work, and nowhere to spend money, but the money keeps pouring in. Gambling is not allowed but of course people play poker for high stakes, and some end up losing their earnings.
When the workers are back home on their time off, they spend. The cash seems endless, because there’s a lot of it all of a sudden. Many people buy expensive things: a truck, a house, a boat, an RV, a skidoo… They end up with debt. No matter how much they hated Fort Mac, they need to go back again because they have loans to pay off. Randy has met some people who started with a financial goal in mind, but are unable to stick to their plan, accumulating more debt instead of saving. Of course, those without a plan to begin with are even more susceptible to the lures of expensive stuff. Randy says a lot of younger people are unable to keep tabs on their budget.
Nowadays you don’t need to travel to Fort McMurray for oil jobs. For example, we cycled past a foul-smelling refinery near Arnold’s Cove. In the last decade, the offshore oil industry has been rapidly developing in St. John’s. This has brought new job opportunities and capital into the city. The city is now considered one of World Energy Cities and the unemployment rate is one of the lowest in Canada. These benefits come at a price: inflated prices for living, environmental degradation, and more big trucks on the narrow roads of St John’s.