Moose, trains and icebergs: Traveling in Newfoundland

Some are born car-less, some achieve car-lessness and some have car-lessness thrust upon them. I am a proud combo of all three. I don’t drive (Canada is the first country I’ve ever felt the need to). I’ll take buses, walk, hitch, ferry, bicycle, and, if I’m real lucky, I’ll find a train. Doing my bit for global warming. Please don’t tell me the price of gas is high. It’s not. It’s highly subsidized.

This is not a rant on the lack of adequate public transport in Canada – although I could go on for ages about it. In fact, let me rant a bit, why not. Did you know that Via 1, Canada’s awesome premier train from Toronto to Vancouver, now runs only twice a week? Or that there is now NO train between Toronto and Cochrane? The Ontario Northland  had its last passenger run in September 2012. Every year bus and train service reductions tear holes in Canada’s connectedness – proof that the government is failing to provide and maintain what is a PUBLIC GOOD. Communities in the north get further isolated, and tourism suffers.

NFLD branchline

Old Map: only they still ran!

When I think of the once-beautiful coastal railway of Newfoundland, which operated for over a century, I could weep. All that’s left is a railway museum in St John’s – which is all very well to get a historical perspective, but not very useful for those who want to jump on a real train. The Newfoundland railway connected the major bays and lead to the development of ‘interior’ towns away from the ocean – but of course it was scrapped in the end. Too expensive for the public pocket.

So everything in Newfoundland is now oriented to the car driver. Seriously. It’s not just that there are no trains. There are no inter-city buses either, save the DRL. The efficient DRL connect St John’s in the east to Port aux Basques in the west, every single day. For that I’m grateful, because otherwise I’d have had to fly to Deer Lake to explore Gros Morne – and would have missed out on all the countryside in the middle. And I hate flying anyway.

But there is nothing else. No buses or shuttles between Deer Lake and St Anthony. Nothing going north, south, along the coast, etc etc. You’re on your own. And if you’re car-less, you need to be both determined and flexible to be able to explore this beautiful, rugged island.

Happily, there are still a few private operators who provide transportation service to remoter areas. Shirran’s taxi provides a shuttle link between St John’s and Bonavista – where he also operates one of the only two youth hostels with a windmill in Canada. He also uses filtered vegetable oil to run his van. A true eco-entrepreneur! And there is Ivan Pittman’s taxi in Rocky Harbour, bless him, who helped us in exploring Gros Morne and even put us up in his cabin. A kind soul, and the true spirit of NL hospitality.

I wonder how things will change on the transport front in, say, ten or twenty years. Already, the shuttles are disappearing one by one as their operators retire or downsize. Young folk would rather go to Alberta to make money than fish or hunt or take over the family business. An entire way of life has been changing since the nineties – as of course it must.

But what will take its place? Why is the current premier’s vision of the economic future of this amazing province limited to drumming up Chinese interest in new oilfields? Why not invest in the kind of infrastructure that could make Newfoundland and Labrador a world class tourist destination? Or attractive to technology companies? An economy dependent on resource extraction is a primitive one, Ms. Dunderdale. NL can be much more.

Take the Swiss, for instance. Okay, they’re small enough to be perfect, but still. Give them a  mountain and they’ll put up trains, funiculars and cable cars galore, plus a café on top. The trains will be packed with tourists in the summer, skiers in the winter. A Bollywood crew will be filming the slopes. If the Swiss had something like L’Anse aux Meadows, they’d put a train from the capital right to the edge of the Viking site. They’d call it the Iceberg Express. You’d step from the train and there they’d be, towering white icebergs drifting in the deep blue sea. You’d inhale the cool crisp air, sip your café latte, and perhaps spend the night in a reconstructed Viking dwelling, complete with fire and sheepskin.

Moose Sign

A common sign in NL

And what do we have? 6 km of asphalt that the hapless hiker (me) has to trudge just to get to the Visitor Center. With nothing but possible moose for company on the lonely road. No signs of how many km are still to be trudged before Visitor Center reveals itself from behind the hills. And when you finally reach said Visitor Center, happily un-molested by moose, there is no café.

Question: What do you do if you encounter a moose while hiking?
Answer: Lower your eyes and back away.

This is not irrelevant information. Those moose lurk everywhere in Northern Newfoundland, waiting by the edges of the highways for the right (or wrong) moment to dash across, glaring at you from across the trail, flicking their ears suspiciously. No, I don’t have any photos. I was too busy lowering my eyes and backing away. Thank goodness I didn’t see a bear, or I’d have thrown caution and camera to the winds and run screaming.

Anyway. I love this island. It is so worth every cent I’ve spent trying to get from one place to another. From the puffins of Elliston to the icebergs of the north, the tablelands of Gros Morne to the Signal Hill of St John’s, there is so much to do, so much to see. I’ve made my own top ten list but that’s going to have to wait for another day – this post is already way too long.

About Rati Mehrotra

Science fiction and fantasy writer. I blog at: Thanks for dropping by!
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4 Responses to Moose, trains and icebergs: Traveling in Newfoundland

  1. Kate Robbins says:

    I never realized that some of the moose signs here make the poor old moose look quite menacing like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Attack of the Killer Moose!


    • Yeah, when really it’s the poor moose that should beware the monstrous cars! But coming face to face with the beasts on the trail was quite something, especially when a Mama Moose headed in our direction.


  2. jdsfiction says:

    Aside from the lack of public transport, a lot of this post makes me want to visit the Canadian interior and coast! I’ve only ever been to Vancouver- and that was nearly two decades ago!
    As for here in the US, I was lucky enough to take the train from East Coast to West Coast and it was simply beautiful. A chance to see all the stuff you miss from a plane or a car.
    It is interesting to speculate what will happen to the future of public transport though… As a fan of Sci-Fi I secretly hope for rocket ships and hover cars. Maybe a teleporter- that would be neat.


    • Canada is vast and lovely – if only there were more ways to explore it than just driving. I’m currently visiting Victoria and I must say there are far more buses here! And yes, like you I’m waiting for the hover cars. Google is already developing robotic cars – currently legal in three states of the USA, I think.


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