Newfoundland – What we didn’t expect

I didn’t expect to be called “sweetheart” by strangers.

The Newfie dialect was not a surprise. As Canadians we often meet Newfoundlanders in our own province; their dialect is distinct and lyrical. It’s very prevalent and, when spoken quickly, we found it more difficult to understand than a strong Scottish accent. But what surprised me most was how often a sales clerk, waitress, librarian, staff at a visitor center or anyone else in a business environment would call me love, doll, ducky, sweetheart or any number of endearments. As in, “How ya doing, me love? Do you need help, ducky?”

We didn’t expect to have trouble finding potable water.

RVers should be aware that potable water is not always available, even in campgrounds. There are boil-water advisories in many areas so we had to buy and carry separate drinking water. We found this particularly surprising given the millions of acres of natural habitat including thousands of freshwater lakes. 

The drinking water situation varies from one community to another but seems especially prevalent on the west coast where some communities have been living with a boil-water advisory for decades. Why? One person told us it’s because the island is a rock, and they rely heavily on groundwater, which is easily contaminated. The infrastructure is old and crumbling and, although water is tested regularly, there’s a lack of funds and resources to fix the problems. 

We didn’t expect to plan our route around propane and laundry.

RV propane and laundromats are in short supply. There are only 9 businesses across the province that can fill an RV propane tank. They’re all close to the Trans Canada Highway (TCH) and often not regular service stations so they close on weekends. 

Strangely, and equally inconvenient, laundromats are also few and far between. Corner Brook (32,000 population) has only one. And it’s tucked away on a residential street. Gander (11,000 population) has none. We were lucky to find the only laundromat in Clarenville (6,300 population). Heck, our own small hometown in Ontario has three! I presume Newfoundlanders all have laundry facilities at home and don’t mind washing by hand if their machine is down. And, do they even have dryers? After all, one of the symbols of the province is clothes on the line.

We didn’t have to stock up on tinned food after all.

We had been told to expect to pay a premium for fuel and food. With poor soil and a harsh climate, farming is minimal on the island and almost all fresh food (other than fish) comes from outside the province. The cost of fuel, produce, dairy, eggs, and meat is slightly higher than in our home province and the price you’ll pay for fish is not any less. But the price of other staples, dry goods, and non-food items appears to be exactly the same as in Ontario. This seems strange since everything has to arrive by air or ferry. Beer and wine are taxed heavily and quite expensive at the store but, surprisingly, cheaper in restaurants and pubs than in our home province. 

Wow. Are Newfoundlanders ever proud of their home!

Newfoundland is not a rich province. The moratorium on cod fishing in the 1990s led to 100% unemployment for many fishermen and the province has suffered chronic economic hardship. The unemployment rate remains high and they rely heavily on federal assistance, but the spirit and pride of the people is intact. Everyone we met had either lived in Ontario or Alberta at one time or has grown children who have moved there. But almost everyone moves back home. In fact, Newfoundlanders are more likely than other Canadians to give up the lure of more income, preferring to return home. Most homes on the island are small and modest, but it’s very rare to see any in disrepair. Houses, yards, and outbuildings are impeccably neat and tidy. 

We didn’t expect this level of kindness.

We had heard that Newfoundlers are super friendly, but we truly had no idea what that meant until we were amongst them. Here are a couple of examples: 

Somewhere west of St. John’s we arrived at a small community park where we’d been told it was okay to camp for the night. Soon a woman approached us carrying a book that looked like a register of some kind. We thought maybe we were required to pay a nominal amount for camping. We wouldn’t have minded; it was a nice quiet spot, not far off our route, by the water’s edge on a quiet bay. Christine introduced herself and told us she lives nearby. She and her husband look after the park and stock firewood for travelers to use. Then she asked if we would sign her guest book. She just finds it interesting to see where everyone is from. After telling us we were welcome to stay as long as we wanted, she told us about some local road construction we might want to avoid. 

In the village of Tilting on Fogo Island, we attended a weekend festival in late September. Faile Tilting is part of simultaneous festivals in Ireland and other Irish communities worldwide. All are in conjunction with live radio broadcasts featuring local talent.

I’m sure, this quaint fishing village sees its share of tourists in the prime season but, as tourists in a campervan at this time of year, we knew we stood out from other festival attendees. Most were island residents or family and friends who return for the annual event. Were we treated like outsiders? Not at all! We were directed to boondocking close to the events and where they thought we could have the best view. By the end of the weekend, we felt as though we’d been adopted as family. We were greeted by name, invited to return soon and often, and even exchanged Facebook friend requests.

We didn’t expect the moose to hide so well. 

Newfoundland has the most concentrated moose population in North America. But, perhaps because the moose hunting season was starting, they were very good at hiding. There are warnings everywhere about moose causing accidents, but watching for them along the roads is extra difficult; most roadside ditches are filled with tall growth including tree saplings. It would be extremely difficult to see a moose crossing the ditch until it was upon you. It was my job to keep watch constantly, but we never saw even one – along the road or while we were hiking. We did very little night driving, however. That’s apparently when most accidents happen.

We didn’t expect to curse the roads so much (and yet still want to drive them all).

Every peninsula is worth exploring and the roads are all paved but have been patched over and over again. We joked that the department of transport must have run out of “bump” signs; many aren’t marked. The Trans Canada Highway (TCH) is okay in most places, but every road that branches off of it is terrible – with potholes, broken edges, and in many cases, a deep trench across the road at regular intervals – probably where there’s a buried culvert. You will need to be vigilant and have no option but to drive slowly. Randy drove, dodging the worst spots, and I’m sure he missed seeing a lot of the scenery; he had to keep a constant eye on the next 50 to 100 feet ahead of us.

We didn’t expect to be handed a musical instrument so we could fit in. 

It appears that every Newfoundlander is born with musical talent and most of them play an instrument! Live entertainment in a pub, a coffee shop, or restaurant, can be found almost any day of the week. Even better, you should try to find a kitchen (or shed) party. Local parties in bars, restaurants or community centers are often advertised, but it’s even more special to attend such an event in someone’s home or shed. These may be impromptu or scheduled. Ask around in any community to be directed to one. They are basically open-mic or jam sessions and, if you can’t sing or play an instrument, you may be handed the ugly stick so that you can join in. No rehearsal required. 

We were constantly amazed at how hardy the people are. 

Rain or shine, there are as many Newfoundlanders on the trails as tourists. They’re also seen walking and jogging on the sides of the roads where there’s rarely a shoulder separating them from traffic. They seem like a fit population. The small communities can’t support a gym or fitness center. Why join a gym anyway when you can walk or run for free? At this time of year (September), it was easy to identify the natives; they were in shorts, tank tops, and sandals when we were wearing coats and scarves. 

At a small beach, we moved into our camper because the wind was really picking up steadily. We watched two cars arrive. A family of four, including a baby, and another couple (possibly the grandparents) pulled out blankets and coolers, gifts, and helium balloons. They proceeded to lay out their picnic on an exposed grassy knoll and sat there for more than an hour. It was obvious it would take more than a strong wind to deter them from having the birthday party they had planned. 

Perhaps, the hardy nature of the natives also explains why trail difficulty seems to be labeled incorrectly in guides. It didn’t take us long to realize that “modest to strenuous” really means “very strenuous”. If a trail is actually marked as difficult, it’s probably impossible (at least for us) to tackle without relying on climbing gear. 

We were surprised by the high level of trust!

“I heard you lock your doors in Ontario. How do your friends leave you gifts?”

We actually got that question when we were on Fogo Island and are convinced it was asked in earnest. Although not crime-free, there’s a very obvious general level of societal trust in Newfoundland that we don’t often see in our part of the country.

On CBC news out of St. John’s, we heard a report of a woman whose purse had been snatched while she was in her car. That same news story repeated not once, not twice, but three days in a row, with a minor update. In Toronto and many other Canadian cities, such a story would never have made the news in the first place. 

As more proof of an honest society, many Newfoundlanders plant roadside gardens along remote sections of the highways. This is public land, and presumably has better soil than elsewhere. They mark the small plots with low wooden fences so they can easily locate them. No one seems concerned that anyone could easily raid their garden.

Similarly, each family is allowed to harvest a certain quantity of firewood on crown land. They stack it neatly by the highway for easy access, sometimes tagging their pile with a small wooden sign displaying their permit number. Once again, it would be so easy to take wood that someone else has cut and stacked. We have to presume that’s not a concern or there would be extra measures taken. Isn’t it refreshing to see such a level of trust in this day and age? 

We didn’t expect to take a name like “Blow Me Down” quite so literally.

Newfoundland is known to have the strongest winds of any Canadian province. Of course, there’s nothing like experiencing it yourself to know just what that kind of statistic means. We figured out quickly why several parks, trails, and streets are named, “Blow Me Down”. 

On our first hike in Newfoundland, we welcomed the breeze; it was a strenuous uphill trail. That is, until we reached a plateau where Randy was literally blown over – knocked to the ground from a crouching position when he stopped to take a picture. We could not finish the hike, not because the summit was too far or because we were too tired, but we weren’t actually able to put one foot in front of another – the wind was that strong. 

That same night we boondocked within view of the coastal area called “Wreckhouse” – another mistake! We learned later that a train once famously was derailed – lifted right off the tracks by the wind – in this area. Transport trucks and large RVs are warned not to drive that section of the highway during high winds. We got through the night somehow, but without sleep. The van was a-rockin’ like never before!

We were surprised by the generosity.

Perhaps because of their love of music, people give generously to buskers. On the day Hurricane Dorian narrowly missed the island, we watched a busker set up to play music outside the entrance to Tim Hortons in Deer Lake, despite a very strong wind. Over the next hour, we noted that every person who walked by, stopped to toss a donation in his guitar case. It was equally rare to see more people choose to park and walk into the coffee shop rather than use the drive-through (especially in hurricane-strength winds). Just another example of the hardiness of the population, I guess.

We didn’t expect to have so many scenic boondocking options. 

Almost every morsel of public land (except within the boundary of a national or provincial park) is available for overnight RV parking. Many of them are in beautiful settings, overlooking the ocean, at lighthouses, beaches, picnic areas, parks and coves. If there wasn’t a “no overnight parking” sign but we were uncertain, we would ask a local person. The response was always the same. “Of course, it’s fine. Nobody’s gonna object. Why should they?”

We didn’t expect to find a lot of Boondockers Welcome hosts.

Currently, we have only two Boondockers Welcome hosts in all of Newfoundland. You may be asking, “Why so few?” One reason may well be that Newfoundlanders don’t see the need for such a “formal system” when they can direct RVers to a safe, scenic spot on public land nearby. I also truly believe many would let you park on their property if you asked. In fact, it was offered to us when we asked for suggestions.

But the real explanation for so few BW hosts is probably much simpler: population density. In all the states and provinces with the lowest populations, we have the fewest hosts. With less than 522,000 people, Newfoundland has a smaller population than any other state or province in North America with the exception of Prince Edward Island. We’d love to have more hosts in Newfoundland and we did our best to drop a few hints and flyers here and there. But I hope the lack of hosts does not stop you from exploring this most beautiful and welcoming province. 

If you’re an Escapee member, the boondocking spots we used (and many more) can be found in the Day’s End Directory. For everyone else, the i-Overlander app is free. We used it extensively and found it extremely useful on this trip. 

On our way to Newfoundland, and again on our return trip, we had some great stops with Boondockers Welcome hosts. In all, we spent only four nights of our two-month trip in paid campgrounds. When not with hosts, we camped in lovely settings, always for free and most often with a view of the ocean. How can we ever expect to beat that?

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