Robb Report Special Edition: A whale of a Time

Stare long enough at the dark waters of Iceberg Alley off the northern coast of Newfoundland, and the swells and whitecaps begin to look like whales. On this late June morning, as I sit in a kayak, bobbing like flotsam in the North Atlantic, these apparitions will have to suffice, for the real whales, dozen of which were visible from shore the previous evening, are not complying; not a single humpback spouts or even breaks the water’s surface.

“I don’t see whales, so we’ll explore the nooks and crannies,” says Nelson Pilgrim, a 54-year-old former school administrator who took up kayaking eight years ago and has led visitors along this jagged coastline for the last three.  As the only kayak guide in this northernmost part of Newfoundland, he works with Explore Newfoundland, the active-travel branch of a local company, Linkum Tours.  Nelson, who grew up in the area and who as a youth spent all of his spare time working on his father’s fishing boat, is a highly educated outdoorsman who nevertheless cannot understand why people want to come here.  I answer with my own reasons for visiting Newfoundland:  Its remoteness and isolation are rare and, for some, alluring commodities, the rocky, dramatic vistas are spectacular; the local history, from Viking raiders of a past millennium to the disastrous codfishing moratorium of the last decade, is provocative, the people are renowned for their hospitality and warmth; and here I have found unique accommodations at an island lighthouse, Quirpon Lighthouse Inn.  Finally, Newfoundland-its coastline etched with fjords, caves, and coves and its waters teeming with whales and icebergs- is said to be one of the world’s best places for sea kayaking.  “Really?” asks Nelson.  “I have never heard that.”

Such an admission is perplexing.  In a single day on the water, each nook and cranny of Quirpon Island (pronounced kar-poon), the home base for this expedition, yields a sight that gives pause.  We paddle in from the open water to a 200 foot wall of black igneous rock that blocks the sun and serves as a nesting ground for a colony of white kittiwakes, which circle in scores of lazy orbits close to the ledges that hold their youngsters.  We move on to enter a sheltered bay, which has an alternate exit that evokes a scene from The Lord of the Rings.  Here, drifting except for the strokes taken to avoid rocks, we let the tidal wash carry our boats through a narrow passage between two towering cliffs, and in a whoosh we shoot along the swift current from the cut, back into the open sea. In another cove, a lone cabin stands where there was once a fishing settlement.

Meanwhile, our unsuccessful search for whales continues, and Nelson compensates by spinning fish tales.  Once, while kayaking, he encountered gridlock:  “hundreds of humpbacks-so many of them feeding, I had to weave around whales all the way back to Quirpon Island.” He tells this story as we glide into a cove to visit a family of sea otters, which, alas are not at home.

Despite the disappointment of missing some wildlife, five hours in the kayak pass as quickly as a coffee break, and, back at the lighthouse, sitting on rocks and sipping beers, we spy the whales that had eluded us all day.  Plumes spout from humpbacks just offshore, and minkes surface and dive repeatedly.  The schools of fish that attract the whales must have been swimming elsewhere until now.  Nelson offers to take me out again immediately, but I decline.  As kayaking days go, this one already is a keeper, with or without whales.  My guide’s incredulity notwithstanding, this region merits its reputation.

Newfoundland’s northern peninsula has attracted visitors for a thousand years, albeit infrequently and in small numbers.  L’Anse aux Meadows, at the tip, is the site of the first known Viking settlement in North America.  Along this portion of Newfoundland’s 6,000-mile coastline, the cold Labrador Current, carrying icebergs south, meets the warm Gulf Stream, churning up the marine tidbits that entice schools o f capelin and other fish, which in turn bring pods of whales.  At the Quirpon Lighthouse Inn, which is owned by Linkum Tours, you can spot whales through the bedroom windows of one of the inn’s two buildings, or from a glassed-in observation hut, which is outfitted with telescopes and is a welcoming refuge for wildlife viewing during a gale, or for taking in the early-summer’s 10 pm sunsets.

Although situated on the edge of civilization, the lighthouse is a hubbub of activity.  The inn is officially open from May through September and, weather permitting, sometimes into October, but the safest window of opportunity for kayaking is June through August.  Ed English, the inn’s owner, says it can be possible to kayak in May, but pack ice may still linger; September and October bring the northeast winds- not good for kayakers but fine for storm watchers.

Hiking is popular on the island, which is about four miles long, and has a challenging topography.  One couple, returning to the lighthouse after scaling the island’s highest point, brings tales of near-death experiences in the tuckamore thickets and of a particularly frightening encounter: “We were almost attacked by sea otters!” So that is where that otter family went:  to stalk unsuspecting New Yorkers.

I experienced my own harrowing trek en route to Quirpon Island, when a nor’easter raged through the area.  “Just mist,” said a local grandmother, as I stood on the mainland dock, considering my options.  Squinting through the “mist” from under the scrunched hood of a waterproof suit, I tried to gauge the chances that our small, open motor boat would successfully navigate the three-mile distance around the far tip of the island to the lighthouse.  However, the skipper chose a shorter course, simply blasting through the chop to the island’s nearest landing point and leaving us to hike the three miles through bogs, tuckamore thickets, and the storm.

While hiking-for recreation or out of necessity-and kayaking are the primary activities among the inn’s guests, much time this week is spent speculating about the dearth of icebergs this season, while tracking the lone berg in the neighborhood.  For more than two months, the iceberg had been lodged near the island, but it had broken free recently and was now barely visible several mils to the south- too far to reach by kayak.  Nelson enlists the lighthouse keeper to take us to it in his fishing boat.  The visible portion of the iceberg, which I had guessed would be the size and shape of a tractor trailer, turns out to be an altogether different formation, resembling a monstrous crown suitable for Poseidon (or Njord his Norse equivalent).  Its four pinnacle rise at least 60 feet, and we circle closely, cod-size pieces break off from underneath.  The crew fishes them out of the water to take back to the inn, where they will hack them up and use them in water pitchers at mealtime.  (Icebergs break off of glaciers, which are formed from frozen fresh water.)  On the return trip, a school of dolphins (“squid hounds” in the local vernacular) toys with us, jumping around the boat and zooming underneath.  Nelson, who has seen “literally thousands of icebergs,” also points out a seal.  It dives.  I miss it.

Whale sightings are reported at the following day’s breakfast, and one guest claims the humpbacks were bellowing loud enough to awaken him.  (Salty storytelling is a skill evidently not exclusive to the locals.)  Nelson has checked the weather and says we can go kayaking again, so I dash to my room to dress for another day of summer sport in Newfoundland.  Following instructions, I don four layers-bathing suit, wet suit, fleece shirt, paddling jacket-plus life vest, rubber skirt to seal myself into the boat, neoprene socks, waterproof shoes, hat, and pogies to keep hands warm, and hasten down to the stony shore.  Nelson shoves me off and follows in his own craft, and we skim swiftly out of the cove and into the open sea.

The water is choppier today, and we steer a course to surf the powerful swells.  In preparation for this trip, I had practiced a wet exit on a hot summer day on a placid suburban river- on another planet, it seems; it would be useful to know this safety measure if, when an orca jumped across my bow, I were to tip over in shock.  Now, with the kayak as the sole joinery between body and current, the ocean’s pull is palpable, and I savor the speed and the roll from crest to trough, heedless of how much paddling it will take to return.  “Now this is sea kayaking,” Nelson shouts from the crest of another wave.

Between swells, we feel obligated to stop and look at the horizon, just in case a whale should wander by. “A beluga came up beside me once, and stayed alongside my kayak and wouldn’t go away,” says Nelson.  “It got tiresome.  Who wants to spend 20 minutes staring at a beluga?

Karen Cakebread

The Independent, online edition: Adventure playground

Wilderness training in Newfoundland gave Julia Stuart the skills to explore the stunning landscape by herself.  It’s the perfect way to feel closer to the natural world


I say farewell to Tuckamore, and, after an hour’s drive north on deserted roads boarded by forest, past electricity pylons with nesting osprey, I arrive at the village of Quirpon, pronounced “carpoon”.  From there I take a 20 –minute boat ride- in a vessel so tiny I can almost lick the salty waves to Quirpon Island, which stretches four miles long at the northern tip of Newfoundland.

Until around the late Thirties it was home to a small summer fishing community.  Today, however, the only buildings are the now automated lighthouse and two houses in which the lighthouse man and his assistant lived with their families.  Since their departure in 1996, the homes have served as Quirpon lighthouse Inn, which sleeps 25 in 11 rooms from May to October.  The only permanent residents on the island are two moose which either swam across or came over on the “hice”.

Try to stay in the older house, which was built in 1922, and has much more character.  The basic rooms, fortunately void of television or phone, are paneled in dark wood and come with handmade quilts…

When the sun shines on Quirpon ( you can experience four seasons in one day in Newfoundland, which has several word for fog) there is nowhere else in the world you would rather be.  It reminds me of Scotland – seal-coloured rocks poke out between springy vegetation crouching below the wind.  Wild flowers include harebells and alpine milk vetch.  Map in hand (and now able to read it), I spend two days hiking round the island, completely alone, bouncing over mattress-like flora, sometimes stopping to pick juicy bakeapples – a yellow berry resembling an engorged blackberry.  While I’m picnicking on a cliff top gazing out at Labrador, slim seagulls cruise by overhead without a single flap.

With the help of Hubert Roberts, a former fisherman with an almost impenetrable accent, who runs the inn with his wife, Doris, I eventually find the granite headstone, written in French, marking the resting place of a French sea captain who died here in 1861, as well as the grave containing the bodies of four children from the Manuel family who died between 1852 and 1858. Dead Sailors’ Pit is said to mark the spot where the bodies of five visiting sailors were thrown after they died drinking bad beer.

By the lighthouse is an enclosed viewing platform with telescopes for whale-watching.  Otherwise, sit in a bakeapple patch with a book, with one ear cocked, for you will hear whales before you see them. Twice, a minke snorts its way along the coastline followed by a family of killer whales.

Meals – fabulous home–cooking by Doris, whose motto is “don’t go hungry” – are taken communally in the older house.  If you’re lucky you’ll hit a night when she’s serving cod tongues, traditional Newfoundland fodder.  If you ask, she’ll do them for you specially.  She makes the partridgeberry and bakeapple jams for breakfast with berries from the island, and if you pick some she will offer to turn them into jam to take home with you..  The ice in the water jug on the table comes from an iceberg that Hubert nipped over to in his boat for supplies for the freezer.  When it’s time to leave, again there are hugs goodbye.

Julia Stuart

Doctor’s Review: The Grand Outdoors


An Icy Welcome

I saw tangible signs of this fact walking across a treeless, cliff-bound dot on the map called Quirpon Island.  Covered almost entirely with spongy moss, the terrain gave way at one point to a bog in which the submerged foundations of an earthen hut could be seen; one that, according to my guide, was considerably older than a 16th-centujry European settlement.

Unfortunately for history, we didn’t slow down in our hurry to make it to the other end of the island and the highpoint of any visit to this part of Newfoundland – a trip to Iceberg Alley.  Every June and July, the narrow strait between western Newfoundlandand Labrador is filled by a stately regatta of icebergs, heading south from the high Arctic.  You can arrange to kayak out amongst them and perhaps even get close enough to find out what an iceberg smells like.  Some of them are as old as 10,000 years and contain scents and air bubbles from the Paleolithic era of the Mastodon and Giant Walrus.

The Alley is also a seasonal feeding ground for the 36-tonne humpback whale, herds of which cross paths with the icebergs before August as they hunt their diet of capelin and krill.  Whale watching is something you can also do from the front-row seat of a sea kayak, and, if there’s anything at all that can compare with the sight of a whale breaching in front of an iceberg mere metres away, please let me know.

Quirpon Island itself is deserted except for an automated lighthouse on a point that scans the Strait of Belle Isle to the Labrador coast.  The lighthouse-keeper’s home has been turned into a spotless, lovingly restored inn that would epitomize the word “quaint” if it wasn’t perched beside a helicopter landing pad on cliffs that crashed into a foaming sea.

Run by the redoubtable Ed English, an adventure tour operator out of Steady Brook, the Quirpon Lighthouse Inn and its breathtaking setting are regularly celebrated in the pages of the world’s better newspapers, and the establishment deserves as much publicity as it can get.  It offers all the authentic touches of a Victorian sea captain’s home berth and anchorage – the feather beds, the varnished wood that slows the rot of sea spray and even meals of cod tongue, a local delicacy that is exactly as it sounds, but (trust me) tastes infinitely better.

Outside at night, thousands of birds flit like ghosts over the island’s sea-battered precipices, calling shrilly through the surf and wind.  Try lying prone on the chopper pad, as I did, and watch the moon rise out of the ocean, its light momentarily turning an iceberg into a flickering candle as the stars above chart a course through the pulsating aurora borealis. It’s certainly an image that stays with me as I write this, even though I’m afraid I never did manage to bottle the world’s softest fresh air.

The Quirpon Lighthouse Inn (tel: 877-254-6586, is run by Linkum Tours referred to by National Geographic Traveler as a premiere guiding services.  Based out of Steady Brook, they offer a large variety of trips around the province, including kayaking, guided camping, and whale and iceberg watching (June-July).  Itineraries are easily tailored to individual desires, and many winter activities are also available.  Inquire about rates at their five far-flung inns, including a wilderness lodge and two lighthouses.

Robb Beattie

Outpost Global Travel Guide: More places to park your wanderlusting butt

Quirpon Lighthouse Inn

From wherever you stand on Quirpon Island, a small 1.5km by 7km outcrop at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, you can see the ocean. Its wide open, lightly rolling sub arctic terrain, 60 percent of it covered in a spongy mat of moss and lichen, ensures a clear vista.

When Ed English read that the government had put the lighthouse and light keeper’s dwelling on the island up for sale in 1998, he bought it sight unseen, hoping it would make a good addition to the offerings ofhis burgeoning travel company, Linkum Tours. When he arrived the following spring to check out his purchase the house was encased in ice three inches thick. But he knew right away he had bought something special. Not only for the remote beauty of the place, have dramatic cliffs dropping off into the watery void, but because the island boasts the longest viewing season for whales and icebergs anywhere in Newfoundland.

Fish swimming out from the Gulf of St. Lawrence have no choice but to make their way through the Strait of Belle Isle that divides Newfoundland from the mainland, ensuring, English says, “they travel right past our doorstep on their way to the North Atlantic. It’s a never-ending conveyor belt of food for whales and sea birds assisted by the Labrador Current.”

This island is also the perfect trap for the whales to use as they herd fish against the underwater cliff’s “you can literally stand and watch whales drive fish into our cove,” says English. “Not only are the whales comfortable because the water is deep, but they feed easily just going constantly back and forth along the cove.”

Quirpon Island, accessible by boat, helicopter, or, for the more adventurous, by kayak, is ideal for a day’s ramble. Informal trails spread out over the mossy ground, through tussocks of tuckamore, to cliffs both terraced and sheer. And beyond, icebergs cruise majestically past, while whales ply the water for food. The rich currents also attract killer whales, porpoises and dolphins. It’s not unheard of for a playful dolphin to leap over a kayaker’s bow.

The area is redolent with history. Not just on the mainland, where the historical reconstruction of the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows is only 5kms away, or the waters themselves which have attracted migratory fishermen since the 16th century. But Quirpon Island itself is home to unexcavated sod huts and old murder mystery drenched in myth.


Endless Vacation: Paddling among Giants

With cleaving fjords girdled by 2,000-foot-high cliffs, processions of icebergs 10-stories tall, and a cavalcade of breaching whales, the island of Newfoundland has a raw magnificence rivaling Alaska. Linkum Tours leads kayak convoys along the western shore to safely experience the contrasts and beauty of this rugged coast. Paddling off the Great Northern Peninsula jutting in the famous “iceberg alley”, you’re guaranteed to spot migrating humpback and orca whales as you wend among a flotilla of ice cathedrals. After daily adventures, your snug haven is the cliff-perched Quirpon Lighthouse Inn, near the site where Vikings landed 500 years before Christopher Columbus. If the weather turns arctic, the inn becomes a cozy fortress for watching North Atlantic storms and those hulking icebergs and whales that continue their timeless journey.

Ted Allan Stedman

Toronto Star: Love at First Sigh


The true loveliness of this natural beauty continued to unfold when we set eyes on the geological wonder known as the Tablelands in Gros Morne. It was there that we spotted out first iceberg, floating majestically in the strait of Bell Isle.

The white monster resembled a huge rectangular airplane hanger and stood perhaps two stories high. And to think, only one-tenth of it is visible above water.

Why is it that you can’t look at one of these things without thinking of the Titanic?

Most of the icebergs drift down from the west coast of Greenland, where they have broken off ancient glaciers. They travel slowly southward via the Labrador Current and caution is advised in the event of “calving” – that’s when the iceberg breaks up. Calving can create huge ice hunks, which fly off, causing sizeable waves that have been known to capsize boats. Calving actually sounds like thunder when it starts.

Playful humpback whales greeted our arrival to Quirpon Island, their tails disappearing into the sea like graceful synchronized swimmers.

The island is set against rough-hewn rocks whose intense beauty has been chiseled by time and the ever pounding surf. Amidst this beauty sits Cape Bauld Lighthouse, a welcome beacon for this seafaring nation of fishermen.

A glance over my shoulder from our boat revealed two mammoth icebergs silently inching their way to extinction.

Quirpon Island is a remote place, with only two houses on it. After settling in, we set out to explore this place where delicate wildflowers flourish among rugged, wind swept terrain. Because icebergs are commonplace near Quirpon Island at this time of year, sea kayakers flock here to paddle among the ice sculptures, hoping to spot the whales who favor this part of the province.

Fortunately for us Ed English, part owner of Linkum Tours – they operate Quirpon Lighthouse – booked our excursion here to coincide with a “paddle and stroll” event that involved 12 kayakers and their colorful crafts floating around the icebergs and whales.

Kay Loek

National Geographic Traveler: Room at the Lighthouse

The frigid waters surrounding Quirpon Island are always more crowded then the inn’s family style dinner table. That’s because Quirpon and its lighthouse inn, the island’s sole accommodation, are just off Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula in “iceberg alley,” where humpback whales swimming north meet icebergs floating south. Porpoises, seals, and polar bears also traffic the rough waters, visible from atop the island’s 200foothigh bluffs.

Quirpon Lighthouse dates to 1922; the incarnation as an 11-room inn dates to 1998 and occupies buildings that were abandoned when the 82-year-old lighthouse was automated in the 1990’s. a simple main lodge painted white with red trim houses a small sitting room (stocked with books and materials on Newfoundland lore) and a dining room, where guests feast family-style on such local dishes as cod’s tongue and whatever else comes in on fishing boats. Guests quarters are furnished with chairs and beds crafted by a local whale bone carver and covered with handmade quilts. What guests won’t see: phones, TV’s, or other distractions from the main attraction, the epic Newfoundland tableau outside their windows. In spring, one can see polar bears on the icebergs feasting on seals. Orcas are regular visitors, and northern gannets flock here in record numbers. Then there are the clusters of humpbacks – part of North America’s largest population – lazily rolling in swells. It’s a setting both dramatic and relaxing.

Officially open for business from May through September, Quirpon will accommodate off-season guests who are prepared for adventure – and some audacious weather. That might mean ramming through ice sheets on the four-mile boat ride to the inn (the only other way to arrive is by helicopter), then listening to moaning squalls that put ordinary tempests to shame. “I love the storms,” co-owner Ed English says. “This is a great spot to hunker down when the wind is howling and the waves are pounding below.” One thing you’re guaranteed no matter when you come: a most memorable experience.

David Howard

The Magazine: Island Escape to Tranquility


More often than not Newfoundland feels like an island that has floated away from the rest of the world- like a lily pad whose tendrils have been cut. If I’d grown up surrounded by craggy coastlines and clapboard houses, I can imagine a compulsion to get out and explore the manmade arrogance of the big cities of the world.  But for anyone else, Newfoundland’s ruggedness if bliss.  In a matter of days I find myself thinking through ways I could successfully maroon myself forever.

None more so than on Quirpon Island, a deserted island bar a lighthouse and lighthouses keeper’s cottages hospitably run, but not owned, by a former fisherman Hubert and his wife Doris.  To get there Hubert kits us out in lifejackets- and waterproofs if it looks a bit blowy- and we motor boat out in two boats into the ocean.

The lighthouse is in sight when the engine suddenly cuts.  Hubert has spotted dolphins.  We shriek with childlike abandon as dolphins leap out of the water around us. When we finally reach the island and catch up with the others-having raced up a rocky scrub laced with crackerberries, blackberries, blueberries and partridge berries- we are nothing short of high on experience.

From the top of the lighthouse I later watch a drippy sun melt and take over the sky.  On a cool, clear night you’re highly likely to see the Northern Lights from Quirpon.  It’s also the most fantastic spot from which to spot icebergs and whales, with Quirpon Island located at the tip of Iceberg Alley- through which icebergs drift down as far as St. John’s

Icebergs disappear with the summer, but I determine to catch sunrise, and as much time as possible for whales.  I stumble out around 6.30am, my pyjamas betraying themselves from under my clothes.  But being bathed in golden light from this benevolent god is worth every bit of sleep prematurely rubbed out of bleary eyes.

I sit at the end of the whale watching platform for an hour or so with my thoughts and a calm ocean.  And find my lips whispering thanks for such a place.  And then a fellow traveler- who has joined me-is eagerly pointing far off, at whales breaking the surface of the sea.

Christine Miles