Exclusive Feature: Fringe Benefits
Tapping into Newfoundland’s Unsung Bounty
This story originally appeared in the March issue of Bike. Get a copy or download the digital edition HERE.
By Colin Field
Photos by Mattias Fredriksson
THE FISH IS HUGE. AN ABSOLUTE MONSTER. The biggest fish I ever did catch. I wrestled it from the depths. And as it came up, it must have stopped to eat capelin, because the 4-inch-long fish are tumbling out of its mouth onto the boat’s deck.
One hundred feet below us is a school of cod 10 feet thick. They aren’t difficult to catch. This is only my third cast and I’ve already landed my third fish. It is the yearly celebration in Newfoundland known as the cod fishery: 20 days of incredible fishing for personal subsistence.
The real miracle is the fact that the cod are here at all. The stocks have replenished after a moratorium destroyed the fishing-based economy of Newfoundland in 1992. I’ve got one of those fish in my hand, and I’m posing for Instagram photos. We slit its throat and throw it in the cooler with the others.
The winds are picking up, blowing us eastward out toward the north Atlantic. Nothing is between us and the icy shores of Greenland, save a freezing expanse of unforgiving, frigid ocean. Thankfully, we’re in a 25-foot Grady that I have absolute confidence in. Boats are all around us. Little dingies, giant metal fishing vessels–all of us drifting over this massive school of fish as we roll over the growing swells and jig repeatedly. We all have giant grins on our faces and our belly laughs fly eastward with the wind.
It only takes 40 minutes to hit our 15-fish limit. With the cooler full of fresh cod, we fire up the massive 225-horsepower engines and leave the waters off Cape Spear, the easternmost point of land on the continent, a place where, earlier this morning, we also rode the most eastern piece of singletrack in North America.
We are headed back to the dock at Quidi Vidi, which is located ever-so-conveniently at the Quidi Vidi Brewery. On the way, we see a strip of the incredible singletrack we rode today called Oceanside, a showpiece of Newfoundland’s mountain biking. It is also a trail that, very conveniently, ends at the Quidi Vidi Brewery.
In about an hour, we’ll be pulling this delicious fish off the Cogfather’s barbecue, and I’ll have the best fish of my life. Thankfully there’s a lot of it because, as the locals say, I’m so starved I could eat the arse off a low-flying duck.
We’ll celebrate singletrack, fishing, Newfoundland and new friendships. We’ll celebrate how awesome today was–a day that qualifies as a perfect day in Newfoundland. And we have the Cogfather to thank for it.
IF IT WEREN’T FOR CHRIS JERRETT, St. John’s mountain biking scene would be totally different. The 46-year-old’s heavy-set frame is misleading, given that he’s been building and maintaining trails for nearly 20 years. If he didn’t love beer, food and scotch so much, he’d be the fittest guy around. But the extra weight doesn’t slow him down. Let him loose on a downhill track and he’ll eat it up with the best of the 20-year-olds.
A BMXer from way back, his heritage in the bike scene is the real deal. He’s not in it for money or fame. He’s in it, for lack of a less cliché term, the love of the sport. And you’d have to love the sport to build trails in this unforgiving landscape. The rocky, bushy ups and downs around the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador make for difficult bushwhacking, let alone trail building. But he’s out there every year with his dog Moto, crashing through the bush, scouting lines, shifting dirt (what little there is on an island nicknamed ‘The Rock’), rearranging stones and benching ledges. It’s a monumental task that perhaps only a couple generations of Newfoundlander genealogy would be stubborn enough to take on. I can imagine him saying to himself, “Jaysus Tunderin’, I’m putting a trail trew ‘ere if it kills me!”
His shop, ‘Freeride,’ is right in downtown St. John and specializes in high-end, all-mountain bikes. The kids who have come up wrenching for him are now his closest riding buddies.
Sure, he’s got his critics, but all of his trails we rode were awesome. And there were lots of them. And it’s tough to criticize a guy who is out there building, year after year.
Whether he’s a visionary or a dreamer is yet to be determined. Every time we ride he points out fresh places to cut trail, new ways to create loops, or sections he wants to rebuild. There are a couple lifetimes of work out there. He dreams of a government-funded trail crew dedicated to opening up and maintaining the endless tracts of Crown land surrounding the capital.
But it is by no means a pipe dream. The oil platforms out on the Hibernia oil field 300 kilometers east of St. John’s are bringing economic prosperity to the region. Newfoundlanders who left the province during hard times of the moratorium are returning, which means funding for a trail crew is not unrealistic.
And in a town that is surrounded by incredible terrain–perfect for epic, world-class singletrack—it would be an ideal tourism opportunity.
OUR PERFECT DAY in Newfoundland began before the sun rose. We made the short drive south from St. John’s to Cape Spear, a national historic site where the oldest surviving lighthouse in the province still stands.
We were pedaling back and forth on what is, undeniably, the most eastern piece of singletrack on the North American continent.
With the lighthouse’s white picket fence towering above us, and a 60-foot plummet into the rocky shoreline below, this ribbon of trail definitely had its aesthetic appeal. That’s why we were on it; the conduit of brown dirt between lush grass was irresistible for photographer Mattias Fredriksson. And when you see Fredriksson get excited you do whatever he says.
It was when he yelled ‘Ready!’ and local rippers Kaelam Power and Mike Trickett dropped in, that I heard it; the whooshing release of a humpback’s blowhole blasting through the ocean’s surface.
As I looked out to sea, I saw her breach. Three quarters of her body came flying out of the water and slapped down on the surface with a resounding crack.
I knew it was a she because her calf surfaced seconds afterward and snuggled into mama’s safety. I switched between watching two guys slaying a truly mesmerizing piece of singletrack, the sun rising over the horizon and whales frolicking in the water as they surfaced over and over again.
There are moments in life that you instantly recognize as surreal: A combination of things so incredible, so unique and loaded with wonder that they stick with you. This was one of those moments for me. I will be able to recall it, vividly, for the rest of my days.
Once Fredriksson finished, we traveled inland on Cape Spear to the Maddox Cove section of the East Coast Trail. And it was damn fun. Skirting the multi-hundred foot cliffs that crumbled downward into the ocean, the trail ripped through scrub grass and a rolling, rocky, weather-beaten landscape. It was beautiful. It was a trail worth getting up before the sun for.
FOUND IN TRANSLATION
NEARLY AS FUN AS THE LOCAL SINGLETRACK, the language of the Newfoundlanders is a damn good time. Described as Irish meets Canadian while chewing a mouthful of cod, there are nearly 60 dialects. There is even a dictionary of Newfoundland English. And while their accents are as confusing as they are fun, it is their sayings that really bring out the poetry of Newfoundland English.
“Lord Jaysus, put the side back in’er I’m froze!”
Translation: Please close the door. It’s cold.
Or, “My son, I’ll scrap ya to the moon!”
Translation: This may come to fisticuffs.
Translation: I would imagine so.
Or, one of my personal favorites: “You got a face on ya like a hen’s arsehole in a northwest wind!”
Translation: You are unattractive.
If you really want to hear some of them, well, there’s an app for that. It’s called Waddaya, and it’s hilarious.
The locals we ride with don’t have the thickest accents around, but the more beers we get into them, the more it drawls out of them. It’s entertaining and endearing.
Newfoundlanders get a kick out of the accents and sayings themselves, admitting that sometimes they don’t even know what people are saying. As they compare sayings and laugh about them one night, Jerrett’s wife Debbie says, “I once heard a man say, ‘I’m so starved I could eat the flies off an African child.’”
VIEWS AND BREWS
NEWFOUNDLAND’S PERFECT DAY CONTINUED after a lazy lunch at Gracie Joe’s, where Fredriksson taught the waitresses the difference between a macchiato, a cappuccino and a cortado. And then he had eggs benedict for the first time in his life.
Then we headed north to nearby White Hills to ride the Oceanside trail.
It seems all trails in Newfoundland start with a grinding, steep, bitch of a climb over loose scree and oversized gravel. Then the exertion pays off with an amazing view, a great piece of trail or both. Oceanside was no different.
After we huffed to the top of the trail we were rewarded with a view like no other. Below we could see the tiny village of Quidi Vidi, where the trail ends and where we knew there were ice-cold, freshly brewed pints waiting. We could see the eastern reach of Cape Spear, and the fishing boats going back and forth to that massive school of fish.
Then we dropped in.
The route started as a gnarly descent down a steep rocky technical trail, then transitioned into singletrack that flowed up and over weather-smoothed rock and dirt like a roller coaster. It followed the ocean side of the island, adding to the already-remote feeling, even though we were minutes from downtown St. John’s. Then we rounded a bend following the mouth of the Quidi Vidi Harbor, an impressively protected cove affectionately referred to as ‘The Gut.’
It’s an incredibly beautiful, fast and flowing piece of trail, and as I bounced, jumped and flew over rocks and dirt, I recalled all we had ridden on Canada’s eastern shore. St. John’s must be one of the few cities in the world that boasts such a vast variety of trail minutes from downtown.
Like the incredible hand-built Subnet, a trail so fun, so ambitious, and so gnarly that only a stubborn Newfie would consider creating it. It’s a treacherous, but awesome series of downhill berms, roots and rocky drops that requires a bike with a good 6-8 inches of travel.
Or Satan’s Choice, a trail so rooty, rocky, steep, muddy and full of trees that if you could ride it, you’d be able to tackle any course on the World Cup Downhill circuit.
Pippy Park, Shea Heights, White Hills and Richmond Hill are all minutes from the jellybean colored houses of downtown. Take an easy drive and you could explore the 265-kilometer stretch of the East Coast Trail.
As Oceanside popped out onto doubletrack and we rolled into Quidi Vidi, we crossed the narrow bridge to the other side of the harbor then skidded to a halt on the dock at the Quidi Vidi Brewery. A red-faced old timer yelled some version of, “’Owe’s she gettin’ on b’ys?” To which we responded positively with laughs and high-fives.
Once we’d cracked a pint of Quidi Vidi’s latest brew, the British IPA, we knew this day couldn’t get any better. Until Power chimed in with a question that had probably been asked on this very dock for centuries:
“How’d you boys like to go fishin’?”
To which we responded, “Hell yeah!”
FOR CANADIANS, Newfoundland is one of those places we all talk about visiting. Every Canadian will tell you they want to go, but few actually do. It’s not the kind of place you drive to for the weekend; you either fly there or take the ferry. And depending on the ferry, the trip can take six to 14 hours, sometimes over rough, vomit-inducing waters. Once you’re at the ferry terminal, it’s still a huge drive to St. John’s.
For those Canadians who have visited, they’ll tell you they love it. And I’m no different. I love Newfoundland. I love the people, the landscape and the coastline. I love the beer, the restaurants and the cod tongues. And I also love the singletrack. I love how gnarly it can be, mere seconds from downtown. I love the effect these trails have on riders, creating guys who absolutely rip. I love the possibility there is for the future of these trails. I love that you can watch a pair of breaching humpback whales while riding. I suppose I love the trails for showing me just how rugged and beautiful Newfoundland is because the island is mind-blowingly gorgeous. And, in my mind, as always, the mountain bike is the best way to explore it.