Not far from the Edge of Avalon Interpretive Centre in Portugal Cove South a small road leads you past the community wharf. Still a busy place during the spring and summer months, this was the centre of an intensely busy small-boat inshore fishery that endured for centuries and has only recently declined. Almost every family in the community once had a stage where nets and gear were stored and a fishroom where freshly-caught codfish was processed by hand into the high-quality dry saltfish upon which Newfoundland’s economy was built.
A little further along, you will see an interpretive sign that shows you what lies ahead on the Road to the Cape. The road follows the eastern coastline of Trepassey Bay, a name taken from the French word “trépassés” (dead men), probably in memory of the many sailors who were shipwrecked here. There is also a Baie des Trépassés on the Brittany coast of France, the home of many of the first Europeans who came to fish off our coast in the late 1500s and throughout the 1600s.
As you travel beyond the homes of Portugal Cove South, the beautiful rolling landscape gives you a wonderful sensation of openness, airiness and possibility – you almost feel as if you could fly away! This landscape is classified as “Eastern-Hyper-Oceanic Barrens”. These are natural barrens that were never forested except for the small patches of the tough little evergreens resembling bonsai trees that Newfoundlanders call “tuckamore”. Caribou and a variety of birds live here, berries are plentiful in the late summer and fall and the small ponds and rivers are home to tasty trout, so perhaps the term “barrens” is a bit misleading!
All along the Road to the Cape you will find look outs and beaches with splendid ocean views where you can often see whales especially during the summer months when they come close to shore to feed on capelin and herring.
Birdwatchers will find much to delight them here too. The Barrens support a number of interesting bird species; Whimbrel (called ‘curlews’ by locals) stop by on their annual fall migration to feast on berries. Serious birders from near and far make a point of visiting during the fall, when they can count on sighting rare visitors blown in by stormy weather. The Rookery, a seabird colony on truly spectacular sea cliffs within Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve is a must-see.
Every cove along the coastline was well-known to local people and several of them were settled by fishing families during the 1800s. The Drook and Long Beach were especially prized for their excellent fishing grounds and supported healthy communities until the 1960s. At that time the price paid for cod dropped precipitously and saltfish production by fishermen and their families gave way to frozen fresh fish production at the plant in Trepassey. Interpretive signs in the resettled communities commemorate those hard-working families and their way of life, which included daring rescues of shipwrecked sailors and passengers from ocean liners that came to grief in the dangerous waters of Trepassey Bay. Today, the resettled communities are wonderful places for nature appreciation, picnicking, wildlife viewing and photography.
The Road to the Cape also skirts the edge of the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve UNESCO World Heritage Site, a provincially-managed reserve established in 1987 to protect the fossil remains of the oldest complex life forms—found anywhere on earth. Known to scientists as the Ediacara Biota (Edi-ak-ara-By-oh-ta), these creatures lived 579 to 542 million years ago, when all life was in the sea. The name is from the Ediacaran Hills in South Australia where the first large examples of these fossils were found in 1946. Public access to view the fossils within Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve is by official guided tour ONLY. Places on these guided tours-which are lead by Parks and Natural Areas Division Interpreters-can be booked at the Edge of Avalon Interpretive Centre. Collecting (or attempting to collect) fossils and rocks in Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve is strictly prohibited.
Most of the Road to the Cape is unpaved. There are some narrow spots and some steep hills. Allow time to drive slowly and stay safe.
Make sure you take enough food and water for the several hours that you will want to spend.
At the edge of the Atlantic Ocean weather can be capricious, so if you are planning to get out of your vehicle and explore, bring a sweater and a windbreaker, even if the weather looks good. Dense fog can be disorienting, so be aware of changing conditions when you are walking on the barrens and be especially careful near the sea cliffs at the Rookery.
If you are planning a hike, wear proper footwear: light sandals / shoes or flip-flops could result in a sprained ankle. Cell phone coverage is intermittent along this road, so it would be wise to let someone at the Interpretive Centre know where you are going and what time you plan to return.