My wife and I set out late last week to take on Labrador’s Pioneer Footpath: a trail shaped by the old footpaths that for 150 years were the only means of travel between the tiny fishing settlements along the south coast of Labrador on the Strait of Belle Isle. It is the closest trail of overnight length to our new home, so we wanted to give it a try.
A little more detail: the Labrador Pioneer Footpath is a coastal trail that runs from the village of L’Anse Au Clair in the south up to Pinware in the north (though an expansion plan is in the works to extend the trail to Red Bay – more on that below). Its current length is approximately 63km. The terrain is surprisingly varied, with beach walks mixed in with exciting climbs over rocky points, short Labradorian forests stunted by the cold, blustery coastal storms, open heath covered with moss, stiff ascents onto jutting promotories, lichens, blueberries and the local unique treat, bakeapples. Interspersed along the way are the coastal villages themselves, absolute gems populated with friendly folks. And when I say friendly… Labradorians take it to a level you have never seen. More on that later.
The weather out here is coastal but cool, not as rainy as the West Coast of Canada, but still moist. We expected temperatures between 15 and 20 Celsius the entire time we would be here, with overnight lows around 10-12.
Prior to starting, we attempted to gather information about the trail. There is an information centre in L’Anse Au Clair but we weren’t going to drive all the way down to get it. We called them up and the staff emailed us a GPX track and put us in touch with a fellow who had recently hiked the trail to fill us in on where to camp – there are no established campgrounds on the trail, but there are also no rules about wild camping – you can stop and set up wherever you want.
We decided to hike it north to south, which is the opposite of what most people do. We arrived after a 5 hour drive from Goose Bay at Pinware Provincial Park, the only provincial park in Labrador and probably the most organized campground in Labrador. We got a spot to car camp, knowing we didn’t want to start our hike in the evening. After setting up our tent, we took a wander down the oceanside beach literally just behind our tent and enjoyed a sunset while watching the waves and birds and studying the shells and husks of crustaceans devoured by the gulls and cormorants.
It was out there with little seabreeze blowing we were introduced to the blackflies. We were pre-warned about the little menaces, who swarm anything with skin through the summer on the Labrador coast. Inland too, but most say they are particularly voracious down here. We had hope by delaying until the end of August they would have lost some of their fighting spirit, but that was not the case. Thankfully we came armed with bug jackets. They may not be as effective against mosquitoes, with their long beaks but against blackflies they work great.
With our email contact’s briefing and my Gaia GPS app all loaded up, we set out Friday morning. The trailhead is behind the old Pinware Town Hall by the graveyard. Our instructions, which should have generated some foreboding music, said to forego the actual trail and walk the beach, fording the two brooks that drain there. Sadly, we never consulted the tides (which aren’t that high here – they only vary about 3 feet high to low). The two fords were uncrossable without stepping into unknown depths. We couldn’t see to the bottom of the water so we didn’t risk the crossing. Instead we set out along the path signs we could see until they led us to the yard of a private residence close to the road. We had already decided to get back to the road to roadwalk to the other side of the brooks, then bushwhack down to the trail again. The bush didn’t look *that thick*.
We were wrong. It was that thick. Wet channels disguised by ferns, draws filled with thick green alders, and tight stands of stunted but bushy black spruce. We were at a crawl for about 1000m until after the 3rd or 4th swampy crick crossing, we stumbled across a Footpath sign – we had found the trail!
Once rediscovered, the footpath signs were pretty regular, though there was little sign of the actual trail. In this area it is almost completely overgrown. But once we returned to the oceanside, we could see a clearer trail winding around the next point south of the beach. Finally we felt like we were on our way!
The next section lasted about 4km and was easy to follow, but not exactly well-used. A few brook crossings we had to look around for a good spot to rock-jump but crossings were to be found. Looking back at how wet our bushwhack made us, we probably could have done the fords on the beach and not gotten any wetter, but that’s hindsight for you. We followed this track to the edge of the next village: West St. Modeste. Then it was a 3 km road walk through town until a well-marked pullout with an interpretive sign talking about the town and pointing to the next section of the footpath. Another lovely seaside saunter was our next section, featuring plentiful sea urchin husks and interesting crab shells. At least half of the crab shells we saw were not “ordinary” dungeness-type crabs. they were snow crab shells! That’s how far north this is. The Labrador current runs down the coast here from Greenland bringing all kinds of arctic fauna, before slamming into a current out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then buckling against the warm Gulf Stream up the US coast.
Another 4km or so around this area – watching our footing on the slippery lichen and picking blueberries as we walked. Here was where we first encountered bakeapples – a unique berry growing out of a leaf on the ground resembling a geranium. The berry itself looks like a yellow-pink raspberry and has a flavour I cannot describe except to say I’ve never eaten anything like it. They grow in swampy areas mostly. The usual picking season is late July to early August so I was surprised to find any out here. This section wrapped up with entry back to the highway. We lost the trail just at the end before the highway but it was clear how to get to where we needed to be.
Another 3km road walk through Capstan Island and L’Anse au Diable, and the GPX track told us to follow a dirt road down a wide valley bottom. We looked up to see a huge promontory with cliffs facing us rising on the other side. The only obvious way up was some dirt road cut under a power line. The highway switchbacked several kms to climb the steep rise we would learn is called “The Battery”. The dirt road we were to follow would cut off much of that distance but would feature the most concentrated elevation climb of the day – about 200m over 2km is my guess. Before the climb I paused to sit on a log and wring out my socks and shoes – I didn’t want saturated feet before such a climb.
After the dirt road caught up to the road at the top of the rise, it was another 2km road walk until the next trailhead. Here, the trail is also marked “Battery Trail” and is used a little more heavily for dayhikes out to the cliffs over the ocean. The first few kms wind through the stunted black spruce forest. We encountered a bear track on this path at one point and a few small droppings but they looked a few days old and there was very little bear sign, so we were not worried. After winding around a picturesque lake, we popped out on unsheltered headland, with a white picket fence running along the break. We learned at the fence that it was installed after a woman and her dog approached the cliffs too close and fell to their deaths berry picking. The path then proceeded to what we were told was the height of land in the area over 300m I think. There is a cairn there. We did not proceed all the way over to it because we were approaching our limit for the day and wanted to set up camp. We found a nearby meadow and set up there.
Because of the terrain we knew would be on this hike, we opted to buy Bear Vaults before the trip. We have used Ursacks in the past but knew that there may be camping on this hike far from trees that could resist a determined bear. With the sign we saw towards the end of the day we were glad we made the decision we did.
One challenge tenting on this trail is there is very little soil, and few objects you could tie to that would hold your tent up in a wind. We use a Durstongear XMid 2p, which is trekking pole style, so staking is very important. But the ground on this trail is either rock or moss. Staking in moss was sketchy. Thankfully the rain that came that night was not accompanied by wind so the tent held up well. In hindsight I would almost bring snow/sand stakes and use them in the moss.
The next morning we realized we had not prepared as well physically for this trail as we did last summer for our Rockies adventure. We were still quite sore. And with the rain expected to last all day, we had time to ponder our experience so far and assess what would be next. The first few kms were over nice heather and great views but we knew we would have to descend off this headland to the town of L’Anse Au Loup. And the way down was not fun. First, a drop of about 30m down a fern-covered slope, where we could not see our footing at all. In the rain. Then another drop of 30m down a trail, but mud and rock-strewn with even more treacherous footing. Had we been ascending it, we would have been almost climbing. THEN ANOTHER TWO drops of 30m down even rockier faces, all in the rain. We finally popped out onto a sideroad, where the GPX told us to cross the street and walk by someone’s garden to take an old footpath the original residents used to get from this side of the brook into the town. And this part of the footpath, though clear to us, ran through VERY boggy stretches that are best traversed wither with an ATV or a horse. After a total of about 5km since our camp, we roadwalked up the hill in L’Anse Au Loup to a wonderful bakery we knew of and ate some well deserved soup and cinnamon rolls.
Looking ahead, there was another headland to climb, and then the longest section without road or town on the Footpath, about 18km. It would be relatively easy after the ascent, and go past the stunning L’Anse Amour lighthouse historic site. But it would mean either camping along there in the wet and rain or making an even longer hiking day on our drenched feet. We decided the combination of poor trail conditions, thick swarms of blackflies (except when it was actively raining), and our lack of trail fitness leads us to wind up earlier, with only 25km of the 63km behind us.
When we had passed through West St. Modeste we met a bikepacker from BC who was trying to ride the trail. He said the first stretch from L’Anse Au Clair to Forteau was lovely but it got very poor after that, and described the misery of climbing the ascent above L’Anse Au Loup we did above, only with his bike above his head. When he heard from us the condition of the trail we had done from Pinware to West St. Modeste, he elected to call it himself. But we all agreed, having enjoyed many beautiful mountain trails in western Canada that this trail, if maintained, would be a world class attraction. Unfortunately, with bad maintenance and bugs, it makes the trail hard to complete. More on that in a bit.
So at the bakery, we asked if there were taxis we could take to ride back to our car in Pinware. The locals said no, but three gentlemen in a quad-cab offered us a lift for free. So after returning to our car, we arranged for a room in Red Bay (actually an old seaside house on the Strand, for a VERY affordable price, a few steps from perhaps the best restaurant on the south coast of Labrador AND the historic site of a 500 year old Basque whaling station, complete with tours and wrecks to see) and played tourist for a few days. The lady at the historic site also happened to sit on the Footpath committee, and was able to tell us that yes, she was aware of the condition of much of the trail. The problem is the committee agreed each community would maintain its own section of trail, but many of these villages are really 20 years from becoming ghost towns. The fishing is minuscule compared to its heyday, and in Red Bay for example, the average age is 75. Not much young muscle for trail maintenance. She did inform us that the Red Bay to Pinware section of trail is doable, but you would need a water taxi over the Pinware river (which is not hard to arrange if you ask around) and then the “trail” is really more of a traverse along the heights above the sea. At the north end there is a stair that descends to the village of Red Bay, and you come out right next to a beach covered in whalebones called the “Boney Shore”. That was a sight we never got to but will next time we come!
So, in review, having not completed the whole trail but based on others’ accounts and what we experienced, if you want a challenging trail with no reservations or established campgrounds, with options to stop in quaint historic communities regularly, and are prepared to deal with some bushwhacking or traversing with only a GPX track to guide you, this is the place. We do plan to return and finish the trail, but based on the advice of the committee member we met in Red Bay, we will be doing it in late September, probably next year, after the first killing frost has laid the blackflies low. Without bugs to contend with, the rest of the challenge of this trail is not nearly so insurmountable. Chilly evenings would be easily manageable considering our quilts are rated to -6C or so and we know how to layer from our time in the Rockies. We sincerely hope that the committee maintaining the Footpath finds a way to maybe get a grant or two and hire some summer students to clear the rough sections of the path. An easier hike with blackflies would be more doable, just as a rough hike with no blackflies would be. Take one of the challenges out of the mix, and it gets a lot more appealing. The payoffs on this trail are truly glorious though, so it is absolutely worth investing your time in if you plan well and come at the right time of year.