Extreme Frontiers: Racing Across Canada from Newfoundland to the Rockies

BOOK: Extreme Frontiers: Racing Across Canada from Newfoundland to the Rockies
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Also by Charley Boorman

Long Way Round
with Ewan McGregor

Long Way Down
with Ewan McGregor

Race to Dakar

By Any Means

Right to the Edge: Sydney to Tokyo By Any Means

COPYRIGHT

Published by Hachette Digital

ISBN: 9780748132775

Copyright © 2012 Biting Insects

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.

Hachette Digital

Little, Brown Book Group

100 Victoria Embankment

London, EC4Y 0DY

www.hachette.co.uk

To my ever-patient wife, Olivia, and my two
gorgeous daughters, Doone and Kinvara.

Also to my gorgeous mummy, Crystal, and
my lovely sisters Katrina and Daisy.

1
On the Hunt for Icebergs

C
ape Spear, Newfoundland. The easternmost point of the vast land mass that is North America. It was a dank and foggy summer’s
day and beneath me the waves of the Atlantic crashed against the rocks; ahead of me lay a country that spreads all the way
to the Pacific. Canada.

This coastline is beautiful but dangerous: savage cliffs and submerged reefs where death comes swift and terrible. Many a
ship has foundered on the beachhead that jutted out just below me, and there’s been a lighthouse at Cape Spear since 1836
to guide them to safety. There are now two on the headland – a classic white tower with a light at the top and the more modern
one, a squat building with two holes in the walls, a light beaming horizontally from one and the horn sounding from the other.

Climbing some wooden steps from my lonely vantage point, I came to a World War II gun battery built to defend the entrance
to St John’s Harbour. Only the barrel of one of the guns is there now, but it’s a bloody great thing – we’re talking thirty
feet of
iron that’s almost pink with age and corrosion. As I walked the length of it, I could only imagine the noise it would have
made when it was fired.

Behind the battery, tunnels extend into the rock where bunkers were dug for the troops that manned this place during the war.
U-boats patrolled these waters regularly, according to John, the local guide showing me around. Their mission was to destroy
the supply convoys heading across the Atlantic. They were hardly ever seen and the guns were rarely if ever fired, but there
was one famous occasion when a U-boat skipper ran his vessel across a submerged rock the locals call ‘Old Harry’. The rudder
was badly damaged and the skipper was ready to abandon ship, but his engineer figured he could fix it, so they took a chance
and surfaced while he carried out the repairs.

Amazingly, this enemy submarine that should’ve been a sitting duck for the gunners manning the battery managed to escape completely
unscathed: the engineer mended the rudder and the sub steamed away. When the locals finally discovered that a U-boat had been
above the surface close to the shore, nobody could understand why it hadn’t been fired on. I imagine the Germans were pretty
puzzled too – the skipper must have thanked his lucky stars that after three hours in full view he was able to sail away without
so much as a shot across the bows. The official word was that the gunners hadn’t spotted it because it was December and there
were snow squalls swirling (it’s true a U-boat had a particularly low profile), but John’s theory is that nobody really believed
they’d
ever
see a U-boat – so when one did finally surface, they weren’t paying attention.

New-found-land
. Just the name is incredibly evocative, hinting at courageous explorers and perilous ocean voyages. It was way back in the
eleventh century that a Viking known as
Leif Erikson became the first European to set eyes on this treacherous coastline (the only confirmed Norse settlement in North
America); he was followed over the years by explorers from England, France and Portugal. It is a place with a rich history,
as I was already beginning to discover just moments into my expedition. What a start to this new journey, I thought: ahead
of me lay seven weeks, criss-crossing this enormous and unfamiliar place with who knows what in store.

For a while now I’ve been reading articles in newspapers or listening to people on the TV referring to me as an ‘actor and
travel writer’, but it’s only recently that I’ve really begun to think about what that means. The fact is I’ve not done a
great deal of acting lately, so I suppose that makes me primarily a travel writer. But the thing is, although I know my books
are about journeys and adventures, in all honesty I’m not sure I’ve really got to know the places I’ve visited as much as
I would’ve liked.

This was on my mind when I met up with my old friend Russ Malkin back in the spring of last year. He was aware of what was
bugging me and he had this idea about pushing the boundaries of various countries in a way we never had before. He wanted
to start with Canada, the second biggest country in the world and one I’d travelled to in
Long Way Round
and had always wanted to explore in more depth one day. This trip would be different: yes, it was an expedition – we’d be
crossing a continent and it would be on bikes and boats and buses – but this was one, single vast country and we’d have enough
time to get to know not only the place but the people properly as well.

Looking back on the trips I’d done with Ewan McGregor, we travelled huge distances and learned so much about the
countries we passed through but because we were always racing against the clock, we sometimes missed opportunities to really
get to know particular places and people. So while Ewan and I both have incredible memories of those trips, there’s still
so much of the world out there for me to discover. We’d pushed the boundaries for sure – we’d found ourselves crossing some
pretty extreme frontiers – but this time the plan was to really get under the skin of the place.

So now it was 9 June, and Russ and I were starting our adventure at Canada’s most easterly point, with Nat Jessel and Mungo
shooting film. Newfoundland is an island of course, a land mass of 108,000 square kilometres that’s separated from the Labrador
Peninsula by the Strait of Belle Isle. If you grab a map and take a quick scout, you’ll see that it looks a bit like the head
of a deer. See what I mean? The nose points to the south-west, with the antlers rising to where the town of St Anthony, our
next stop, sits way up on the northern peninsula.

We were all incredibly excited. Hunched up in cattle class on the plane over, all we could talk about was icebergs, the Arctic
and the Great Lakes. This was another beginning, a new expedition – we’d go as far north as the Arctic Ocean, and we’d bump
along the border with the United States to the south.

My first sight of St Anthony was the bay. It was a grizzled old bear of a summer’s day, with the rock as grey and chipped
as the sea beyond it. It was a funny feeling being there with the foghorn sounding its warning to ships out in the Atlantic –
like a siren it seemed to mark the dawn of our journey. We stopped at an old clapboard fisherman’s hut and inside we found
Dean and Dave, a couple of guys we’d heard about who had been fishing the waters around this island for twenty-six seasons.
They caught crab and mackerel, herring and squid, as well as
seals when they could get them. This was rugged country, and Dean said that whatever there was to be had here, the people
of Newfoundland made sure they got it.

‘Charley,’ he said, ‘in this part of the world you have to do whatever you can in order to survive.’

‘It’s tough up here then, is it?’

At that he broke into a smile and spoke in that strangely lilting accent that seems somewhere between American and Irish.

‘Tough?’ he said. ‘I reckon. You’ve got to be just to stay up here, you know.’

I’ve eaten crab, herring and mackerel – and calamari, of course – but I’d never tasted seal. Dean explained that there’s a
market for both seal meat and the pelt, but right now it wasn’t quite what it had been as in recent years demand had fallen.
Historically the area had been rich in cod, and in the old days Dean and Dave would catch as much as five hundred pounds each
summer. But in 1992 the authorities allowed trawlers from the Grand Banks to come in, and they cleaned up all the spawning
fish. As a consequence, local fishing operations like Dean and Dave’s had to look to other markets.

I asked Dave how they survived in the winter; just from the landscape alone, it seemed that making a living in Newfoundland
was indeed as tough as they were saying. Dave was phlegmatic. ‘In the winter we go duck hunting,’ he said, ‘and every year
we take a moose or two; pretty much every family up here needs moose if they want to make it through the winter.’

The hunting was licensed, of course, and Dean reckoned that one moose would be enough to feed his family and Dave’s for most
of the year.

‘You’ve got to take care of the land, though,’ he reminded me. ‘You can’t just go up there and shoot what you want. We try
to take a young bull; the meat’s good and lean because they’re selective in their browsing. You need to leave the cows and
calves be.’

Dave said that a lot of people who hunted moose shot them when they were grazing close to the highway. To him that wasn’t
hunting; he and Dean had a cabin in the woods and they’d trail their quarry on foot, follow a spoor and hunt the animal properly.
It gave the moose a chance rather than just pulling up by the side of the road and blasting it. They lived off the land, picking
berries, hunting meat, shooting ducks. In the summer they fished and cut the wood they’d need to heat their homes during the
winter. They seemed very contented – the only thing that bothered the pair of them was that despite the fact that both of them
had daughters, and Dave had grandchildren, neither of them had a son to pass their traditions on to.

‘In the next eight or ten years our generation of fishing will be over,’ Dean said a little wistfully. ‘I mean, Dave’s ready
for retirement, and …’

At that Dave’s eyebrows arched. ‘I’m not dead yet,’ he muttered. ‘Old maybe, but not dead. Who said anything about retirement?’

While they bickered, I was staring out of the window; the mist had cleared and across the bay an iceberg climbed above the
surface. It was the most beautiful thing. Suddenly I was tingling – ever since we’d first decided to come here, the one thing
we’d talked about seeing was an iceberg. It occurred to me then that being men of the sea, Dean and Dave must have a boat.
Maybe they’d take us over there to get a closer look.
Before today I’d never even seen an iceberg, and now that I had finally clapped eyes on one, I really wanted to get up close
and personal.

I decided to wait a bit, though, and get to know these boys a little better before I popped that question. In the meantime,
we took a mooch around their hut. There were tools on the walls, pictures of their boat, others of Dean and Dave hunting.
On the lip of one shelf hung four number plates; one battered old white one caught my eye: ‘Newfoundland and Labrador’. The
easternmost of Canada’s ten provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador – renamed in 2001 to recognise Labrador, a section of the
mainland to the north-west that completes the province – borders Quebec, where French is the official language. I couldn’t
wait to see if Quebec felt like a different country altogether. Just the names of the various regions filled me with excitement:
Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Ontario. Over the next few weeks we’d cross Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where
Butch Cassidy used to hide out and Sitting Bull sought refuge after the Little Big Horn. We’d also see the Northwest Territories,
Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon.

Returning my attention to the conversation, I noticed that Dean was talking to Russ about the plots of land – the gardens or
allotments – we’d seen dotted around all the way up here. He said they were individually owned; as well as catching fish and
hunting, the islanders grew all their own vegetables.

‘Nobody touches your garden,’ he said. ‘Nobody touches anything. I never lock my house and I can leave my keys in my truck
without even thinking somebody might steal it.’

But about that iceberg … ‘Dean,’ I said, unable to hold back any longer, ‘this might sound a little weird, but we’re on the
hunt for icebergs.’

‘Not moose or duck, then?’ Dave chipped in.

‘No, icebergs. You see, we don’t really get many of them where we live, and I’ve noticed one out there.’ I pointed through
the window. ‘The last iceberg I saw was the one Kate Winslet smashed into. Since you guys have a boat, I was wondering …’

I was giving him my best doe eyes, but I wasn’t sure it was working. ‘Do you think you could take us out there, maybe?’ I
finished, hopefully.

‘Oh sure,’ he said. ‘I don’t see why not. Weather’s good and we hunt icebergs all the time up here, don’t we, Dave?’

I stared at him in surprise. Was he pulling my leg?

‘I’m serious,’ he said. ‘We go out and find a piece that’s broken off, bring it home and stick it in the freezer. Whenever
we want ice for a drink, we just chip off a flake or two.’

Apparently he was serious. He told me that when you put the iceberg chip in the glass, the ice cracks and crackles a bit,
but it doesn’t taste of salt and it’s great in a cocktail.

The three of us jumped into Dave’s pickup and headed off through the outskirts of town. It was raining now; the landscape
was gloomy but incredibly atmospheric.

We drove down past the St Anthony seafood plant to where their boat
Patey’s Venture
was moored alongside the wooden dock. The boat was really pretty: white and green with a dinghy tied above the wheelhouse.
It really was a wild old day, with rain slanting in, the clouds low and the dock slick as an ice rink. Moments later we cast
off and were heading across the bay towards the iceberg.

This was a great start. I mean, things could hardly have been better! We had barely arrived in Canada and already we’d run
into these two fellers who were happy to take us out in their fishing boat. In the wheelhouse, Dean told me that it was a
six-hour steam out to their crab gear, and they’d leave the dock at midnight so that they would have as much daylight as possible
to haul the pots. But it was dangerous. The bay was littered with sections of broken-off iceberg that floated just below the
radar, and in the darkness you might not pick them up. Clattering into a chunk in the dark was not to be recommended – ice
like that would sink a boat this size, and it would do it quickly. In water that cold without a survival suit you’d never
last long enough to be rescued, and you would barely have time to get the suit on.

‘Man, I hope you’ve got good insurance,’ I remarked.

‘Oh, we’re covered pretty good, yeah. The women, they don’t have to worry.’ Then he pointed through the windscreen. ‘There
it is, right there.’

BOOK: Extreme Frontiers: Racing Across Canada from Newfoundland to the Rockies
3.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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