Across Newfoundland in 68 Days
Story and Photos Contributed by Justin Barbour
On April 19th, 2017 I embarked on the most ambitious and challenging adventure I had ever attempted in my life. With my dog and best friend Saku by my side, the plan was to leave St.George’s Bay on the west coast of Newfoundland, Canada, and travel by snowshoe, paddle, foot and fingernail across the rugged North Atlantic province to its capital city in St.John’s, some 700 kilometers away. Locally known as “The Rock”, because of its hard and inhospitable land conditions, people found a way to make a living on this island centuries ago. Now, my CapeShore Waterdog and I had to find our way through its most remote wilderness areas. Chances were that some of these places had never seen a foot before. In the pursuit, I committed to taking the least amount of man-made pathways possible and instead stuck to making my own trail as well as paddling waterways whenever I could in my Alpacka Raft.
Facing and Handling Challenges
One of the challenges, yet greatest experiences, during the trip was moving through a change of seasons. We faced old man winter, the spring thaw and the onset of summer. We lived outdoors as days gradually got longer and a new year’s life sprung to the table. Although we began with early spring conditions at sea level, by the time we hiked 15 kilometers in over the hills we had reached the Long Range Mountains. This northernmost portion of the Appalachian chain has summits reaching 2100 feet, and winter still had a firm grip on the land.
Here we were faced with temperatures dipping as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) and blistering winds. At times, wide-open and barren land with no tree in sight presented itself, making route selection tricky. Keeping Saku warm, good personal sweat management and diligent navigation helped us persevere through here. Previous experiences in Labrador, with days spent trekking and nights attempting cold tenting in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius proved to be essential in making me feel confident and able to endure it on this particular tour.
During the spring melt I was forced to pull my 100-pound sled over land that was quickly loosing its icy stiffness. There were situations where I would try to go from snow patch to snow patch in an attempt to avoid pulling over bare land. One particular stretch had me going nearly a kilometer on nothing but waterlogged muskeg, which sucked my feet down like quicksand. Eventually the time came when it was impossible to pull by snowshoe and sled, or even walk by foot because of the poor conditions in the country as it thawed. Paddling was also out of the question with an abundance of ice still on the lakes. Here, I needed to resort to finding and traveling a woods road for 50 kilometers until the ice finally broke. In these situations, I used hard work, patience and good safety judgment to get us through in one piece. There is no rush when you live life in the bush. You have to be precise as possible in every situation, respect nature and take your time. It is the only way to survive safely.
Another big challenge was the distance. Everyday when I woke up, there would always be a big number looming over my head. How far were we from the finish? 600, 500, 400, kilometers…you get the drift. This seemed very daunting and intimidating at times but by breaking that down into smaller goals (weekly, daily, hourly) I could relax and focus on enjoying my trip and knowing I would get to the end when I got there. All the while Saku would crash at camp immediately every evening and by the morning he would usually be bouncing off the tent walls to get going again. His energy was contagious!
Saku and his Ruffwear Pack
At 8 1/2 months old when we left for the trip, Saku was was just a pup. This being said, I was confident he was up to the task. I had slowly eased him into many situations early in his young life and let him explore the natural world as often as possible. What made the experience even more successful for Saku was his Ruffwear Palisades Pack. It allowed him to carry multiple days worth of food, his collapsible bowl and GoPro attachment very comfortably. However, I did not immediately throw him into this type of weight. Months before I started him with 1 day of food and worked him up like weight training. During the expedition there was no sign of chaffing or discomfort either. The padded straps on his belly and chest made the difference here, as well as purchasing a correctly fitting pack. I did this by measuring Saku across his chest before ordering. Your dog will not respond well to a pack that is too big or small.
A Bond to Last a Lifetime
In the end, with great excitement, we completed the trip on June 25th, in 68 days. The expedition was a long but rewarding test of physical, mental and emotional endurance, for both of us. Along the way I created a bond with my dog that will never be broken. I believe this is one of the strongest bonds there are in life. During the hardest times he was there to help pull me through and make me smile. I did the same for him. We were always in it together. Now, with the trip all but a vivid memory, Saku has become the first domesticated dog to ever cross the island of Newfoundland in this style. All before turning one. For me, I have become the first recorded human to have traveled the entire west to east distance via this wilderness route. I am now in the works of writing a book and also making a video documentary on our experience. It was filmed from start to finish.