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In search of the elusive puffin in Newfoundland.

And then, there they were...puffins, and more puffins.

And then, there they were...puffins, and more puffins.

It was my fifth trip to Newfoundland and I’d still never seen a real one.

Their images graced hats, coasters, posters, photos, paintings and postcards.  I’d seen carvings and statues, earrings and necklaces, belt buckles and tea towels.  On the rock, puffins – small black and white seabirds with large, red, back and yellow beaks – were a hot tourist feature. I’d just never managed to lay eyes on a real one, in the flesh and feathers.

This visit, I determined, would be it.  My husband and I wouldn’t go home until we’d found and photographed Newfoundland’s most famous feathered friend.

We started in St. John’s, at the Admiral’s Adventure B&B in the old battery neighbourhood, where houses cling precariously to the cliffs overlooking the sea.  Birds of all sorts wheel over the waves.  Surely, we thought, one of them must be a puffin.

“Nope,” said Bruce Peters, owner of the B&B.  “I’ve seen lots of puffins in my day, of course…just not here.”

Bruce was only the first of the many people we asked who assured us that they’d seen hundreds, all over Newfoundland, but coincidentally, never where we happened to be at the time.  We began to suspect a puffin concealing conspiracy.

The smiling gentlemen outside the drugstore in Carbonear were encouraging.

“Puffins?  See ‘em all the time.  Just not today.  And not here.  You’d have to go over the bay,” one assured me, while the other insisted that puffins aplenty could be found south of St. John’s – back where we’d come from.

“Oh sure,” said the man cooking fish cakes at the Mad Rock Café in the small village of Bay Roberts, “I see puffins all the time.  When I was a boy, my mother used to cook a pot of them for Christmas dinner.”

Had we uncovered the terrible truth of the puffin paucity?  Had they all been eaten?

“You crazy t’ing!” snorted his wife.  “She never cooked puffins.  Those were terns.”  She smiled, as if to clear up any confusion. “We called ‘em mers, but they were terns.”

Ah, perfectly clear.

But had she seen any puffins?

“Never.  But my father told me he did.”

A startling pattern began to emerge.  Men always told us they saw puffins on a regular basis, while women swore up and down that they’d never laid eyes on one.

“Puffins?” laughed the woman in the gift shop as she straightened the display of puffin spoons, hand towels and soap. “Where would I see one of those?”

Only in a tiny museum, in a remote fishing village on the Avalon peninsula, did we find a woman who promised a sighting.

“I’ll show you a puffin.”

Up we climbed to a second floor gallery of treasures, where, tucked between rusty anchors, fish hooks, nets and old marine maps, was one, dusty, slightly moth-eaten, stuffed puffin.

Not quite what we’d had in mind.

The town of Elliston, on the shores of the Bona Vista peninsula, was our last stop. Home to a puffin island sanctuary, it was our last hope.

“Puffins?” said the visitors centre lady, shattering the pattern, “Oh my loves, yes!  We’ve had ‘em there all morning.”

We raced to the shore, and ran along the slippery pathway overlooking the island.

And suddenly, there they were.  Black and white and stunningly gorgeous, their huge, colorful beaks gleaming in the spray.  As hundreds of them sailed by us, we reveled in their existence!

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and there are puffins too – you just have to know where to find them.

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:54 am.


Banff’s Johnston Canyon shows trekkers the glory of ice.

Daggers of ice fill the Johnston ice canyon in Banff National Park.

Daggers of ice fill the Johnston ice canyon in Banff National Park.

Awesome Ice  

“Bring me your feet,” says Tim Robinson, my guide from Discover Banff Tours, digging through his ice cleat collection. “You’re gonna need these.”

The evil-looking metal cleats are simple to attach to my boots but vital for safety. Not only will they make walking easier, but they’ll prevent slipping as we hike the 4.5 kms of hard-packed, occasionally icy trails winding through the wintry glory of Johnston Canyon.

One of the most breathtaking parts of Banff National Park, the canyon offers visitors stunning ice sculptures formed by water seeping from giant limestone walls, as well as a living lesson in the power of glacial land formation and erosion.

The canyon fascinates Robinson, a self-professed ‘rock geek’ who’s spent years exploring its many faces, and he’s eager to share his knowledge. Using a ski pole and an endless flow of informative Bill-Nye-the-Science-Guy patter, he points out ancient rock formations to illustrate his points and show us how the passage of millions of years is recorded in the stones around us.

“Not convinced?” he asks a shy Japanese tourist shivering in a stylish-but-skimpy ski jacket and seeming a little overwhelmed by the avalanche of information. “Come over here then,” says Robinson, choosing a new rock formation for his next lesson, “and let’s evolve a few million years.”

Explore millions of years of geology in Banff's Johnston ice canyon.

Explore millions of years of geology in Banff's Johnston ice canyon.

As we hike 122 meters up the canyon to a spectacular lookout, we discover that Robinson has a sense of humor.

“Come over here and tell me…what kind of rock do you think this is?” he asks, deadpan, pointing to some curious-looking terrain above the mouth of a small cave. I peer intently, trying hard to remember a long-ago high school geology class.

“I’m pretty sure, ” I venture after some careful consideration, “that’s limestone. Yup,” I continue with growing confidence. “That’s limestone. Just look at the pink and gray streaking…”

“Good try.”  Robinson laughs, “Actually, it’s spray-on concrete. The park folks put it there to prevent erosion.”

Funny guy.

Psychology plays a big role in Robinson’s guiding. Canyon visitors are sometimes surprised and even frightened by steep spots on the trail and it’s the guide’s job to coax and encourage, diverting their attention from the scary bits while leading them to more comfortable ground. In reality, the likelihood of falling, even on the most dramatic verticals, is slim. Parks Canada has installed rugged steel railings to prevent tumbles into the canyon, and to keep tourists in their place.

“The walkways and railings are more for the protection of the environment than the tourist,” explains Robinson. “By keeping people on the paths, we discourage them from hiking off into the bush and disturbing the flora and fauna. The terrain looks rugged, but the plant and animal life is fragile.”

Occasionally, the ascent proves too challenging and Robinson shifts into coach mode to encourage participants to finish. ?“I can’t do this,” puffs one hiker. “You guys go on to the top and I’ll wait here.”

“It isn’t a race,” says Robinson, encouragingly, “so we can take our time. We’ll just go at your pace and then we’ll all get there together. C’mon…you can do it. Photo ops, hot chocolate and cookies at the top!”

Who could resist?  The reluctant hiker is encouraged and together we make our way, albeit a bit slowly, to the top. Every huff and puff of the three-hour hike is rewarded by the goodies and the breathtaking view from the peak of the frozen upper falls. Gigantic daggers of ice stab the walls of the canyon, shimmering blue and white sculptures that only nature could fashion. Not only a spectacular reminder of man’s relative insignificance, Johnston Canyon also offers a rare opportunity to witness the awesome powers of water and ice. 

For more information, contact  ? ? ? 

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:45 am.

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