I once read a saying that the difference between North America and Europe can be summed up in the statement that in North America, one hundred years is considered to be a long time, whereas in Europe, one hundred miles is considered to be a long distance. Our historical record in Newfoundland only goes back about five hundred years (give or take). The prehistorical record of peoples here trolls back another 8500 years to around 9000 BCE. Once you get into the palaeontological realm, though, things get much more dramatic.
Over the May 24th weekend, we drove approximately one hundred miles to visit a site that is 575 to 560 million years old.
We were pretty excited about this. After all, how often do you really get to walk over creatures that predate the existence of vertebrates? We were accompanied by the Edinger Family, one of whom is a geographer and biologist specializing in coral reefs (Dr. Evan Edinger). So four excited adults and four enthusiastic children drove to Chance Cove Provincial Park, camped there, had a whale of a time and then the next day, made our way out to the trailhead for the Mistaken Point tour.
You must go out to the fossil beds with an official guide and to go out with a guide, you need to make a reservation. The tours leave the trailhead at 1:30 or the interpretation centre at 1:00 (check their website yourself in case this has changed since my writing).
Side note: If you can at all do it, I highly recommend taking an expert with you on whatever you’re touring. Yes, the guides know what they’re talking about and are very helpful. However, you get an extra level of information and awe when you bask in the passion and intellectual aura of someone who has spent years studying and contextualizing a field, particularly if they are adept at communicating their delight and knowledge. Doesn’t matter what the thing you’re visiting is; knowledge increases enjoyment and fascination is contagious.
The walk took about 45 minutes. I think it would have been faster without little legs, but the little legs really enjoyed the fossils in the end! We were one of the first tours of the season and it was a chilly day, so I think the group pace might be more relaxed on a warmer trip. In any event, you follow (with a guide) the old community road to the point. It’s a fairly flat walk and quite pleasant. The guides offer information about the terrain and history of the area as you go, too.
The fossils were discovered on a routine survey excursion in 1967 by S.B. Misra. You can read more about the site, is significance and the discovery here. It was a grey old day on our visit, so I’ve boosted the contrast a little for the fossil shots, to make them easier to see.
The kids enjoyed it thoroughly.
What Kieran saw:
The rocks there, quite apart from the fossils, are astounding; layer upon layer of what feels like the earth’s ancient skin.
Spindles were, by far, the most prolific. They ranged in length from a few inches to almost a foot.
There were other fossil forms, too, of course, like fans:
And this other, vaguely globby impression:
There was also a recently revealed specimen that appears to have shown up after the winter. It looks like some rocks and mud recently moved and allowed it to see the light of day. I’m wondering if it’s a Charnia species, oriented differently in its preservation, as shown on this website.
I don’t think it’s possible to convey the immensity of this site, in terms of the physical expansiveness of the area, the massive slabs of rock heaved up from the bottom of an ancient ocean or the realization that we are very, very young and the current end of a chain of millions of years of growth and decay.
It is one of the more fascinating, humbling and awe-inspiring things I’ve ever seen in Newfoundland and I cann0t wait to go back for another visit.
Things to note if you are going there:
- You must have a reservation and you MUST go with a guide.
- The tours are absolutely free.
- The guides know their stuff and are worth listening to.
- You can’t bring your dog on the walk to the fossil bed. Keep this in mind if it’s a hot day, since you may not want to leave them in the car, either.
- The total time for the trip, including walking from the trailhead is about three hours. Add an hour if you’re leaving from the interpretation centre. Bring a drink if and a snack, if you feel the need.
- The road to the trailhead is gravel. Our Toyota Echo handled it fine, but there are a couple of dandy hills that will test your mettle. Best to take the ascent at a bit of a run.
- You can’t take anything home with you from the fossil site besides memories and photos.
- Visit the giftshop in Portugal Cove South, at the Interpretation Centre, if you need souvenirs. They take plastic.
- The closest stores, gas and bank machine are in Trepassey.
- There is a river crossing on the walk out, so wear hiking sandals, hiking boots, rubber boots, or prepare to get your feet wet.