Excerpt from Return to Wild America by Scott Weidensaul, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Return to Wild America

A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul

by Scott Weidensaul

Return to Wild America
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2005, 416 pages
    Nov 2006, 416 pages

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"The most spectacular New World [gannet] colony, the one at Bonaventure Island off the Gaspé, is visited by scores of bird students every year," Peterson noted. "It has become a profitable thing for the innkeeper to cater to—and even advertise to—an unending succession of summer gannet watchers…On the other hand, the colony at Cape St. Mary['s] sometimes goes for several years unvisited by any of the field-glass fraternity." It was easy to see why. The exhausting hike, first along a muddy, rutted cart track, and then overland around treacherous bogs, took them until early afternoon, and they didn't make it back to St. Bride's until well after midnight, Peterson limping from a badly strained leg muscle.

It's a safe bet that Peterson and Fisher would find Cape St. Mary's today a strange, perhaps disquieting blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar. I flew into St. John's with my fiancée, Amy Bourque, who was taking some time off from the Audubon sanctuary she ran in Maryland to get me started on my way and would join me at a couple of other points in the year ahead. Our drive from St. John's to St. Bride's took a couple of easy hours in a rental car, with just one stretch of gravel track that skirted bogs bounded by stands of pink rhodora azaleas. It was a cold day in the middle of June; the sedges and irises made an emerald splash along the coffee-colored rivers, where a few blackish spruce grew, but higher up, the still-brown tundra rolled inland beyond the limit of vision, empty of any sign of humanity.

The reason for this little slice of the Arctic, at the same latitude as Montreal and Seattle, is the ocean. Pack ice surrounds much of the Avalon Peninsula until April or May, and throughout the summer icebergs that originated in Greenland are a common sight, floating south on the Labrador Current. Especially along the immediate coastline, summer fogs are an almost daily event, bathing the land in damp cold that counteracts the wan heat of the sun. This creates an ecosystem known as hyper-oceanic barrens—a nearly horizontal plant community dominated by ground-hugging Arctic species like crowberry, several species of cranberries, hardy grasses, and pale reindeer lichen in spongy green-white mats, into which a hiker sinks ankle-deep. Dwarf Arctic willows, with trunks barely as thick as a finger, spread over rocks like a green cascade, raising maroon flowers five or six inches above the ground, their diminutive stature masking the fact that these trees are often three or four hundred years old, as deserving of awe as any craggy old-growth pine.

From the air, the center of the Avalon Peninsula, and its southern capes in particular, appear pale brown, edged with black; the brown is the tundra barrens, while the darker rim is the spruce woods, which cling to the lower elevations and deeper river valleys. We spent part of one day hiking along some of the rivers that cut across the barrens, providing a convenient pathway in the otherwise featureless landscape. The only green was down along the water, where thick grass and irises were sprouting, but when we looked closely, the tundra was coming into great flower as well.

To my eye it all looks like classic Arctic tundra, but there are enough floral differences that a botanist would immediately peg this as Newfoundland barrens: a spongy, wet mat of sphagnum moss and crowberry studded with pitcher plant, the diminutive white flowers of goldthread, and the pink of pale laurel, barely an inch high. Cloudberry, Newfoundland's famous "bake-apple," was just opening its single white flowers that would, by August, produce the delicious clear orange raspberries that are a provincial obsession. Much of the ground was covered in creeping juniper or, where there was a bit more shelter, patches of spruce tuckamore that were barely waist-high but might be four or five hundred years old.

Excerpt from Return to Wild America by Scott Weidensaul. Copyright 2001-2003 by Scott Weidensaul. Published by North Point Press in 2005. All rights reserved. Visitors to this web site are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

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