Francois, Newfoundland—”The Epic”

My quads have finally stopped screaming every time I go downhill, but it took three days for them to recover from ‘The Epic’. That’s what John and I are calling the nostalgic hike we took to the lighthouse that guards the west entrance to the narrow fjord that cradles Francois.

It was nostalgic since we first hiked to the lighthouse, then manned, 13 years ago on our first visit to Francois together. It was epic since the path is so overgrown—now that the lighthouse is no longer manned, no one walks it anymore—that we scrambled up and down at least twice as much precipitous, boulder-strewn, tuckamore-covered terrain as we needed to on the way out (we did better on the way back but by then the damage had been done!). Not to mention that we are 13 years older.

But the hike was worth it for the incredible view of sparkling white-capped ocean, smudged on the horizon by the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon; and, stretching in layer upon layer to the alternate horizon, bald-peaked, spruce-flanked mountains.

Our trail crossed over bare rock swathes marked only by tiny cairns, difficult to make out against the same-coloured background. John, a lifelong resident of Francois whom we met on the dock as we limped back to the boat after the hike, said one of the keepers, who did the walk regularly, couldn’t find his way from one small pile of rocks to the next in thick fog one day, and so spent a cold night up there. We were aware of this danger and had been very careful in choosing our day for the walk—sunny and warm, with low humidity.

John was only one of a number of people we chatted to in Francois as we strolled along the paths that meander between the houses in this nonroad-served community. But it feels different here than it did during our previous stays. On Morgan’s Cloud’s first visit, 20 years ago, John tied up to the ferry wharf and everyone in town came down to see him. Thirteen years ago we tied up to a private wharf and half the community came down to check out the visiting sailboat. This trip we tied up to one of the two new (to us) floating docks and no one came to check us out—ramifications, both good and bad, of the increased number of yachts visiting this part of the world.

But that’s not to say that people are unfriendly; most everyone greeted us warmly and a few were happy to stop for a chat. Bernice told us that the population in Francois is now down to about 110, with 14 in the school. She is concerned about the future of the village.

John said his son works on oil rig supply vessels for the summers but then comes back to Francois for the winters when he’s laid off. “He wouldn’t miss the winter here for anything,” John confirmed. Bonnie told us that all four of her kids live in Francois, though at least one of them works away on boats for part of the time. Maybe Francois and her sister outport communities will be able to stay alive as off-shift homes for merchant mariners—a career outport Newfoundlanders are well prepared for.

Bonnie also told us about the hotwater spring that bubbles out just below the Friar, the massive stone monolith that looms above the village. In a cold winter, she said, the trees around the spring are wreathed in vapour and sparkle with frozen condensation. Bonnie’s friend pointed out a cleft in the same cliff but further to the left of the Friar, that she says cuts far back into the rock. When she was young, boys used to walk in there wearing black rubber boots so mica flakes would stick to their boots, making them glimmer. “It seemed so rich to us then”, she said.

So there are more hikes for us to do in Francois, hopefully slightly less epic than the lighthouse trail: a loop up the steep cliffs to the Friar and then back down to the fjord on the other side of the village; a short clamber up to the cleft in the rock to collect mica flakes on our boots so we can be ‘rich’ too; and the walk around the lake and up to the lookout that soars above the town, with views out to sea and back into the bowl at the end of the fjord that wraps around Francois—a walk we did several times during our stay in this picture postcard village that I could see myself returning to again and again.

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Phyllis has sailed over 40,000 offshore miles with John on their McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, most of it in the high latitudes, and has crossed the Atlantic three times. As a woman who came to sailing as an adult, she brings a fresh perspective to cruising, which has helped her communicate what they do in an approachable way, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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