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Seeing Gros Morne through the eyes of the First Peoples

by Shelley Cameron-McCarron

The small zodiac boat pulls up on the beach of isolated Stores Cove, looking up at the Long Range Mountains (Mekapisk in the Mi’kmaw language.) Its passengers are here to see Gros Morne,  the spectacular World Heritage Site on Newfoundland’s western coast renowned for its rare glimpse of continental drift. They want to discover Mekapisk through the eyes of Gros Morne’s Indigenous people.  

The tour, of the same name, offered through Gros Morne Adventures, (grosmorneadventures.com/indigenous-tours) is a hands-on, small-group journey that connects visitors to nature and the first people who inhabited the land, says company co-owner Kristen Hickey.  

The tour includes learning about life-sustaining plants and animals, cooking bannock over an open fire, and hearing stories about this place in the world. Kristen, who runs the group adventure company for active travellers with her partner Robbie Hickey, says their tours blend Newfoundland’s beauty and culture. For Discover Mekapisk, they drew on their own expertise.  

“I have a lot of background in paddling, specifically with my father, (expert Mi’kmaw guide) Keith Payne, and I loved Indigenous history in general,” Kristen says. “For me, growing up was going out in the woods … We have our own recipe for bannock, and we are Mi’kmaq. We do a lot of paddling and hiking, we don’t do a lot of experiences simply sitting down and talking.” 

Making bannock.

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED

They wanted to create an Indigenous experience that supports their family values and aligns with their eco-tourism business offerings. “We have an incredible guide, my father, who is an expert outdoorsman, teacher and professional guide,” she says. “We also have a wonderful supportive network in our community with Parks Canada, Qalipu First Nation Band, and other organizations that are encouraging experiential tourism and new offerings.” 

Guests join Keith Payne on a zodiac ride from the company’s location on the busy Norris Point waterfront in the middle of Gros Morne National Park, to the secluded cove across Bonne Bay, the deep, double-armed fjord.  

On the beach across the bay, hidden away behind Shag Cliff, guides lead guests through experiences, including making fire with flint and chert (a type of rock), mixing and frying bannock from Keith’s family recipe, and sharing a fire circle.  

Participants look to the land and the sea to understand what attracted the Indigenous peoples here, and how they lived. “We take our time in stimulating all the senses by taking a hike, exploring the geology, using tools, making and tasting food,” Kristen says. 

Stores Cove is located on Gros Morne National Park land. The company has a permit to use it and to have a fire there.  

Kristen says the experience, suitable for all ages, highlights this area of Bonne Bay. On a walk through the landscape, guests learn about the natural resources. 

A highlight is when things get hands-on as participants see if they can light a fire with chert and flint. Kristen says “People get excited,” by this simple but often challenging experience.  

The bannock they make is enjoyed with several longtime favourite Newfoundland staples, including bakeapple and partridgeberry (AKA cloudberry and lingonberry) jam-jams, and molasses. They don’t use any plastic during the experience, using instead pine bowls and a cutting board that a local Mi’kmaw woodworker made. 

Keith, an outdoorsman who grew up in nearby Rocky Harbour, shares personal stories, and talks about the history of the area and about famous Mi’kmaw guide Mattie Mitchell. He also showcases several items ranging from caribou fur and arrowheads made of chert to Kristen’s grandfather’s eel skin boots.   

They offer the three-hour tour once a week in season (June through August), with a group of about four to eight people aboard. Reaction, Kristen says, has been lovely. “People really enjoy it.” Soon, they’re hoping to add a recently-purchased 10-person canoe to the experience. 

Kristen observes that offering tours and experiences like this, which draw on the history and heritage of the First Nations, is especially important because so many people in the area are just now discovering what they lost when they grew up without recognition and connection to being Mi’kmaq. “Now, it’s something people want to learn.”   

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