The Cabox (2671ft) – Highest Mountain in Newfoundland
Eric, Matthew, and Jacob Gilbertson
Aug 11-12, 2012
“Are you sure we haven’t missed the top?” Jacob asked, shifting his mountaineer fishing rod from one should to the other. We were hiking through a sea of short grass and blueberry bushes above treeline in Western Newfoundland, hopefully close to the summit of the Cabox, the highest mountain on the island. Earlier that morning clouds had descended upon us and now we could only see about 15 feet in any direction. The terrain was featureless except for the occasional boulder poking out of the grass, and no direction was obviously leading up. We had earlier decided to abandon the mercurial trail we had been trying to follow, since it seemed to disappear all too often and didn’t appear to be leading us to the summit anyways.
“I’m positive,” Matthew replied, whipping out the GPS. We had come prepared for such a situation, having marked the summit and what we thought was a good route as waypoints on our GPS. We just had to hope the GPS didn’t fail or else we’d really be lost.
We were taking a week off of school to drive the newly-completed Trans-Labrador highway loop, a route that had so far taken us from Boston through Northern Quebec, across Labrador, and across the Strait of Belle Isle to Newfoundland Island.
On Saturday morning we had driven from L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland eight hours south to Stephenville, the closest town to the Cabox. After Stephenville the road started getting interesting. We turned north on Igloo road, which soon deteriorated into dirt and gravel. We drove by a group of people on four wheelers who all turned their heads in unison as we passed, staring at the car with Massachusetts plates. I suspect they don’t see much non-four-wheeler traffic on that rough road, and certainly never a car from as far away as Massachusetts.
Matthew navigated the potholes and rocks expertly, as we followed our GPS waypoints through numerous unmarked intersections. It’s amazing what a little bit of advance planning with google satellite images can do for navigation on backroads like this.
After an hour on this road with only one wrong turn we finally reached a point where our car could go no farther. The road deteriorated into a pure four-wheeler trail, and we pulled the car into reverse until we found a good pulloff to park. It was 6pm.
We quickly threw some gear in our backpacks and continued up the road on foot. The Cabox was, according to our Google Earth estimates, a 13-mile round trip, so there wasn’t enough time to get it in before dark. But, we still wanted to get to a cool place to camp with hopefully enough time to get some fishing in too.
The four-wheeler trail continued another quarter mile to a small house, then dropped down to a lake. Officially this was supposed to be the latest extension of the International Appalachian Trail, though there were no trail signs and the only apparent maintenance was that some locals cruised over it on their four-wheelers once in a while.
We continued following the path past several more lakes and up the top of a ridge until we decided to check the GPS.
“Wait a minute,” Matthew said. “This isn’t the route we planned on, and this path is leading us farther away from the Cabox.”
“Then let’s just abandon this four-wheeler trail and find our own way up the mountain,” I replied. We
were above treeline so it was easy to navigate, and we started cutting north along the ridge to intersect our intended route.
Strangely enough we soon stumbled across a small IAT marker tied to a bush. There vaguely looked like a path next to it, albeit a path constructed probably a decade ago that saw only a couple hikers a year. We followed the path down the ridge until it hit a river, and decided to set up camp right there.
Jacob had been hiking with fishing rod in hand the whole time, anxious to cast a line in somewhere, and this was the perfect spot. Matthew and I set up camp while Jacob meandered down the river working on catching our dinner. We had only brought a 1.5-man tent plus tarp for the night, so needed to improvise a shelter in case it rained. Fortunately there were plenty of branches lying around and we soon created a small tarp shelter which Matthew volunteered to test out that night.
Shortly after dark we saw Jacob walking back with a big bucket (apparently he found it next to the river) and an even bigger smile. He had finally caught a fish, after days of unsuccessful attempts in Quebec and Labrador. It wasn’t very big, but that was beside the point. It was a fish, and it was going to be his dinner.
Matthew started a small campfire and we baked Jacob’s fish on a rock next to the flames. It was a perfect camping night: no bugs, no rain, not too hot, and we had the sound of the river to put us to sleep.
We got up at sunrise the next morning and quickly took down the tent and wrapped it in the tarp. Some
ominous clouds had rolled in and we didn’t want anything to get any wetter than necessary. We were going ultra-light for summit day: Matthew had a little school backpack with a rain jacket, food, and water, I had the lid of my pack with a few supplies stuffed in, and Jacob carried just a fishing rod. You never know when you’ll find a mountain stream to cast into.
We crossed the river and quickly picked up the trail ascending a wide valley. Strangely this side of the river valley was devoid of any plants, with only brownish rocks covering the ground. The clouds obscured our view up the valley, making it unclear exactly how high the Cabox loomed above us. Eventually we climbed out of the rocks and the ground was again covered in grass, but this meant the faint trail disappeared. The only trail markers now were metal poles placed just far enough apart so you couldn’t see from one to another in the fog.
We struggled to follow the metal poles for a while, but then realized they were taking a very indirect way around the mountain, that didn’t match our intended waypoints. We took a short brake at an alpine lake to talk over our strategy. As Jacob cast his fishing line in a few times Matthew and I decided we’d take the risk and forsake the metal poles, relying just on the GPS to get us to the summit faster.
Jacob agreed, so we continued on following Matthew. The rocky alpine lake area soon turned to smooth grass as we climbed higher, and blueberry bushes even started appearing. We crested a small local maximum before dropping back down for the final summit push. The visibility was even worse as we climbed higher, but we still had waypoints to follow and were still heading uphill.
The grass turned back into boulders, and at last we found ourselves on the summit. A huge cairn marked
the top, with a sign proclaiming “Lewis Hills – Newfoundland’s Highest Point.” Apparently a local snowmobiling club was responsible for the sign, and we thank them for their efforts. The Cabox is, of course, the official Wikipedia name for the summit, though the hills around it are known as the Lewis Hills.
It was cold enough that I struggled to complete my standard summit ritual of juggling five objects. Jacob toughed it out for a few minutes shirtless but finally relented and bundled up. We had hoped for a view of the ocean, but the clouds were as thick as they’d been all morning and showed no signs of moving.
After putting on all our layers and taking pictures on three different cameras (just in case), we turned back down the mountain. I led this time, following our exact GPS track on the way down. We never really established if the metal rods actually led to the summit, and if they didn’t this would indeed be a difficult summit to find in such low visibility.
We had no trouble retracing our steps, though, and soon made it back to the vegetation-less rock zone. Of course the clouds burned away by this point, and the summit was probably clear too, but we weren’t turning around. We took a quick break on the way down to swim in a 5-ft deep swimming hole in the stream next to the trail. I was the first one in, with Matthew reluctantly jumping in after 5 minutes of hemming and hawing, and Jacob even more reluctantly after 10 minutes of our calling him a sissy.
After hiking back down we found our camping gear exactly where we had left it, and quickly packed up and headed back up the ridge. We made it back to the car by early afternoon to round out a successful trip: Jacob’s first fish in Canada and the highest mountain in Newfoundland for all of us.
Next stop: St Pierre and Miquelon Islands.