Getting a "Sense of Place"
It was time to go to the Tablelands. The Tablelands are a superbly interesting geological and biological territory, where the earth’s mantle is exposed on the surface. Toxic metals prevent the normal growth of plants, allowing only for selected species to survive. Canada in general is a geological heaven with much to learn about the conditions at the beginnings of life.
Following the saga with the taxi boat, I understood the only way to spend a stress-free day at the Tablelands would be to drive around Bonne Bay. The other option, to coordinate my time with the boat and bus schedules would destroy the enjoyment of the day. The hour-plus drive proved to be fine, most of it scenically skirting the eastern arm of the bay. There was a small town at the end of #430, Wiltondale, and then the #431 brought me back to Woody Point, from where I drove to the Tablelands turnoff.
An interpreted tour was scheduled for 10 o’clock. I got there early to make sure I found the location. A friendly couple in a jeep was deliberating whether to take the tour again, but decided not to. They lived on the other side of the island, and had done this walk before. I took off to search a bit on my own.
The Interpreted Tour
Eventually the guide came and a group slowly formed. She was a woman with tremendous knowledge, a geologist by training, but highly knowledgeable about biology and history as well. We started to walk down the road, a trip into the lands of nether:
Chris was highly animated, very motivated and fun. She knew how to take some ugly sexist comments from a rude American tourist with a stride and a smile, and concentrated, unperturbed, on what she had to offer.
For a start, she got some kids to volunteer for a game of “Continents”. She made them use drama to demonstrate plate tectonics in an easy-to-understand way. The kids were joining hands, separating, raising and lowering their arms to show how continental plates move, glide, subduct, collide. They cooperated with her instructions and even contributed ideas of their own. She covered the territory well, explaining concepts like the Moho and ocean crust.
In the distance she pointed out an area where we could walk over the ocean crust itself. I mentioned to the group that the Red Sea is another such spot, where an ocean is opening up and the mantle exposed. The most famous site where this can be viewed is the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia.
Because of the mantle’s composition of heavy metals, all the way from nickel to cobalt, the soil does not allow for plant growth. It was clearly noticeable looking at the two slopes. In my early sola walk I noticed that there were two universes here, one barren, one fertile.
Usually in Israel, the northern slopes have richer vegetation than the southern ones. They have less sun exposure and so retain the moisture better. In the desert, plant distribution pretty much matches water availability, following the contours of the wadis and the gullies.
But here water was not the limiting factor. My eyes, used to deserts, expected a correlation between water and vegetation, and it was interesting to learn that soil composition instead was the culprit.
It was still a mystery to me why plants grew in seemingly irregular locations, until Chris explained that growth occurred where the wind blew healthy soil and needed minerals over the metallic rocks, even if in very small quantities. It sounded very theoretical, but later in the day we experienced a mighty wind. That brought the point home.
American flowers like yarrow, daisies and asters were blooming all along the roadside. The guide explained that tourists like us help with their distribution, inadvertently bringing seeds from elsewhere on our shoes…
Slightly higher, at least three different ecological habitats could be found. There was a wetland with predatory plants, as well as alpine vegetation featuring a relative of the well-renown edelweiss.
A bit higher still, Chris pointed out a small, plain and inconspicuous plant. This marvellous plant can concentrate metals like nickel and cadmium to 40,000-60,000 their concentration in the soil!!! The first thought that came to my mind was harvesting the plant for the distillation of metals. Others contemplated using it to clean polluted soils, which is how it is actually used…
The dearth in good soil and the climatic conditions cause trees that are mighty and tall elsewhere to grow as dwarves. The soil was covered with tiny bushes of birch, alder and juniper, crawling on the ground. One even had miniature strobili.
A miniature alder A miniature juniper
Much of the root system of these trees is exposed for two reasons: the wind that drags them downhill, and the “thaw and freeze” effect. The roots anchor at any appropriate spot and then shoot branches a meter or so further for better grasp. The prime difficulty is, of course, the scarcity of healthy soil to root in.
I was told the silvery-bluish tint of much of the roots is natural to these trees and is not connected with the metals in the ground. I am a bit skeptical, and in any case still found them stunning, so took many pictures at different exposures.
Some trees can pull themselves up just a smidge…
But most crawl on the ground:
Some plants form balls to protect themselves from the wind and the cold (plants need to keep warm as well):
As we passed by the swamp, Chris handed us plastic Pasteur pipettes. We used them to draw water from the pitcher plant cups. Invariably, we found little insects drowned in the liquidy mixture within.
At the end of the “Rangers’ road” we were let loose into the landscape, or could return with Chris back to the parking. I chose to roam the land on my own. There was no way to get lost, I reassured my panicky self. Just follow the canyon.
Here the landscape was truly moon-like:
Once I got back on the “Rangers’ Road” heading towards the parking lot, I saw a strange couple from a distance. She – young and pretty in her twenties; he – an older hippie in his sixties, with a huge white beard tied at the bottom with a rubber band. Strangely, I made a mental note, I did not meet many hippy-looking people on this trip so far. The majority of people on the campground were families and mainstream couples.
I said “hi”. From that alone (or perhaps from my look) the girl caught my accent. Am I from Israel?
Tal, travelling by hitchhiking in eastern Canada. The guy gave her a ride and now they were both “doing” the Tablelands. I suggested to her to join me for the Green Gardens. That would have served me well too, as I was a bit insecure about that one. Also, I really like helping young girls travelling alone, “saving” them from the dangers of this world. She was excited about my suggestion, but we could not make a date. They were going in the opposite direction, and her phone wasn’t working. I left them in the surreal landscape and drove to Trout River. Green Gardens would wait. I hoped she was safe. I never met her again.
Farewell, beautiful Tablelands.
Time was running out for a big enterprise like the Green Gardens, which I knew would be arduous, so I made the instant decision to drive to the town of Trout River, and take it bit easier for the rest of the day.
It was a great choice. I keep learning, as in Alma, that small towns in a natural setting can be a great element of a trip. There’s no reason to be so gun-ho about parks as to avoid them.