By: Manuela Joannou (M.D. Medical Director, Project Trauma Support)

It is now two weeks since we returned from our Cabot expedition sponsored by the True Patriot Love Foundation from June 9 to 17. I have some great memories that I know will last forever. I have a new family that will forever occupy a chapter in my book and a place in my heart.

I had heard about how beautiful Newfoundland is, and the friendliness of the Newfoundlanders is legend. They actually do not mind being called “Newfies” in spite of all the jokes. Our first experience of the Newfoundland spirit of camaraderie was when the SAR-tech crew based in Gander met us at the airport to loan us some medical equipment we were missing for our expedition.

We were privileged to experience the rugged landscapes and the majesty and unpredictability of the Atlantic Ocean up close and personal. What better way than being tossed around by the waves on a kayak!

You cannot help but wonder how the earliest settlers to these rugged shores managed to sail their boats, strike up villages, and feed themselves from the ocean. There could be no other way other than to rely on each other. And we certainly experienced that! Our group started off as polite strangers. We got to know each other a little bit at our training camp in Gravenhurst in April. It wasn’t until the first challenge: the fact that we could not launch on the first day as planned due to Mother Nature exerting her ultimate control (it was too windy), that we realized our inter-dependence. Plans quickly shifted and new roles were assigned. We sat down and really got to spend time with each other.

We had the opportunity to meet General (Ret’d) Rick Hillier, who came from his Newfoundland home to our launch site to greet us and see us off. This was such an honour. What a gracious, kind and supportive man! I had heard about how much he was respected amongst the military veterans and it was so nice to meet him in person.

When we did manage to launch a day later than planned, we were all very excited. The greatest challenge was to strategically pack our kayaks. Not only did we have to bring all our camping gear, we had to bring food and cooking supplies for 18 people for 6 days! There is a real skill to stuffing dry sacs and ramming them into the kayak compartments utilizing every square centimeter. We got lots of practice!

We quickly learned to paddle in concert with our kayak partners. I was teamed up with the very capable, reliable and funny Tina. She kept our kayak going in the right direction and piloted our morale when things got tense. There were a few times where we were paddling into the wind, with rough seas, racing the tide and thunderstorms. I found myself mentally wondering how we would respond to any medical emergencies in the ocean far from shore if necessary under these circumstances. I have such respect for the medics I work with!

We were not able to complete the trek all the way to Fogo Island via kayak as planned because we encountered pack ice along the way. There was apparently more ice in the area mid-June than there had been since 1975! We went as far as we could go until the ice stopped us on June 14.

We had a magical interlude where we kayaked among large icebergs for about an hour. They glistened beautiful shades of aquamarine and emerald green. There was not even a breeze and the ocean was smooth like glass that day. It was cold enough to see our breath. It truly was an experience of a lifetime.

Once we realized we weren’t going to make it Fogo, we had to turn back. We needed to leave the kayaks at a place where they could be picked up so we went all the way back to Dildo Run Provincial Park (yes, that it the correct name!) It was a long day of kayaking. We once again pitched our tents in the park (not too disappointed because there were outhouses and even showers!)

The next morning we took a bus to the Fogo Island Ferry. The trip across was stunning. It was also very dramatic because the large ferry was hitting icebergs all along the way. You could hear the booming sound and feel the jolt throughout the entire ship. It made me think of the Titanic.

We actually arrived on Fogo Island one day ahead of schedule. Our guide Dirk had a home on Fogo Island and through his connections was able to arrange for us to all stay in the Lion’s Hall. Picture this: fourteen tired and somewhat unwashed men and women all sleeping together in a hall! (I referred to it as a snoratorium!)

We had time to hike up the Brimstone Trail. Having extra time to spend together in such close quarters gave us the opportunity to bond even closer. We had some very open and honest conversations. Our veterans were able to fill in the civilian mentors on some of their experiences. The mentors were able to appreciate and truly support the experience of the veterans. There was mutual respect, gratitude, and connection. At that point, we began to feel like a tribe. These new friendships and mentoring relationships will no doubt play a big role in the lives of all in the future.

The Fogo Island Inn is a very unique Boutique Hotel. The Inn was built by a Fogo Island Native, Zita Cobb, who as a young women left to pursue a very successful career in business. Upon her retirement, she returned to Fogo and began the very large project of building not only the famous Fogo Island Inn but also establishing the Shorefast Foundation. All proceeds from the hotel are directed to ecological and tourist projects on the island. There is no unemployment on Fogo Island. Even the retirees are recruited in the shared mission to create the most memorable experience for all guests. The locals toured us around the island in vans. No one could give a better guided tour than these lifelong Fogo Islanders themselves. The weather might have been cold but I have never visited a place with a warmer reception from the locals.

The hotel itself is an architectural work of art. Using wood and other materials harvested from the island itself, it was created to strike a bold stance on the Fogo Island Coast. The food was fantastic, the service second to none, and the view out of the windows breathtaking. It is absolutely mesmerizing to sit and watch packed chunks of ice interspersed with huge regal icebergs churning and listing majestically with the waves and the tides. The powerful roaring of the breaking and cracking ice vibrated right through you. Watching the sunset over the entire seascape is a vision I never want to forget.

On our last morning, Mother Nature again trumped us. The winds had changed and the ferry was locked in by ice and all trips were canceled. We all had planes to catch. The solution was to engage helicopters to take us all back to the Gander Airport. Flying in the co-pilot seat hovering only about 200 ft over the ocean and ice fields was a fitting last glimpse of this magnificent part of Canada.

I cannot say enough to adequately thank and praise our guides on this expedition: Paul Langdon of Canoe Hill adventures, and his crew Jason, Jamie, and Dirk.

A great thank you as well to Kristina and Megan of the True Patriot Love Foundation who ran logistics and made everything run smoothly in spite of disruption of their best-laid plans.

This year, the True Patriot Love Foundation has organized three expeditions to feature the “Best of Canada”. Our Cabot expedition was the first of these. I can only say that the Fogo Island Sea Kayaking adventure will certainly be in the running for the Best of the Best. I have no doubt that my expedition tribemates will agree.