I like Gander. There, I said it. What’s more, I mean it. Now, I wasn’t always a fan of this Central Newfoundland town. Like many in this province, for me, Gander was a pee break or a stop for a quick bite and usually a convenient place for a gas fill-up on the way somewhere else. I spent a week in Gander recently and I’m here to tell you, Gander has a lot more to offer travellers than a double-double and bag of chips at Irving.
My week in Gander centered around a story about airplane crashes during World War II. If you are an aviation nut or any kind of historian, Gander is full of rich and colourful tales about the critical role the town played during wartime. I won’t delve too deeply into this interesting part of Gander’s character. You’ll have to watch for that story on CBC’s Land & Sea this season. Instead, what I’d like to do with this blog entry, is offer up some scenic alternatives to road weary travellers. I’ll point you to a few off-highway getaways. Places for drivers and families who need more than the view of pavement in a gas station parking lot to recharge.
It would be easy to assume Gander is void of any real aesthetic appeal. If you only ever drove on Kenmount Road in St. John’s, you’d be pretty quick to dismiss that city’s beauty too. The trick in Gander, as with most towns, is to get off the highway and tuck into some of the more natural settings.
The first location I’ll recommend for a breather and a way to take in the gorgeous side of Gander, is the Silent Witness Memorial. (It’s a left off the highway as you approach Gander from St. John’s.) That may seem like a morbid suggestion. The memorial is on the site of the Arrow Air crash. Arrow Air Flight 1285 crashed 73 seconds after it lifted off a Gander runway on Dec. 12, 1985. Two hundred and forty-eight U.S. soldiers and eight crew members perished.
The memorial itself is stunning. A sculpture depicts an unarmed soldier standing atop a massive rock holding the hands of two civilian children. The soldiers who died belonged to the 101st Airborne Division. They were returning home after a peace keeping mission on the Sinai Peninsula. The monument looks out over towering birch trees and Gander Lake, the silent witnesses of the disaster.
If you drive just past the memorial, on down the hill, you’ll arrive at the shore of Gander Lake. Not a bad spot to break out your tuna sandwich or whatever you’ve got in the cooler. The day we were there, we watched a couple of kayakers paddling around the pristine surroundings. I’m not suggesting you have to get in the water but the option is there. Otherwise, have a little stretch, replenish your fluids and enjoy the scenery and the silence before you tackle the highway again.
Next on my list of Gander getaways is the Thomas Howe Demonstration Forest. Here you’ll find everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the forest and forest management techniques. Thomas Howe was Newfoundland’s first Chief Woods Ranger and spent his life protecting the trees of this province. The site is 54 kilometres square of trails and interpretive signs. There are picnic tables and restrooms and another impressive view of Gander Lake. If you take the P.G. Tipping Trail you’ll also see wreckage of a B-17G plane from World War II. That’s the route we hiked with all of our cumbersome television gear. Luckily, we were carried out by black flies. If you do wander into the woods here, bring fly repellant.
My final suggestion for a little green in Gander is another short dart off the beaten path. To find Cobb’s Pond Rotary Park, take Magee Road off the highway. If you visited a few years ago and figure you’ve seen it all, think again. Cobb’s Pond has undergone a four million dollar redevelopment. There are picnic areas, a jetty and a 3 to 4 km boardwalk meandering around the pond through wetlands and birch, spruce and fir trees. Have the kids been acting up in the car? Did I mention the playground? A 20 minute free-for-all might be just what everyone on board needs to continue a pleasant journey down the TCH.
If it’s raining, you’re still in luck. Gander’s North Atlantic Aviation museum is an adventure for all ages. Let your mind take flight as you explore Gander’s aviation history from the 1930s to present day, including a look back at the kindness shown to strangers stranded on the runway after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. The museum is another of Gander’s jewels that is worth a second visit. It has a new sharp layout after a recent renovation in 2012. There are countless artifacts and photos but the really impressive pieces are actual engines from WWII aircraft and restored planes from that time. And, before you take off, step inside the cockpit of a DC-3 and imagine what it would be like to be flying instead of piling back into the car.
So, you might just be passing through but if you have time, there’s a lot to see in Gander. I’ve known about some of these places for years but others I’ve only just discovered. Gander, I’m sorry it’s taking me so long to get to know you but you’re probably used to that. When you’re the crossroads of the world, people don’t often linger. You’ve always welcomed transitory travellers, here’s hoping more take the time to veer off the highway and discover your charms.
Until next time, rove on!
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