About this Project

Between Seasons consists of words and photos gathered on the North Head Trail from 2016–2019. Writing, photos, design and code by Matthew Hollett.

Instagram: @matthewhollett

The North Head Trail is part of Signal Hill National Historic Site in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador. Parks Canada would like me to remind readers that the trail is closed in winter! Please obey warning signs if you visit.

Thanks to my fellow walkers, especially April, Bryh, Isabella, Chris, Steve, Don, Rob and Lisa. Thanks also to Koya Bound and Body of Water for visual inspiration. This project was also inspired by books such as Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, and Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking.

I acknowledge the support of ArtsNL, which last year invested $2.5 million to foster and promote the creation and enjoyment of the arts for the benefit of all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

This project was also funded by a City of St. John’s Arts Grant.

An earlier version of this essay won a 2019 NL Arts & Letters Award.

Between Seasons
on the North Head Trail

Matthew Hollett


The North Head Trail stitches downtown St. John’s to the edge of the Atlantic. It feels sewn into the hillside, alternating between boardwalk and bedrock, threading in and out of fog. It meanders along the steep coastline above the Narrows, wends around Ross’s Valley to the headland, then ascends abruptly to the summit of Signal Hill.

An aerial view of the North Head Trail.

Like most walking trails, the North Head Trail is hard to pinpoint as a “place”. Over 1.7 kilometres and 150 metres of elevation, it shifts from a rural seaside ramble to a wild windswept mezzanine to a graveyard of glacial erratics. It’s a landscape of weatherworn stone, sheer hillsides and shearing wind. It’s home to colonies of screeching gulls, elusive foxes, blueberries, junipers and chuckley pears, even an apple tree. The trail swerves jubilantly, linking many places and things. But it’s fastened most firmly to the Battery, where it begins.

Two people hiking on a steep slope.

Parks Canada tends to describe the trail as “descending into” the Battery, as if it begins in the parking lot by Cabot Tower, and certainly many people hike it that way. But it likely originated the other way around, as a way to walk from the Battery out to the headland. The trail’s history is hazy – Parks notes that “it may have been in use as far back as the 1500s,” and I’m told it appears on maps from the 1700s. Before stairs were built to the summit, it would have been a natural way to access the North Head on foot.

Older residents of the Battery remember playing on the trail ages ago, before it was adopted and built up by Parks Canada. Many of their stories are collected in the wonderful folk history Out to the Battery. Wes Pretty describes playing baseball in the Valley, and Joanne Butler recalls collecting seashells and fossils. Carl Pearcey says:

“As young boys, we climbed around, especially out towards the Narrows, out in the Valley, we called it. That path that’s there now where all the people, all the tourists walk out, there are steps out there now and a chain and everything going around the dangerous spots. But when we were going out there as kids, there was none of that.”

Ross’s Valley is a hanging valley, a remnant of the same geological processes that created The Narrows. It’s mostly wetland, snarled with prickly vegetation. From the hillside above, especially if there’s a thin layer of snow, you can see the remnants of trenches that were dug in attempts to drain the land.

In his book The Lookout: A History of Signal Hill, James E. Candow chronicles a few centuries’ worth of military and architectural misadventures all over the hill, including a few attempts to build in Ross’s Valley. The most famous is the Marine Hospital, a facility which was built in 1892 in anticipation of a cholera epidemic that never happened. Nicknamed “Prowse’s Folly,” it burned down in 1911.

The Marine Hospital on the southern end of Ross’s Valley.

The Marine Hospital on the southern end of Ross’s Valley (see MUN Digital Archives).

Photos of the Marine Hospital are startling – anyone who has visited Signal Hill will recognize what a remote location this is. The hospital was designed to accept smallpox and cholera patients from ships on their way through the Narrows, to quarantine them from the city. Part of the path up from the shore would no doubt coincide with the present-day North Head Trail.

This cultural history is easy to overlook today, when the North Head can feel like wilderness. But there is evidence of human activity everywhere: the scraggly apple tree, iron rings embedded in rocks, pottery shards in the valley. Sadly, the valley is also littered with tires and garbage bins rolled down from above. The hill can be a busy place – tourboats and lobster traps in the water below, massive ships trundling through the Narrows, aircraft roaring overhead. And of course there are hikers and dog-walkers, whale-watchers and iceberg-hunters, and tourists who can’t resist stacking loose stones.

Looking down over the Valley from the hillside.

Looking down over the Valley from the hillside.

When I started this project, I set out to write twelve short passages about walking the North Head Trail, one for each month of the year. But months mean nothing to the trail. Ocean-edge effects and elevation changes send its seasonal compass spinning. Wildflowers and snow appear at different times of year than elsewhere downtown, and fog sometimes buries one part of the route while another is brightly sunlit. It’s a place in flux, a place that resists calendars and almanacs. And of course this capacity to surprise and dazzle is what draws me to the trail over and over.

Bright early morning clouds from the trail.

So instead of monthly dispatches, I ended up with Between Seasons on the North Head Trail. A warning, though! Parks Canada would like me to remind you that the trail is officially closed in winter, when conditions can be quite treacherous.


Winter into Spring

I haven’t been up the North Head Trail in two months now, and it’s lodged in the back of my brain like a fishhook. It tugs, nags, snags on things. The more I imagine the trail as a hook, the more it fits – the lower path along the Narrows bending into a U-turn as it wends around the headland, ending in the jagged barb of the steepest stairs. On particularly tantalizing days, a wriggle of fog worms through the trail like bait.

In the slog of early spring in St. John’s, it’s easy to blame my laziness on the weather, or on worrying whether it’s too icy up there. There’s a reason they officially close the trail in winter. But the sidewalks downtown have been clear for days, and this time last year I’d been up there a dozen times. The only ice is my inertia.

The hillside glowers. It looms over the city as if seeking me out, as if itching for an argument. I hide out in coffee shops downtown, or in my kitchen with its view of Cabot Tower. Safely behind glass at Atlantic Place, I study the hill to figure out how angry it is. I ask friends: Have you seen the trail lately? How is it? Oh, it’s not bad, says Bee. They’ve torn out some of the boardwalks so you have to clamber a bit. Greg says: It’s rough. It’s rascally. Wear crampons.

Icy rocks on the trail.

Instead of crampons, I buy new sneakers and escape to the gym at the Sheraton. The treadmills have large touchscreens so you can distract yourself with Netflix, or see your workout visualized as a writhing neon inchworm. The ellipticals offer “virtual hikes,” ten-minute videos showcasing treks around the world. I spend sweaty hours as a floating eye, hovering through far-flung national parks and mountain vistas. Landscapes I’ve never visited unravel on the screen like balls of yarn: Tierra del Fuego, Maui, the Pennine Way.

I find myself spiralling down the side of Crater Lake, Oregon, and realize: I’ve been here in real life. The hikes feel interactive at first, but slowing down or stopping doesn’t pause the video, and of course I can’t pick a different path, or turn around. And after a few sessions they begin to loop, becoming uncanny. I ghost through a trail in Yellowstone for the second time, and pass the same tourist in front of the same waterfall. He nods at me, just like last time, acknowledging our shared déjà vu. He’s been avoiding the North Head Trail, too.

The trailhead covered in ice.

April 24

Freezing rain overnight leaves the trail transfixed. The ice highlights textures that usually recede, brings out colour in a way that feels astonishing – an illuminated manuscript.

On particularly tantalizing days, a wriggle of fog worms through the trail like bait.

Spring into Summer

The trail wriggles out of the city like a plant sprouting from pavement, the prickly stem of the Narrows blooming into a broad horizon as you ascend. I’m drawn here partly by its changeability: arpeggios of boardwalk slats cut to fit the rocky slope, cloud shadows somersaulting down a hillside, a lattice of light glinting from the harbourfront. Bee loves its steadfast remoteness, often jogging up by herself after dark. We weave the bright thread of the trail into our lives, making it part of the patterns we inhabit.

Looking back along the trail on a bright summer day.

Sometimes it feels as if I come to the North Head Trail to confirm that the horizon is still here, that this place hasn’t lost its capacity to enchant. That we’re still on an island. Bee and I feel our way along this wrist of Atlantic rock, two fingers taking a pulse. On colder days the trail’s heartbeat is sleepy and solitary, while on the first warm afternoon in May its pace picks up, palpitating with a steady flow of footsteps and the rhythm of runners negotiating uneven ground.

Today we walk slowly, almost an amble. We pause often at the bottom of staircases, to let others pass. The trail itself wheels and dives at a seagull’s pace, but we take our cues from more distant objects: a tanker’s laborious progress through the Narrows, the lazy-eyed lighthouse at Cape Spear. We stop to rest on a little footbridge below the first tall crevice in the cliff. Bee says this spot feels like a threshold, the place where you pass outside the reaches of the city. Peering inside the dark crevice feels like pressing an ear to the earth. We can hear the throb of ocean waves slopping through the artery below, pigeons mucking about deeper in its veins.

A side view of the boardwalk from across the Narrows.

Listening attunes us, and we press on up the trail paying more attention to the hollow plod of boots on boardwalk, or the cacophony of crows, pigeons, and gulls. There’s a spot at the top of one of the staircases where I always stop now, where the wind rattles a wooden post and a loose washer chimes against its bolt, ringing like a small bell. I walked here a few weeks ago on a day when you could hardly see the harbour, and a lone voice bobbed up through the fog: Last but not least, on our right hand side, we have Fort Amherst. Trust me.

Glacial erratics on the North Head.

Fog can produce optical phenomena, like this Brocken spectre and glory seen from the top of the trail.

Fog can produce optical phenomena, like this Brocken spectre and glory seen from the top of the trail.

On this warm afternoon the trail is crowded, so the voices we overhear are closer. Tourists marvel loudly at icebergs, while locals converse more intimately. On the more exposed parts of the trail, conversations are shredded into pieces by the wind. As we near the top, the sharpness of the staircases grinds down the talking around us, leaving only breathing. By the final staircase you can almost hear the fire roaring in your ankles.

Looking up the steepest staircase.

June 19

Fog defies perception. If I stare out into it, the air seems luminous and alive, swimming with strange flecks and swirls. It takes me a moment to realize the floaty shapes are inside my eyes.

We weave the bright thread of the trail into our lives, making it part of the patterns we inhabit.

Summer into Fall

Eighteen degrees yesterday, a welcome reprieve after an early fall chill. It rained overnight, and today the trail crosses a river that isn’t usually there. The hill is uproarious. Runoff flings itself toward the ocean, the last apples strain from their branches. The sides of the path blush with the fierce red tips of blueberry bushes. Compared to their colour, the juniper berries are burned-out lightbulbs. I don’t make it far before taking out my macro lens.

Kneeling, I hold my phone camera close to a berry, a leaf, the space between a berry and a leaf. It’s like lighting a candle; it takes a moment for the autofocus to find an edge to latch onto. My hands barely move but the image on the screen veers wildly, every drifted millimetre dramatically altering the composition. Focussing so closely, only a thin slice of the world is sharp. It’s easy to end up with blur instead of berry. The feeble light isn’t helping.

Rhododendron canadense.

I look up to see a tsunami of fog sweep away Fort Amherst. The wave of nothingness seethes through the Narrows and into the city, leaving the skyline barely visible against a band of yellow. Seconds later the world is gone, as if someone has zipped a tent shut.

I bend to the underbrush again. A few seconds of microcosm and I’m sucked in. When a jogger huffs past it feels as if they shouldn’t be able to see me, as if I’ve shrunk to the size of an ant. Down here in the turf, rose hips are perforated like showerheads. Juniper berries hang low, weighed down by water drops nearly as big as themselves. Inside each liquid backpack glints my reflection, tinier again, worlds within worlds. The entire hillside full of eyes glinting.

Lichen on the rocks below the trail.

I rise up out of it, fasten my rain jacket. The fog is an atomizer, depositing tiny eyes everywhere. Each bush bristles with hundreds of berries, millions of droplets of water. I look down as I walk, but not to watch where I’m stepping. My eyes skirt the edges of the trail, skimming branch-tips, brushing patches of grass, dipping into shadows. Each red leaf is hypnotic as candle flame.

It feels as if I’ve dropped my eyes into the brush and they’re gallivanting downhill, taking it all in. The sky dissolves into grey. Likewise, my peripheral vision darkens, closes in on the camera screen. It’s hard to see anything else. I waft and surge, drift at the speed of fog, nearly wander off the path. I forget about the cliff, the harbour lights, the city. The macro lens is a magnet pulling me closer to the centre of the Earth.

Closeup of a brightly-coloured leaf.

Sometimes I don’t even take photographs, I just look. Vast tapestries of moss, cathedrals of crumpled leaves, stained-glass insect wings. Tangled among so much gold and green, a filament of blue thread feels so otherworldly that I almost gasp.

October 26

Long shadow slung behind me. I step off the boardwalk and into low brush, frail branches snapping underfoot. Crumpled blueberries cling to wiry stems.

Runoff flings itself toward the ocean. The last apples strain from their branches.

Fall into Winter

We’re hurtling towards the shortest day. It’s dark in the morning, dark again before five-thirty. Yesterday snow swarmed in from every direction, melting as soon as it hit the ground. Bee calls to ask if I want to hike the trail. I don’t, but I do. It’s already twilight. We have to build up our tolerance, she says. The hill’s only going to get tougher.

There’s more of a mist than a rain, swirling with our movements. A cloud rolls in front of the moon, and Bee switches on her headlamp. We could probably manage without it, but it helps to see the puddles. I’m in front and Bee is behind with the light. I stride into my shadow.

The moon gleaming behind the dark hillside.

We pass the last lights in the Battery, the busted lip of beach, the gauntlet of pink boulders, the narrow ledge pierced by a chain, the boardwalk where the best crabapples grow, the crevice full of burbling pigeons, the worn waterlogged bridge, and reach the open headland that Bee likes to call the “glade.”

The glade is a chessboard of glacial erratics. The crest of a low hill rises ahead of us, its edge barely discernable below the slate black sky. Against its faint glow, I glimpse a small rippling silhouette. Look! I whisper. Bee’s gaze follows my finger and her headlamp catches two fierce green torches, not far off. A fox!

A second pair of vulpine eyes glimmers just beyond the first. After staring at us for a few seconds, the foxes slink away towards the cliff edge. They’re still pretty close. We stick to the path and dart past where they’d stood, talking loudly to discourage them. I bet you’re watching us, I shout. If I was a fox and there were people stomping around up here, I’d keep an eye on them too!

We keep turning to check if they’re behind us, but it’s hard to see very far. We hurry down the narrow staircase at the top of the ridge. At the next set of stairs, Bee turns just in time to see two green eyes plummet down the rocky hillside straight towards us. The fox’s slim silhouette pierces her headlamp’s cone of light and vanishes.

It’s following us, says Bee. Don’t run. We step quickly along the boardwalk, glancing over our shoulders. I half expect a pack of foxes to rush from the alders and snap at our heels. But we reach the tall staircases without incident, and each step feels less like wilderness. From the top of the trail, the bouldery hillside below looks like a half-spent pile of coal.

Suddenly the sunken clouds are pierced by two bright lights, far over the water. A passenger jet rumbles through the sky overhead, soaring low towards the airport. Its roar echoes off the cloud cover and shudders over the hillside. I wonder what the foxes think of that, I say. Bee says: It’s the big fox in the sky.

The silhouette of a fox peering down from a ridge.

The following evening we find ourselves on the trail once more, determined to keep it up even in the deteriorating weather. There’s a bite to the wind. We keep wondering if we’ll see the foxes again. At the spot where they first appeared, Bee swings the headlamp wide to see if it catches on anything. The battery is getting low, and it’s easy to imagine a pair of foxes lurking just beyond the light’s faint perimeter, watching.

Farther along, we find fresh pawprints on one of the boardwalks. They shine in the lamplight. We can see where the animal stepped in a puddle, where it entered and left the path. Where its trails and habits twine with ours.

December 11

Nightfall paints the Atlantic the same stubborn lavender as the rocks. A crow flickers overhead, so close I can hear its claws click.

We reach the tall staircases without incident. Each step feels less like wilderness.

North Head Trail

Vocals by April White, guitar by Stephan Walke, backup vocals by Virginia Mitford. Lyrics by Matthew Hollett. More on Bandcamp.

On a day when the waves are unfurling
and wind curls around the Battery Hotel,
and the shadows of clouds are cartwheeling
down the side of Signal Hill,
oh come with me, my darling,
we’ll walk the North Head Trail.

Oh walk with me, oh walk with me,
through the Battery, past the apple trees,
walking backwards against the wind
to where the houses trail off and the trail begins,

Past the crevice where the pigeons preen
and wish they were lucky as albatrosses,
to the cliff where seagulls wheel and scream,
drape bedrock with bedsheets of shit and salt,
and sometimes sleep, and sometimes dream
of Ron Hynes singing St. John’s Waltz.

We’ll find a song, we’ll find a song
in the whistle of wind as we walk along,
in a plunk in a bucket when a berry drops in,
in the crack and crash of an iceberg collapsing.

The hill catches fire in the autumn
with little red leaves that flicker like candles
and lick at our sandals like fiery tongues.
Wind tumbles them into incandescence
and they glow at the edge of our vision
as the sky burns to embers around us.

Like a dandelion, like a dandelion,
the trail bursts up through rock to find the sun,
and blooms into a bright windswept horizon,
so close your eyes and stick your nose in.

The hill catches fire in the autumn with little red leaves that lick at our sandals like fiery tongues.