Inglorious viking bastards

The boat casts off at noon and in minutes we are far from help on the wide gray waters of the upper St. Lawrence River. We sway back and forth, up and down, playing chicken with the rolling waves that hunger for unsteady vessels. The M/V Nordik Express is a 1,748 ton cargo ship owned and operated by Relais Nordik, a shipping service that ferries essential goods and audacious human spirits up Quebec’s rugged coastline. This is a wild and almost road-less land of welterweight evergreens and a shotgun-spread of irregular, rocky shored islands and serrated inlets. Highway 138 ends at Natashquan and from there to Vieux Fort, to which an access road has been built from Labrador, the villages stand alone, their few sundry items brought painfully in by sea and air.

Natalie and I had started from Quebec City yesterday night after a few days spent in Old Town – we took the latest bus we could find that went to the boat’s primary embarkation point in Rimouski. During the next four days as I go from the shelter of the passenger decks to stand outside, assaulted by the spray of waves and rain, I will think; Here only the stubborn can live.

All my adventures start like the little parasite that gets inside the shell of a living, breathing mollusk: The creature becomes irritated and deposits calcium carbonate to seal off the threat. The irritation grows, more secretion is deposited, a priceless pearl is formed. My new Priceless Pearl is north of practically everything. We are on the way to the place where Europeans, for the first time ever, came into contact with The New World and it’s human hosts.

I don’t know when I first heard of L’Anse Aux Meadows, [the name, for everyone who’s ever asked, is an English bastardization of the one bestowed on it long ago by Basque fishermen – originally L’Anse aux ‘Meduses’ meaning jellyfish] all I know is, once I’d heard of it, the idea of visiting never left me alone. I’d read enough Farley Mowat to have cultivated some romantic ideas about The Rock, or Newfoundland – Canada’s very own prodigal son since it’s official adoption in 1949. The isolation and history of this remote place inside the borders of my own country had raised my eyebrows. The foreign particle had worked its way into the shell. Something valuable was taking shape.

Natalie and I had allotted three weeks total on The Rock before work commitments would have us home again, and we had come to see everything we could see, but the big prize was the UNESCO World Heritage Site at the top of the Northern Peninsula where evidence can still be seen of the earliest European settlement in the Americas: Norse explorers first arrived here about 1000 A.D. having sailed in open boats all the way from colonies in Greenland and Iceland.

For me this trip was personal, a pilgrimage, if I dare – I’m of Swedish routes, proudly speak the language, and my cup overflows with a great yearning for adventure, for perpetual quests, the same which must have been the driving force behind these first Europeans. I read much about the subject in the months leading up to our journey so that I would be well prepared to make the most of the opportunity when I arrived.

At Blanc-Sablon, not five thousand meters from the southern fringe of Labrador we disembark and set up for the night. The chalk-colored houses of the village, neat though they are, lie scattered over the land like smashed-out teeth. It feels like a license to put up our tent wherever we want. The main street through town is an old paved lane, the highway to strategic Happy Valley-Goose Bay [the town and Air Force base], and the aorta artery to Quebec’s unyielding interior.

In the dawn we thumb a ride up to L’anse Aux Claire in Labrador proper and I go for a morning dip, just to say I did it, in the Straight of Belle Isle. This is where the icebergs float down from the arctic and get stranded in the narrows – it’s like swimming in a god-size glass of Scotch-on-the-rocks.

The afternoon ferry from St. Barbe carries us across to the island and over the course of the next few days we hitchhike the rainy road to St. Anthony, Iceberg capital of the world, population of 3000, the largest town in northern NL. Everything here is Viking this and Viking that: A Viking Hotel a Viking Restaurant, Viking Trail, Viking laundromat – you get the idea. From St. Anthony we make our way on eye-pleasing route 436, a back road with promising slices of ocean view, past slumbering specs of communities who’s young people have all disappeared to Alberta. After a well-marked turnoff near the modern fishing village of L’anse Aux Meadows we find our Holy Grail.

The Visitor Center looks like a low concrete bunker built into the side of a hill. The small parking lot is host to an elegant variety of RV’s, motorbikes and regular old cars – clearly we’re not the only people who thought we’d had a really original idea. Inside we meet the Parks Canada staff and see the small museum displaying samples of artifacts found on site, similar to ones found in Iceland and Greenland. A ring pin for fastening a cloak, boat-nails, a stone oil lamp, knitting needles, a spindle whorl, etc. Butternuts have also been found here suggesting that the Norsemen made it as far down as northern New Brunswick and the St. Lawrence River. There is a small movie theater that plays documentaries about the area and history. Much is made of the discovery story.

Helge Ingstad, an ambitious Norwegian explorer came upon the site in 1960. His extensive studying of old texts and exhaustive research had led him to look for Norse landing sites northward from New England. A fisherman named George Decker had led him to the site of man-made mounds dismissed long ago by the local populous as a Native burial site. Ingstad took long pains to examine the site and found the raised ground to be the remnants of dwellings – the type used by colonial Norsemen in Greenland and Iceland. An international team of Archeologists was dispatched, led by Ingstad’s wife Anne Stinne and for the next eight years the area was thoroughly excavated and iron artifacts as well as ancient wood that had been worked with metal tools were found – the strongest evidence to suggest European occupation. Further excavations were undertaken by Parks Canada and in 1978 L’Anse Aux Meadows was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Nordic outpost which many insist was occupied by its makers for no more than three years before abandonment is widely considered to be one of the world’s most significant archeological discoveries.

We take a guided tour of the actual site with about twenty others, a soup of polar opposites strangely assembled in this unlikely place. Yuppie Torontonians stand with dread-locked granola-eaters from interior BC, New york office slaves and a country bumpkin from P.E.I. Most of them have come a different way from the one Natalie and I took. Either they flew into St. John’s or maybe they grabbed a car ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Once you’re at the southern tip of the island the rest is easy, just a long drive with good look-outs.

I’m quick to notice that there isn’t much left to actually see. The Park’s Guide skillfully weaves in information about the climate and ecosystem to give a greater understanding of the place and, forgive me, elongate our value-for-money. Nonetheless I’m impressed – they’ve done their homework. At one point our guide indicates where the old shore used to be, how the land has risen slightly out of the sea since the time of the Vikings, and where the sheltered beach was where they dragged up their ships. We come to the mounds, first a lump that had been identified as the smithy for the abundance of iron leavings that were found here. A total of eight foundations have been discovered, the largest which is 28.8 by 15.6 m. and consisted of several rooms. All building materials used were indigenous to the area – sod laid up on wood frames: practical and well-insulated with the added advantage of keeping a low, subtle profile against the surrounding landscape. There are multiple workshops and outbuildings since L’Anse Aux Meadows is believed to have been primarily a boat repair center for those reconnoitering further south, and a winter gathering place where the explorers consolidated and awaited the return of milder weather.

Our man from the government tells us that during excavations this topsoil that we see was removed more than once, then replaced just the way it was found. It is a unique example in archeological diggings since in other areas from the same period much ground must usually be removed whereas here all they really had to do was pull the grass up by its roots. This is partly due to the near-arctic climate – the growing season is so slow that a tree from the days of Jacques Cartier wouldn’t be much bigger than a west-coast sapling.

The tour breaks off at the last little hump and visitors are encouraged to go by the replica structures. These are not set up to be just like the settlement, but more to give visitors an idea of how the Norse people lived. Nat and I go through a storage shed, smithy, and long house. I imagine the sour, sweating bodies pressed together for long months inside the smoky dwellings while winter winds ravage the roofs. The walls and ceiling are hung with utilities and supplies. There are still two settlers left from the bad old days, a man and a woman in period attire demonstrating ancient ways of doing things; weaving, carving and tale-spinning, not to mention flute-playing. Curiosity satiated, we walk back to the Visitor Center along the last leg of the loop-trail that brought us through the site.

That night we treat ourselves to a bed and breakfast in the microscopic community of Hay Cove, a few kilometers jaunt down the lane. Natalie is sick from the long days on the move and wet weather. I just got lucky – my body rebelled and then recovered while we were still aboard the Nordik Express. We are fortunate to find a place since this is that small time of year when booking accommodations up here might actually be necessary. A very reasonable forty-eight dollars is all that is swallowed from our finances for the unexpected one-night-inside room and board. That afternoon I walk by myself to find food at a little mom-and-pop store and into the dusk I hike the barren hills that overlook quilts of foam breaking on jagged black rocks. Icebergs large and small dot the ocean-scape, and I can spy that rainbow-blue glow of sea-ice in the flawless curves of the close ones. I’m absorbed by thoughts of the ancient Beothuck Indians now vanished forever by slaughter and disease. My wild blood-ancestors the Vikings, their ragged blonde hair matted with salt-water spray, their lips parched, hands calloused by oars, eyes pinched from squinting into blue distances. On these wild fingers of reaching rock the early people met. Maybe it happened exactly where I’m standing right now. The first contact ever.

Everyone should see this place, I think to myself.

The Viking settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows was short lived. It was un-sustainable due to the harsh conditions and limited resources, and hard to attain from the closest permanent settlement. Hostilities must have developed quickly between the settlers and the ‘Skraelings’, the Viking term for the local Natives.

The restless wind is eating at my fleece. The sun is descending it’s invisible ladder and pauses on the red shelf of the horizon. We look at each other for a long minute and then the shape of the sun changes as it sinks. It’s last fingers of orange wave, then fade, like the souls of dead people departing Earth. Darkness settles on The Rock and I walk back to the house.

Tomorrow we will thumb our way south.


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