port au choix

This is a very interesting place, and a beautiful one. If you are ever driving the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, I highly recommend a day's stop at Port au Choix.

After breakfast at the B&B, we went back to the Visitors Centre for a video and a better look at the artifacts there. These are among the best preserved prehistoric artifacts you will see anywhere, thanks to the area's alkaline soil. Also, the Dorset Indians and the Paleoeskimos were expert toolmakers who knew how to best exploit the rich resources they found. The arrowheads, toggle harpoons, needles (made of antler), sled runners (made of bone), spear heads and all the tools displayed were so perfect and fine, quite impressive.

Excavations began in this area in the 1960s, after a local resident found skeletal remains while digging a basement. It is still being excavated, and the work could continue for decades without ever being complete.

As the climate changed, cooling and heating and cooling again over thousands of years, different peoples populated this area, but all thrived in it. Some were around for centuries, others for thousands of years. All of them - the Maritime Archaic Indians, Dorset Paleoeskimos, Groswater Paleoeskimos, and Recent Indians (recent in archaeological terms, but still prehistoric) - lived many times longer than modern Canada or the US has existed.

All evidence shows that these peoples lived long and healthy lives in sustainable societies. All are gone now. Some of them are the ancestors of the Beothuks, who are now completely extinct. Some are the ancestors of the Inuit. Others, like the Dorset, have no known direct descendants.

After checking out the Visitors Centre, we hiked to the main excavation sites, those of the Dorsets, who left an especially impressive record. Now the sites are quiet meadows of low-lying plants a short distance from a rocky shoreline in a sheltered bay. Thousands of years ago, they would have been alive with human activity.

The digging was going on while we were there, as it is every day weather permits. When we walked over, a young archaeologist came over to greet us. He explained that at the moment they are working on an area between two dwelling areas that was probably used for processing seals. At this location, seals were the Dorset Indians' primary source of food, clothing and shelter.

While we were asking questions and hearing about the work, another archaeologist came over with a piece they had found that morning - a section of a sled runner, made from whalebone. The whalebone was probably scavenged from a beached whale. It would have been connected to the sealskin sled with seal sinew. We asked her how they knew what it was when they found it, and what would happen to it next. It was fascinating.

This is the largest Dorset site in the world. Our interpreter (who is from St. John's) told us that there is enough material here for five lifetimes of excavation and study. It was really fun to see the work going on right before our eyes.

It was cool out today, but not raining, so we were happy. We picked up some food for lunch in the town supermarket, then went for another hike.

This one began with a French oven, a working replica of the outdoor, communal ovens once used in France. These ovens were built in seven Newfoundland towns as part of celebrations in 2004, commemorating 100 years since France gave up its claims on the waters off Newfoundland, a milestone in Newfoundland independence. Although the Treaty of Utrecht [1713] gave Newfoundland to the English, France was still permitted to fish the shores and operate offshore fisheries. The French boats were floating salt-cod processing factories; they fished, salted the cod and sailed back to France without ever coming ashore. We've heard about the French fisheries, and the long struggles between the English and the French over Newfoundland, in several places. This area we're in now is also known as the French Shore. Apparently the first Europeans to fish here were Basque, quickly followed by French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Anyway, this outdoor brick oven was the start of a hike along the coastline that led to the site of an early European settlement. The coast is rocky but low-lying, none of the dramatic cliffs we've seen elsewhere. The plants are all short and scrubby, spongy when you walk on them. Yellow and white wildflowers are in bloom. Seagulls wheel overhead, and the occasional fishing boat chugs by. It was very peaceful. We sat on rocks and watched the water for a while.

The Dorset site and the oven are on opposite sides of a small harbour, where there are a few houses, a few fishing boats, and piles of lobster traps. It's pretty, but not exactly a hub of activity. There's a factory in town where cold-water shrimp is processed. There are a few restaurants and B&Bs - and a lot of boarded up buildings, and for-rent and for-sale signs. Once again, if it weren't for Parks Canada and the cultural work going on here, this town would scarcely exist.

We called ahead and made reservations for the next two nights in Rocky Harbour, a town outside Gros Morne National Park. Please contact your nearest weather deity and request clear skies for us. Thank you.

There are no pubs or cafes within a 100-kilometer radius, at least. The "lounge" in town (a metal shed connected to a motel) has a handwritten sign posted: "Disco Tonight". Scary! I'm tempted to stop by and see what that means, but we have the Red Sox on our laptops tonight.

Random note. We notice that Parks Canada does not use the designations "BC" and "AD" for dates; it uses "BP" for "Before Present". For example, interpretative information will say, "The peoples who lived in this area 4500 years ago" rather than "...who lived here around 2500 BC." Perhaps Canadian readers know about this already, maybe you all grew up with this in Canada? It's new to me. In fact, when I was writing about ancient civilizations for a US and European publisher in 2005, we were using BC and AD.

This "xxx years ago" designation is certainly more accurate, and dispenses with the ridiculous Christian-centricity of dating the whole world according to the supposed birth year of one supposed man-god. I think it's also easier for most people to think about some number of years ago, as opposed to subtracting to the year 1, then adding back to the BC dates, which run backwards.

My only question is what is the baseline for "the present"? When we say "before present time," the present time will keep changing. But perhaps this doesn't matter, because we're talking about centuries or millennium, and 50 years give or take is not important. I'm sure some readers know.

Random note. I was in error: the locals don't say "Port Oh Shwah". They say "Porto Swaz". It sounds like a Salad Nicoise.

Pictures of Port au Choix are here.

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