st. anthony / l'anse aux meadows

[Wednesday, June 25]

This morning we learned that we can stay in this B&B a second night, if we don't mind sharing a bathroom with our host, which we don't. So after breakfast, we moved our bags upstairs, cancelled our reservation at the motel next door, and drove to L'Anse aux Meadows, about 50 km away. (We passed the turn-off for it on the way to St. Anthony yesterday.)

As you drive out to L'Anse, the landscape becomes very barren - rock, moss, low-lying plants, almost like tundra. We passed a moose on our way to the visitors' centre. He was busy feeding and took no notice of people staring at him from a distance. He was still there, still eating, when we came out.

L'Anse aux Meadows was the first location ever listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was the first point of European contact with the New World, and also the first site of iron-making in the New World. The Vikings came to this place four times over the course of 10 or 20 years, 500 years before Christopher Columbus would make his fateful journey. The Vikings didn't stay. They got their asses kicked by the native peoples and never tried again.

Two Scandinavian researchers, Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, a husband and wife team, rediscovered the site in the 1960s. They knew the Vikings had traveled from their native lands, to the Shetland and Faroe Islands (off the northern coast of Scotland), to Iceland, then to Greenland. They also knew the Vikings had continued their sea journeys, and the routes they likely took, so felt certain the Vikings must have bumped into North America.

Meanwhile, northern Newfoundlanders knew there were ancient sites on their land, but always assumed they were Indian ruins. Our guide, who grew up on the spit of land that is L'Anse aux Meadows, played among these sites as a child. He said it was lucky for all of us that nobody knew they were Viking sites, or they would have been plundered in search of treasure. The community was flabbergasted when they learned their Indian sites were really the remains of Viking settlements.

The Scandinavian researchers, and later Parks Canada, found the foundations of huts, forges, places where ships would have been dry-docked and repaired, and all manner of tools.

At the site today, there's a good interpretation centre, with information on both the Vikings and the archeology, and a boardwalk and trail that leads down to the sites themselves. Parks Canada re-covered the sites with sod, to preserve them for possible further excavation at a later date. In one small area, there's a recreation of the Viking huts and a forge, but I got a lot more out of the our guide's talk than I did from the fake stuff.

L'Anse aux Meadows was perhaps less thrilling than some other ancients sites we've seen, because the Vikings didn't leave the impressive tangible remains that you can see in some other places. But even so, it's wonderful to think that these ancient people were here, with this ingenious technology - their sea-going boats, their iron-making - trying to establish a new home, so far from the world they knew.

We know that explorations such as these, by other people from other countries, often touched off the most terrible and heartbreaking chains of event for the native peoples. Much of those events were caused by the attitudes and beliefs of the newcomers. (Not all, though. Much was also caused by the native people's lack of immunity to European diseases, and by their lack of European technology.)

Yet the explorations themselves were inevitable. People had the means to explore, and they wanted to use it to enrich themselves and their cultures. Also, they simply wanted to explore. Usually when we visit ancient sites, I think about the people who were conquered and who disappeared. Today I was thinking about the explorers.

* * * *

Our guide had many interesting things to say about the land he grew up in, the very northern tip of Newfoundland. The area didn't have electricity until the 1970s. His family had a battery-operated radio, but his dad wouldn't let them use it; he was saving the batteries for listening to Saturday night hockey. (This prompted an annoyingly long discussion among other people on the tour about various hockey radio announcers.)

Until the 1950s, the people of L'Anse aux Meadows traveled out of their community only by boat or dogsled. St. Anthony's, now a 40-minute drive away, was a full day's journey by boat. In the 1950s, they got "the Bombardiers" - snowmobiles - and people stopped keeping dog teams.

When the Scandinavian researchers came to the village, they were aided by a man who was the unofficial town spokesperson, a kind of unelected mayor. Our guide's description of that role reminded me of how many ancient small societies functioned - by consensus, with a leader who emerged naturally through personality and inclination. I think it's somewhat remarkable that a North American town in the latter half of the 20th Century was still working that way.

Our guide - who looked a lot like as younger Levon Helm and sounded a lot like a Newfie Red Green - fishes, hunts, builds boats, and makes his own tools. His father and his grandfather were both highly skilled fishermen and boat builders. He denigrated his own skills as compared to theirs, but then, he's had to develop skills his forebears would not have needed.

None of his siblings chose to stay in the area, and his children have all left, too. If it weren't for Parks Canada, he said he'd be in Alberta or on a trawler "nort' o' sixty". He is very grateful that he is able to stay in this place that he loves so deeply. "We need people to come here, or we'll all be gone to Alberta."

There was someone on our tour who spoke with a Scandinavian accent, and a Toronto-area man whose father and grandfather grew up nearby. Each exploring some of their heritage, I suppose, which is very nice. The UNESCO ethic teaches that these sites are all of our heritage, as humans. Even nicer.

* * * *

After leaving L'Anse aux Meadows, our day became frustrating and annoying. And wet. We tried to visit Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve, said to be a hidden gem of the Northern Peninsula. It is home to a variety of unusual fauna and geological formations. The park is not marked or interpreted, so it's best viewed with a guided tour from a provincial park ranger. Unfortunately, our timing was off for the tour, and it had started to rain again, and was very foggy.

We drove around the site - on an unpaved, rutted road, in the pouring rain, seeing nothing - and finally gave up. Even if we had snagged a tour, visibility would have been minimal. We're also starting to wonder what the weather will be like in Gros Morne. We're good about not complaining about weather and just going with the flow, but if the rain keeps up, that portion of the trip will be sunk.

The other attraction in the L'Anse aux Meadows area is Norstead, a commercial site that's a recreation of a Viking port and village. We skipped it, although if time was unlimited and the weather had been better, we would have gone.

* * * *

Back in St. Anthony's, it was now pouring. We drove around in search of a pub or tea room or lounge, but found nothing. Nothing! We drove to the very end of town, Fishing Point Park, where there's a lookout for whale and iceberg watching. Despite the steady rain, I insisted on getting out of the car for whatever view there was. Allan reluctantly followed me.

We were standing at the looking point, talking... and I saw a whale! I grabbed Allan's arm and shouted, "Whale whale there's a whale!" and he turned around in time to see it breach.

It was only for a moment, but it was exciting! And maybe a little extra exciting because it happened on our own, without a boat or guide.

We walked on in the rain on the lookout trail and watched and watched some more. We were soaked, and cold, but I kept thinking, one more minute, just one more try. Then, through the rain and fog and my wet glasses, I saw something on the horizon. An iceberg. It was very far away, and obscured by fog and rain, but there it was.

Before this, we had been talking in circles about what to do the next day. There were several possibilities, all fun, but each would mean not doing something else. After catching a glimpse of a whale and an iceberg, I knew we had to take one last boat ride and try again. And even if we see "only" one iceberg or catch a glimpse of just one whale, still, we're here, we should give it a shot.

So tomorrow morning we'll wake up early, take one more boat ride, then head down the coast, halfway to Gros Morne, to Port Au Choix. (By the way, the locals do say "Port Oh Shwa". I half-expect to hear "Port Oh Choicks".)

Random note. All through the Northern Peninsula, as you drive up the highway - a rural route, one lane in each direction - along the roadside, there are little gardens marked off with stakes and twine and the occasional scarecrow. These are people's personal vegetable gardens. Because most of the soil is rocky and not fertile, people plant gardens wherever they can find a patch of fertile soil. So some people drive a fair distance just to tend their garden.

Random note. One feature of the local dialect we find amusing is the addition of a leading H to any word that begins with a vowel. "Haboriginal people," "hicebergs in the bay," "Hindian land". When you add the dropping of initial Hs ("ome", "ardy", "ouse"), you get some amusing combinations. For example, our guide was nostalgic for "hamateur ockey".

People also say "yis" (as in "yis, I agree"). It sounds exactly like the guys from Flight of the Conchords, that is, New Zealanders.

Pictures of L'Anse aux Meadows are here.

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