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Meeting of Two Worlds: Viking Exploration

From the RV Desk of Melanie Anne Chambers www.gorving.com

Leaving the TransCanada for the 430 then 436 highway, a few things change about Newfoundland. First, the wind picks up and throws you about. Driving alongside the oceanside road, I strained to keep the steering wheel from flying out of my hands.

 

Next, the landscape changes; trees are scarce. Rock, ocean, road.

Finally, no people. Gas up when you can because there are huge stretches of no stores, no houses, and no sign of life. Convenience stores sell everything from homemade newfie fishing mitts (three fingers for gripping fish), cute homemade leg warmers (I bought a pair!) and liquor. About three and a half hours from the TransCanada, the RV pulls up to the end of the earth, or so it feels like.

On the tippy tippy top you reach the place where Vikings first landed in North America and the completion of human exploration around the globe.

“Sometimes late at night when all the tourists are gone I will come out here by myself,” says site supervisor Dale Wells. “I get a presence… I feel something here. I don’t know how to describe it,” she says putting her fist to her chest. “It’s my favourite time of the day—that and early morning.”

Gathered outside the interpretation centre, facing the ocean, we watch as the weather turns sour and you can feel what Dale was talking about. A group of tourists, raincoat hoods around their faces, stand against the slanted rain and wind. Looking out on this ocean, I know we’re all thinking the same thing: 1,000 years ago, imagine you’re a little child sitting on the shore and suddenly a carved wooden head the size of your entire body emerges through the fog. A Viking ship.

When a Norwegian explorer and writer, Helge Ingstad went looking for Viking existence in the 1960’s, locals in northern newfoundland lead him to a series of grass mounds; this meant many things, but most importantly that it completed the circle of human footprint around the globe.

With some physical remnants found on the site, a bronze cloak pin (similar to Icelandic and Norwegian style) and a nail to name a few, as well as the giant mounds that revealed fire pits and three houses, the other evidence is written. The Norse Sagas—oral Norwegian stories that were passed down for about 100 years—reveal the voyage to the new land. The stories revealed that Leif Ericson, a Norsemen looking for resources and son of famous Viking Eric the Red, sailed from Greenland, perhaps hit Baffin Island first, Labrador then Newfoundland before setting up in L’Anse Aux Meadows for about 12 years.

So, as you can imagine, some things might be incorrect. But, some evidence was indisputable: the sagas mentioned things such as a long white beach that took an entire day to pass; they called in Wonderstrand. Beautiful name. Such a beach exists in Labrador.

It’s a place of many firsts. First Europeans to North America.

Starting the tour, an immense bronze sculpture straddles the trail that leads to the grass mounds and Viking site. It’s striking. A branch-like figure strikes across a Norse sail; called Meeting of Two Worlds, it represents the first meeting of European and North American Native cultures. It’s open to interpretation but the Norse sail is linked to their thirst for exploration while the whales and tree on the native piece is linked to natives' connection to nature. It’s haunting. The rain is pelting down on the sculpture and me; the group moves on but I’m stuck. This thing has me in its grasp.

 

Newfoundland and Labrador artist Luben Boykov created the Native piece and Swedish artist Richard Brixel created the Norse sail.

Moving on we come to the actual site that includes three house size indents in the grass, as well as a blacksmith shop where they found iron discards. The rain is relentless so we move to shelter in reconstructed sod huts.

 

Dale tells us that L’Anse Aux Meadows was never intended as a permanent settlement: “we know they stayed about 12 years and these huts have a lifespan of about 25 years; there is no evidence of repairs.”

They predict that three ships arrived: 20 men and some women on board. Leif only came on the first voyage. Wimp. 

 

They called the settlement Vinland. Now, as any good Canadian knows, that means wine. And as any Newfoundlander knows, growing grapes in these parts is inconceivable. So, the theory is that the Vikings sailed to places like New Brunswick during the summer and found grapes. We also know they travelled south because there are remains of beach nut tree seeds in L’Anse Aux Meadows—there are no beach trees north of the Miramichi in New Brunswick. Amazing.

Tuckamore, that wind swept brush I mentioned earlier in my blog is rampant here. Dale points out witch's broom. Also called dwarf mistletoe, this parasitic plant latches on to the trees. What remains is a dead tree that looks like a witch's broom. 

Inside the sod hut, a gas fireplace keeps us warm. Oh, we’ve come a long way. Huddling around its flame, we all listen to the tales, but soon even a gas flame cannot abate the damp chill sinking into our precious skin and we all head back for the warmth of electrical heat.