Hiking Newfoundland’s Viking Trail

LEADnewfoundlandVikingAs our boat approaches the iceberg, the strains of lush orchestral music float over the waves. Travel in Newfoundland is filled with adventure.

“It wouldn’t be an iceberg without the theme from Titanic,” says Paul Alcock, who clearly has a warped sense of humor.

We are aboard the Gannett III, owned by Alcock, his father, Louis, a former cod fisher who is at the wheel, and his uncle Jack.  Alcock, a biology graduate from MUN, otherwise known as Memorial University of Newfoundland, was looking for the way and means to stay in his native Newfoundland rather than leaving the island for work elsewhere. The Gannett III, which sails out of St. Anthony, is the successful solution.

“I’m a born and raised Newfoundlander,” Alcock tells us with pride.The iceberg is beautiful. It glows in the early afternoon sun. The power of a take-your-breath-away moment is stunning. The boat slowly circles the berg, at a safe distance (these things can roll at a moment’s notice), each facet lovelier than the last.

Once the music ends, there is silence but for the click of cameras.

Alcock begins his monologue – articulate and amusing. He talks about the geology and geography of his home province and about the marine life. Although it’s early for whales, we are lucky.

“What we’re looking for today is a spout or blow of six or eight feet, like a puff of smoke, that will be slow to fade out. So if you see something like this, don’t be shy. Holler ‘thar she blows’!”

There are no big blows, though. It’s the minke whale that we spot. It weighs about 4 to 5 tons, we are told, as it swims beneath our 25-ton boat, creating a little wave action.

It’s Alcock who alerts us. “Whale at one o’clock,” he shouts. “One-thirty Newfoundland time.” (It’s an old Canadian joke, the ½-hour time difference between Newfoundland and the mainland.)

As it was at sea, silence is frequently the case along Newfoundland’s Viking Trail as visitors are left speechless by the magnificence of nature’s artistry. The 400-kilometer (249 mile) route is between Gros Morne National Park on the west coast of the province to its northern tip and L’Anse aux Meadows, the ancient site that is the first authenticated presence of Europeans in North America. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The Viking site, which dates to 1000 AD, is 40 kilometers (25 miles) from St. Anthony. It was discovered in the 1960s and, it is speculated, could be Leif Ericson’s short-lived Vinland camp. A visit begins at the interpretative center where an audio-visual history lesson is available. “Listen, and I will tell you some stories of a place called Vinland.”

This thought-provoking sculpture is meant to symbolize the meeting of the Vikings and aboriginal people.
This thought-provoking sculpture is meant to symbolize the meeting of the Vikings and aboriginal people.

So begins the tale of the Nordic seafarers and their connection to Newfoundland. The story continues with a guided tour of the open, windswept area where the remains of three dwellings, four workshops and an iron-working smithy are found.

As we begin our walk across the barren terrain, known as tuckamore, a fine sculpture stands stark against the sky, symbolizing the meeting of the Vikings and the aboriginal people. The arms of the arch do not touch, however, explains our guide Scott Howell “because their worlds did not touch” but existed side by side.

There may have been a reason: “The Vikings were just a little paranoid,” which also explains their choice of site at the end of the Newfoundland world where they could see for miles across land and sea.

There is another advantage to the site for modern people: The tannic acid in the bog has helped preserve organic materials such as wooden barrels, thus adding to our knowledge of the early Nordic world. The acid also helped to preserve “a nice big pile of garbage,” says Howell. “Garbage is treasure to an archaeologist.”

At the end of the tour, we huddle for warmth – it’s an unseasonably cold June – in a replica Viking dwelling, entertained by a local “Bjorn the Beautiful” who regales us with stories of bygone days – in a Newfoundland accent, of course.

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