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September 21st - October 8th 2013 - our Maui Celtic duo Hamish & Jennifer were in Newfoundland in Atlantic Canada, on tour with The Irish Rovers for the start of their Farewell to Rovin world tour. The iconic band underwrite Hamish's popular non-profit Maui Celtic Radio Show, and invited him to Altlantic Canada to collect local Celtic music for his programme.
After that leg of the concerts finished, our travelers were as close as they were likely to get to the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, high on Hamish's lifetime list of historical places to see. There is no easy way to get to this desolate but beautiful spot on the tip of the Northern Peninsula, with either a provincial flight to St.Anthony Airport (71km away, although the town of St.Anthony is only 40km away), or a 5 to 6 hour (434 km) drive from Deer Lake along the Viking Trail (Route 430).
They took some time to see Western Newfoundland, driving through the beautiful Gros Morne National Park, with an overnight stop in Rocky Harbour, and an unusually high wind kicking up some impressive surf in Bonne Bay.
The next day, after a hike to the shores of Western Brook Pond, a glacial-formed fjord, we took the road north along the coast, past shipwrecks, rock arches, small bays and fishing villages on the Gulf of St.Lawrence.
We arrived near dusk at the Valhalla Lodge (www.valhalla-lodge.com) in Gunner's Cove, to find a welcoming log fire blazing, and tea and scones laid on by our host Bella Hodge, herself a resource of local knowledge, with a fine library of Viking-related books and videos to see. We arrived just in time to see the spectacular view of the ocean inlet from her hilltop guest house, and a short climb up the hill across the road gave us an amazing sunset view over the peninsula.
Sunrise from the Valhalla Lodge, Gunner's Cove
The next morning Hamish's excitement built, as it was time to reach the end of his road of exploration, nothing compared to the Norsemen who had arrived here on their epic journey over a thousand years before, at a spot now called L'Anse aux Meadows, a place they may have thought of as the entrance to Vinland. L'Anse aux Meadows became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978 – the first cultural property in the world to be so designated. The name probably comes from an 1862 French chart showing Anseàla Médée (Medee's Cove), likely from the Greek heroine Medea, after whom many 17-18th century ships or ports were named. Another version is from L'Anse-aux-Méduses, or Jellyfish Cove. The location was called Lancey Meadows in the early 1900s.
We had arrived two days after the season ended, and although the L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site was closed for the season, site supervisor Kimberlee Trainor had graciously opened the facility for us, and even provided Viking-attired guides of the site.
L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, Newfoundland
The ruins, played on by local children for years, and thought by locals to be an “old Indian camp”, were re-discovered in 1960 by Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, and found to be the oldest known European settlement in the New World. Over a thousand years ago, Leif Erikson (Leifr Eiríksson) and his crew of 60-90 people, Icelanders who had settled in Greenland, built a Norse exploration base camp here, on the shore of Epaves Bay at the northern entrance to the Strait of Belle Isle. They must have explored south to the St. Lawrence River and New Brunswick, as butternuts were found on the site, which have never grown in Newfoundland, New Brunswick being the northern limit for the nuts and also wild grapes. This could have been the origin of naming the new land Vinland, a region to which L'Anse aux Meadows may have been the entrance. They would have explored during the summers, mainly in search of hard-wood lumber, and lived back at this base camp in the winter, celebrating Yule and recounting tales of their exploits in the warm long-houses, with their open fireplaces and roof-chimneys.
Reconstructed Norse longhouse, L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
Native peoples used the site as long as 6000 years ago, with campgrounds and tools of five or six groups present here. The Dorset Eskimo and ancestors of the Innu and Beothuk people were here before the Norse. The Norse called the natives 'skraelings', and some historians think that clashes with them halted exploration into Vinland and finally made the explorers return home to Greenland, abandoning their settlement after a couple of decades or so. The Vinland Sagas were written down in the late 1200s.
Norwegian explorer and writer Helge Ingstad was looking for Norse evidence from New England northwards, and at L'Anse aux Meadows local fisherman George Decker took him to see overgrown mounds that proved to be the remains of buildings. For eight years, Helge and his archaeologist wife Anne Stine, excavated the site with an international team from Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and the US, with work continued by Parks Canada. They uncovered foundations of eight Norse buildings, like those used in Iceland and Greenland around 1000AD, with walls and roofs that would have been made of sod, supported by a wooden frame, and lined inside with planks.
Original Norse building foundations from c.1000AD, and reconstruction beyond
Artifacts identifying the ruins as Norse, included a bronze cloak pin, a stone oil lamp or door pivot, a spindle whorl, a sharpening whetstone, and part of a bone needle for knitting. Remains of smelting and iron-working were found on site with many iron boat nails.
The Norse site included three dwellings with workshops for carpenters and smiths, with a forge on the other side of the stream. There is evidence of ship repair, with discarded wood trimmings, a probable floorboard from a small Norse boat, and iron rivets or nails.
We first watched a 15 minute film at the Visitor Centre, on the Vikings travels, their arrival here, and likely encounters with the indigenous people. We saw maps and parts of Norse sagas, fine scale models of the Norse settlement and ships, and listened to translated Vinland Sagas, before seeing the actual items that identified the site's origin. Then our Viking re-enactor guides Katla Egilsdottir and Anora Absent-minded (Elizabeth and Tina) gave us a site overview from the deck, showing us the cut-grass arc of the original settlement, above the now overgrown cove at the mouth of a brook, that would have once been a sloping beach by the houses to pull boats up to. Beyond we could see the reconstructed longhouse behind a high stake fence.
Norse settlement scale model, L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
Our guides took us along the path, pointing out the shape of the iron smelting hut, across a bridge to the remains of the Norse buildings. Grass-covered foundations of halls, houses and huts, the largest being the Leader's Hall, twice the size of Leif's father (Erik Thorvaldsson or Eiríkr Þorvaldsson) Erik the Red's home in Greenland, and the size of a chieftain's hall in Iceland. It was quite a moment to stand where the first Europeans who definitely visited the New World had been 1000 years before !
No disrespect meant of course, to the possible earlier visit of the legendary Irish voyager Brendan the Navigator…..
Guides Katla Egilsdottir and Anora Absent-minded (Elizabeth and Tina)
L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
Replica Norse anchor and replica Norse Anvil
Inside the Longhouse
Our Viking guides then took us to the reconstructed buildings nearby, in a fenced compound, where we entered the surprisingly warm and cosy fire-lit longhouse, and listened to the ladies and park guide Mike Sexton tell stories from Norse Sagas and mythology. With replica helmets, shields, weapons and cloaks available, I had to don the gear and feel the weight of it all, and of course have a few photographs taken. Then it was back to the visitor centre shop, to disrupt the season-closing stock-check, and buy a few reference books.
A great visit to the site of a truly remarkable, and often overlooked, chapter of North American history.
Thanks to Kimberlee Trainor, Tina Vanderwielen, Elizabeth Ross, Mike Sexton and Dale Wells at Parks Canada for their help and hospitality at L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. Opening hours: 9am to 5pm, 1-9 June and 28 September to 5 October, and 9am to 6pm, 10 June to 27 September. Telephone 709-623-2608 / off-season 709-458-2417, email email@example.com. Website www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/nl/meadows.
We headed across the road to Norstead, a reconstruction of a Norse Village and Port of Trade, which may resemble how the settlement might have become, had the early Europeans stayed in Newfoundland. The non-profit facility was also closed for the season, but Mike Sexton found Denecka Burden, who also graciously opened the buildings and showed us around.
The first building was a massive turf roofed boat-shed built to house the replica full-scale Viking ship or knarr “Snorri”, named after the first known Eurpean child born in the New World.
Replica full-size Viking ship or knarr “Snorri”, at Norstead, L'Anse aux Meadows
It is an imposing sight indeed when the heavy wooden doors swing open. An open decked boat 54 feet long, 16 feet wide and 6 feet deep, it is constructed of oak, pine, tamarack and locust woods, with iron rivets. In July 1997, in the first authentic Viking ship to have completed the trip in 600 years, equipped with only a square canvas and oars, twelve men set out to recreate Leif Ericsson's 1500 mile journey from Greenland to Newfoundland. The first trip failed when the rudder broke, but their second attempt arrived safely in L'Anse aux Meadows the next year on September 22nd 1998. The original Norsemen may not have built boat-sheds, but for preservation of the historic replica, one was built here.
Norstead - a recontructed Norse Village and Port of Trade at L'Anse aux Meadows
We visited the other buildings of the village, which in the summer months are peopled by costumed interpreters telling Viking tales in the Chieftain?s Hall, or demonstrating forging iron, ancient navigation methods, shaping clay pottery, or spinning fleece into yarn and weaving cloth. You can even have your fortune told by a Rune Teller.
There is a turf-roofed church, controversial amongst some Viking enthusiasts, who have confronted staff with the fact that the ancient people were pagans, with their own gods and goddesses. The later fact is that many Vikings did convert to Christianity, and this is a replica of an early Norse church.
Recontructed Norse church at Norstead, L'Anse aux Meadows
They have pigs, sheep, and chickens in the summertime, with a few visiting cats. On opening one door, a sizeable falcon flew out at great speed past our heads, leaving behind it?s last dinner – another bird of equal or bigger size, judging by the left-over legs !
The Mid Summer Viking Festival takes place in mid-July, and visitors can learn about Viking life while enjoying fireworks, concerts, a bonfire, tours, sword fighting demonstration, competitions, plays and more.
Viking Rune Stone at Norstead
On July 28th 2000, a fleet of Viking ships and their crews were greeted by costumed re-enactors and thousands of visitors in a ceremony marking the 1000th anniversary of Leif Ericson's journey to Vinland.
Thanks to Kara Snow and Denecka Burden at Norstead for their help and hospitality. Opening hours: 9am to 6pm June to September. Telephone 709-623-2828 or 1-877-620-2828, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Website www.norstead.com
Although this was about the Vikings, Hamish normally promotes Celtic culture as a volunteer presenter of his globally popular weekly Celtic music program, The Maui Celtic Radio Show, on non-profit Mana'o Radio in Maui, broadcast 8-10am on Sunday mornings locally and worldwide on the internet (www.manaoradio.com).