“Watch for moose on the road.” Every Newfoundlander I met.
The terrain is as unforgiving as the sea. Barren wastelands of shattered limestone where only the hardiest of plants thrive. Tuckamore trees that have submitted to the will of the winds and curled themselves against the rock on which they cling. Rocky coasts that grow little more than moss and lichen, the low-growing shrubs and trees offering no barrier to the weather that blows in off the sea. This is Newfoundland.
The homes along the Viking Trail that winds along the west coast from Gros Morne to St. Albert at the northern tip of the Island are simple, boxy, and utilitarian, the yards unfenced and unadorned with flowers and shrubs. More likely you’ll see a stack of lobster pots, though most of those are tucked away along the side of the highway.
Why anyone would live in this region where the land is hard, the sea is rough, and winter is the longest season of the year is enough to give pause. Over the centuries many have come, including the Vikings who travelled here from Greenland around 1000 AD, but few have stayed to eke out a living on “the Rock”. Not until the Europeans opened the island to settlement in the 1600’s did Newfoundland become more than a fishing and expedition outpost.
The reason is in the blood, the salt of the sea passed down from generation to generation. The people here are not afraid of hard work, breaking the peat along the roadside for root vegetable gardens in the summer, cutting wood for heat in the winter, the sleds sitting beside the cords awaiting the next snow. Where once the sleds were pulled by horses, skidoos now do the hauling, but some things haven’t changed in the last 400 years.
I’ve only been a few days, but I’m become enamoured with the area and the people who live here.
The first view of the Tablelands rising above the green peaks of the Long Range Mountains is striking in its contrast. It is the only place in Canada, and one of the few in the world, where you can walk on the earth’s mantle, pushed up through the crust when continents collided. It’s also only one the many unique geological terrains on the Island.
At the northern edge of the Park you’ll find the Western Brook Pond, a fjord carved by glaciers that runs inland 16 km and reaches a depth of 165 metres. At the southern tip is the Green Point hike that takes you to a beach where the fossil-filled rock cliffs once made up the ocean floor. Tidal pools, pristine ponds (as they call the lakes in Newfoundland), stony shores, and lighthouses round out the sights to experience on the west coast of the Island.
Gros Morne is one of the most beautiful and intriguing parks I’ve visited so far. A day and a half was not enough time to explore all it has to offer, from day hikes to multi-day treks. I am off in search of icebergs and Vikings. A return trip will have to be in order.
L”Anse Aux Meadows
It was in 1960 that Norse writer and explorer, Helge Ingstad, and his archeologist wife, Anne Stine Ingstad, followed the Norse legends to the tip of Newfoundland in search of the mythical Vinland described in the stories of Eric the Red. They were not disappointed, finding the first Norse settlement in North America in the rolling, rocky hills of L’Anse aux Meadows.
The sky is grey but the fog has burned off as the day begins to warm, exposing the pack ice still sitting in the harbour, late this season and creating challenges for the fishermen who make their living from the sea. It’s on this northern tip that Leif Erickson led the first expedition from Greenland to what became known as Vinland at the northern tip of the island. L’Anse aux Meadows was a base camp used to repair the ships before venturing further south and the archeological site has been restored to show what Norse life had been like in the 11th century, complete with costumed guides.
Life there was hard, particularly due to conflict with the First Nations residents, and the site was abandonned after three years. Yet, it’s history is that of legends and the spirit of the Viking remains in the people who live there.
On the southeast edge of the Island, as different from the west coast as night is to day, you’ll find the capital city of St. John’s.. It’s a modern city but holds the same tie to the sea that has drawn people from all over the world for centuries. The fishing history remains in the old buildings maintained under heritage conservation bylaws, their vibrant colours lending the name “jellybean row” (featured image) to the streets of brilliantly hued homes. It’s said the fishermen would paint their houses with what was left over after painting the boats, and that may be true, but I doubt very much fuschia was one of those traditional colours.
The homes are only one reason for my trek to St. John’s. It’s on George Street that I make my way with two new friends to Christian’s Bar for the “Screeching In” ceremony that – should I pass the test – will make me an honorary Newfoundlander. It’s a tradition for those who “come from away”, to experience the kitchen party tradition of song, dance and stories.
Our host arrives in his slicker as if straight from the sea, paddle in hand, and starts the evening with a thick brogue monologue that takes a moment thought before we can decipher what he’s saying. Songs, stories, and dance follow and I’m joined by others from Toronto, Brampton, Victoria and Texas, each of us planting a kiss on the frozen codfish before imbibing of the local rum. So now when asked if I’m a screecher the answer is forever etched in my mind. “Deed I is, me old cock. And long may your big jib draw.”
Sitting out on the hostel steps the morning after the night before, the neighbour, seeing my sorry state, offered to cook me up some bacon and eggs, a little grease to sop up the alcohol since I wasn’t all that interested in his initial “cure” – a bit of the hair of the dog that bit me. It was our first meeting and we had yet to trade names, but his offer was reflective of the generous spirit of the people of this province I met over my few days. And much appreciated in the moment.
Cape Spear – The Furthest Point East
My last evening in St. John’s I make my way down the coast about a half hour (because we Canadian’s measure distance in time). This is the turning point of the trip. 31 days, 10,866.3 km, one oil change, and I’ve reached Cape Spear, the furthest point east in North America. As I gaze out over the water, the sun setting behind the low cloud, and consider how far I’ve come and how much I’ve seen, a spray of water appears in the distance and a moment later, a whale breaches from the water, too far to identify but close enough to thrill.
It seems like only yesterday that I packed the car and hit the highway, heading east. With only 12 weeks, I’ve had to pick and choose the places I go and the amount of time I stay – it’s never long enough to explore all each region has to offer.
In only a few days, Newfoundland has become my new favourite place, but there is still more to discover. So I climb in the car and head back east to St. John’s. Cape Breton Island is next, the place where my mother was raised and my grandmother before her. That’s a whole different path of discovery.