AN ECHO FROM THE PAST
LATTER-DAY VIKINGS SAIL FOR CANADA
The sail appeared first, a large, red square of canvas set to a clean north wind. Looming closer, below the sail that billowed against the horizon, was the swooping curve of a wooden prow that soared nine feet above the waterline of the cold Atlantic. In medieval Europe, the sight of such a ship approaching a foreign shore evoked terror among local inhabitants: this was the Viking longboat that carried rapacious Norsemen on their murderous plundering missions against village and monastery. But in the northern reaches of a land only dreamed of in the courts of Europe, those who watched from the wooded ridge above the pebble beach and the dew-fresh meadow of grass and heather a millennium ago watched in silence. No loathsome reputation preceded these strange and quarrelsome interlopers. No fashionable loot awaited their axes and swords. This was a bountiful land of endless forests and pure streams; it was, as well, a harsh realm of bleak winters and unyielding rock. This was the New World.
Earlier this summer, a ghost from the Viking past began to cross the Atlantic, bound for an Aug. 2 appointment near a sod-covered clump of ruins on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland. There, the president of Iceland, Vigdís Finnbogadottir, the prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the premier of Newfoundland, Clyde Wells, and Jean Charest, the Canadian minister of the environment, will greet a modern-day Viking longboat at L’Anse-aux-Meadows, Nfld. The ship, Gaia, is named after the Greek goddess Mother Earth. Her mission is twofold: to dramatically replay events of about 1,000 years ago and, in the process, deliver an environmental message to the world. Publicity brochures call the trip “Vinland revisited.” In fact, the Gaia’s voyage is designed in part to attack the widespread belief that it was the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus who discovered the Americas during his celebrated voyage in 1492. In private, the Gaia’s Norwegian, English and Icelandic crew half-jokingly referred to the voyage as the “bugger Columbus” campaign. Said Gun-
nar Eggertsson, an Icelandic crewman: “Would you like to be ignored when you know you won a race by 500 years?”
Complaint: There is little argument that the modern-day Vikings have a legitimate complaint. In 1978, the United Nations proclaimed L’Anse-aux-Meadows a “world heritage site,” recognizing that many historians regard it as the earliest-known European settlement on the North American continent, despite the popular belief, particularly in the United States, that Columbus “discovered” the New World. But the voyage also serves as a reminder that mankind, on the cusp of the third millenium, has embarked on a catastrophic voyage of environmental destruction. Less certain, even for the participants in the Gaia’s voyage, was what could be accomplished by a five-month, $4-million expedition funded by the Norwegian and Icelandic governments and by Knut Kloster, a flamboyant Norwegian cruise-ship-magnate-turned-environmentalcrusader. The voyage is being re-enacted by a crew of 10 adventurers-tumed-ecological-em-
issaries. “We don’t know what will happen,” said Kloster. “We’re doing this in a spirit of exploration and discovery. After all, the Vikings didn’t know where they were going when they discovered America.”
Vanished: Nor did they stay long. Whatever claim the original Vikings laid upon the land of green slopes and fertile bays that they called Vinland vanished within 20 years of their arrival. Inexplicably, the Norse settlers, led initially by Leif the Lucky, son of Eirik the Red, abandoned their North American foothold. They may have been driven out by the indigenous peoples who outnumbered them, or perhaps they were drawn home to Scandinavia in the waning hours of the once-mighty Viking Age that, by the end of the 10th century, was coming to a close.
They took with them little else but their stories, retold in conflicting detail as part of their heroic sagas through the long centuries. As a result, the better documented exploits in the Americas of later navigators, Christopher Columbus, Jacques Cartier,
James Cook, Ferdinand Magellan and many others, eclipsed the Norsemen’s accomplishments in the histories of the world.
Over time, on what later
became the remote Newfoundland fishing village of L’Anse-aux-Meadows, the peat bog heaved and, in a final triumphant insult, buried the timber-and-turf houses of the Viking settlers under the campsite debris of the Dorset people who were there 1,500 years before the Norsemen arrived. One by one, traces of the Viking presence in North America vanished from the land. It would take 1,000 years for the Norse to prove their feat and just as long for the world to celebrate it.
That celebration bridges I the 1,000-year gap. The ex5 pedition organizers chose a I matchless symbol for their § expedition. The Gaia is a
1 pine-ribbed reproduction of
2 a 78-foot ninth-century Vi5 king ship that was un“ earthed in 1889 in Gok£ stad, Norway. The original g Gokstad vessel was so fineo ly crafted that it moved one " observer to describe it as “a
poem carved in wood.” The oak keel and bowed amidships enabled Viking warriors to spin the vessel around almost on her axis during battles. The Vikings took their treasured vessels to their graves: the original Gokstad ship served as a burial chamber for a Viking king, who was accompanied on his journey to Valhalla, the Norse afterlife, by a dozen horses, six dogs and a peacock. “For some Scandinavians, the Viking ship is a religion,” said Ragnar Thorseth, the Gaia’s captain. “I am just a sailor. But if you look at the Gaia out of the water, her lines are perfect.”
During a period of five months, the Gaia is scheduled to visit 70 ports in six countries, including the United Kingdom, Iceland, Greenland, Canada and the United States. In a 5,300mile journey from Norway across the North Atlantic, which in July was still riddled with icebergs, the Gaia’s schedule called for stops in L’Anse-aux-Meadows (Aug. 2 to 5), St. John’s, Nfld., (Aug. 9 to 17) and Halifax (Aug. 28 to Sept. 3). More important, the ship was expected to arrive at its destinations on time for long-planned public ceremonies.
Where once the Vikings, masters of the winds and currents, looked to the sun and other stars to chart their courses, the Gaia is guided by
the latest in electronic and satellite navigation equipment. And where distance travelled was once a gift from nature or a product of the brute strength of as many as 70 brawny oarsmen, the Gaia’s progress is aided by two small diesel engines. Still, the vessel is relatively open, and for stretches of up to 15 days the crew will be largely exposed to the elements. Said Thorseth: “You have to live with the sea and the waves. All the electronic gadgets in the world can mean nothing in a storm.”
Thorseth is clearly a man of the sea and the waves. Many Norwegians regard the 42-yearold professional adventurer as a national hero. In 1969, he single-handedly rowed across the North Sea. Then he trekked to the North Pole in 1982. He sailed around the world during the early 1980s in a reproduction of a Viking cargo ship with his wife, Kari, and two sons, Njal and Eirik, and later spent a winter on a boat with his family among the polar bears of Spitzbergen, a Norwegian Arctic island. Thorseth says that for 15 years, he dreamed of building a fleet of Viking ships. His goal was to sail to the 1992 World’s Fair in Seville, Spain, and on to the Americas following Columbus’s route. His motive had little to do with the environment. He sought adventure: the electric exhilaration of a 30-m.p.h. crosswind in a heavy sea. If the world needed saving, he reasoned with a puff on a cigarette, it was not his fault. “What the hell is Mother Earth?” asked Thorseth. “She’s not nice all the time. It’s the survival of the fittest.”
Dreams: Like most dreams, it cost a hatful of money to fulfil. Fortunately, the 62-year-old Kloster has more than enough of it and some to spare. He made his name and fortune during the 1960s in the cruise-ship industry, overseeing his family’s shipping company. In 1979, the company bought the financially troubled passenger liner SS France for $18 million and, after a $60-million refit, Kloster converted it for service as a 2,000-passenger luxury liner that plied the Caribbean as the SS Norway. Then, in 1984, Kloster ordered his engineers to design a 5,600-passenger giant with a hull the size of an aircraft carrier's and amenities that included an amusement park. Kloster still has not arranged the financing for the ship, which is to be called the Phoenix World City. He claims that it will be so large that it will not be able to sail through the Panama Canal. Said Kloster: “No one builds ships that can’t go through the Panama.”
Kloster’s enthusiasm for his business has been tempered by a budding interest in environmental causes. “I could see the world as a big ship, moving full speed ahead,” he said. “And unless we change the course, it is going onto the rocks.” He has handed over the operation of the company’s 10 cruise ships to his 35-year-old son, Knut, and delved deeper into environmental issues. Still, he retained control of the Phoenix project, which has resulted in expressions of concern among some environmentalists because of the fossil fuels which would be burned by the engines of the enormous vessel. Last April, Kloster was questioned about the environmental and social impact of the Phoenix World City when he met in
THE GAIA VOYAGE WAS AIMED AT THE VIEW THAT COLUMBUS LANDED FIRST
Washington with Lester Brown, the president of WorldWatch Institute, a privately funded environmental organization that monitors worldwide ecological trends. Kloster was seeking Brown’s support for the Viking voyage. On the eve of the Gaia’s departure from the Norwegian port of Bergen on May 17, Kloster .told Maclean’s that he had begun to have second thoughts about the Phoenix project. He added: “In the world we’re living in, is it going to add anything meaningful? I was convinced five years ago. I’m not so sure any more.”
Glories: Meanwhile, in Thorseth’s dream of re-enacting past Viking glories, Kloster had found a way of spreading his environmental message. Kloster met with Thorseth to discuss his dream, and the two men began planning to reclaim the New World and save the old. The first task was relatively easy. During excavations in Canada over seven years beginning during the 1960s, another Norwegian adventurer, Helge Ingstad, along with archeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, astounded skeptics in scientific and academic circles by presenting irrefutable proof, based on carbon-14 dating, that Vikings had settled in Newfoundland in approximately AD 1000.
The new Vikings would travel to L’Anseaux-Meadows, retracing the original passage from Norway through the British Isles, then sail to Iceland and Greenland and across the Davis Strait, and later continue down the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States.
Kloster says that the date of the original Viking settlement is uncertain enough to justify staging the re-enactment a summer before the official celebrations of Columbus’s voyage in 1492. Said Kloster: “Historians said 1991 was as good a year as 2000 or 2010.”
Saving the planet was another matter. Even as the Gaia set sail, organizers of the voyage had difficulty articulating exactly what their message was. The crew of 10 includes Thorseth, two boat builders, a physician, an electrical engineer, a professional sailor and a fourmember British Broadcasting Corp. TV crew that is documenting the voyage. Members said that they shared a sense that a global environmental crisis is imminent. But few of them appeared to be comfortable debating specifics. Said Thorseth: “This Gaia thing has become a great challenge. The problem is, we don’t really know what we're going for.” Instead, they decided to act as their forbears did 1,000 years ago: head westward and hope that a vision would materialize. Said Kloster: “We’re not telling everyone what to do. We’re just saying that we’re coming. Hopefully, people along the way will add to the process.”
One element that the organizers of the Gaia’s voyage were not prepared to leave to chance was the refinement of the brutish image of their ancestors. The Vikings founded cities, including the Irish capital of Dublin, and even states. They wrote poetry and devised laws. But they were best known for two centuries of
ravaging much of the British Isles, pillaging the coast of France, burning Paris, sacking the German city of Hamburg, overwhelming the Slavs of Russia and clashing with the forces of the Byzantine Empire. So deep was the trauma that the Church of England still retains a prayer that pleads, “From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord.”
As a result of the early Vikings’ reputation, the governments of Iceland and Norway hired a New York City-based publicity firm to smooth the Gaia’s passage. The crew presented 2,000 pine, spruce, cypress and alder tree seedlings to the Orkney and Shetland islands as an apology for the actions of 10th-century Vikings who stripped the northern British islands of what little timber they had. Still, as late as midMay, organizers were uncertain how they should go about mending ancient fences with the North American natives. Clearly aware of the controversy stirred by the Columbus campaign among North American Indians and historians, promoters stressed that theirs was a reunion of two peoples—Norse and North American natives.
Liberties: But that involved taking some liberties with the facts. The Vinland sagas were explicit in their opinions of the aborigines they encountered: they called those who coexisted with the land skraelings, a derisive name meaning wretches or weaklings. The sagas also related that the introduction of the two cultures was far from cordial. After spotting three so-called skin boats overturned on the beach, with three men sleeping beneath each of them, the Norsemen killed all but one man. That set off a series of deadly skirmishes that eventually drove the settlers back to Greenland. “It was cultures clashing; they didn’t understand each other,” shrugged Kloster. “The same thing happens today.”
To remedy the delicate situation, the expedition decided to urge native organizations in Canada and the United States to regard themselves as equal partners in the celebration of the Gaia’s voyage. Said Kloster: “We would like, in a way, to look at this so-called discovery with the eyes of the recipients, the people who actually lived there.” Still, it was not clear what group of natives lived in Newfoundland at the time of the original Viking settlement. According to scholars, they may have been members of the Dorset culture, or Algonquian-speaking Indians. The Beothuk Indians, who inhabited Newfoundland when John Cabot arrived in 1497, became extinct during the early part of the 20th century.
Still, the evolution of the Gaia’s voyage to Vinland, with all of its dilemmas and uncertainties, served as a reminder of the challenges inherent in any voyage of discovery. That was the lesson long ago, when the Norsemen first went ashore from their graceful vessels onto the land that they would name Vinland. In the best of worlds, mankind is swept on a current of history, not impeded or shaped by any one element, but enriched and enlightened by it all.
E. KAYE FULTON in Bergen, Norway