Will Ferguson’s Canada

DAY OF THE VIKING

At this foggy spot, the idea of Canada was forged

July 1 2002
Will Ferguson’s Canada

DAY OF THE VIKING

At this foggy spot, the idea of Canada was forged

July 1 2002

DAY OF THE VIKING

At this foggy spot, the idea of Canada was forged

Will Ferguson’s Canada

CANADA DAY at L’Anse aux Meadows. I stagger awake in the darkness and crawl into my clothes. It is an hour before sunrise. My plan, such as it is, is to hike from the guest house in Hay Cove to the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula and watch the sun break across the Atlantic on this, the first day of July, 2001.

But when I reach the highway, I stumble upon a congregation of silhouettes. Moose. Four, maybe five. They move out from the scrub grass, surprisingly agile on their knob-kneed stork legs, and they come towards me, clip-clopping across the blacktop, so close I can hear their grunted puffs of breath. Like moose everywhere, they carry with them a certain dignified ugliness—they are the inbred Habsburg monarchs of the animal kingdom, combining regal deportment with huge misshapen noses.

When was the last time I saw a moose this close? Well, never. And the rutting season for moose, when exactly does that begin? I try to look uninterested in the females. I try to look big. I try to look calm. I try to look like someone who is Not Afraid, even as the moose begin to outflank me on either side. “G’wan. Go away,” I say, my voice disconcertingly high.

It’s no use. I am about to be mugged by a gang of moose and the only comfort I draw from this is the knowledge that, if nothing else, this is certainly the single most Canadian way you could possibly die. I can see the headlines already: BELOVED AUTHOR TRAMPLED TO DEATH BY MOOSE. PIERRE BERTON GREEN WITH ENVY.

But then, on some unspoken cue, the moose suddenly lurch to one side and lope away, dissolving back into the pale light of a partial moon. Pulse pounding, I walk back to Hay Cove at a brisk pace—so brisk, in fact, that it’s more of a sprint than a walk, really. “I think I’ll drive.”

And as I pull out of Hay Cove, I can’t

help but wonder if my CAA auto insurance includes Attack by Moose under the “Act of God” clause.

I CAME TO L’Anse aux Meadows for Canada Day because this is where Canada— where the idea of Canada—was forged. It began with a collision, a collision of cultures, a collision of continents. New World and Old, they first slammed into each other at L’Anse aux Meadows, at the northern strait of Canada’s easternmost province.

The Vikings were here 500 years before Columbus ever set sail. Blame it on the fog: in 986, a Norwegian trader named Bjarni Herjolfsson, en route to the Norse colony in Greenland, was swallowed whole by the fog. Pulled off course and caught in a deeprunning ocean current, his ship drifted southward. When the thick mists finally lifted, Bjarni caught a glimpse of a distant, unknown shore. His crew wanted to land, but Bjarni was a trader, not an explorer, and he sailed for Greenland instead.

Word spread. A new land, at the very edge of the world! Leif Ericsson, son of Eric the Red, grew up hearing tales of Bjarni’s discovery, and around the year 1000, Leif set sail with a single ship and 35 crew to find and explore this new found land.

Leif and his men sailed west and soon landed at a barren coast, most likely Baffin Island, which they named Helluland (Flat Stone Land). Turning south, they came to

Freydis grabbed a fallen Norseman’s sword and, ripping open her shirt, slapped the blade against her breasts. The Inuit attackers, speechless at the sight of this warrior woman, fell back.

the low wooded shores of Labrador, which they dubbed Markland (Forest Land). And finally, after sailing south for two more days, they landed at a shallow bay with rolling grassy fields. When the men went ashore, they found a stream teeming with fish and fields ripe with wine berries. Leif named it Vinland (Wine Land).

Loading his ship up with timber, Leif Ericsson returned to Greenland the following spring, and with that single voyage made both his fortune and his name. He would be known as “Leif the Lucky”: the first European ever to set foot in North America (the tall tales of Irish monks and ancient Phoenicians aside). And although Leif himself never went back to Vinland, others soon followed.

It was Leif’s younger brother, Thorvald, who first made contact with the inhabitants of this New World. Thorvald and his men were exploring the coast when they came upon a small band of men asleep beside skin boats. (The Norse referred to them as skraelings. From the description of the boats and the men beside them, it would appear to me that the Vikings had run into an Inuit hunting party.) This was a pivotal moment, not just in Canadian history, but in the history of mankind as a whole. Spilling out of Africa, the human race had pushed north into Europe and east into Asia. The migration had crossed the Bering Strait and spread across North America. And now, on this windswept coast, the two sides had come full circle. It was a reunion as much as it was “first contact.”

Alas, like many a family reunion, the meeting did not go well. The Vikings— being Vikings—immediately attacked, killing eight of the Inuit. One managed to escape, which was bad news for the Vikings because he came back with an armada of kayaks. A pitched battle ensued and although the Vikings managed to drive the Inuit off, an arrow hit Thorvald under the arm, fatally wounding him. He made a pithy farewell

speech and then promptly died. And so ended the first meeting between the people of Europe and those of North America. It would set the tone of much that would follow.

A later, larger expedition ended in a full-scale war between the colonists and the skraelings. Amid the bloody melee, Leif’s half-sister Freydis had grabbed up the sword of a fallen Norseman and, ripping open her shirt, had slapped the blade against her breasts. She stood her ground, ready to fight, and the Inuit attackers, speechless at the sight of this warrior woman, fell back.

Freydis, bare-breasted and defiant,

is a Viking icon. Never mind that other accounts of her voyage to Vinland end in a Viking civil war of sorts, with Freydis butchering a competing camp of Norse settlers. (When her own henchmen refused, Freydis herself killed the female prisoners. With an axe.)

The die had been cast. Relentless skraeling attacks, the isolation and loneliness, and the creeping cold of a “little Ice Age” helped doom the Vinland colonies. They faded into the myths of Icelandic sagas, half-forgotten and awaiting rediscovery.

Fast forward to 1914: Using geographical clues in the ancient Norse Sagas (tales that mix folklore and fact), amateur

Newfoundland historian W. A. Munn traced the lost location of Leif’s camp to a bay close to L’Anse aux Meadows. Munn practically pinpointed the very spot. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that an archaeological expedition was launched, led by the Norwegian husband-and-wife team of Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine.

At L’Anse aux Meadows, in the shadow of the Labrador shore, grassy mounds were peeled back and a Viking village slowly emerged from the wet earth: living quarters, a boat shed, a blacksmith smelter, a scattering of iron nails, a bronze cloak pin, a spinning whorl.

But was this Vinland? Wild grapes are

not found this far north. Were the Norsemen referring instead to the plump berries that grow in abundance at L’Anse aux Meadows, the currants and bakeapples and partridgeberries? The debate continues to rage, with much of it turning on the translation of the word “vin.” But it seems clear, to me anyway, that L’Anse aux Meadows was almost certainly the location of Leif Ericsson’s encampment, the same site that was inhabited and expanded upon by later Norse colonists. It’s just common sense. L’Anse aux Meadows was found by following clues in ancient sagas that outlined the voyage of Leif Ericsson. Now, what are the odds, what are the statistical probabilities, that—in using these clues—archeologists would, by sheer coincidence, discover a completely different, previously unknown Viking site?

Keeping in mind that the sagas often condense and combine different journeys into one, might it not be possible that the grapes referred to were actually found during later explorations of that same voyage? The evidence is there. At L’Anse aux Meadows, butternuts were unearthed. So? So, butternuts don’t grow in Newfoundland. They do, however, grow in eastern New Brunswick, which also happens to be the northern range of wild grapes at about the time Leif was setting sail. Interesting, no?

All of this suggests that L’Anse aux Meadows operated as a base camp, a gateway to the heart of Vinland. Leif landed here and sent out scouting missions. He and his men spent almost a year in Vinland, with lots of time to probe the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We know they got as far as New Brunswick. We know that they found grapes. And we know that the Viking village at L’Anse aux Meadows was right where the sagas said it would be.

Was this where Leif Ericsson first landed? Of course it is.

Today, a blue UN flag snaps in the wind over the L’Anse aux Meadows reception centre. Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, L’Anse aux Meadows remains, to this day, the only authenticated Viking site in North America.

I FLEW IN TO THE TOWN of St. Anthony on June 30, across a barren landscape of stunted forests and quicksilver rivers. A

Translucent marble, Matterhorns on the move, the icebergs roll under the waves, they grind along the bottom of bays, they lurch to a dead stop, they melt themselves free

comedian once described the chihuahua as “a dog that looks like it’s still really far away.” Newfoundland is like that. The small scrub trees look like a forest that’s “still really far away.” Go for a hike in northern Newfoundland and you feel like the Friendly Giant; even the clapboard houses, huddled in inlets, look like miniatures. By the time you reach L’Anse aux Meadows, the trees have shrunk so small they have disappeared entirely, leaving a peaty, pungent bogland in their place.

This is Canada’s Iceberg Alley, and in St. Anthony alone, there were seven icebergs anchored in the bay. Titanic-sinking, Northwest Passage-denying, Group-ofSeven-beguiling mountains of ice, they drift in a calm, cruel procession down the coast. Icebergs, as I learned when I hired a boat to take me out, are not white. Far from it: they are blue on blue and veined with green. Translucent marble, Matterhorns on the move, they roll under the waves, they grind along the bottom of bays, they lurch to a dead stop, they melt themselves free.

The man piloting the boat veers toward one, and we bob like a cork on upchuck waves as he grabs a long wooden snare net. He has come to collect 10,000-yearold ice cubes, the crumbling debris of icebergs, scooped up and used by restaurants to chill the drinks of tourists.

The captain (if a boat this small can have a captain) rinses the saltwater off a fist of smooth ice and then tosses it over to me. “There you go, b’y,” and yes, he really says b’y. “Purest water you’ll ever taste.” I press it against my tongue; it numbs my mouth and makes my teeth ache with its clear, clean cold.

And then, against the backdrop of icebergs, a whale breaks the surface, spouting a plume of fishy bad breath. It’s a humpback, and it arcs into the water, its

tail sliding up and in, like a hand waving goodbye. Like a hand beckoning you in.

The whale vanishes and then reappears on the other side of the boat, having crossed silently below us, a black shape in a pewter sea. That something so large could disappear with such ease...

The owner of the boat is a young man, but his face is as creased as old canvas. He grins, face into the wind, as he turns his boat to shore, a harvest of ice in the hold.

CANADA DAY at L’Anse aux Meadows. I have driven my rent-a-car down to the sea—and damn near into it. A low-lying mist has blanketed the shore, erasing the line between land and water, and I slam on the brakes at the last minute, skidding to a halt. No matter. I haul out my tripod and set up my camera.

A pale glow is growing along the horizon. Sunrise across L’Anse aux Meadows! My Canadian soul is stirring.

I load my film and check my settings, hardly noticing the way the mist is creeping in. Without a sound, the entire Atlantic Ocean disappears into a cumulus fog. The landscape around me dissolves. It’s getting brighter, but I can’t find the sun—it’s not even a hazy spotlight in the fog. Hell, I might as well have plunged my head into a sack of flour for all the view I have. Frantic, I begin madly cranking off shots every which way, not even sure if I am pointed in the right direction. I take two steps toward shore, camera blazing, and can’t find my tripod when I turn back. It’s a sea of soup, the kind that swallowed Bjarni.

Shivering wet and dripping with condensation, I sit huddled on the shore, waiting for the fog to burn away. I can hear the waves, but I cannot see them. And I think of whales sliding just below the surface. I think of icebergs, nine-tenths unseen. I think of villages that lie in stillness for a thousand years, hidden in tall grass. I think of a history that runs deep, like ocean currents in a northern sea.

Will Ferguson is the author of Canadian History for Dummies, which won the 2001 Canadian Authors Association Award for History. He is also on the council of the Historica Foundation of Canada, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Canadian history.