© Cinda Chavich
The Rock of ages
Vikings and fishing villages on a 10-day cruise around Newfoundland
Seeing the far-flung corners of Newfoundland has long been on my bucket list — and I’m not alone. Bouncing through the choppy water in a rubber Zodiac, clinging to the yellow nylon rope that snaked behind us, were intrepid travellers from across North America. It was a small, but eclectic group, the kind of fifty-somethings and fit retirees who wanted to do something adventurous, and learn something new, while on vacation.
The cruise around the rugged shores of Canada’s most easterly — and arguably most unique — province ticked those boxes and more. Adventure Canada has been taking tourists into the Arctic and other corners of our country only accessible by small ship for decades.
Our vessel, the Clipper Adventurer (recently renamed Sea Adventurer), was comfortable, but the focus wasn’t spa treatments and midnight buffets. Our fun was found hiking rough shores and experiencing outport life, and the ship had all the necessary amenities for that: an ice-strengthened hull for northern exploration and 10 Zodiacs to take us beyond the usual cruise ship ports.
While I’ve seen bits of Newfoundland before, notably the areas within a day’s drive of St. John’s, this was my chance to get around this massive province on one trip, to explore Gros Morne National Park, the first Viking settlements at L’Anse aux Meadows, and the early Basque whaling sites of eastern Labrador.
I set sail with 100 others, a third of them “staff” and many exceptional islanders like author Michael Crummey, actor and musician Daniel Payne, and archeologist/filmmaker Latonia Hartery. They regaled us with Newfoundland stories, songs and insights that helped bring our daily discoveries into focus.
Our 10-day adventure brought us to a new port every day. Officially, they call this “learning adventure travel,” but Matthew Swan, the company’s owner and master of goofy diversions, rightly likened it to “floating summer camp.” Our route ‘round The Rock may have been tame compared with some of their other Arctic adventures, but it was an unforgettable journey.
“In and out the Zodiac” was the game we played several times each day, bundled in outdoor gear, rubber boots and life vests. Flying across the waves was great fun, like a crazy, bouncy carnival ride and sea salt exfoliation in one. Zodiacs were our lifeline from ship to shore and the reason we saw so much. They zipped us across the open sea to wild beaches, up into narrow fjords, to archeological sites and lighthouses, then off to outport parties where locals played infectious reels and taught us to circle (square) dance, while our ship shimmered in the cove beneath a full moon.
The PA system woke us in our cabin every day, with local “culturalist” and outport mayor Tony Oxford strumming a daily ditty.
On one of our first mornings, the sun had broken over Fogo Island, but there was a gusty wind. Nevertheless, we scurried ashore to explore Fogo’s wonders.
Fogo Island is great for intrepid travellers with a bent for art and architecture. We hiked out to the Long Studio, one of the stunning retreats recently constructed by the local Shorefast Foundation to lure artists from around the world. The colourful cabins are contemporary renderings of the old salt cod-drying flakes and fishing “stages.” They’re scattered along the rocky shore in picturesque villages like Little Seldom, Joe Batt’s Arm and Tilting. In the latter, the local ladies had been cooking in the Parish Hall for hours before our arrival and we feasted on fried fish, partridge berry scones and molasses cake.
In the 1960s, filmmakers helped link the scattered populace by sharing their stories, a system that nurtured cooperative ideals that saved these secluded communities. Now millionaire entrepreneur and Fogo-ite Zita Cobb is hoping to make life on Fogo viable again with her artist-in-residence initiative and a upscale inn, which is celebrating its two-year anniversary this June. The inn is decked out in rugs and quilts stitched by local women, and furniture crafted by island boat builders. It’s all designed to attract the modern “geo-tourist” seeking undiscovered destinations, while preserving the outport life.
“It is a place to embrace and to be lived in for what it is,” said our guide, “an island halfway between the old world and the new.”
The next day, the water witch brought the nasty weather, our ship barely visible offshore in the driving rain as we motored to L’Anse aux Meadows. No doubt, the Vikings who settled here a 1000 years ago had days like this.
“My son, let me tell you something,” quipped Oxford as he commandeered our Zodiac. “I’ve wiped more saltwater out of my eyes than you’ve sailed over.”
We trudged the wet, grassy slopes to see the snorri (Viking ship) and three Norse-style sod buildings reconstructed next to the mounds where their longhouses, iron forge and workshops once stood. Discovered in 1960, L’Anse aux Meadows is the earliest confirmed Viking settlement in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, proof that Norsemen arrived here 500 years before Columbus, completing the circle of human migration around the planet. Eventually they gave up on the place, perhaps too isolated and harsh for even a marauding Vikinger.
The storm kicked up and the ship moved forward, but also up, down and sideways as we crossed the Strait of Belle Isle to Labrador. I was getting queasy so I sipped lemon-ginger tea in the lounge, while expert Holly Hogan explained how the oxygen-rich Labrador Current affects marine life.
Chunks of floating ice in Iceberg Alley follow the current in May and June, as do the fish and whales that lured Basques from France and Spain to Red Bay in the early 1500s. Later, we hiked the trails where they rendered oil from the Bow Head whales they hunted, some 25,000 in 70 summers between 1530 and 1600.
A scoff and a scuff
There are no roads into many of these places — communities are linked by sporadic ferry service — so when a ship like ours arrives, with a hundred new faces on board, it’s a reason to gather local musicians and celebrate. I “put me hard shoes on for a scuff,” hopped a Zodiac and headed to the nearest hall.
These tiny towns are caches of island culture. When musician Daniel Payne took to the stage, he recalled his great grandfather lending him his fiddle, so well-used there are grooves worn into the finger board. In Newfoundland, music goes “deeper than entertainment,” he explained. It draws people together and records the old stories in small communities.
Payne remembered Johnnie Formanger — “I had my 30th birthday the same year he had his 80th” — and 93-year-old Becky Bennett who “sang for five hours, four hours from memory, then one from the exercise book.”
“The music passed through these people,” he said. “It’s what makes our story, the different people who got together and carved out a life here.”
Every family has an outport story. Michael Crummey read Fishing on the Labrador one afternoon when we were out at sea. He told us about the 10,000 men and boys, including his grandfather, who sailed down the Labrador coast each summer, sent to the whaling stations to work, hacking away the blubber from the thick skin “as if pulling an old carpet from a hallway.” He painted a grim picture of boys ripped away from their families to earn money and men lost at sea, never to return home.
Loss was in the air when we motored into Brake’s Cove, an outport that was abandoned as part of former premier Joey Smallwood’s plan to amalgamate the far-flung population. There were 900 villages in the province in 1949, but the government decreed they would be consolidated into 300 “growth centres.”
I was sitting beside Joan Oxford, Tony’s wife, as our Zodiac headed into the sheltered bay. Joan’s grandparents lived there until 1968.
Brake’s Cove is now a pretty collection of summer cottages, but Joan still remembers the wrenching experience of leaving it. Returning that day opened an old wound.
“There’s so much emotion around it, I still can’t talk about it,” she said. Her grandmother’s house was floated out into the bay to be relocated further down the coast in Cox’s Cove. I walked up to the graveyard with her uncle Joe, who was more pragmatic about the move.
“We didn’t want to move — it seems crazy and it was, m’dear,” he said, as we stood next to a grove of stubby blue spruce, looking out across the glittering sea. “My great-grandfather Brake’s still here, all sodded over.”
The wild life
Newfoundland is a vast place — more than 110,000 square kilometres of rock and fjords, jutting further out into the wild Atlantic than any other corner of North America. It’s a world unto itself. To see all of its unique corners on one 10-day odyssey is miraculous.
When we finally disembarked in St. John’s, “swarving” around the steep streets on our sea legs, it seemed like we’d been away for a month, visiting a foreign land. I felt a little like an early explorer who’d discovered a part of Canada that few will ever have a chance to see.
We learned how to dress like a mummer and what sometimes seemed like a whole new language. We feasted on partridge berries, tapped our toes to small-town fiddlers and walked in the footsteps of Vikings. We found rare birds, both feathered and not. We heard firsthand about the collapse of the cod fishery and marvelled at stoic Newfoundlanders who can still face hardships with good humour, grace and generosity.
Author Crummey offered an elegant summation: “Life is all about magic and loss and wonder and ruin.”
I saw it all on this adventure ‘round The Rock.
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