The Viking Trail is called The Viking Trail because it takes you to l’Anse aux Meadows, which is the site of the only known Viking settlement in North America, and indeed proves the Vikings came to North America about 500 years before Columbus. The Vikings didn’t really settle in l’Anse aux Meadows, they would just tide over the winter there, hanging out and repairing their boat, before most of them set sail in the spring. L’Anse aux Meadows is located on the northern tip of Newfoundland, and has incredibly bitter winters, so it speaks volumes of what hardy people the Norse were that they would think that was a great place to seek shelter ‘til the summer months.
Local people knew there were ruins there long before they were investigated by pro’s in the ‘60’s, and because it was discovered to be a Viking Settlement it later became a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Parks Canada has now made it into one of those “living” museums. Some people still have houses inside the park, but when they die or move away the houses will be demolished and eventually the whole site will be a park.
We got there pretty late so we couldn’t spend a lot of time at the Discovery Centre, but you know, there wasn’t really that much to see. A case in the middle displays the various artifacts that were found on the site. These are pretty much a pin, part of a sewing needle, one butternut shell, a broken spindle, a stone oil lamp, and a few scraps of wood. (The Vikings had to make everything so I guess they would only leave something behind if it was useless or lost). There was a little movie with some re-enactments and the story or the Ingstads, the Norwegian couple who originally excavated the site, and a kind of overview of what they think the Norse were doing there.
Fortunately we weren’t too late for the last tour of the actual grounds. L’Anse aux Meadows is on a dryish bog that has a stream running through it, and of course one of what is now the ubiquitous moose. During the time of the Viking Settlement there were no moose and the stream was really crowded with salmon, which back then were not considered edible, so salmon caught in the fishing nets were thrown away—imagine that! There were all kinds of berries like bakeapples growing, and edible plants like Labrador Tea.
The actual location of the settlement has not much to see, just 8 rectangular depressions that had once been the foundations of the buildings. One had been a smelt, where bog iron had been made. This is a tedious process of extracting trace amount of iron from burned bog. During the whole duration of their settlement there, the Vikings produced less than 3 kilos of iron, but they were 3 kilos of vitally needed iron, it is speculated, that was used to make nails to repair their boats.
A few hundred metres from the actual site is a partial recreation of the settlement, where actors walk around in Viking outfits, and you can go inside the huts and try on armour and stuff. One of the Viking women was eating tiny wild strawberries. I used to find those when I was a very small child and I have always hoped to one day eat some again. I asked her where she picked them and she vaguely gestured to the meadow of bog outside the settlement. I looked a little bit, but I didn’t find any.
To me the most interesting thing found in l’Anse aux Meadows is the butternut shell found in a fire pit, and I’m not alone in that. That’s because butternuts just don’t grow north of Nova Scotia, so here is (as far as I know the only) evidence that the Vikings made it at least that far south. You know what else grows in Nova Scotia? Grapes, that’s what. So a lot of people speculate that Nova Scotia and Maine may in fact be the mythical “Vinland” the Vikings told sagas about, and Vinland may not be mythical at all.
There were some other interesting things at l’Anse aux Meadows that weren’t related to the Vikings. One was a shipwreck you could see easily with the naked eye, grounded on a little island north of the bog. This turned out to be a common site along the shores of Labrador, which we were quite close to. I guess there’s not enough resources to salvage these ships, and plenty of space, so they are just left there.
The other interesting thing is a restaurant called The Norseman, which is rated as one of the 100 best restaurants in Canada. They have really good food, a little art gallery, and live entertainment. I don’t know why they try so hard, since they are actually the only game in town, but I’m glad they do. This is where I ate my first scrunchion, which is a crispy fried cube of pork back fat, and I was sad and glad at the same time. Sad because it was soooo fucking delicious I wish I had eaten them every day, and glad because if you eat scrunchions every day your life would be considerably shortened.
There was some fellow singing Celtic songs while we ate, and he sang one about “Mummers”, which is a Newfoundland Christmas tradition where people dress in disguises and go over to the neighbour’s house, terrorise them, and party. The neighbour provides the refreshments. So it’s kind of like Christmas and Hallowe’en and home invasion mixed together. Most Newfoundland towns are so small that it can’t be that hard to figure out who is who, though, even in disguise.
The Norseman was crowded, too, mysteriously. Where did all those people come from? I noticed a table of 3 next to us, where one man ate only soup and I wondered how someone could travel so far and be in such a yummy place and then only have soup? Seems a waste.
It was still fairly early when we finished dinner so we decided to head down the road a short bit and check out the pub in Straitsview. On the way I noticed a couple of people in the bog with their heads bent down and we stopped and walked over and asked them what they were doing. It turned out they were picking bakeapples. Since we had arrived in Newfoundland we had often seen trucks on the side of the road advertising they were selling bakeapples, but we hadn’t given it much mind, and now here we could see the gathering of bakeapples in action.
A bakeapple (also known as a “cloudberry”) is a little salmon coloured bog berry that looks a bit like a small raspberry. It grows on a plant that is maybe 4 or 6 inches tall and each berry grows about 1 or 2 feet apart, so picking a serving of bakeapples is no small undertaking! At first we thought they were called “bakeapples” because they taste a bit like baked apples, but later we found out the name is actually a bastardization of “baie qu’apelle”, which is French for “What is this berry called?”. Haha…that is so Newfoundlandish!
We talked to the friendly locals for about 45 minutes and they said they might see us at the pub later. The pub is called Skipper Hot’s and it’s a well known pub over most of Newfoundland, because of it’s history of live music and jocularity. Hijinx ensue at Skipper Hot’s!
We got there kind of early and there were just a couple of locals sitting at the bar. Beer was something like $3.50 a bottle! That is about half what we pay at home. One guy at the bar gestured to the land around. “You know what’s over those hills?” he asked us, “Bogs full of bakeapples. You can get $80 a gallon for bakeapples. $80 a gallon! John O’Neighbour made $2300 last year picking bakeapples.” We were impressed, but not by the incredible entrepreneur opportunity, but that someone could actually pick 30 gallons of bakeapples. Let me remind you these are berries about the size of a raisin that grow widely dispersed 4 inches off the ground. One thing you can say for sure about Newfoundlanders is that they are not afraid of hard work.
The bar filled up a little more and we ended up joining the soup people from the Norseman. It turned out the 2 guys, Chris and Christian, were From Away and Erin worked for St. John’s Tourism. They had been here for a week which explained the whole soup mystery—they were eating at the Norseman twice a day! After a few beers Erin confided in me they were there working on a documentary about Chris Connelly. She wanted to keep that on the down-low; I guess they didn’t want to be inundated by curious locals. You know how people get with anybody connected to show business. But that was fine with us because Step had been a documentary producer for years so suddenly all the guys had a lot in common, and they could talk freely and about shop stuff, too.
Skipper Hot’s was hosting a Screech In, but there was only one guy there who hadn’t already been Screeched In and they didn’t want him to be lonely so they asked Step to also get Screeched In. You’re only supposed to get Screeched In once but after some discussion we all decided it would be okay because 1): The first time had been with the Townies, this second time would be with the Baymen* and 2): his name was spelled wrong on the first certificate.
There were minor differences in the Screech Ins, the most notable one was that the cod wasn’t frozen. Check out this picture of Step practically tongue kissing the fresh cod:
Skipper Hot’s didn’t mind at all if we slept in their parking lot, so we did. The next day we had to head back down the Viking Trail to St. Barbe, where we could get a boat to Labrador. On our way we stopped at Dark Tickle Company and bought some partridgeberry sauce. It was here we also found out about the little garden patches and wood piles we had seen and noted along the highways. These were things so often questioned at Dark Tickle Company they actually posted a print out about them. I have mentioned before that Newfoundland is basically a big rock with a thin layer of topsoil on it. When the highway was built it required a lot of fill to make it level, and locals had taken the leftover fill and turned it into little garden patches where they grow potatoes, carrots and turnips. Then each house had a license for a woodpile. In the summer they would collect and chop the wood, and in the winter they could skidoo to their woodpile and sled some home. I told you they are not afraid of hard work.
By early afternoon we made it to St. Barbe where a boat would take us off “The Rock” to Blanc Sablon. Our visit to Newfoundland was over.
Footnote: *In Newfoundland, anyone who lives in St. John’s is a “Townie” and anyone who doesn’t live in St. John’s is a “Bayman”. Anyone who doesn’t live in Newfoundland is “From Away”.