The Viking Trail to the Big Land of Labrador

My northernmost point on the island of Newfoundland is L’Anse aux Meadows, UNESCO World Heritage site at the end of The Viking Trail.

If one is to write an honest blog, it sometimes means confessing to one’s ignorance.  Prior to my visit to L’Anse aux Meadows, my knowledge of Leif Erikson was relegated to high school history class when Leif was used as an example of a “patronym,” the naming convention of a person’s surname being based on the given name of one’s father.  Leif Erikson was “Erik’s son,” son of “Eric the Red,” who was credited with discovering Greenland.

As I travel along the coast, I spot smaller icebergs in coves along the shore.

As I travel along the coast, I spot smaller icebergs in coves along the shore.

The road on up to L'Anse aux Meadows is very scenic.

The road on up to L’Anse aux Meadows is very scenic.

As I am driving along the edge of a cove, I spot this gull frenzy taking place out the window, so I pull over to watch for a while (Note another iceberg in background.)

As I am driving along the edge of a cove, I spot this gull frenzy taking place out the window, so I pull over to watch for a while (Note another iceberg in background.)

I've never seen gulls diving like this before. They fly up in a circle, then dive head first in what looks to be a 20 ft tailspin. I believe they are diving for Caplin.

I’ve never seen gulls diving like this before. They fly up in a circle, then dive head first in what looks to be a 20 ft tailspin. I believe they are diving for Caplin.

If I knew before today, I forgot….Leif Erikson actually landed on North American shores 500 years before Christopher Columbus.  Yet somehow, Columbus gets all the credit for “discovering” America, when in fact, neither of them “discovered” it since it was already inhabited by indigenous people.  So I’ll buy that he was the first European to land on North American soil.

Leif Erikson was believed to have landed in three sites in the Maritimes, Baffin Island, Labrador, and the northern tip of Newfoundland.  Excavations have shown signs of boat repair being done in L’Anse aux Meadows based on evidence of bog iron and smelting carried out in the area.   Signs indicate they didn’t stay long, however, as they were believed to meet with hostility from the aboriginals.

Inside the Visitor Center at the L'Anse aux Meadows site is a replica of a Viking Ship based on drawings in the Norse Sagas.

Inside the Visitor Center at the L’Anse aux Meadows site is a replica of a Viking Ship based on drawings in the Norse Sagas.

Looking out over the L'Anse Aux Meadows site, the interpretive guide tells us there would have been trees here when the Norse arrived.

Looking out over the L’Anse Aux Meadows site, the interpretive guide tells us there would have been trees here when the Norse arrived.

See that tiny brown dot in the middle of the photo? Nah, me neither. That's my one "moose siting" so far on the trip.

See that tiny brown dot in the middle of the photo? Nah, me neither. That’s my one “moose sighting” so far on the trip.

I’m not much of an ancient history buff, but being so close to L’Anse aux Meadows, I can’t pass up the opportunity to see a UNESCO site.   I probably would have lost interest fast were it not for Clayton, the Park Ranger.   Just like Erik the Red, Clayton was once a redhead, evidenced now only by his eyebrows. He is a “Newfie” through and through, with a heavy brogue that sounds familiar to me, like a cross between Irish and Brooklyn with a southern twang.  Clayton grew up in L’Anse aux Meadows, and tells of his childhood playing on the mounds that were believed to be Indian mounds in what they called, “the old Indian camp.”

This is Clayton, our guide. Like most Newfies, he's a great story teller.

This is Clayton, our guide. Like most Newfies, he’s a great story teller.

Beneath these mounds are the location where they found some semblance of structure and artifacts that led them to believe "Leif was here."

Beneath these mounds are the location where they found some semblance of structure and artifacts that led them to believe “Leif was here.”

Clayton tells us this stream was once full of salmon.

Clayton tells us this stream was once full of salmon. That’s the L’Anse aux Meadows Visitor Center in the background, up on the hill.

Clayton tells us of his excitement when the Norwegian archeologists came to the area in 1960 and began the excavations.  They identified eight complete house sites beneath the mounds indicative of the sod house style found in Iceland and Greenland, which led to the belief that this was a Norse landing site back in 1,000 AD.   Then they covered them back up for preservation.

They have recreated a complex of sod houses to look like they thought the camp would have looked, based on drawings in the Norse Sagas.

They have recreated a complex of sod houses to look like they thought the camp would have looked, based on drawings in the Norse Sagas.

Pay no attention to those gas jets in the fireplace. ;-)

Pay no attention to those gas jets in the fireplace. ;-)

To an archeologist, the artifacts found; a cloak pin, part of a spinning wheel and a bone knitting needle, are evidence enough.  But to the skeptic like me, I need a little more help tapping into my imagination, so I visit the “reenactment” where costumed Viking interpreters welcome me into the reconstructed sod and timber houses.  Though the interpreters stay in character the entire time, they rotate positions with the interpreters behind the counter at the Visitor Center.  It’s tough for me to suspend disbelief when the young Norse daughter in the sod house gave me directions to a boondocking site last night.  😉

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These were the largest bellows I've seen.  These were believed to have been used to raise the temperature of the fire for iron smelting.

These were the largest bellows I’ve seen. These were believed to have been used to raise the temperature of the fire for iron smelting.

View of the sod house complex.

View of the sod house complex.

I leave L’Anse aux Meadows on the absolute windiest day I’ve driven yet.  Gusts are so strong that I dare not swerve to avoid a pothole for fear I could lose control, and must drive way below the speed limit. But I have a reservation on the ferry bound for Labrador in St Barbe, ninety miles away.  I consider changing it, but I’ve already been in this wind for two days now, and I am ready to move on.  There are white-capped waves on the Strait of Belle Isle, the body of water between Newfoundland and Labrador.  I do ask the woman at the ferry terminal if there is a chance it will be canceled.  But I am starting to learn that 50mph gusts to “Newfies” is just enough to keep the bugs away.

This map, borrowed from Encyclopedia Britannica is a good depiction of how Newfoundand (the island) and Labrador (the mainland) are separated.

This map, borrowed from Encyclopedia Britannica is a good depiction of how Newfoundand (the island) and Labrador (the mainland) are separated.

Newfoundland and Labrador make up the same province, but the distinction is Newfoundland is an island, whereas Labrador is on the mainland, bordering Quebec.  They are separated by the Strait of Belle Isle which is at its narrowest point, is just 10 miles across.   The ferry actually lands in Blanc Sablon in Quebec, about five miles south of the provincial line with Labrador.

The ferry crossing from St. Barbe, Newfoundland actually arrives south of Labrador in Quebec.

The ferry crossing from St. Barbe, Newfoundland actually arrives south of Labrador in Quebec.

It's a much smaller ferry on this crossing than from Nova Scotia, which doesn't do much to quell my fears over the high winds.

It’s a much smaller ferry on this crossing than from Nova Scotia, which doesn’t do much to quell my fears over the high winds.

We actually load into the bow of the boat. Strange to see it raise up and the giant doors open.

We actually load into the bow of the boat. Strange to see it raise up and the giant doors open.

A few iceberg sightings along the way.

A few iceberg sightings along the way.

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Welcome to "The Big Land"....of potholes!

Welcome to “The Big Land”….of potholes!

The lovely little Labrador Visitor Center, staffed with helpful young staff.

The lovely little Labrador Visitor Center, staffed with helpful young staff.

Some might say there are as many reasons NOT to visit Labrador as there are to go.  It requires a ninety minute, sixty dollar ferry ride to cross.   The roads are deplorable….and that’s just the 30 miles to Red Bay.  After that, it’s a dusty gravel road if you want to go further.   So “exploring” the province is limited.  

But there are things on Labrador I want to see.  For one, there’s Canadian Atlantic’s tallest lighthouse, now a National Historic Site.  And there’s also Canada’s newest UNESCO site, Red Bay.  Besides, visiting only half of a 2-part province just feels “half done.”

So fasten your seatbelts, my friends, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

These signs will become very familiar...

These signs will become very familiar…

Only seven kilometers, they said...

Only seven kilometers, they said…

It gets worse, but then that requires two hands on the wheel...

It gets worse, but then that requires two hands on the wheel…

There is where I am headed next...can you see it? Standing tall at the end of the point?

There is where I am headed next…can you see it? Standing tall at the end of the point?

St. Anthony, Patron Saint of Icebergs

It’s 220 miles from Gros Morne to the end of the Northern Peninsula.  That’s a typical driving day for me.  I try not to go much more than 200 miles in stretch, but since I’m not towing, that should be a breeze.  Except for the breeze.  I don’t account for the strong, gusting crosswinds that blow in from the ocean at gale force, nor do I account for the road surface that looks like swiss cheese.  By the time I reach St. Anthony, the northernmost town on the peninsula, I feel like I have wrestled an angry elephant.

I have been including more "From the road" shots for a couple of reasons...one, I am driving more than usual, but two, I think some might want to see what Newfoundland roads are like.

I have been including more “From the road” shots for a couple of reasons…one, I am driving more than usual, but two, I think some might want to see what Newfoundland roads are like.

Hwy 430, also known as "The Viking Trail" runs primarily along the west coast of the Northern Peninsula.

Hwy 430, also known as “The Viking Trail” runs primarily along the west coast of the Northern Peninsula.

I am so anxious to see icebergs that I almost swerve off the road when I see this in front of me...but turns out to be only patches of snow on the side of the hill.

I am so anxious to see icebergs that I almost swerve off the road with excitement when I see this in front of me…but turns out to be only patches of snow on the side of the hill.

I am excited to finally reach St. Anthony, which the locals pronounce "Sin-Antny" (For readers who may not know, Anthony is my last name.)

I am excited to finally reach St. Anthony, which the locals pronounce “Suh-NANT-ny” (For readers who may not know, Anthony is my last name.)

St. Anthony is not the quaint, charmed little fishing village I had pictured.  I expected a kinship with this town, given that we share names.  But it looks bleak, boring, and industrial.  I have booked a tour at 8:30am tomorrow morning in hopes of seeing some icebergs, so I need a place to overnight.  I pull into the Food Lion, absolutely starving.  Too exhausted from the drive to cook, I look for somewhere to eat, but there’s nothing I can find but Tim Horton’s.  I’m crestfallen, as I’ve been looking forward to reaching this point since I crossed the ferry, but here I am parked in the Food Lion parking lot surrounded by the infrastructure it takes to support all the little other quaint fishing villages along the coast; the hospital, automotive stores, marine haul-out yard and repair shops.

I get a message from Ed and Marti telling me they can’t see the ocean for the icebergs back in Twillingate, the opposite end of “Iceberg Alley.”   Ed tells me “Don’t miss Lightkeepers.  Marti and I ate there several times.”   I do a quick check on Google Maps to see it’s only 3 miles away, and text Ed back to say  “I’m going there NOW!”

In just three short miles, my mood goes from glum to gleeful.  I’ve gone from the outhouse to the penthouse as I crest the top of the hill at Fishing Point to find everything I’ve been seeking.  There on the top of this hill, I can see not only a busy restaurant, but there is a lighthouse, maps to trails all over the point, icebergs out at sea, and the perfect boondocking spot to sit and watch the sun set and the near full moon rise over the ocean!

At the end of the road is the little peninsula of "Fishing Point" with a restaurant, gift shop, hiking trails, and a tiny but functioning lighthouse.

At the end of the road is the little peninsula of “Fishing Point” with a restaurant, gift shop, hiking trails, and a tiny but functioning lighthouse.

Fox Point Lighthouse. There have been many lights on this location dating back to 1912, but this light was erected in the early 1960's.

Fox Point Lighthouse. There have been many lights on this location dating back to 1912, but this light was erected in the early 1960’s. (Note iceberg, finally, on the horizon!)

The Lightkeeper's house has been converted to the best restaurant in town, "Lightkeepers."

The Lightkeeper’s house has been converted to the best restaurant in town, “Lightkeepers.”

It is here that I finally see my first iceberg of the trip. In fact, from Fishing Point, I can see half a dozen!

It is here that I finally see my first iceberg of the trip. In fact, from Fishing Point, I can see half a dozen!

Not only is this where I see my first iceberg, it's also where I sample my first Iceberg Beer,"Made with 20,000 year old iceberg ice." It's refreshing, but a little light for my taste.

Not only is this where I see my first iceberg, it’s also where I sample my first Iceberg Beer,”Made with 20,000 year old iceberg ice.” It’s refreshing, but a little light for my taste.

Since this is a little park, there is lots of parking. I ask the restaurant if people park here overnight, and she says "Sure, make yourself at home!"

Since this is a little municipal park, there is lots of parking. I ask the restaurant if people park here overnight, and she says “Sure, make yourself at home!”

Moonrise over Fishing Point Cove.

Moonrise over Fishing Point Cove.

The tall ship Lord Nelson is in port. There are several of them circumnavigating the Maritimes this summer.

The tall ship Lord Nelson is in port. There are several of them circumnavigating the Maritimes this summer to commemorate Canada’s 150th Anniversary.

He sails right past Fishing Point.

He sails right past Fishing Point.

I can hardly sleep at the anticipation of my iceberg tour come morning.  I think others on board think it’s a Whale Watching Tour, but I am calling it an Iceberg Tour.  😉   Once we are on board, our interpretive guide, Steve, tells us we hope to make it out to the “big one” today, the largest iceberg they have seen this year at over 100 ft tall.  He tells us it was 4.5 miles offshore yesterday, but overnight it has drifted further to 6 miles, which is just on the edge of their range for tours.  “We’re going to try to get you out there, but it all depends on which direction the whales are sighted.  If we are lucky, we’ll encounter whales on our direct path to the big iceberg.  If not, we’ll follow the whales and get as close to the iceberg as time allows.”   This makes me tense.

I have booked an Iceberg Tour with Northland Discovery Boat Tours.

I have booked an Iceberg Tour with Northland Discovery Boat Tours.

We are headed out past the Fox Point Lighthouse, hopefully to that big chuck of ice on the horizon. From here, it's six nautical miles.

We are headed out past the Fox Point Lighthouse, hopefully to that big chuck of ice on the horizon. From here, it’s six nautical miles away.

This is a terrible zoom photo, trying to take a picture five miles away, but that fuzzy spot to the right of the iceberg is the Lord Nelson Tall Ship, for scale.

This is a terrible zoom photo, trying to take a picture five miles away, but that fuzzy spot to the right of the iceberg is the Lord Nelson Tall Ship, for scale. (I don’t often wish for a big zoom camera, but this time I do!)

We pass other smaller icebergs on the way to the "big one."

We pass other smaller icebergs on the way to the “big one. Typically seven eighths of an iceberg is beneath the surface.”

It’s not long until we see the first whale spout.  I am relieved that they seem to be directly in between us and the iceberg, so we won’t have to veer too far off course.   We get the ubiquitous “tale shot” as the whales dive deeper.  It will be 8-10 minutes before they submerge again.  Steve, our interpreter and the captain have a conversation to determine if we have time to wait, or move on to the ice.  We’ll wait.  I stare nervously at the giant iceberg, still surely a good four miles away.   More blow spouts.  Another tale shot.  Never in my life did I think I could be this impatient while watching whales.  But I can see the clock ticking on our two and a half hour tour, and that iceberg is a long way away.

Next, it’s a couple of Minke whales, the smallest of the species.   We veer off course to follow these for a while.   Humpbacks, Minkes, yadda yadda yadda….I CAME FOR THE ICE!

First whale sighting. A humpback.

First whale sighting. A humpback.

The famous "tale shot."

The famous “tale shot.”

This one's a Minke, the second smallest baleen whale behind the pygmy whale.

This one’s a Minke, the second smallest baleen whale behind the pygmy whale.

Steve, our interpreter is telling us about feeding habits of whales. If you can see the two small fish in the dark square on the left, those are "caplin," a very important part of the humpback diet. When the caplin start running, the whales follow. (Click to enlarge photo.)

Steve, our interpreter is telling us about feeding habits of whales. If you can see the two small fish in the dark square on the left of his information board, those are “caplin,” a very important part of the humpback diet. When the caplin start running, the whales follow. (Click to enlarge photo.)

Steve passes around a sample chunk of baleen. Instead of teeth, whales feed through these keratin plates by scooping in fish, then squeezing the water out through the plates, leaving their food caught on the baleen like a giant colander.

Steve passes around a sample chunk of baleen. Instead of teeth, whales feed through these keratin (think “fingernail”) plates by scooping in fish, then squeezing the water out through the plates, leaving their food caught on the baleen like a giant colander.

Finally, we start steaming full speed ahead toward the massive, shimmering blue-white structure as big as an eight story office building.   Details of the fantastic sculpture become defined the closer we get.  We will be circling it counter-clockwise, so I make my way to the port side railing.  I am lost in thought, back on the edge of that Zodiac in Antarctica, staring up in awe at Mother Nature’s masterpiece overhead.   It’s one of those moments of narrow focus when I am unaware of everything else that’s taking place around me, as I study this piece of artfully chiseled 15,000 year old ice as if Michelangelo had just left on the last boat out.

Our guide spent a summer in Greenland, so his narration is captivating.  He tells about how the ice is breaking loose from the ice pack in Greenland, taking two years to drift with the Labrador Current to the start of Newfoundland’s “Iceberg Alley.”

Okay, enough about whales. Let's get on to the iceberg!

Okay, enough about whales. Let’s get on to the iceberg!

At this point, our interpreter Steve tells us we have time to circle it. I am thrilled!

At this point, our interpreter Steve tells us we have time to circle it. I am thrilled!

Note the blue ice underneath the "beak" structure.

Note the blue ice underneath the “beak” structure, like its nose has been running. ;-)

As the boat moves around the iceberg, the scenery changes rapidly.

As the boat moves around the iceberg, the scenery changes rapidly.

I am so captivated by these structures changed by the wind and water.

I am so captivated by these structures changed by the wind and water.

This "fin" is my favorite part of what looked like just a big block of ice from the shore.

This “fin” is my favorite part of what looked like just a big block of ice from the shore.

Steve, our interpreter tells us that the grooves are from riding the ocean currents from Greenland.

Steve, our interpreter tells us that the grooves are from riding the ocean currents from Greenland.

I think this end looks like the Maple Leaf from our host country's flag. Oh! Canada!

I think this end looks like the Maple Leaf from our host country’s flag. Oh! Canada!

I am in love with icebergs since my trip to Antarctica in 2009, so there are a lot of photos. ;-)

I am in love with icebergs since my trip to Antarctica in 2009, so there are a lot of photos. ;-)

Many small "bergy bits" surround the big guy.

Many small “bergy bits” surround the big guy.

This is known as the "debris field" showing recent calving.

This is known as the “debris field” showing recent calving.

Steve brings on board a large chunk of 15,000 year old ice for us all to taste.

Steve brings on board a large chunk of 15,000 year old ice for us all to taste.

At the end of the boat tour, Steve asks if anyone wants any "souvenirs" of the ice. I am the only one with a freezer. ;-)

At the end of the boat tour, Steve asks if anyone wants any “souvenirs” of the ice. I am the only one with a freezer. ;-)

I brought an inch of bourbon across the border in hopes I would have this opportunity. Something about the sharp angles of this ice, and knowing it's 15,000 year origin makes this the best Manhattan I've ever made!

I brought an inch of bourbon across the border in hopes I would have this opportunity, so later that night, I chip some 15,000 old ice for my cocktail. Something about the sharp angles of this ice and knowing its origin makes this the best Manhattan I’ve ever tasted. (Said Sharon Stone in the movie Basic Instinct when asked what she had against ice cubes, she replied, “I like rough edges.”)

Once back at the dock, I bargain with myself that I can enjoy lunch at Lightkeepers again if I will put in the 475 steps to the top of the hill, followed by the 5 mile loop back into town.  It’s a stimulating hike up over the hill, into town and back to the Winnie.  As I walk, I reflect on the great sense of peace and satisfaction knowing that my “iceberg stalking” has finally paid off….just before I run out of road.

Afternoon hike around Fishing Point.

Afternoon hike around Fishing Point.

One would think it was cold with ice on the trail, but it's a beautiful day.

One would think it was cold with ice on the trail, but it’s a beautiful day.

I scramble down to the waters edge and watch this iceberg bob for a good while. On the right is a small channel where I can hear waves rushing up over the surface. This is mesmerizing.

I scramble down to the waters edge and watch this iceberg bob for a good while. On the right is a small channel where I can hear waves rushing up over the surface of the ice as if it were Caribbean water on a white sand beach. This is mesmerizing.

From this higher fantage point, you can see the wave-worn channel.

From this higher vantage point, you can see the wave-worn channel.

"Daredevil Trail?" Really? Dare me...

“Daredevil Trail?” Really? Dare me…

Below, you can see the 476 steps to the top of the hill.

Below, you can see the 476 steps to the top of the hill, with the town of St. Anthony in the background.

From this vantage point, you get a sense of the size of the iceberg. Just to the left of the buildings was my boondock spot last night.

From this vantage point, you get a sense of the size of the iceberg. Just to the left of the buildings out on the point was my boondock spot last night.

My apres-hike treat. This orange topping is called "Bakeapple" and is a Newfoundland Labrador specialty. It looks like a giant raspberry, but tastes like an apricot. I had to try it for research purposes. Unfortunately, the cheesecake came with it. ;-)

My apres-hike treat. This orange topping is called “Bakeapple” (also known as a Cloud Berry) and is a Newfoundland Labrador specialty. It looks like a giant raspberry, but tastes like an apricot. I had to try it in its native form, Bakeapple Cheesecake, solely for research purposes.

Good Morn in Gros Morne

Continuing with my loose strategy to get north as quickly as possible before the icebergs melt, I am headed straight up the Northern Peninsula with as few stops as possible…with one exception.   The Trans-Canada Highway passes right through the heart of Gros Morne National Park.   The most notable highlight of this national park is the Western Pond Brook Tour.  This two-hour boat ride across a glacially carved, fresh water lake can only be reached by a “two-ish” mile hike to the boat dock at the edge of the pond. Continue reading

New Found Land!

There’s really nothing that thrills me more than exploring “new found land.”  I got that wanderlust gene from my Mom and especially my (late) Dad, both who enjoyed exploratory travel as much as I do.  We were never “sit and stay” vacationers, but rather constantly on the move, always eager to explore new territory.  So to have a ferry crossing to an island of  42,000 square miles to explore is a thrill beyond compare. Continue reading