Newfoundland/Labrador Day 12: A Little bit of History
My decision not to try to ride to St. Anthony’s and back to Cow Head today, but instead to find a room in St. Anthony’s and only make a one-way trip was a good one. It allowed for a much more leisurely ride and the chance to stop at several locations that I otherwise would have missed. And they were not places I would have wanted to miss.
In addition to hiking (check that one off my list) and kayaking (yet to be accomplished) I also wanted to take in some historic sites and museums of Newfoundland/Labrador. Today, when I was not riding, was devoted almost exclusively to that and the history I explored goes back a very long way.
One of the bonus stops I would have missed was the Parks Canada interpretation center at the fishing village of Port au Choix (pronounced port aw schwa) which has been inhabited off and on for more than 6,000 years. In addition to the European settlers who currently occupy the site with their brightly colored fishing boats and their ubiquitous lobster traps, the limestone spit of land that juts defiantly into the Gulf of St. Lawrence has been the home of the Maritime Archaic peoples (5,000-6,000 years ago), the Groswater and Dorset Paleoeskimos, (2,000-3,000 years ago) and the more recent Indian relatives, the Beothuk.
The full history of the archeological digs and surveys is beyond the scope of this blog, but a significant, accidental find by a local resident brought scores of archeologists to the site in 1960 and led the Canadian government to declare it a National Historic site. Unfortunately, there is no active digging going on now so I couldn’t talk with any archaeologists, but I was able to pick the brain of a knowledgeable interpretive center staffer for about an hour. I found it fascinating (I’m sure others would not find it so fascinating) to learn about the migratory patterns of these ancient people for thousands of years as they followed the seal migrations up and down the coast. Their ability to survive on the cold, rocky shores of present day Newfoundland and Labrador is a testament to their ingenuity and their skill at hunting and using completely all that the seals had to offer.
By the time Europeans arrived, all that remained were their buried remains and thousands of artifacts (spelled “artefacts” in Canada, I noticed) that range from cleverly designed fish hooks to meticulously created spear points to lamps and pots carved from solid sandstone. We often think of these people as “primitive,” yet if left to our own resources could we develop the same tools before we perished of cold or hunger? They migrated hundreds of miles over the course of each year and kept alive their cultures for millennia. Quite a feat.
Following my time at the Port au Choix interpretive center, I made a short run to see a more modern artifact: the Point Riche lighthouse. I don’t believe this one is in operation any longer, but it still stands as a proud beacon on the rocky coast. A couple of pictures and a walk on the windswept beach and I was off again, headed north to another historical site, this one involving the Vikings.
Norsemen (and Norsewomen) landed at the northern tip of Newfoundland in about the year 1000, predating Columbus’s “discovery” by almost 500 years. For hundreds of years Norse sagas spoke of the settlement at Vinland but not until 1960 did an historian and his archaeologist wife find the actual site of the landing. Local people at L’Anse aux Meadows knew of some strange indentations in the ground but had always assumed they were Indian in origin. But archaeologists found solid, artifactual evidence that proved the site had in fact been inhabited by Vikings off and on for about 25 years.
Parks Canada has once again done an outstanding job of interpreting the site and making it available to visitors. Maybe too much so, since I was amazed to discover that I could actually walk on the remains of the site declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Eventually, I suspect, they will have to fence it off or at least restrict access in some way in order to preserve it.
A sculpture on the grounds makes an interesting connection to emphasize the importance of this site. And that importance is this: Beginning about 100,000 years ago our ancestors began to leave the plains of Africa. Some headed North and West, others headed East and for the next 100,000 years there was no contact. But when the Vikings (from Europe) first met the natives of Newfoundland and Labrador (whose ancestors had migrated across the Bering Strait about 15,000 years earlier), the circle had been completed. East had met West for the first time in 100,000 years. Pretty cool, eh?
One of their interpretive efforts included a reconstruction of one of the houses (probably Leif Erickson’s) that could hold up to 30 men and a few women. They recreated it on exactly the dimensions of the ruins found at the site and using a model of a still existing structure in Iceland. Two re-enactors and a walking tour guide were able to answer all the questions tourists could throw at them. There’s still much that historians and archaeologists don’t know about the short-lived Viking visitors, but they know they were here, how they lived, and why they came.
In one day, I covered more than 5000 years of history, including the first landing by Europeans in America. In addition, I saw my first icebergs. More on icebergs tomorrow after I’ve gone to the beach to watch them float by. There are hundreds of them floating down from Greenland and bumping into the coast of Newfoundland so I’ll see them tomorrow morning here in St. Anthony and again tomorrow afternoon when I take the ferry across to Labrador.
Sorry for the long post, but I have more than a passing interest in history and want to pass it along when I can.
One more note for today’s blog: Three days ago when I was waiting to board the ferry to Newfoundland from Nova Scotia I struck up a conversation with a couple from Ontario. We talked and said good bye. Then two days ago, just before I started my ill-starred 9-mile hike, I ran into them again at an overlook at the Tablelands. We had another short but pleasant conversation and went our separate ways. Tonight, when I went to the restaurant at my hotel, Andre and Johanna were sitting in an empty dining room and I joined them for dinner and a truly delightful conversation. We may meet again given our predilection to traveling to the places. But if not, I wish them well and bid them adieu.
Oh, I also had partridgeberry pie again. This time with ice cream.
Click here and see what you find. Will try to load pictures to Flickr.
Stay safe and watch out for the icebergs.