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Gros Morne National Park. (Barrett and MacKay/Newfoundland Tourism/Barrett and MacKay/Newfoundland Tourism)
Gros Morne National Park. (Barrett and MacKay/Newfoundland Tourism/Barrett and MacKay/Newfoundland Tourism)

How Gros Morne National Park bewitched Lawrence Hill Add to ...

For the highlight of our northern exploration, we continue on toward L'Anse aux Meadows, a 1,000-year-old Viking settlement. The roadside itself is enchanting; many enterprising Newfoundlanders fence gardens along the side of the highway. You'll see dozens- some carefully tended, others overgrown. In between, many kilometres inland from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, hundreds of lobster pots are stacked for summer, and countless piles of carefully chopped wood have been left to dry.

These roads leading north toward L'Anse aux Meadows are elevated well above the boggy, acidic soil. It feels like driving along the top of a Dutch dike, with the tuckamore trees - any windswept fir or balsam bent desperately away from the driving wind - pointing the way toward a special discovery. They're not kidding.

Three things about L'Anse aux Meadows are fascinating: The Vikings muscled across the sea from Greenland to beat Columbus to North America by 500 years; many North Americans still think Columbus was the first non-native to discover the continent; and the site may never have been found but for the obsessive searching of an ex-lawyer from Norway.

In 1960, Helge Ingstad wandered from village to village asking locals if they knew anything about rectangular turf ridges that might suggest a buried Viking village. A fisherman took him to some curious mounds of earth near his home in L'Anse aux Meadows and Ingstad found what he believed were part of the legendary lands described in the old Icelandic "Vinland Sagas." He returned the next year with his wife, archeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, and teams of archeologists excavated for seven summers.

But, before visiting the historic site, we drive to nearby St. Anthony for a three-hour trip into the Gulf of St. Lawrence with Northland Discovery Boat Tours. About 15 kilometres out, we approach a 182-metre-long, 27-metre-high chunk of ice broken off of Petermann's Iceberg (which left Greenland two years ago). It seems like a miracle of nature - I had never imagined that an iceberg could contain so many colours.

We had to taste it. At the fabulous Norseman Restaurant and Art Gallery in L'Anse aux Meadows, daughters Eve and Beatrice were able to distinguish, with their eyes closed, between iceberg and tap water. I was not. The Norseman, run May to September by Gina Noordhof and her husband, is expensive, and reservations are necessary, but it offers the best food we've eaten in Newfoundland. We had lobster, chorizo and shrimp penne, pan-fried cod with scrunchions, and a bouillabaisse made with local shrimp - enough to turn Eve, 15, into a foodie.

While we ate dinner, local musician Wade Hillier played guitar and accordion and sang in the same restaurant. Just a few hours earlier, this same man wore a Norse costume and gave us detailed explanations of life in L'Anse aux Meadows in Year 1,000. Like so many people here, Hillier has to work at many things to survive.

Clayton Colbourne, a L'Anse aux Meadows interpreter, explained that he was just 11 when European archeologists started digging in his childhood playgrounds. "We thought they were a bit crazy, looking for traces of people who had lived here a thousand years ago."

L'Anse aux Meadows attracts about 30,000 visitors annually, but the village itself is now down to 30 inhabitants. "Give it 10 or 15 years and there won't be anyone left," Colbourne says, wistfully. "No kids are staying, because there is nothing to stay for. Where I live may become Parks Canada property, one day."

So sad to see so much of the traditional way of life in Newfoundland disappearing, even as its culture and history continue to attract tourists from across Canada and around the world.

Lawrence Hill wrote the award-winning novel The Book of Negroes.


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