People & Places

Travel: On the Viking Trail in Canada

Newfoundland preserves the history of its early Scandinavian explorers

Norstead, a living history site located adjacent to L’Anse aux Meadows, includes a replica of one of the ships used by the Norse on their journey to Newfoundland. (Bob Sessions photo)
Norstead, a living history site located adjacent to L’Anse aux Meadows, includes a replica of one of the ships used by the Norse on their journey to Newfoundland. (Bob Sessions photo)
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With a last name of Erickson, it’s not surprising that I’d be warmly welcomed in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. After all, my ancestor Leif made quite a splash when he arrived a thousand years ago.

“Erickson?” repeated a guide when I told him my name. “You must be related to Leif. If we’d have known you were coming, we’d have had wine ready for you.”

Even without the wine, my trip to L’Anse aux Meadows was a bucket-list experience. Anyone with a passion for Scandinavian history dreams of going to this remote spot that’s the only authenticated Viking site in North America.

As I discovered on a recent visit, an added bonus is the scenic road that leads to it. Known as the Viking Trail, the 270-mile route is lined with picturesque fishing villages, dramatic fjords and mountains, and sweeping sea vistas framed by a rocky coastline.

“The Viking Trail that runs up the western coast of Newfoundland is anchored by two UNESCO World Heritage Sites,” said Andre Myers, business manager for the Viking Trail Tourism Association. “At the south end is Gros Morne National Park, which has some of the most spectacular landscapes in Canada, and at the north end is L’Anse aux Meadows. Visitors are also likely to see some of the 10,000 whales that pass by Newfoundland every year. And from May to July, we have icebergs floating by, headed south from the Arctic.”

On my way north I enjoyed all those sights (plus several moose that stood looking curiously from the edge of the forest at passing cars). But L’Anse aux Meadows beckoned me ever onward. I was eager to see the site that’s brought worldwide fame to the windswept tip of northeastern Newfoundland.

I knew that descriptions of the Norse explorations in North America are found in the Icelandic Sagas, stories written down in the 13th century that detail the exploits of the Vikings who settled Iceland and Greenland. For many years, these tales were thought to be mainly fictional. But in the early 1960s, researchers used clues in the text to find the remains of a Norse settlement in Newfoundland.

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That settlement is preserved by Parks Canada, which operates a visitor center on a hill overlooking the archaeological site. Situated in a grassy expanse of meadow next to a shallow bay, the site itself consists of rounded ridges of turf where buildings had once stood, plus reconstructions of several of these buildings a short distance away.

As I explored, I was fortunate to have Clayton Colbourne, a native of the area, as my guide.

“When the archaeologists started digging here, all the locals thought they were crazy,” he recalled. “But as they started discovering artifacts, we started to realize what an amazing site we had in our backyard. My family ended up becoming good friends with Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine, the two Norwegians who led the excavations, and I’ve worked here since 1973.”

As we walked, Colbourne described the excavation and conclusions reached by archaeologists. The settlement likely was built by Leif Eirik-sson and his men during their first summer in Newfoundland around the year 1000. It later became a base camp for subsequent expeditions that explored deeper into the region. At its height, about 90 people lived in L’Anse aux Meadows. A small number of people wintered here each year, while the rest went home to Greenland.

The Scandinavians likely had temporary encampments in other locations, but archaeologists think L’Anse aux Meadows was probably their only permanent settlement, given its size, location and the amount of labor needed to construct it. Then, after about 10 years of occupation, the Norse left. The buildings were burned to the ground, most likely by the Vikings themselves.

“They were starting to have conflicts with the indigenous people who lived in Newfoundland, and the trip back to Greenland was too long to be economically profitable,” Colbourne said. “They took most of their stuff with them, but a few things were left behind, including nails they’d used to repair boats. Several artifacts proved that women lived here, too, including a needle and spinning whorl for twisting wool into yarn.”

I learned more about the daily lives of the Norse in the reconstructed buildings near the archaeological site. Entering the longhouse, I was surprised by how cozy and inviting it was, with its thick walls of sod, flickering fire and sunlight streaming in through openings in the roof. I was soon immersed in conversations with costumed interpreters playing the roles of chieftain Finnbogi, navigator Egil, his wife Anora, and a servant named Wolfric.

“The Norse were always looking for something to turn a profit on,” Egil said when I asked why they’d made the perilous journey from Greenland. “Wood was the most valuable thing they traded, because Greenland had so little of it. But they also dealt in furs and wine made from grapes that grew farther south.”

Anora filled me in on the lives of the women of the settlement.

“Between two and five women were probably here at any one time,” she said. “They tended the sheep and cattle they’d brought with them, cooked meals and wove cloth for clothing, boat sails and trade.”

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Across the road from L’Anse aux Meadows, I learned more about the Viking Age at Norstead, a nonprofit center that tells a larger story about the time period.

“L’Anse aux Meadows was an unusual settlement, atypical in many ways,” explained Denecka Burden, manager at Norstead. “Here we interpret what ordinary life was like in Iceland and Greenland during the Viking Age between the 8th and 11th centuries.”

Norstead specializes in hands-on Viking history. I helped a group of women prepare a pot of stew over an open fire and then tried my hand at drop spinning, experiences that made me realize I would have been a pretty worthless member of the village. Next, one of the men took me up a ladder to peer into a dry-docked knarr, the type of boat that the Norse likely used to sail to Newfoundland. Holding about 25 to 35 people plus animals and supplies, it was sturdy and seaworthy (though I was disappointed to see that it lacked the impressive dragon heads of a Viking war ship).

As I left the site late in the afternoon, I was struck by the differences between seeing history in action as opposed to reading about it in a book. At L’Anse aux Meadows and Norstead, I’d gotten glimpses not only into my own ethnic heritage, but also a much larger story. After the Norse left L’Anse aux Meadows, the stories of the new land they’d visited filtered through Europe, intriguing other explorers.

I treasured a comment made by one of the men in the L’Anse aux Meadows longhouse. “Leif?” he’d answered when I asked him his opinion of my famous ancestor. “Oh, he was a fine man. Well-liked. A good businessman. And mild-mannered — for a Viking.”

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