The UNESCO site of L’Anse aux Meadows.
“Have you heard what really happened in Vinland?” Thorstein asks. The bearded Viking, his face illuminated by flickering flames, spins an ancient yarn of betrayal and bloodshed—and I’m spellbound.
The Viking? He’s actually a costumed Parks Canada interpreter, but no matter. I listen intently while sipping spiced partridge berry juice inside a reconstructed sod dwelling at L’Anse aux Meadows. Thorstein’s evening “Sagas and Shadows” performance transports me back a thousand years, when explorer Leif Erikson sailed from Greenland to establish North America’s only Viking settlement, here on Newfoundland’s northern tip.
Depending on which linguist you believe, the name Vinland alludes to wind, pasture land or grape-growing. Such intoxicating lore is what attracted me to this province—that and my Finnish heritage. Over the years, I’ve indulged my Nordic side by visiting Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum and listening to Viking-themed Swedish heavy metal. But living it up Odin-style on the East Coast is a first for me.
Daylight brings more opportunities to explore L’Anse aux Meadows, which in 2018 marked its 40th anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From 1961 to 1966, Norwegian archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad helmed the excavation of North America’s oldest known European settlement. In 1960, Ingstad’s husband, Helge, pinpointed its exact location with the help of local fisherman George Decker, who assumed it was a First Nations burial ground.
I can’t believe I’m finally here. I get chills wandering along a boardwalk built over the ridged terrain, which is dotted with black spruce trees and caribou lichen. As a brisk breeze blows from Islands Bay, my group spots a moose in the distance—one of more than 80,000 in the province.
Near the reconstructed grass-roof Viking buildings, rectangular indentations in the ground mark the original locations of a house, kitchen and workshop. The village was home to about 75 Norse men and women, along with their European slaves. Artefacts ranging from a bronze pin to a glass bead confirmed their presence.
But the settlement didn’t pan out. “Leif Erikson sailed for distant regions in the West to make himself a wealthy man,” explains friendly guide Matthias Brennan. “So L’Anse aux Meadows became a wintering base camp for further exploration.” Despite a prime location on a shipping route and waters filled with salmon, it never spawned the bounty desired by the Vikings, whose vast trade networks stretched from Greenland to Baghdad.
Still, my heavy-metal heart rejoices to learn that L’Anse aux Meadows witnessed the first iron production in North America. “They harvested and smelted bog iron ore, using a clay furnace heated with charcoal,” Brennan says. “And we have now revived the tradition. Last summer, we produced nearly eight kilograms—four times as much as the original Vikings.” Icelandic exchange students participated in the smelting, with the resulting iron destined for nails.
Fittingly, we next encounter Ragnar the blacksmith, surrounded by furs, shields and axes in his sod house. Ragnar notices my five o’clock shadow and cracks, “If you want to be a free man, you should grow out your beard.” For a second, I question the wisdom of having made the 434-kilometre drive here from the Deer Lake airport up Highway 430, known as the Viking Trail. Will my journey through dense boreal forests, past thriving seabird colonies and over stark tundra culminate in unpaid labour for gruff Ragnar?
Thankfully, his fearsome facade quickly dissolves into smiles.