A tall crane eases one of twenty lightweight zodiacs, rigid-hulled, inflatable boats, attached by rope, from the top deck down to the sea below. Our landing party of 12 sets out for the distant rocky shore,
yearning to discover - what?
In reality, it's ourselves, magically integrated with pristine nature in its elemental form - which never fails to quicken my spirit and reminds me that we are part of the cosmos, existing in a delicate balance that demands respect. Beaming Jason Edmunds, my zodiac driver, declares, "I love this expedition travel to small bays and coves that are usually inaccessible."
Indeed, during this "expedition," I thrill to the screech of birds amassed on rock, pass glacial, blue-dappled icebergs, hear the deep thrust of air from a passing whale, watch our ship's foamy wake, feel the undulating sea, trek on jagged rock amidst vast, stunning landscapes - and bizarrely - experience companionship amidst solitude. Captivated, I care not about
e-mail, Facebook nor the nightly news.
Adventure Canada's expedition is not a stroll along the Champs-Élysées nor a saunter down 42nd Street. It's the realm of immediacy and chance encounters with beluga, polar bear, caribou, moose and a skinny red fox that I watch slowly stalk a gannet colony, enough fowl there for its lifetime. Far more than a cruise, it's navigation with examination, a
Norse landing at L'Anse Aux Meadows, 1,000 years ago, Basque whaling ships,
immense cod stores dwindling, fishing villages emptying, and Newfoundland poet,
E.J. Pratt, son of a Methodist minister, who penned "Erosion" in 1931, which I studied in high school, but only now fully appreciate - "It took the sea a thousand years,/A thousand years to trace/The granite features of this cliff,/In crag and scarp and base./It took the sea an hour one night,/An hour of storm to place/The sculpture of these granite seams/Upon a woman's face."
Above: L'Anse Aux Meadows & Norstead Entrance, Sod House Below: Snorri, Viking Ship
In a St. John's hotel room, as rain pelts down outside, 145 expectant travelers peer at red, orange, yellow and green (worst to best) coloured ice charts, projected by trip leader, Mathew Swan, who employs Google Earth to chart our progress. We are supposed to circumnavigate Newfoundland, but the Strait of Belle Isle, the narrow nine-mile wide passageway between Newfoundland and Labrador, is packed with sea ice. We must alter course, proceed south instead, swing around the island and hope that the ice has shifted when we near L'Anse Aux Meadows in the northwest.
In rain, we board
Ocean Endeavour, 451 feet long, weighing 13,000 tons and flying a Bahamian flag. The 198-passenger, ice-class vessel is charted by Adventure Canada in summer to sail to the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. Originally the Konstantin Simonov, named after a Russian poet, it was built in Poland and served as a Baltic ferry for a Soviet shipping company, but now is converted with several decks for photography, and a pool and hot tub as well as a sauna and gym.
At 6 p.m., the ship is guided by pilot from calm St. John's harbour through the narrows, and suddenly, we bump into the violent Atlantic, like riding a bucking bronco. Taking photos from the aft deck, I require help to get back safely inside where passengers wear round patches on their necks and wrist bracelets to combat sea sickness.
It's rough, but everyone reacts well to the potholed seas and our dramatic change of course. We report to muster stations, and are assigned lifeboats. Whale sightings announced, we spot two
icebergs. At supper, table and chairs are bolted to the floor.
There are many singles on board, primarily women, and the demographics reflect an age range from a young family with two pre-adolescent children up to several octogenarians. Plastic ID cards are scanned for every departure and return. I am outfitted with light rubber boots, a slim PFD and a personal locker in the Mud Room where we dress for wet or dry zodiac landings each day.
The staff is composed primarily of Newfoundlanders - passionate, knowledgeable, warm and welcoming. They soon address us by our first names.
Barbara Doran, a writer, director and producer of both documentary and drama, shows us her film, The Grand Seduction, in the lounge. Hilarious - it's about a small Newfoundland
fishing village which lures a doctor to their community.
Gerry Strong is a musician as is educator Tony Oxford and The Once, a trio from Newfoundland, Phil, Geri, and Andrew, play for us nightly. Kevin Major who has published 16 books and won a Governor General's Award for his first book, Hold Fast, lectures on history. Writer, story teller and geologist, Paul Dean, is a former Assistant Deputy Minister of Mines and Deputy Minister of Environment and Conservation.
Pierre Richard is a marine biologist who describes whales and dolphins. He cracks me up when I ask him the highlight of his day. "Spotting a Wilson Warbler," he immediately replies. Saqamaw Mi'sel Joe, Hereditary Chief, Miawpukek First Nation says, "Newfoundland is a place the creator made just for us. It's that special."
Slowly but surely, we are immersed in all things Newfoundland.
Next morning, we are greeted in bed with song accompanied by a harmonica played by Tony Oxford, musician, singer, raconteur and humorist. Over the ship's PA system, it's part of our 7.00 am daily wake-up routine that I grow fond of - Tony's comical take on daily activities.
Our second day, 200 km southwest of St. John's, the ocean is placid, and we land at St. Bride's, population 600, primarily of Irish descent. It takes 35 minutes by coach to
St. Mary's to visit a bird colony, one of six breeding areas around Newfoundland. 24,000
gannets nest on "Bird Rock," a 100-metre-tall stack of sandstone as well as 20,000 black-legged kittiwake, 20,000 common murre, and 2,000 thick-billed murre. We get as close as 10 metres. Most migrate to the Gulf of Mexico. April 20, 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster claimed the gannet as the third-most-oiled bird in the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Jean Knowles, our naturalist, stresses that this reserve was cod fish rich with an abundance of food for all of the birds. She helps us spot the gannet by its faded gold head and "fencing" behaviour, rubbing bills in a greeting ceremony. "They live for 20 years, and raise one chick per year." With a six foot wing span, I watch them fly effortlessly like kites, seemingly for the pure joy of it. We witness remarkable dives.
Another daily ritual on board is a
Newfoundland quote, and on our third day at Garia Bay, I learn that "If you scalds your arse, you have to sit on your blisters." Every evening and throughout the day, we are offered lectures in the lounge. Craig Minielly, representing Nikon, explains story telling through photography, and he allows us to borrow multiple cameras.
On day four, we visit
Cox's Cove, once an abandoned village after Confederation when premier Joey Smallwood tried to amalgamate the smaller outposts through "resettlement" in the 50s and 60s. There are 650 people here, primarily lobster and crab fishermen, and most show up to greet us. We learn how well Newfoundlanders deal with adversity. With only two days warning of our change of course, the mayor and townspeople organize an afternoon of entertainment in their town hall-post office, offering music, dancing jigs and square dances, local food including delicious berries and moose, and for me, a bonus drive by a volunteer named Basil to the nearby falls and the mink farm where they house 50,000 of the smelly critters.
Newfoundland idiom is "Long may your big jib coil." I also learn the typical terse Newfoundland fisherman greeting when encountering another with - "Whadyat?" - the correct response being - "This is it."
After Cox's Cove, Ocean Endeavour transports us to Port Aux Choix,
L'Anse Aux Meadows, Bonne Bay (
Gros Morne), Francois, Conn River, the French island of St. Pierre and back to St. John's. I'm thrilled to navigate where Captain James Cook sailed 250 years ago.
We receive more humorous wake-up songs with harmonica accompaniment from Tony Oxford, and how could one not succumb to Newfoundland and Labrador's merriment with geographical names such as Black Tickle, Chimney Tickle, Tickle Cove, Tickle Harbour (a definite tickle fetish), Blow Me Down, Come by Chance, Conception Bay, Cupids, Dildo, Happy Valley, Heart's Delight, Little Heart's Ease, Muddy Hole and Virgin Cove?
Day five, we take a 20-minute zodiac tender to Port Aux Choix to visit a natural history site, the lighthouse at Point Rich with thousands of fossils on the beach and the French Rooms Information Centre, adjacent to ancient burial grounds where 113 people were unearthed on a dig for a movie theatre.
Day six, sea ice restricting us, we take a two-hour school bus ride to the L'Anse Aux Meadows Interpretation Centre and the Norestord site, the original Norse settlement populated by plucky Vikings who pre-dated Columbus. It's miserably cold (9C) and rainy, yet I am thrilled by the only authenticated North American Norse settlement.
We follow a boardwalk and observe indented earth configurations that indicate myriad structures found there. In the 1970s, this 1000AD Norse gateway to Vinland, discovered by Leif Erickson, became one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites. Two intrepid Norwegians, the Ingstads, found it in 1961 and excavated it until 1968. Their clinching relic for authenticity was a Viking metal cloak pin!
We visit sod homes with sparse accoutrements, modest weaving displays, a working forge and Viking tools and nails for Snorri - a ship named after the first-born Norseman in North America. Re-enactors provide history reflecting the Norse courage and risk-taking, qualities that made it impossible for them to live in peace with First Nations who, with superior numbers, handily defeated their white foes, surely a first in North America - before guns and gunpowder were available.
Day seven - another highlight; we land in Bonne Bay to take in Gros Morne, Basque for "large mountain." Kevin, a Parks Canada Discovery Centre guide at Woody Point, loves this peculiar land. He explains that glaciation occurred several times, forming the narrow, spectacular fiords. "The Canadian Shield is our bedrock, and Gros Morne is the earth's mantle thrust upward through its crust." These Tablelands are 1 km high, about 16 km long and Kevin recalls that NASA scientists ran lunar-landing vehicle trials here amidst Gros Morne's moonscape.
Day eight, as Ocean Endeavour enters Francois' stunning fiord, passenger Bill Michelson, a U of T professor, exclaims, "What a view! Anything else is anti-climatic." We tour their tiny community of 100 people.
When Genovese explorer John Cabot sailed here in 1497, the grand banks were known by Portuguese sailors as "terra dos bacalhaus" or land of the cod, and Cabot's crew employed weighted hand-baskets to scoop fish from the water. Fishing communities like Francois sprang up along Newfoundland's coast, prospering until the cod moratorium in 1992.
The highlight today for retired teacher, Glenna Hemphil from Windsor, part of a Roads Scholar contingent, is "an impromptu tour of the local school with its 10 students."
On day nine, traveling through the Bay D'espoir, inland at Conne River, we sample a taste of the Mi'kmaq culture in Miawpukek where
Chief Misel Joe asks if we want to hear a warrior cry. He dramatically holds one arm to his forehead and makes weeping noises. When laughter ceases, he describes his successful struggle with government bureaucracy to achieve self-sufficiency for his people, and he leaves us with two vital truths - exalt every day, and never stop learning.
Next, it's the French islands of
Saint Pierre and Miquelon with their 6,500 inhabitants, many employed in government jobs. French gendarmes serve three-year terms here. Earlier, Pierre Richard (no relation to the "Rocket") suggests we join him on deck at 6 a.m. to pass a puffin colony at Grand Columbler Island, I choose sleep.
We explore Saint Pierre where horses run free. Many cars navigate the narrow, steep roads, and the Hotel Robert exhibits Al Capone artifacts from prohibition's smuggling days. We enjoy an historical bus tour, learn that two-year old potty-trained children may attend school, spend Euros at a coffee shop and marvel at a huge airport that strangely, does not support any flights to France.
We finish back at St. John's, reminding me of poet T. S. Eliot's "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
Thanks to my Adventure Canada expedition,
I know Newfoundland for the first time.
Cedar Swan, their young CEO, argues, "We have an incredible team - scientists, biologists, anthropologists, musicians and artists. We run the best expeditions in the world."
I'm enchanted by the people in tiny fishing villages spread around the island - gentle, resilient, and deeply connected to the land. Tony Oxford at a Cox's Cove "honourary Newfoundlander ceremony", cites four key characteristics of a native - "intelligence, truth, nerve and rhythm." The latter we witness in jigs and square dances.
Jean Knowles, our naturalist, observes, "You come here and discover the people are warm and kind and open-hearted." And her observation is the very heart of the musical,
Come From Away, depicting Gander's gallant response to 9/11.
I suggest that you
come from away, to explore the charming province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Mike Keenan is a travel columnist for Troy Media. He produces a travel podcast -
http://whattravelwriterssay.libsyn.com/ and has been published in every major newspaper across Canada including the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Toronto Sun. He has been published in National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City, Seniors Review and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. With hundreds of reviews, photos and helpful votes, he has earned Trip Advisor's "Top Contributor Badge" and is considered an "Expert" in both Hotels and Restaurant reviews. Mike posts photos to Pinterest where he has a following of five thousand viewers.