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(2016 - Spring/Summer Issue)


Seeing the far-flung corners of Newfoundland has long been on my bucket list—and I’m not alone.

Bouncing through choppy waters in a rubber Zodiac are intrepid travellers like me—50-somethings and fit retirees who want to do something adventurous and learn something new while on vacation.

Our cruise around The Rock’s rugged shores on board Adventure Canada’s Sea Adventurer ticks those boxes. Adventure Canada has been taking tourists by small ship into the Arctic and other remote spots for 25 years. Our vessel is comfortable, however the focus is not spa treatments and midnight buffets. Our fun will consist of hiking rugged shores and experiencing outport life, and our ship has all the necessary amenities for such excursions, including an ice-strengthened hull for northern exploration and 10 Zodiacs to take us beyond the usual cruise ship ports.

Setting Sail

Newfoundland is a massive island province and we’ll see as much as we can on one 10-day journey. Of the 100 passengers, a third are staff, including exceptional Newfoundlanders such as novelist Michael Crummey and musician Daniel Payne, who regale us with local stories, songs and Newfoundland English (or Newfinese) that bring our daily discoveries to life. They call this “learning adventure travel” but Matthew Swan, the company’s colourful owner and master of goofy diversions, rightly likens it to a “floating summer camp.”

Getting in and out of the Zodiac is a game we will play several times each day. Flying across the waves with an experienced Newfoundlander at the throttle is somewhat like a crazy carnival ride and a sea-salt exfoliation all in one. Zodiacs zip us from ship to shore, to wild beaches, up narrow fjords, to archaeological sites and lively outport parties.

The Wildlife

Local “culturalist” Tony Oxford is a poetic guide, politician and balladeer, with a great handle on the local vernacular. He awakens us over the PA system every morning, strumming a musical ditty. When a little “storm petrel” lands soggily on the deck at midnight, Oxford dries it out in his cabin closet overnight and sets it free as the sun breaks over Fogo Island.

Though biologist Holly Hogan says the little seabird was likely lured by the ship’s lights, Oxford has a darker explanation. Our petrel might be the soul of a drowned sailor, doomed to spend eternity fluttering above the waves, or a “water witch,” here to foretell bad weather.

Outports Old and New

Fortunately, the weather holds as we go ashore on Fogo Island, the new “it” place for modern explorers looking for unique culture, art and architecture.

Millionaire entrepreneur and Fogo-ite Zita Cobb is revitalizing the fishing communities with contemporary artist-in-residence studios and an upscale inn, decked out in handmade quilts and artisan furniture crafted by local boat builders. It’s designed to immerse “geo-tourists” in a community where locals follow the natural rhythms of the seasons, still picking berries, “making fish” (drying cod) and hunting caribou to survive.

“It is a place to embrace and to be lived in for what it is,” says our guide as we feast on fried fish, partridgeberry scones and cloudberry tarts cooked by local women in the Parish Hall, “an island halfway between the old world and the new.”

Viking Weather

Today the water witch summons the weather. Our ship is barely visible off shore in the driving rain and wind as we motor to the thousand-year-old Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows.

“My son, let me tell you something right now: I’ve wiped more salt water out me eyes than you’ve sailed over,” quips Oxford as he commandeers our Zodiac through the storm.

We trudge over wet, grassy slopes to see the Snorri (Viking ship) and Norse-style sod buildings reconstructed next to the mounds where their longhouses, iron forge and workshops once stood. This is the earliest confirmed Viking settlement in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, proof that Norsemen arrived here 500 years before Columbus.

Eventually they gave up on the place, too isolated and harsh for even marauding Icelanders. As the storm kicks up, we must retreat, too, taking our lunch and partridgeberry crumble in a box.

“Half a bun’s better than no bread in the house,” Oxford reflects as we face the gale, pragmatic in the face of fury.

Ancient Mariners

The ship is lurching forward as well as up, down and sideways as we cross the Strait of Belle Isle to Labrador. Hogan explains the oxygen-rich Labrador Current and its effect on marine life. The mountains of ice in Iceberg Alley follow the current in May and June, as do the fish and the whales that lured Basques whalers to Red Bay in the early 1500s. We hike the trails where they rendered oil from 25,000 bowhead whales they hunted over 80 consecutive summers before giving up on this place, too.

Next stop, the 7,500-year-old burial mound at L’Anse Amour (pop. eight). A road crew uncovered a skeleton of a child with a walrus tusk flute here as well as the oldest harpoon in the world.

“For 9,000 years people have fished and hunted in exactly the same spot. You can’t dig potatoes without digging up a 3,000-year-old axe around here,” says our guide.

A Scoff and a Scuff

Our cruise is giving us insights into isolated outport life and the ethos of isolation and hardship that runs deep through this place.

It may explain why Newfoundlanders seem so practical, resilient and good at making their own fun. With no roads and only sporadic ferry service, the arrival of a ship such as ours, with a hundred new faces on board, is a reason to “fire up a scoff” (meal) and gather local musicians and celebrate. So I “put me hard shoes on for a scuff,” hop onto a Zodiac and head to the local hall.

Daniel Payne, our onboard musician, says these tiny towns are caches of a disappearing culture. “The music passed through these people, it goes deeper than entertainment,” he says. “It’s what makes our story, the different people who got together and carved out a life here.”

Magic and Loss

Every family has an outport story and author Michael Crummey reads his Fishing on the Labrador one afternoon while we are out at sea. It’s a tale of the hardships and loss faced by 10,000 men and boys, including his grandfather, who sailed off each summer to work in isolated whaling stations.

Loss is still in the air as we motor into Brake’s Cove, an outport abandoned as part of former premier Joey Smallwoood’s plan to amalgamate the far-flung population.

I sit beside Joan Oxford, Tony’s wife, and she cries remembering the day her grandmother’s house was floated out into the bay for relocation. This community, like 300 others, was emptied out and consolidated into  “growth centres” by the Smallwood government.

I climb up to the graveyard above the beach with her Uncle Joe who is typically stoic. “We didn’t want to move—it seems crazy and it was, m’dear,” he says gazing out to sea. “But great-grandfather Brake is still here—all sodded over.”

Rock of Ages

Newfoundland is a vast place—more than 110,000 square kilometres of rock and fjords, jutting farther out into the wild Atlantic than any other corner of North America—a world unto itself.

When we finally disembark in St. John’s, “swarving” around the steep streets on our sea legs, I feel like an explorer returning from the new world.

We’ve found rare birds, both feathered and not. We’ve tapped our toes to small-town fiddlers and learned first-hand about the collapse of the cod fishery from families who face all with good humour, grace and generosity.

Author Crummey offers an elegant summation: “Life is all about magic and loss and wonder and ruin.”

I’ve seen it all on our Newfoundland adventure.

Travel Planner

Adventure Canada (adventurecanada.com) specializes in outdoor adventure, wildlife viewing, nature photography and native culture trips across Canada.

For more information on Newfoundland and Labrador, visit newfoundlandlabrador.com.

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