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CIRCUMNAVIGATING NEWFOUNDLAND
 
(2018 - Spring Issue)

Writer: TIM JOHNSON



It’s like someone cued the moose.

Having steamed into nearby Cox’s Cove that morning aboard the Ocean Endeavour, the local mayor, a man named Tony Oxford—who moonlights as a musician on the ship—had invited a few of us to tour the area in his pickup truck. As we roll down a sunny strip of blacktop slicing through the Western Newfoundland woods, she pops out of the foliage, momentarily stunned. The moose then tracks across the road, and back into the trees, on the other side. “That was our own little Grand Seduction,” says Oxford, smiling with a hint of mischief behind the wheel, referencing the well-known Newfoundland film where an entire town plans a series of fortunate events to lure a local doctor. “I swear, I didn’t set it up.”

I’m sailing with Adventure Canada, with the goal of circumnavigating Newfoundland—something that doesn’t quite happen. Moments before boarding the ship, our expedition leader informs us that record sea ice has blocked our route, and instead of making the full circle, we will instead chart a course to the south and up the west side of the Great Northern Peninsula, doubling back when we reach the Strait of Belle Isle, the pinch-point between Newfoundland and Labrador, and a waterway that, at this moment, is choked with the frozen stuff.

Which, for most of us on board, is just fine. After all, anyone who has been on a real expedition knows that plans are meant to be changed—that no expedition ever goes exactly as planned. And our plans aboard the Ocean Endeavour are a work in progress, subject to ice charts that the crew posted for our perusal every day.

But we do make many of our scheduled stops—including L’Anse aux Meadows. Having skirted the Grand Banks and sailed north, we reach that ridge of ice, sailing up close to the blue-and-white bergs and bits that block our path. Anchoring, we travel onto shore by Zodiac, making the rest of the trip by road.

VIKING SAGAS AND MUSIC

Discovered only in 1960, the significance of this site was quickly recognized, once archaeologists dug the first artifacts out of the ground. Now both a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1978) and a National Historic Site of Canada, evidence of Norse (or Viking) settlement here dates all the way back to the year 1000. We’re led around the site by Frederic Thibodeaux, who works both as a national parks interpreter and a guide for Adventure Canada. Extremely enthusiastic, Freddie—a guest favourite around the ship—takes us down a series of wooden boardwalks, pointing out earthworks where various useful buildings once stood, workshops and dwellings and an ironworks smithy.

Along the way, he explains archaeologists have unearthed a number of everyday items from Norse life like a bone knitting needle, a stone oil lamp and a bronze fastening pin. We finish inside a reconstructed sod house around the fire in the skáli (or kitchen), listening as a costumed, bearded interpreter tells us Norse tales from the Viking sagas, the flickering flames casting dramatic hues across his animated face.

Expedition leader Matthew Swan tells me one of Adventure Canada’s primary goals is to bring the culture of the destination onto the ship, meaning that guests enjoy an unbroken experience, whether onshore or on board. And along the way on our voyage, crew and guests gather together in the spacious stern lounge aboard the Ocean Endeavour. We’re treated to readings and lectures from award-winning Newfoundland author Kevin Major, performances by Tony Oxford and The Once, a Juno-nominated folk trio, and jam sessions that often stretch long into the night, everyone joining in songs celebrating and commemorating a long lineage of salty lives on the sea.

NATURAL SITES AND REMOTE VILLAGES

We carry that spirit with us as we go ashore, hiking among natural wonders at Gros Morne National Park—also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place where we see 485-million-year-old plate tectonics on display, and a park filled with fjords, waterfalls and mountains. We leave Canada, briefly, for a day in the French overseas territory of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, sampling seafood, as well as brioche and eclairs as we make our way around the épiceries and boulangeries lining the charming streets of the tiny capital, a little slice of Europe in the North Atlantic.

We encounter the Basques in Port au Choix and First Nations history and living Mi’kmaq culture in Miawpukek. We land on the beach in Brake’s Cove, a tiny village that was resettled decades ago, the small houses lining the water now just fishing cabins and summer homes. Next door in Cox’s Cove, the community comes together to give us a warm welcome, performing and singing and dancing and putting on a spread of moose meat and cod, then driving us in their pickup trucks around town, to the local waterfall, and past well-trained moose.

And on one of the last days of the voyage, we arrive at beautiful, remote François (pronounced France-way). With high winds blowing, we all hold our breath, climbing up on the top decks to watch our ship make the dramatic turn into the steep-sided fjord that frames this tiny, remote outport. Settled in the 1700s, the 100 or so residents have resisted resettlement, living on in this far-flung corner of the country, a place unconnected to the outside world by road.

Met by local residents deputized to be our guides for the day, we walk along the village’s boardwalks, strung with houses painted in happy colours, some of them with smiling locals sitting on the porch. We pass the local post office and the small school, which educates just a handful of kids. Some of us split off, scaling the 200-metre Friar, the peak that rises dramatically behind the town. Not much of a hiker, I head in the other direction, to Charlie’s Head, climbing hundreds of steps to a 360-degree lookout, all of François spread at my feet.

Out there in the dark blue water in the middle of the fjord sits the Ocean Endeavour, one of only two ships that will visit this remote village this year. Later, we’ll all be back on board, a few local residents joining us for dinner, and an improvised version of a traditional Newfoundland kitchen party afterward. We’ll gather in the stern lounge, the spirit of this island province strong among us as we sing, and dance, and jam, long into the night.

Travel Planner

Starting and ending in historic St. John’s, NL, the Adventure Canada’s 11-day 2018 Newfoundland Circumnavigation adventure on board the Ocean Endeavour sets sail October 2. Until April 15, save 15 per cent on all cabin categories, based on availability, on this incredible journey of a lifetime. For details on this or other expeditions, visit adventurecanada.com or email info@adventurecanada.com.

 
 
 
 
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