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Newfoundland and Labrador: Testaments to Time

The white sliver in the distance looked like a sleek cruise ship. As we got closer, the ship became a large iceberg with fascinating curves, shapes and streaks of aquamarine towering 70 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

The massive chunk of 10,000-year-old ice had begun its journey down Iceberg Alley from Greenland more than a year earlier before becoming grounded in 240 feet of water off the coast of St. Anthony, Newfoundland.

The iceberg was an exciting, emotional and pleasantly surprising experience on a 13-day Circle Newfoundland and Labrador trip that my wife, Marcheta, and I took in late July with Atlantic Tours.

“The first two weeks of June are the prime season for icebergs,” said Paul, a guide with Northland Discovery Boat Tours. “It’s unusual to see one this size this late in the season. It’s about the size of the iceberg the Titanic struck.”

In addition to icebergs, during our nearly two weeks in Newfoundland and Labrador — the official name of the province — we experienced intriguing rugged remoteness, forested mountains, rocky coasts, small fishing villages, abundant wildlife, charming independent locals with distinctive accents and fascinating history.

Called “the Rock,” Newfoundland is an island that is accessible only by air or ferry, and the huge expanse of Labrador, “the Big Land,” abuts Quebec across the Strait of Belle Isle.


Trans-Canada Highway

We first encountered Newfoundland after an overnight ferry ride from Nova Scotia. The Marine Atlantic ferry has small but comfortable staterooms with private baths.

After landing at Port-aux-Basques and setting our watches ahead 30 minutes — Newfoundland is one-and-a-half hours ahead of Atlantic time, a holdover from when it was a separate country until joining Canada in 1949 — we headed up the Trans-Canada Highway and then the Viking Trail through the Codroy Valley.

“This is a beautiful part of Newfoundland, this southwestern part,” said Robin Calder, our Atlantic Tours guide. “The Long Range Mountains are to your right, the Gulf of St. Lawrence to your left.”

All along the road were prime examples of the special character of this Canadian province: stacks of firewood and lobster traps and small, well tended vegetable gardens with no houses in sight.

“No one bothers them,” said Calder. “There is a tradition of trust in your fellow man that is very much a way of life here. It is well ingrained.”

Also on display were stunted spruce and fir trees leaning away from the ocean. Although some are more than 100 years old, none were much more than four feet tall. “They are nature’s bonsai,” said Calder. “The wind and ice strips the new growth and keeps the trees stunted.”

We got our first exposure to the ancient history of the area at the Port au Choix National Site, where well-preserved evidence of four ancient cultures dating back 6,000 years has been found.


Land of Basques and Vikings

The next day, we took another ferry to Labrador, where we passed fields of glacial erratics, rocks of various sizes, from pebbles to large boulders, scattered haphazardly in artistic patterns by glaciers. If stunted spruce are nature’s bonsai, erratica are nature’s sculpture.

Our main stop in Labrador was Red Bay National Historic Site, a newly designated UNESCO World Heritage Site that was one of several shore stations established by Basque whalers in the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Submerged vessels in the bay have provided a wealth of archaeological material and information about the Basque whalers and their way of life. The welcome center features a 400-year-old fishing boat called a chalupa that was recovered from beneath a sunken galleon in the bay.

The size of the small but easily maneuverable boat gives an appreciation for the daring and skill of the Basque whalers, who used it to hunt the large mammals. A museum building down the hill from the center has a collection of artifacts, including bits of clothing, found at the site.

Back in Newfoundland, our history lesson continued at L’Anse aux Meadows, the site of a Viking settlement on the northernmost tip of the island from around the year 1000. It is the only confirmed Norse site in North America outside Greenland.

A guide took us through a meadow where archaeologists have found the remains of eight buildings, now grass-covered depressions, to a re-created village where costumed interpreters explain how the Vikings lived and worked.

That evening we got another primer on Viking life with a humorous twist in a sod-covered re-creation of a Viking hall at the Great Viking Feast at Leifsburdir. After a buffet dinner Viking style, sans forks, we took part in a hilarious audience-participation Viking court of law.