Eric's NEWFOUNDLANDER SAGA (unabridged)

Sunday, September 27, 2009 – St John’s Harbour, Newfoundland,

From far and wide we came aboard
The MV Polar Star
Intrepid sailors we were not
But most could find the bar

Including (or especially) yours truly. OK, a confession: not only could I find the bar, I must have embraced it a little too enthusiastically as one night in the early days of this most excellent adventure I resolved to narrate the events of this trip in verse instead of my usual dull blog-like boring style.

‘Around the Rugged Rock’ is a salt sea adventure involving the circumnavigation of the island of Newfoundland on a converted ice-breaker now named the Polar Star. With the help of the expedition crew (more on them later) it was easy to see that this voyage was going to be of such high adventure that it deserved to be set down in verse or, better yet, like a saga, just like some Norsemen did a few centuries back. (composing sagas are better for people like me who have trouble rhyming). Sometimes, however, when you’re reading verse (and even sagas - after all, we're still not sure exactly where Vinland is) there are large information gaps. To remedy this (all the while bearing in mind that this communication is after all intended to be a travel blog) I will fill in some of the missing information in normal narrative style – thus perhaps you can peek behind the verse and learn more about our trip and this amazing island.

There were six of us traveling together this time: Dave and Mary (whom many of my readers will know from previous adventures) as well as Brian and Laurel who live in Toronto. Dave, Mary, Brian and Laurel met by chance while in Greece several years ago and have traveled to other ports of call since so it was only a matter of time before the six of us teamed up.

We set our sails
From St. John’s harbour
Like so many’d done before

The breeze was fresh
As was our voyage
Heading out to sea

From Cape Spear looking to St. John's

I was taken aback at the long history of the cod fishery as well as Newfoundland & Labrador's impact on the world. As you might expect we learned a lot about cod during this trip. I do remember the announcement of the cod fishing moratorium back in 1992 but seeing the impact of the Atlantic fishery first hand has been an interesting experience, (made all the more enjoyable due to the company we were in). NFLD's human history goes back at least 5,000 years based on archaeological evidence. Descendants of the indigenous Maritime Archaic people made first contact with Europeans about one thousand years ago. In the 17th & 18th century the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery supplied much of Europe with codfish and also the whale oil which lit lamps everywhere. I gained a new appreciation for some of these very old roots here as well as the hard-scrabble life it was for those trying to make a living from and on the sea.
As we steamed out the Narrows, leaving St. John’s harbour behind us, I couldn’t help thinking of all the sailings to and from this port throughout its past and all the adventures that began or ended there. Fishermen heading out to sea, merchant ships, war ships – there must be tens of thousands of songs, books, paintings – all attempting to capture the romance of the sea in all its machinations, particularly where the sea interfaces in some way with humanity. Since man first ventured onto the oceans he has tried to express or describe his experiences which could be wonderful, exhilarating, thrilling, but could also be somewhere along the scale from dangerous to deadly. I then reflect that I am not that much different than all those that have gone to sea before me who have then tried to share their story.

Monday, September 28, 2009, Bonavista Bay
Dave approaching the dock in Bonavista

First port is Bonavista
Not any other Bay
‘cause first sailed in John Cabot
He really made our day

Looking up (south) the coast from the cape at Bonavista

Our first night aboard the Polar Star was, at least for me, a long one. The seas were relatively calm but our ship, or at least the location of out berths on the ship, was not. Our cabin, on deck 3 (port side) sat directly over one of the two very powerful twin screws that propelled our vessel. For a light-sleeping landlubber like me, used to sleeping in a quiet, residential neighborhood where the only noises to disturb your slumber might be the mournful sound of a train whistle wafting across Burrard inlet, and the only motion to be felt is the occasional slight plate tectonic induced tremor, this first night of rhythmic clanking, chugging & swishing noises & the sometimes not so gentle roll & pitch of the waves, well, it just didn’t seem much like home. Oh yes, have I mentioned the plumbing? Something about a vacuum system? Did you know these systems are so powerful they can defy gravity and other standard laws of nature? If you ever encounter such a system, here is a word to the wise: follow the instructions, EXACTLY.

All thoughts of a fitful sleep were quickly swept away as we readied ourselves for our first trip to shore in Bonavista whose chief claim to fame is the assertion that it was here that John Cabot (aka Giovanni Caboto) made his first landing in North America. After a visit to the cape lighthouse we toured the locally built replica of the Matthew, Cabot’s tiny (63’) ship that made the trans-Atlantic crossing more than 500 years ago.

Then back to the ship for lunch as we set sail (figure of speech only) for the long journey to the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula.

OK, I know they make for pretty boring photographs, but it was anything but boring as we were treated to an hour or more of whales – fin, humpback and minke, along with dolphins and a variety of seabirds – gulls, gannets, shearwaters & others all feasting on schools of some unfortunate species lower down the food chain. I have dozens of photos but they do not come close to capturing the thrill & excitement we all experienced watching these giants surfacing, watching them blow & then going back for more grub.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009, St Anthony

Then in L’Anse Aux Meadows
Where Norsemen long ago
Laid down their sod-built houses
Humanity did grow

En route to L'Anse Aux Meadows we learned that the Maritime Archaic peoples and their descendants have inhabited this place for 5,000 years or more, having migrated eastward from a Bering Straight crossing by their distant ancestors millenia before. At this place occurred a singular human event: it was here that Lief Erickson, travelling westward from 'old world' Europe would have encountered the descendants of those peoples who had migrated ever eastward. East meets West. Finally, after tens of thousands of years humans have circled the globe. That process was completed here in L'Ane Aux Meadows.

For me, the simple act of walking in the same space where history was made more than a thousand years ago was profound. My experience here was similar to visits to ancient Roman ruins in Turkey – at one particular sight there I felt a strong link to those many stone masons who had toiled away centuries ago creating such wonderful stone-sculpted structures. Gazing upon and touching those rocks shaped so expertly so long ago brought with it a feeling of connectedness for me. It could well have been one of my distant blood ancestors that worked this stone, but no matter, these were my human ancestors with whom I felt this bond - with those that had shared this very same physical space - we were only separated by time and time seemed very thin at that moment. L’Anse Aux Meadows engendered a similar feeling, but in a different and perhaps more elemental way. Depending on who you talk to, once modern man found his way to the fertile crescent, it took our species something like 60,000 years to encircle the entire globe. While our expansion went in all directions of the compass and in various ebbs and flows, it was only a thousand years ago that those Vikings, pushing east, encountered the Innu people who had arrived there from the west. East meets West in L’Anse Aux Meadows. Here now, a thousand years later, is a photograph of Julie standing at a sculpture which commemorates this singular event of human history which very likely occurred very near this spot. Yikes, we are but grains of sand. Know what I mean? Know how I felt?

The other remarkable thing about this port of call is not so much the town of St. Anthony, rather it is the man Sir Wilfred Grenfell and the work he did to bring the remote parts of Newfoundland and Labrador much better lives than those those inhabitants had lived before he arrived. But, in addition to the humanitarian work he did this man was an adventurer of chiefly arctic waters and the shores of Labrador and we would-be adventurers reveled in the reading of his exploits and encounters in such harsh and unforgiving lands.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009 Battle Harbour

The ghosts of Battle Harbour:
As solid as the fingering fog
As timeless as the lingering sea
The many ghosts at Battle Harbour
Revealed for all to see

Battle Harbour, on the Labrador coast just across the Strait of Belle Isle was once a hub of activity where thousands involved in the fishery came yearly beginning in the late 1700’s. Today it is essentially a ghost town trying to be reborn, but only as a memory of a time and a way of life now gone. It was a bit like being in Dawson City, Yukon, ie an authentic significantly sized remnant of our collective past at risk of falling apart. It was the perfect day to visit such a historic place – cold, foggy and a bit rainy. I’m sure it would be equally beautiful on a warm sunny day, but the conditions fit well and made for some great photos and I do think the ghosts were more attentive.

Did whales cavort in Red Bay?
I think it likely not
The merchant seamen maybe
Though tears they mainly brought

A little further up (ie south) the Labrador coast is Red Bay which was whale central for Basque whalers beginning around 1550.

A galleon named the San Juan sunk there in 1565 and was discovered I think in the 1980’s not by divers exploring the harbour bottom but by historians reading old Spanish insurance documents.

Having seen whales in their natural habitat is was hard to warm up to anything relating to the whaling industry, but the town has done a great job outlining how & why it all worked and why some species are on the endangered lists.

Thursday, October 1, 2009, Bonne Bay

The marvel of Gros Morne
In the glory of the sun
Earth’s mantle’s thrust
Not turned to dust
Just ice the edges shorn

The best day of the trip so far weatherwise – sunny & warm, oh joy – and to make it even better we finally had the chance to hike, and not just any old hike but in the fabled Gros Morne National Park.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Beached into Codroy near the bridge
Then squired about like kings
Codroy valley, green and calm
Charlie stripping spruce.

Up until this morning all our zodiac disembarkations had been at a dock or a jetty – ie dry ground. This morning it was a little different – beaching on the sand at the mouth of the Codroy river. We were going to be spending all day on shore and I didn’t bring an extra pair of socks. Fortunately, I didn’t need them as our landing was such that with only a small hop we made it to dry sand.

This valley showed us a different Newfoundland – a peaceful river valley that seemed to owe its existence to the land which was gentle & treed rather than the unforgiving sea. I say seemed because this community like every other NL community was devastated by the 1992 cod moratorium and hasn’t been the same economically since. However, you wouldn’t know this from the 28 local residents who came out in force with their cars to drive us about their community. Our driver, Cal, while still a CFA (come from away) was at least married to a girl from Codroy so he knew where things were in town.

By late afternoon the rain had set in and the wind had come up a bit and we all had to get back down to the shores of the Codroy River, climb back into the zodiacs and get back to the ship. This turned out to be an absolutely exhilarating experience. Who knew that getting soaked from the driving rain & the waves breaking over the bow of the zodiac would be so much fun. We marveled at the skill of our crew navigating these treacherous conditions, the wellbeing of a bunch of old geezers in their hands (yes, suddenly in all this excitement I felt old). I think I had a double cognac once we dried off which managed to revive my spirits and restore some of my protective delusions.

Saturday October 4, 2005, Francois

No way to render Ramea
As ocean waves prevent
So steaming on to Francois
With hardly a lament

The south shore fishing outpost of Francois
Majestic and so daunting
The cliffs and waters there
Tragic and so haunting
The lives the sea does share

Francois (pronounced Fransway locally) is a tiny fishing village at the head of a magestic fjord. One of the few communities on the southshore to survive Joey Smallwood’s outport resettlement scheme decades ago, I couldn’t help thinking that Francois will not be able to avoid the same fate as those other south shore places. Still, it was a stupendous setting and we hiked about in hanging valleys enjoying incredible vistas all day.

Sunday October 5, 2009 St Pierre, France

Sailing in French waters
No signs, (apart from bone)
Of all that awful salt cod
And fortunes never grown

Initially we were looking forward to spending some Euros on some decent French wine to bring home with us until we were reminded that we were not going to be out of the country for more than 24 hours and therefore would have to pay duty on any alcoholic beverages we imported. Well OK we thought, we’ll just have to consume them before we board again. And then we realized it was Sunday and discovered that on Sunday, nothing is open. Mon Dieu!

Monday, October 6, 2009 Louisburg, Nova Scotia

And then to storm-lashed Louisburg
Where heroic gusts and rain
The zodiacs distained
And all the brave adventures
Rejoiced this day – ingrained

The waves arose as if we chose
To see the froth and splash and spume
The pitch and roll went on a spree
Some prayed and sang that peerless tune:
‘Nearer, my God, to Thee’

OK, in the scheme of things it wasn’t that much of a storm really, BUT, it did create enough excitement and motion that some (who will remain nameless) nearly succumbed (and it is my belief that, at least for some, it was the thought of engaging a vacuum toilet in the process that prevented it getting any worse) to seasickness but in the end didn’t.

I have chosen some photographs to create as much drama as possible.

Now on the shores in Halifax
All souls aboard to lay down tracks
To make their ways back home
Yet from now on we’ll have 'The Rock'
Wherever we may roam

A day in a life aboard the Polar Star

Our days onboard our ship were terrific, filled with great food from the galley, great service from the ship’s crew and a passionate & informed expedition crew just dying to show us and tell us as much as they can about the places we were visiting en route. The expedition crew were not only experts in their individual fields, they could all handle a zodiac as if they were born in one.

A daily pattern quickly emerged. An early morning wake up call broadcast thoughout the ship about 30 minutes before breakfast, usually 8 or 8:30 and then off to the port du jour via zodiac. Depending on the day, back to the ship for lunch before an afternoon foray, or perhaps a bagged lunch if our daily expedition was an all-day one. Happy hour would then commence at 5PM followed by the day’s briefing at 6:00. Dinner would be served at 7:00 and the evening activity, for those that still had the stamina, would be in the lounge about 8:30.

First, the food, as I know many of you know how important this is to me and I am pleased to say that the food exceeded my expectations and was simply terrific. The dining room was large enough to seat us all at one sitting, including the expedition crew. Breakfast, served for about 100 people, was always a hot & cold buffet with all manner of fruit, cereals, breads/pastries and yogurt on the cold side with various egg dishes &/or pancakes along with the usual meat options for the hot. While there was usually a bit of a lineup first thing it would last only a few minutes. Besides, we would be standing there with our fellow travelers and it gave Julie a chance to get caught up with everyone nearby.

Lunch when on board always started with a soup as did the dinners and we all agreed that the soups were one of the culinary highlights of this trip. A different soup each meal, every one being an outstanding example of it’s genre. I believe the only one we missed was the French Onion which didn’t make it to the table the night it was so rough we could all understand how serving soup to us would not have been a good idea.

We all quickly learned that our chef knew how to cook fish and with a fish offering pretty much every night I think I was starting to breathe through my gills. There was also a nightly vegetarian offering as well as a meat dish. Everything was well prepared and the chef gets high marks from me for his plating efforts too.

Of all the elements that conspired to make this trip around Newfoundland such a pleasure, I think it was the expedition crew that put it over the top. You knew that each one of them loved what they did professionally, loved educating others, loved being aboard the Polar Star, loved being in the outdoors and in less traveled places and were having as much fun or more than we were. The briefings and lectures they delivered set up each on shore excursion so that we could derive maximum enjoyment of each opportunity.

In summary, we really enjoyed the chance top become immersed in all things Newfoundland, including the music, particularly the sea shanties and the romantic maritime history they invoke.

It has now been more than a week since we returned home, having spent some time with my brother Ian & his bride Jackie on the South Shore of Nopva Scotia before our return to Beachview Retreat. We had a wonderful time and we would recommed it to anyone, as I hope this blog has communicated.

As I re-read this blog I see there is much more tosay and do, however, if I delay posting this much longer I fear I will never do it, and so, as you, dear reader can see, I did it!