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To the Far East (of Canada)!

In my ongoing journey to visit every state and province, I found myself landing in St. John’s, Newfoundland. As soon as I got out the airport, I could smell… Canada. It’s probably the trees and the mostly rural area around the airport, but I immediately noticed it. It felt great.

The grand plan: visit St. John’s, then travel along the TransCanada Highway across the island and all the way up to the northern tip near St. Anthony. Finally, return to St. John’s for the Canada Day celebrations before flying out.

The number one priority: see icebergs! When we arrived the newspapers pointed out that a couple of large icebergs were sitting right near the mouth of the harbour. We quickly made our way to to the top of Signal Hill, which is a Canadian National Historic Site at the edge of the city, to take a peak. When we returned another day we actually saw a whale leaping out of the water all the way along the coast!

Signal Hill

Signal Hill

Icebergs out the mouth of the bay

Icebergs out the mouth of the bay

For all you RF engineers out there!

For all you RF engineers out there!

Little did we know what how many more icebergs we’d see later in the visit.

A short time later we wound our way around the harbour and out to Cape Spear, the easternmost point of Canada! The lighthouse is another Canadian National Historic Site. You can see how the family there would have lived and some military remnants from the World Wars.

The Edge of Canada

The Edge of Canada

Light on the hill, y'all

Light on the hill, y’all

The city itself was quite nice – a mix of old town and new build. We spotted a few examples of the quintessential St. John’s multi-coloured row houses.

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

Pretty buildings

Pretty buildings

Cute!

Cute!

The harbour was definitely a working harbour – nothing touristy at all that we could see and boats coming in out with goods and fish. These days the fishing industry is mostly dried up but Newfoundland does have oil off the coast, which provides it some economic incentive.

DSC00448

The harbour

Lunch at St. John’s was our first taste of scrunchions: salted pork cut into bits and fried. It’s served on top of fish commonly. I was really confused when I ordered fish and got what I thought were croutons on it! Scrunchions proved to be common all along our journey.

It was also coincidental that the AHL championship had just completed and the Texas Stars had just defeated the St. John’s IceCaps in the finals. I took the opportunity to jokingly rub it in on one resident we met. He took it in stride and ribbed me right back.

Lots of these around town

We’d return later, but after a couple of night’s stay we headed out to explore the rest of the island. The Trans-Canada Highway runs along the island, connecting the major towns from St. John’s up to the northern tip through a couple of national parks.

The first such park is Terra Nova. Right on the coast, this park features wide expanses of trees and water. We only stayed long enough to drive through and make a few short hikes, but we got a few nice pictures. We also climbed what was probably a fire lookout tower to see the surrounding area.

Beautiful view

Beautiful view

Pretty lakes and trails

Pretty lakes and trails

Our first night outside of St. John’s we stayed in Gander. This town is famous for hosting 38 planeloads of passengers who were stranded during the 9-11 attacks when all air traffic was diverted from the US. The small town’s hotels were quickly overwhelmed and the local townsfolk volunteered their own homes to take people in during what was called Operation Yellow Ribbon.

Gander is also where we got to try some more traditional Newfoundland fare. I tried the brewis, which is cod mixed with wet hard tack biscuit and scrunchions. Salty!

Salty fish brewis

Salty fish brewis

Jigs dinner was also on the menu. This is basically salted beef served with boiled vegetables. A Sunday dinner would be a beef roast with all the fixings and salted beef on top. Weird!

Jiggs dinner

Jiggs dinner

From Gander we went off the beaten path a bit up to the central-north coast. Along the way we started noticing these weird boxes on the edge of the road. It took us a while to realize they were bear guards for garbage pick up!

Da bears

Da bears

We stopped in Twilingate, which calls itself the Iceberg Capital of Newfoundland. A lot of ice gets trapped there and if you climbed the cliffs you could see it in all directions!

Ice up close

Ice up close

Pretty view from the cliff

Pretty view from the cliff

More icebergs in the distance

More icebergs in the distance

This also was our introduction to another Newfoundland delicacy: cod tongues. Yes, they’re exactly that. They don’t taste any different than normal cod, though!

Cod tongues - yum!

Cod tongues – yum!

Gros Morne was next on our itinerary. It is a huge and beautiful National Park. Unfortunately, the day we schedule to do the boat tour of the cliffs was bad weather so we had to take a different boat tour out of Bonne Bay on the west side of the park. The boat guys were hilarious and made us feel welcome, despite the gloomy, cold weather. We trailed after a whale, saw a lot of bald eagles, Newfoundland towns from the shore, and got to ask a lot of annoying tourist questions which they patiently answered. It turns out a lot of artists and writers own homes in the towns but only live there in the summer which makes the makeup of these towns quite different from month to month.

Misty day at Bonne Bay (it rhymes!)

Misty day at Bonne Bay (it rhymes!)

We spent part of a second day driving through Gros Morne on our way north. One part of the park is actually exposed mantle – deep earth that has been forced up out of the crust. Due to the chemical content of the mantle, trees and shrubs don’t grow very well. Little stubs of trees can be decades old!

The mantle

The mantle

We did get to see our first moose, though. Fortunately, we saw it before it saw us on the road. Moose are actually not native on the island and have no natural predators. They were introduce to provide meat to the locals, but have since taken over. Because of this, the hunting rules are a lot looser in Newfoundland for moose; you can even hunt in the National Parks depending on the time of year.

Moooooose

Moooooose

In Rocky Harbour we stopped to get some food. This is where I tried moose burger (disappointing) to keep up my tradition of eating a new meat everywhere I go. We also had cheesecake with cloudberries, a Newfoundland specialty. They’re little yellowish berries individually collected from wild plants that grow there. They were served relatively intact in a glaze. Not my cup of tea either, unfortunately. Later we would have partridgeberry pie, though, which was delicious!

From Gros Morne we travelled north along the highway along what is known as the Viking Trail. Vikings was the second priority on my list so I was stoked!

Along the way we paused at the tiny Arches Provincial Park to see some cool rock outcroppings worn down by the water over time.

Arches in the water

Arches in the water

The coastal highway hugged the west side of the peninsula, so now we started seeing a lot more icebergs again coming down the west side. Icebergs take a couple years to come to Newfoundland from the arctic so it’s been quite a journey for them up to this point. On the far side you can see the mainland – Labrador!

Labrador in the distance

Labrador in the distance

A couple of things we noticed: there is wood cut and stacked neatly all along the highway and people have gardens right next to the highway, too. We asked, of course, why. The wood is because the government allows family a certain allotment from the public lands each year to heat their homes. Unfortunately, the wood doesn’t really grow back due to the poor soil (re: mantle). And secondly, the gardens are along the highway because when the government built the nice road, they dug up lots of fresh, good soil in the process. So the good stuff for growing is right next to the highway, whereas at home it might be too acidic. We were also warned that moose will raid your garden if you have anything good, even right in town!

Ultimately, we were headed to St. Anthony, a small town right near the northern tip of Newfoundland. Oddly, the hotel host was from Washington State – a long way from home! More seafood and icebergs awaited. We even used to have family who lived near there so it was cool seeing where the hospital where they were born.

Lighthouse in St. Anthony

Lighthouse in St. Anthony

St. Anthony is a former fishing town. The historical legacy of Dr. Grenfell looms large – a man who started a Mission to help both the fishermen and the aboriginal people. He even gets a Feast Day in the Church of England’s liturgical calendar!

Back to vikings, though. About thirty minutes north from St. Anthony is L’Anse Aux Meadows – something I have heard about since elementary school. For years people thought the vikings had come to North America long before any other explorers and eventually, through archaeology, they were able to show this was true. Carbon dating on artifacts shows it to be around 1000 AD.

The museum guides carefully explained to us that the camp was never permanent, but was probably used for about 10 years in different spurts. The area at the time had lots of trees for logging and of course fish and berries. In the Norse sagas they discuss a place called Vinland, which historians now think is a lot of eastern Canada including northern New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The sagas include some tales of meeting both peacefully and otherwise with the First Nations people who lived in the area. Some trade went down, but it ended in conflict.

Our guide

Our guide squatting on the viking ruins

Interestingly, along with buildings ruins, there is evidence of metal work on the site, which the guides attribute to making nails for ship repairs.

Parks Canada recreation

Parks Canada re-creation

We were repeatedly also told that viking is a verb not a noun. These people were most likely normal farmers who would occasionally go “viking”, which could be a lot of things including raiding or bringing back resources such as logs. Also, horns on helmets was not a thing – disappointing, I know.

The historical site itself has some actors in character who would answer questions. Down the road, however, there was a for-profit site that included a full Norse town recreation. It also included a boat that was constructed to prove that the trip from Greenland to the Labrador could be done. Some brave souls made the trip on the second try! It’s a little crazy because there’s no deck to sleep under. If there were storms they’d take the sails down and cover themselves.

The actual boat

The actual boat

The boat's interior

The boat’s interior

Of course, the other thing at L’Anse aux Meadows is icebergs! We had a local fisherman take us out on his boat for about an hour, going round and round big icecaps. He explained that the ‘gunshots’ we occasionally heard were huge ice chunks cracking and falling off icebergs somewhere in the vicinity. They were beautiful and definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

Mammoth...

Mammoth…

...ice

…ice

And so began our return down the Viking Trail. We once again missed out on the Western Brook Pond boat tour due to the long trip, but we still stopped during the still-light evening and walked on the boardwalk across the spongy marsh to the shore to take some beautiful pictures. Those cliffs really seem like something out of Lord of the Rings.

Boardwalk across the marshes

Boardwalk across the marshes

Some LOTR level stuff going on back there

Some LOTR level stuff going on back there

We hauled it back to St. John’s very quickly, stopping of course at Tim Horton’s on the way. Our ultimate goal was to be back in St. John’s for the Canada Day festivities!

That day we went to The Rooms museum, which is a museum about the history and art of Newfoundland. There’s a lot of Irish influence, of course, and at least three different major First Nations groups. Sad stories about ships lost in ice were intermixed with exhibits on things like aprons from all across the province. And they had poutine in honour of Canada Day!

Fancy poutine

Fancy poutine

That evening we made our journey down to Quidi Vidi Lake to see the fireworks. Standing on the deck overlooking the lake singing “O Canada” definitely gave me a rush of homesickness.

The next day I dropped off my family at the airport and spent a few hours hiking around and driving by myself. My finale was visiting Parliament. Given that Newfoundland became a province relatively recently (1948), the building is pretty much an office building. Their website advertised tours at specific times, but when I showed up the security guards had to call to ask what I meant.

A friendly intern gave me a personal tour of the place and allowed me to ask all kinds of annoying tourist questions, such as what they can actually grow there (root vegetables), how harsh the winter was (not too bad in St. John’s, though long), and intricacies of the local politics.

Tiny Newfoundland parliament

Tiny Newfoundland parliament

With that I drove off to the airport, took my last gulp of fresh air, and started my journey to DC to celebrate July 4th (double fireworks!). It was a great trip and I’ll always remember it fondly.

The coat of arms

Coat of Arms outside Parliament

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