Tues, Sep 20, 2005
Side note: whenever the captain starts up the ship engines, all the lights on board dim while it turns over. It reminds us in a disturbing way of starting a car. We're really hoping that it's a car like our current, dependable car and not a car like Robert's old VW, which you could never count on to start.
What's a boat like at 5:30 in the morning, you may ask? Well, Robert can answer that one for you: "Empty," he says. "Really, really empty."
And, of course, he says this from the bar, where he goes "for the coffee" (and at 5:30 am, this is probably the case, because the bar is closed).
So, you may be asking yourself: When was this part of the world first settled? (Or, more accurately: What kind of maniacs would want to live here?)
Well, it turns out that the Basque maniacs were the first about 500 years ago in 1510. And, of course, the French were also fairly crazy, so they showed up a few years later, as did the British, and they were kinda grabby (this area is a nice stopping-off place if you're going from England to the colonies). The French ended up mostly on the west (left) side of Newfoundland, and the English clumped on the east (right) side.
It wasn't actually the land that attracted anybody, it was the fishing in the water next to the land. Initially, everybody was interested in catching whales, because it was easy to find them and whale oil brought in the big bucks.
Once they overfished the whales, though, the Basques wandered off, but the French figured, "Alors! There must be some other fishery we can wipe out!" Sure enough there was, the cod fishery (although, to be fair, it took a couple hundred years to really wipe it out).
There's an announcement on the PA that porpoises are riding our bow wake. We race up there (well, "race" is a relative word--Laura lumbered and Robert staggered) only to find that the porpoise performance was over.
We suspect it was a clever ruse to get everybody up, dressed and on deck.
The Captain is looking for a better place to park the boat, on account of there's winds blowing at 25 Knots (4 °C) and we need to leave the boat and gently climb onto a zodiac, not get flung in the air and land on top of it.
We are on a zodiac, cruising through choppy seas and 25-knot winds towards a stretch of rock that actually has some buildings on it(!). This place is called "Battle Harbour," not because any battles were fought there (trust us, you wouldn't fight an anemic Girl Scout for the right to live in Battle Harbour), but because the Portuguese called it "batal harbor" (meaning "boat harbor"). That got corrupted into Battle Harbour.
Battle Harbour is formed by two islands that have a stretch of water between them (the stretch of water is called a "tickle"). Because of the configuration of the harbor entrance (tiny), icebergs couldn't get in, but ships could.
The town used to be the capital of Labrador, but now doesn't even have year-round residents. Here's a few key dates in the history of Battle Harbour
Remember back when the Basques managed to wipe out the whales? Well, Canadians, the English, and the French managed to wipe out the cod fish. The prevailing sentiment is that the fishermen knew about it well ahead of time, but the government refused to listen to them. It only listened when the "merchants" (the people who bought and sold cod) started losing their butts. When the government did listen, they closed the fishery entirely.
Now, there's a project going to restore the town and make it all touristy. Since nobody lives there, and everybody who used to needs a job, this has met with a lot of enthusiasm. They started by restoring the Anglican Church, and then other people saw how it worked out (pretty well) and started raising money to restore other buildings.
Currently, they have restored 23 buildings, two are being worked on, and five are waiting to be worked on. One of the staff on the tour (Mike) has been working on the restoration from the beginning (he used to live in Battle Harbour) and so, as you might expect, not only does he have a lot of information about it, but he's happy (enthused, maniacal, fanatical) about sharing it with you.
They currently get about 3,000 visitors annually (they're open from June to September because even insane people wouldn't go there in the winter). You can visit, or have a corporate retreat there (pretty much NO distractions, because there is NOTHING here).
[It's really quite pretty, but the wind is always blowing, you could fit the entire town in a Fred Meyer Parking lot and there is nothing to do but gather each evening and listen to the local musicians. What you do with the other 22 hours of your day is up to you, but it ain't gonna be much.]
We're now standing in the oldest building on the property. One of the things they point out to us is that it was clearly built by shipbuilders, because the braces are ship-style "knees" not building style. The building was used to store meat, mostly salt pork and salt beef. In the olden days, people couldn't just catch a cab to the local Safeway to pick up supplies (and, technically, they still can't—you need to drive your boat for an hour and then get in a car and drive another hour or two).
So, there weren't a lot of supplies available, and what was available was stuff that could be stored for a long time. In other words: salt pork and salt beef.
In the 1930's (the Great Depression), the price of cod fell through the floor, so the merchants didn't want to "buy" any. As a result, people couldn't afford food (other than cod), started starving, and were ready to break into the company building to steal food. The measured and merciful response from the company? They put bars on all the windows and told their guards to shoot looters.
Why "buy" is in quotes: people in Battle Harbor didn't use money. They bartered the value of their catch, mostly with the company store. You could live your entire life in Battle Harbor and never see a dollar bill.
Now we're in the salting building, where they made up salted cod. Our tour guide Marjorie explains that this involved several steps:
You'll notice that the process requires more than a little bit of salt. In fact, it required a huge warehouse packed to the rafters with salt (which was imported from Spain and Portugal). The salt was carted around by guys pushing wheelbarrows.
Now, we're not experts at economics, but we see a very labor-intensive process (each cod needs to be split by hand, salted and laid out, plus all that salt toting with wheelbarrows). And we're right--fortunately, labor was cheap (REAL cheap) because the company was the only game in the town that it also owned.
Nobody could build a house here without the company's permission. So when you left for the winter, you had to rent a storage space here to stow your fishing gear until the next year.
And we thought large impersonal corporations were bad...
With all this talk about cod, we had got to wondering: how do you catch them? What the heck IS a cod, anyway?
Fortunately, we're now standing in a building that can answer these questions and more! First off, a cod is a fish that likes to hang around on the bottom (a "bottom fish"). Most of the ones they caught were about two feet long, and they swim in schools.
Although you can catch them with a fishing line (called "fishing"), the more common way was with a "cod trap." This was a wall of netting with a box on one side. The cod would swim towards the wall, see it, freak out and turn left into the box. Apparently, cod were not the brightest fish on the banks, because they were then stuck and couldn't figure out how to get back out.
These days most of the cod that is caught is "by-catch," meaning "Oops! We were fishing for these other kinds of fish and 'accidentally' caught some cod!" This is mostly done with "trawlers," which drag a net along the bottom of the ocean and catch everything that's there.
We're now standing in the local Anglican Church (and, technically, the only church). It's the oldest wooden church in this section of Canada and is called St. James the Apostle Church.
When it was restored, they restored the stained glass windows as well, but they had to put bulletproof glass outside of all of them. Seems that hunters, once they realize what a god-forsaken place this is, like to get a little revenge on God and shoot up his windows.
We also stop by the cemetery, which is in a cleft in the rocks, making it the only place on the island that isn't relentlessly windy. At least people could look forward to being out of the wind when they were dead (we've only been here a couple of hours, and we're already sick of the wind always blowing).
At the local "conference center," which is in the old general store building (which is still a general store). They have a musician here singing local folk songs (none of which are familiar to us, so they must be local). We listen for a bit, and then go inject some money into the local economy, which in this case, could do with a better selection of goods.
We're in the zodiac headed back out to the big boat. In fact, we've been in this zodiac for about 20 minutes now. It seems that the first zodiac to go back had a damp landing. To get off the zodiac, it pulls up next to a small four foot wide platform at the bottom of a portable gangplank. That means that the landing platform is moving with the ship, while the zodiac is moving with the water.
Because of the wind, the ship was moving rather more that was pleasant for folks leaving the zodiac--one person ended up starting to step onto the platform when it was dry and by the time they finished stepping, it was three feet underwater.
Since this kind of thing could lead to somebody getting washed overboard, which could lead to a lot of paperwork (even if the person were Canadian), the captain decides to move the boat behind some islands.
So, all four zodiacs are zooming back and forth across the sea chasing after the ship like ducklings following their mother. Frankly, it seems a lot more fun in the movies (but then we remember that the hero and heroine are usually saving the world, which always makes things seem more exciting).
We attend a lecture about where we're going this afternoon, a place called L'anse Aux Meadows.
We find out that the reason everything is so sub-arctic isn't because of the latitude (we're about the same latitude as Vancouver, BC). Seems that this area is in a flow of ice water that runs from Norway, across Greenland, and finally ends just south of Newfoundland. The icy stream is called the "Labrador current," and is very popular with the icebergs. It also works as a conveyor for seals and salmon.
In fact, the Titanic met with an iceberg at the very southern tip of Newfoundland while in the Labrador current. This is "ironic" according to the lecturer, because they were as far south as they could be and still hit an iceberg.
We are ashore at L'ans aux Meadows, which means "Land of the Auxilliary Meadow" or something like that. In any event, it's a Unesco Heritage Site, which means it's pretty cosmically important.
Here's the reason, you decide if it's cosmic:
In 1960, a couple of Norwegian archeologists came to this area, looking for evidence that Vikings had landed here. They found some ruins and excavated them and found, in fact, pretty solid evidence that Vikings had actually visited back around 1,000 AD (or 1,000 CE if you're very hip and up on all the latest archeological terms).
The difficulty with this "Vikings discover the New World!" theory is that the Vikings visited four times in fifteen years, shrugged their massive Viking shoulders and went back to Greenland and didn't tell anybody else.
Still, the local economy has seized on this pretty hard and turned it into a tourist attraction. You have to watch out, though, as they have a tendency to interpolate the findings rather more than they should ("Vikings might have built a massive entertainment complex called 'Viking World' at the Strait of Belle Isle!").
There's a moose (or more properly, two sides of moose) hanging under a tarp as we pull into the dock. Just in case you ever need this information: to prepare a moose, you have to hang it up for three days, so that it gets all crusty and yummy.
Weirdly enough, all the moose on this island come from six moose that were introduced back in the early 1900's. Since there're no natural predators for the moose, hunting is allowed to control the population, a less complex alternative to teaching them abstinence.
We're in the museum reading about Viking boats. The Viking sails were woven from unwashed wool (so that it kept the sheep oils and was waterproof) and were square. Unfortunately, Vikings hadn't quite worked out a good way to control their sails, so they were always being blown way and the hell off course.
That's how they found Newfoundland (they called it "Vinland")—some guy jumped on his boat to sail to Greenland, got blown sideways and saw Vinland. He immediately high-tailed it home and dined out on that story for a number of years.
Leif Ericsson heard this story and thought, "Geez, if this guy can get famous for just seeing them, imagine what I could do by discovering them!" So, he got himself a crew, jumped on his Viking boat and sailed over here.
There's a whole soap opera story around the four visits—various Vikings betraying Icelanders and Vikings getting into trouble with the natives. Laura says that one of the key reasons that some Viking settlements didn't last is that they didn't take advice from the natives—in fact, they ended up fighting with them.
Remember all that Pilgrim crap they taught you in grade school? About how the local Indians show the hapless Pilgrims how to plant corn (toss in a fish head) and hunt and fish? Well, the Vikings never had Thanksgiving, which is why we're not speaking Norwegian and wearing funky hair.
We're on a tour of the dig. Of course, they finished the dig about 40 years ago and covered it up with sod (to preserve it for future archeaologists, who will have much cooler technology). So, basically, we're standing around looking at grassy mounds that show the outlines of houses.
Mr. Tour Guide pulls out a walnut looking thing, and announces that "This is a butternut! It doesn't grow anywhere around here! The closest place is hundreds of miles to the south—evidence that the Vikings traveled even farther south!"
Robert politely asks if the Vikings couldn't have just traded with the natives to get the butternuts. Well, yeah, but it's not as cool a story. Robert thinks it's more likely the natives bounced them off the Vikings' heads during a battle.
They have set up a "Viking Village" recreation, which is like Colonial Williamsburg," only Viking-er. Various people dress up like Vikings and pretend to be Vikings while they live in their Viking style huts.
Of course, one huge difference between Williamsburg and here is that there were actually people in Williamsburg and it's a recreation of the actual event. Here, it's a "reimagining" of what might have happened if Vikings had actually gotten along with the natives and had moved in.
Still, it's kind of cool, and it's fun to see the Viking forge and the Viking weaving. Although it was probably considerably less fun when it snowed and got really really cold.
There's a speaker in our cabin, so that we don't miss ANY of the vitally important announcements about breakfast, lunch and dinner (or the ones about getting ready to leap onto a zodiac).
We notice that when it's not blaring announcements, the speaker plays music very quietly. What it plays is always the Pachelbel Canon, in various arrangements. There's a classical guitar version, a flute version, a vocal version, a jazz version and a straight version. But it's all-Pachelbel all the time.
We're told that the boat is heading into open ocean, so we're likely to have a rougher ride. Before we retire, we're asked to check around our cabin for anything that might end up on the floor, and to put it on the floor before it gets tossed there.
Robert & Laura