Final Viking voyage

The Guardian’s Mary MacKay makes safe harbour in Charlottetown following a summer expedition to the lost Atlantis of the Viking world

Mary MacKay
Published on August 15, 2014

Vinland. . . .

It’s the lost Atlantis of the Viking world.

The holy grail of early European exploration of the New World.

A place where people from the Old World and the New, separated by eons of evolution and time, came face to face again for the first time.

The exact location of this “land of wine” described by Leif Erikson and his boisterous band of Norse explorers around the year 1000 and recorded about three centuries later in the Vinland Sagas still remains one of humankind’s most enduring mysteries.

But there is no shortage of speculation as to where this Viking utopia is located in today’s geography.

“Everyone wants a piece of Vinland it seems. . . ,” smiled Geoff Ralling as the end of his Viking-inspired voyage from Prince Edward Island to the only known Norse settlement site in North America neared.

This Charlottetown sailor, who is a member of the Vinland Society of Prince Edward Island, spent much of this summer sailing his 32-foot sloop to the Parks Canada National Historic site of L’Anse aux Meadows in the northwestern tip of Newfoundland, back through the Strait of Belle Island and the Gulf of St. Lawrence to home again.

It is a trek likely taken by the Viking explorers when they ventured forth from their L’Anse aux Meadows over-wintering settlement a millennium ago to find out what plundering opportunities might lie just beyond the wild blue yonder.

“Vinland is portrayed in a very realistic manner in these two sagas (The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Eric the Red) as the most southerly land that they reached on those voyages that they most certainly went on in the year 1000,” says Gísli Sigursson, research professor at The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies at the University of Iceland.

Sigursson, who is editor of the Vinland Sagas published by Penguin Classics, says L’Anse aux Meadows is not likely to have generated the memories of Vinland described in the sagas.

In fact, one needs to venture further to the southern Gulf of St Lawrence to find some of the items described by the Vikings in their travels and perhaps to the Bay of Fundy.

A coherent map of the locations mentioned just using directions given in the Vinland Sagas can be drawn up and compared with today’s maps of the region.

“And then you go back to the archeology and you see from the evidence in L’Anse aux Meadows that the people who were there travelled further south (from that Norse base) to gather goods — wood and butternuts — that do not grow in Newfoundland. The northern-most limit (of natural habitat) of the goods brought to the Norse base in L’Anse aux Meadows is the southern shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. . . .”

A crossing from L’Anse aux Meadows in northern tip of Newfoundland south across the gulf to Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick would be the most obvious one that the sagas are referring too, he adds.

“(In the sagas) there’s a ship coming from the north and they say that they go east around the island and into a sound between the island and the mainland where there are shallow waters, flat beaches and so on. My local consultants on P.E.I. would suggest that if someone were sailing that route (East Point) would be the first place to stop. But going on the texts alone you cannot really argue for such specific points.”

Birgitta Wallace, retired senior Parks Canada archaeologist, has another point of view on the “Where’s Vinland?” subject.

Wallace, who is the author of the book Westward to Vinland, worked with site discoverers Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad in the 1960s and then again with Parks Canada from 1973 onward.

“I think L’Anse aux Meadows is the key and I don’t think that Gisli quite agrees with that. . . ,” she says.

“One thing is the L’Anse aux Meadows site is an absolute parallel to the site described in Erik the Red’s saga called Straumfjord, or fjord of current. That sort of, more or less, pinpoints it, plus the fact that we found things that could not have come from P.E.I. nor Nova Scotia nor Newfoundland or eastern Quebec- these butternuts. But they are in New Brunswick. . . .”

The sagas also refer often to salmon, which was also prevalent in New Brunswick, as were those most talked about “land of wine” Vinland grapes (aka vitis riparia, or riverbank grapes), which botanists say are not native to P.E.I. or Nova Scotia.

That being said, eastern New Brunswick is thought to be the Hop, or Hope, which was the summer settlement in the south that was described in the Vinland Sagas.

“To me everything points to that Vinland is the coastal area surrounding the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It would include P.E.I., it would include the north east of Nova Scotia and it would include New Brunswick. That whole area,” Wallace says.

“I should be clear about one thing, I do think L’Anse aux Meadows is in Vinland. People think somehow that I put it outside of Vinland; no, it’s the northern point of Vinland. That’s where Vinland begins.”

All in all, after a few short years, the Vikings abandoned L’Anse aux Meadows a millennium ago and focused their exploration attention closer to home.

Still the allure of Vikings and Vinland persists.

In preparing an exhibit in 2000 for a Newfoundland museum for the 1,000th anniversary of the Vikings’ arrival in North America an answer to an interesting question came to light.

“(The question was) ‘What is the significance of Vikings coming to America?’ and everybody agreed ‘Absolutely nothing!’ because they had no impact . . . on the native population or the fauna or flora or whatever. And it was just very brief moment,” Wallace says.

“But I think it’s because it deals with adventure and exploration. This is what appeals to people.”

Sailor Geoff Ralling and Guardian reporter Mary MacKay sail into Charlottetown Harbour after an expedition that took them around the region the Viking's called Vinland.

©Guardian photo by Heather Taweel