Before Columbus there was Leif


Clayton Colbourne and the Viking mounds where he played as a child.

Clayton Colbourne and the Viking mounds where he played as a child.

Clayton Colbourne began fishing when he was seven years old. This was not your daddy’s fishing where you sit on a quiet lake slowly baking in the midday sun, and maybe you end up with a couple of pan fish.

Fishing in Newfoundland is serious business. When you fish in Newfoundland, you go out into the cold Atlantic for cod and other large fish that will be your family’s livelihood for the year ahead.

When Clayton began fishing perhaps 100 families lived in the tiny village of L’anse aux Meadows, which clings precariously to the shore at the far northern reaches of Newfoundland. This is a strange, remote, and rugged land, where snow may drift 30 feet high in winter.

As a child, Clayton and his pals (There were eleven children in the village) played on the irregular and almost unnoticeable mounds nearby. “We called them the Old Indian Camp because we thought the native people had made them.”

L'anse aux Meadows. The village only has 25 residents now. "It's only a matter of time, and this community will cease to exist," says Clayton.

L’anse aux Meadows clings precariously to the shore. The village now has only 25 residents. “It’s only a matter of time before this community ceases to exist,” says Clayton.

One day, a husband-and-wife team of archeologists, who also happened to be experts in ancient Norse civilization, arrived in town.  Following a hunch (based on a lifetime of study), they began excavating the mounds. They often stayed with people in the village as their guests.

Clayton remembers the excitement when the first unmistakeably Norse artifacts were pulled from the dirt: a brass cloak pin and a stone spindle. Eventually, the mounds were identified as the traditional Norse turf-and-peat homes.

From a village clinging to the edge of nowhere, tiny L’anse aux Meadows suddenly walked onto a global stage, blinking and bewildered. The site became the first, and only, authenticated landing site of the Vikings in the New World. It also became the first Canadian UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now, each year about 35,000 people travel to this end-of-the-world place to see where the Vikings landed.

Flags of Canada, Newfoundland and the United Nations fly over L'anse aux Meadows

Flags of Canada, Newfoundland and the United Nations fly over L’anse aux Meadows

Clayton is one of the interpreters, who shares both his booklearning about the Vikings as well as his own story of present-day life on this remote site. There is something perceptive, gentle, and unassuming about this person who grew up at earth’s end.

But there was nothing gentle about those first European visitors to L’anse aux Meadows. The stories of the Viking travels are recorded in the “sagas,” which were sustained by word of mouth for two centuries before being written down in the 13th century. Like anyone’s travelogues, they tended toward hyperbole, but they have also been an important source in figuring out where these intrepid Norsemen may have wandered in what eventually came to be called America.


Leif's long-lost relation?

Leif’s long-lost relation?

Nonetheless, Vikings landed at L’anse aux Meadows more than once–probably about four times in 1000A.D. They built houses, a forge, and four workshops. They didn’t actually settle here–L’anse aux Meadows was probably a refueling station where boats were repaired, refitted, or made. The roving Norse were more likely to be scouting for useful items, like fur, wood, or the grapes they loved so well, to take back home in Iceland and Greenland.

They probably also explored well beyond Newfoundland down along the Atlantic coast, but they left no trace.

Viking raised the craft of boatbuilding to a fine art. These large canoes were fast and strong. They held up under ocean storms but could be beached on land like canoes.

Viking raised the craft of boatbuilding to a fine art. These large canoes were fast and strong. They held up under ocean storms but could be beached on land.

Eventually, they stopped coming. The sagas describe hostile interactions with the skraelings, which is what the Vikings called the native people. Maybe they just gave up and went home, leaving behind tantalizing clues to their way of life in the New World.

Since the dirt mounds that Clayton played on are hard to appreciate for the more unimaginative among us, Parks Canada has rebuilt the Viking village in the old Norse way and peopled it with local folks who look every bit as rough and scary as the originals. When they converse in their native Newfoundlandish, they might as well be speaking Norse.

The peat-turf Viking longhouse, rebuilt by Parks Canada

The peat-turf Viking longhouse, reconstructed by Parks Canada

I have to say, those thick peat walls were mighty comfortable–dry, warm, and not a hint of draft.

Cozy and warm in the spacious longhouse. I'd live here!

Cozy and warm in the spacious longhouse. I’d live here!

Also worth a visit, I heard, is Norstead Village, a nonprofit organization 2 kilometers away that also features a reconstructed Norse settlement, including a life-size Viking ship, the Snorri. Apparently, there are reenactments and fireside storytelling and fortunetelling, all  authentic and entertaining.

Most people visit both L’anse aux Meadows and Norstead. For me, the UNESCO site was enough for a day.

Check out my FB page for more photos of L’anse aux Meadows and the surrounding area.

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3 Responses to Before Columbus there was Leif

  1. Fred Keller 19 May, 2013 at 6:42 pm #

    Very cool! Liked your descriptions of the Norse and Clayton. Almost makes me want to travel there. Almost.

    • Kate Convissor 22 May, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

      What! Some hesitation there? You wouldn’t want to travel a few thousand miles to a boggy marsh at the end of the world to experience a peat turf house and some Newfoundland Norsemen? Where’s your sense of adventure?

      It was actually pretty cool-plus there’s a lot more there that won’t make it into the blog. But…maybe Switzerland has a few more creature comforts.

      • al bursey 9 July, 2014 at 8:31 am #

        Getting stopped by Mexican police plus travelling into the past on the Island of NL and living to tell about it. As an ‘ex-pat’ Newf. who winters in the RGV, Tx and spent three, count them 1-2-3 winters in Mexico – I truly loved the stories you tell and how you tell them. Please don’t stop writing and calling it the ‘way it is’.

        p.s. A word of caution. The words out – Newfoundland is now commonly known as (NL) Newfoundland and Labrador.