Greenland icebergs flow south into the St. Lawrence Seaway and along the Atlantic Coast, called ‘iceberg alley’ in May and June. In some years, they cause real havoc with shipping.
My wife Kathy and I went to Newfoundland and Labrador to see these monstrous sky-scraper sized icebergs lodged on the shore. We wanted to clamber up on them and take selfies.
It turns out that that was a pipe dream, especially this year when the ice floes weren’t as profuse as last year. But we did see some on our trip to Newfoundland and Labrador.
I thought that we’d see two Canadian provinces with one trip, but I was obviously geographically challenged. I was told, quite emphatically, by our intrepid tour guide Peter, that they were but one province. We were with Peter and 28 Canadians on a 12-day tour of the maritime province sponsored by McCarthy’s Party Tours.
It took two days to get to Deer Lake Airport in Newfoundland. (If you know the airport symbol for Deer Lake Airport, you win a special trivia prize, at this point undetermined — it’s YDF.)
We started out in San Francisco, flew to Toronto, then on to Halifax (on smaller and smaller planes), and finally to Deer Lake, on a prop plane. I should also note that Newfoundland time is four and one-half hours different from San Francisco. No one could really explain the extra half-hour but it is the only place with such a time zone.
Another reason we wanted to visit Newfoundland was because we watched the Netflix show “The Republic of Doyle” about a father-and-son team that investigates crimes in a comedic drama series set in Newfoundland. We had to see the place, and especially see the bar they own in the show, the Duke of Duckworth on Duckworth Street. We also watched Anthony Bourdain’s show “Parts Unknown” about his trip to Newfoundland, which certainly gave an interesting perspective about their living and eating habits.
Wouldn’t you know, in the first place we stayed, Corner Brook, the most northern city in Atlantic Canada, the only surviving pulp and paper mill is threatened with closure due to a fight with, as they say, Trump Tariffs. To avoid controversy, we told our fellow passengers that we were Canadians but that didn’t work, since although we looked just like them they could somehow tell that we were from California.
Before leaving Corner Brook, we went up to Crow’s Hill (Cooks Lookout), to see the memorial plaques and statue of James Cook, the British explorer, navigator, cartographer and Royal Navy captain. He made detailed maps of Newfoundland and was in the area for five years. If he had stuck around, he wouldn’t have been killed in Hawaii on a later trip.
L’Anse aux Meadows. What a strange place name. Turns out that’s where Leif the Lucky and the Vikings settled in 1000 A.D, which was the earliest evidence of Europeans in North America, coming from Greenland. Under the leadership of Leif, a group of 60-90 people set up an encampment of turf-walled buildings where they wintered over, enabling them to explore to the south via the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
For several decades they traveled to this region they called Vinland, searching for hardwood lumber, going as far south as the east coast of New Brunswick, where wild grapes grow. (That doesn’t mean that the wine they produced, even today, is any good!) Eventually the Norse abandoned the area because it wasn’t commercially viable.
To get to Labrador from Newfoundland, it’s necessary to take a ferry across the straights of Belle Isle to the shores of Québec. Initially the trip to Labrador was almost cancelled due to the threat of icebergs, but as it turned out, it was not too risky to sail. So, our giant bus drove onto the ferry and one and a half hours later, we landed in Blanc Sablon, Québec.
It didn’t take long to leave Québec, and on terribly torn-up roads, get to Labrador, the land God Gave to Cain, as the locals say.
We drove to a Basque whaling station that was established in the early 1500s to learn about their “modern techniques” used for whaling, and the hardships crews endured. In 21-foot specially built boats, they killed whales and shipped the whale oil to Europe. For years it was an incredibly profitable business until a derivative of petroleum, kerosene, became available.
Then it was on to see the tallest lighthouse in the province at L’Anse Amour, the Point Amour Lighthouse. One family operated the lighthouse, which is the tallest in Atlantic Canada at 109 feet, for 84 years. It was needed because the Strait of Belle Isle is very treacherous.
Back via ferry to Newfoundland island where there has been civilization for 6,000 to 9,000 years. The original indigenous people lived near the ocean and survived on the rich marine resources, including fish and seals. The skin of the seals was used for clothing, the fat was good for oil, and the meat was eaten. Later settlers from Europe used the seal commercially, for boots, mitts, caps, and sealskin coats, which they sold. Thanks to bashing baby seals videos highly disseminated years ago, it’s illegal to bring seal products into the USA.
When you say fish in Newfoundland, you are talking about cod. It provided a healthy living for hundreds of years, until in the 1950s. It was heavily overfished by factory-fishing super trawlers from Europe, and by 1992 the entire industry collapsed, causing Canada to impose a moratorium on fishing. What had been the largest cod fishery in the world is not coming back despite great efforts to get it going again. Three thousand five hundred fishermen and plant workers lost their livelihood.
Gander, Newfoundland: During World War II, Americans built a huge airbase in Gander, which served as a last fueling stop before flying 20,000 bombers and fighters to England for use during the war. It was little used for years until Sept. 11, 2001, when, due to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, all domestic flights were ordered to land immediately and USA airspace was closed.
At the same time, more than 300 planes were headed to the US, forcing the air traffic controllers in Gander to take control of them and find a place for them to land. There were 7,000 passengers, and ultimately all of the planes were diverted and landed at Canadian airports. Locals came out of the woodwork to house and feed those stranded passengers. It’s an incredible story carefully recounted in a book by Jim Deffee called “The Day the World Came to Town.”
We were ready to see some real icebergs and so we drove to Twillingate, the self-proclaimed Iceberg Capital of the World. We had a lovely lunch there, but there was not a single iceberg or even a refrigerator-sized piece of ice anywhere to be seen. The locals were horribly embarrassed, and all they could say was that last year, the entire bay was iceberg-locked.
Our guide Peter was determined that we see icebergs, and the hunt was on. We went back and forth and down little used roads following the Atlantic coastline until finally, on the Bonavista Peninsula, we found monsters.
They weren’t grounded on the beach, but they were huge, especially remembering that 90 percent of an iceberg is underwater. Since they are so prevalent, several years ago an entrepreneur decided to harvest the million year-old-ice and make beer and vodka from it.
After some bureaucratic hassles, he bought a barge, installed an extractor on it that had a big bucket digger to dig up the ice and transfer it to a conveyer belt on the ship. The bright blue bottles the beer comes in are so popular (people keep them and turn them into glasses) that the brewery can’t get enough bottles. The vodka is also popular and it wasn’t just tourists snapping them up.
In 1497, John Cabot landed in Newfoundland and claimed it for King Henry VII, and it remained a commonwealth until 1949, when the locals had to make a decision to become part of the USA or Canada. It was a very close vote, still contested by some, but as the locals say, Canada joined Newfoundland.
We finally ended up in St. Johns, which is the oldest city in North America, and Newfoundlanders think it has a fairly mild climate, but it is what we’d call bitter and hellish, often experiencing all four seasons in one day.
The city itself is famous for it colorful Jelly Bean Row Houses, which are painted many different colors. Just before entering St. Johns, we drove through Cape Spear National Historic Park, which is the most easterly point of land in North America. We climbed up Signal Hill where Marconi, in 1901 received the first wireless signal from Ireland.
The harbor itself, entered through the 200-foot wide narrows, is well protected and used year-round, especially by the boats that supply the off-shore oil rigs. We ate well, and my favorite was Cod au Gratin, a casserole made up of pieces of cod, smothered in a creamy white sauce and covered with cheese and bread crumbs, served hot. Of course, we tried the local specialty, Fried Cod Tongue. This is a traditional Newfoundland food usually served as an appetizer. They are actually a little muscle from the neck of the fish. Kathy like them. She thought they went well with Sauvignon Blanc.