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Gerry Feehan

Gerry Feehan takes us to North America’s Oldest European Settlement

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By Gerry Feehan

This is the second in the Newfoundland series. Scroll down to find Part 1, Gros Morne. 

On a lonely highway in a tempest on Newfoundland’s remote Northern Peninsula, we finally spotted our first moose. Luckily, before moose met grill, the big bull stepped off the road into the ditch and I was able to keep the rig down the centerline, avoiding the frigid Gulf of St. Lawrence to our left and a frightfully deep fen to our right.

We had set out that morning from Gros Morne National Park, 350 km south ‘up’ the coast. The night before had been clear and 7 degrees. By early morning it was rain and 17. This was the muggy aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which long after devastating Key West, was now bringing high winds and warm rain to remote—and distinctly non-tropical—Newfoundland.

L’Anse aux Meadows is located on the remote west coast of Newfoundland.

We were bound for L’Anse aux Meadows, on the extreme tip of northwest Newfoundland where lie the remains of North America’s oldest European settlement. It was October so, although we arrived before 5 p.m., twilight was nigh as we settled in at the Viking RV Park. We were the only campers. The office was closed. In the morning I deposited cash in the “off-season/$25 per night” bucket by the abandoned office and drove the remaining few km to the National Historic Site.

One of the advantages to a late fall motorhome trip is that, with darkness extant by suppertime, it’s early to bed—and early to rise. (The healthy wealthy and wise part I won’t comment on.) So, uncharacteristically, we arrived at L’Anse aux Meadows first thing in the morning, just as the park gates were being unlocked.

“…Both are horrible!” said the Leif look-alike…”

Leif Ericsson, a Norse explorer, together with his small group of intrepid fellow Viking seafarers, landed here around 1000 AD. They strategically chose this spot near the Straight of Belle Isle, within sight of Labrador. They called the place Vinland, the land where wild grapes grow. Setting up a sturdy encampment of turf-walled buildings, they explored for hardwood lumber, iron ore and arable land.

From the visitor center we followed a Parks Canada interpreter down the winding boardwalk toward the sea. He showed us the faint remains of the original sod buildings: the Leader’s Hall, labourer’s quarters, a women’s workshop and the smelting hut where a charcoal kiln produced iron from bog ore. But the terrain was unwelcoming—as perhaps was the indigenous native population—and after only a decade or two, the Vikings abandoned the site, burning everything as they departed.

“….I die at you, she said laughing….”

The interpreter’s talk ended at the ruins and, with somber thoughts, we continued down the trail to where the National Park service has artfully reconstructed a series of replica sod huts by the cold sea. The Norse may have been fierce warriors but they couldn’t have been very tall—I had to stoop as we entered the longhouse. The room was dimly lit by a smoky peat fire. When our eyes adjusted to the low yellow light, we noticed a man and a woman clad in Viking attire seated by the comfortable fire. The man, a Leif Ericsson doppelganger, whittled a talisman while the young woman wove fabric on a traditional loom. They explained in detail how the first Viking explorers had lived, eaten, slept and toiled here 1000 years ago, eking out a meagre existence on this inhospitable shore by the frigid north Atlantic.

The replica sod huts are very realistic and come complete with period-costume Parks Canada personnel.

Newfoundlanders are the friendliest, most outgoing of people, so when I asked the young woman if she lived nearby, her Parks Canada persona evaporated like ‘tick fog’ and the talk immediately turned to the upcoming weekend, her two hard-earned days off and fall berry-picking. “I was born just over that side of the ‘arbour. My father ran trawler ‘til the fish ran out.” (In Newfoundland ‘fish’ means cod. Everything else, haddock, flounder, plaice, etc. is known by its usual name.) She winked and said, “Growing up, it was always cold in the house. In winter me mom would open the fridge to warm the place.”

I then inquired about the merits of partridgeberry vs. bakeapple jam. We had been looking for souvenir gifts and both berry varieties were available at the Dark Tickle Chocolate store just down the road. “Both are horrible!” said the Leif look-alike, unable to resist joining in. Our new lady-friend disagreed and told him so in no uncertain terms. “Oh me nerves, he’s got me drove.” Apparently, partridgeberry-picking was number one on her weekend agenda.

In an effort to segue the subject I asked whether the town of Quirpon or Great Brehat—each just down the coast—were worth a visit. She and Leif chuckled at my accent. “I die at you,” she said laughing. Nothing will more quickly label you a tourist in Newfoundland as the mispronunciation of local place names. Quirpon is ‘Car-poon.’ Great Brehat is pronounced ‘Great Bra’. Happily, I didn’t inquire about the town of Ferryland.

“Where are youse from?” our Viking-ess asked. “Alberta,” we replied. “Alberta,” she continued. “I’ve got a brother in Ft. McMurray.” (I can report that we didn’t meet a single Newfoundlander who did not have at least one family member working out west. But, no matter where a Newfie might live, a trip ‘home’ is always in the works. Famously, it is a 63-hour drive from Ft McMurray to the Rock.)

I tried to get her back on Viking track—but to no avail. All pretense of the 11th century Norsewoman was abandoned. She continued, talking about her husband, the small family garden, the incessant rain. “And there was himself last night,” she continued. “Luh, standing in a downpour, coat wide open, staring at lord knows what, sopped to the skin and stunned as me arse.” Then she politely adjusted her bonnet and resumed weaving.

CBC radio had gravely informed us that morning that the Doomsday Clock had been moved to two minutes before midnight. The world was closer to self-destruction than it had been at any time since the Cold War. I asked her if she was worried.

“Why, not a bit. After all, with the half-hour time change here on the Rock, us Newfies got ‘til 12:30.”

I love Newfoundland.

 

Arches Provincial Park glows at sunset.

Gerry Feehan, QC is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Special thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for supporting this series.

Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

 

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Gerry Feehan

Croatia – Pedal and Sea

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On our second day of riding, while huffing and puffing up an absurdly steep Croatian road, I said to my wife Florence, ‘Perhaps it would be wise if you were to switch to an e-bike. The guide says the grade is going to get even tougher over the next few days.’ As she pedaled away, Florence remarked, ‘You use electricity. I’ll use electrolytes.’ Then she accelerated up the slope and disappeared around a bend in the lane. I stopped disheartened, dismounted and examined my bicycle, hoping to discover a low tire or some other mechanical excuse to abandon the climb.

We were on a seven-day ‘Pedal and Sea’ adventure on the Dalmatian Coast. We’d been forewarned that it’d be a tough slog. Preparedness being my motto, I spent weeks before departure supplementing my strict training regime with long-distance cycling. The calculations were precise. Twice a week I’d do 4 kilometers of pedaling — followed by a beer and a small nachos plate. Or was it 3 kilometers of pedaling, 2 brewskies and a medium quesadilla? No matter. The critical thing was to arrive in Croatia in tiptop condition, ready to pedal.

Ironically, the town we flew into was called Split. A Roman Emperor named Diocletian was among the first to vacation on the Dalmatian Coast. He loved Split so much that, after subjugating the locals and burning a few Christians at the stake, he retired here in 305 AD and built a gargantuan palace hewn from local limestone. Today, his enormous fortress still overlooks the quaint harbour. From the palace it’s a short walk up into Marjan Forest Park, which offers splendid views of the city and the surrounding Adriatic Sea.

We boarded our bark, The Azimut in nearby Trogir. We enjoyed a spread of fresh seafood as the boat motored out of port and into the open sea. Our guides Antonio and Andrei introduced themselves and outlined the program for the upcoming week. After lunch the whole group sat on deck marveling at the pristine, azure water as the Azimut skipped across the flat sea.

Two hours later we landed on Solta island. We disembarked, mounted our steel steeds and enjoyed a leisurely ride to the stony interior of the island. We returned to the boat in time to watch the sun sink into the flaming Adriatic. Then cocktails, then a scrumptious supper, then a few late-night laughs — then off to our berths for some well-earned jet-lagged shut eye.

In the morning I emerged from our stateroom, ordered a latte and watched the crew undertake the laborious daily task of manhandling a boatload of bicycles, bucket-brigade style, from the mezzanine deck to the dock. After breakfast we gathered en masse on the quay, strapped paniers to bikes, secured helmets to heads and awaited instructions. I surveyed my fellow Azimut shipmates, many of whom donned colourful attire advertising past cycling glories. The advanced age of some instilled in me a degree of cockiness. I decided to take it easy on them this first full day of riding; let them know it was okay for old geezers and geezerettes to share the road with me. On the first steep hill four septuagenarians pedaled by me in unison, peloton-style, instantly leaving me in the dust. As they rotated away, not judging a book by its leathered cover came spinning into my mind.

The itinerary was pretty much the same each day — one beautiful Croatian Island after another, but with ever steeper terrain and longer rides. Our flamboyant, able skipper was Captain Jadran. Every morning he stood at the helm, clad in a pink shirt, orange shorts, flip flops and a groovy Navy hat, part Humphrey Bogart, part Austin Powers. A cigarette dangled perpetually from his lips, which he removed only to shout sharp commands at the crew.

Our dapper Captain

There were 36 guests on board the Azimut. Antonio and Andrei our large, male mother geese, patiently and attentively looked after the whole flock, guiding us from start to finish every day, on every ride. They replaced chains felled by faulty gear changes, fixed flattened tires and bandaged the occasional scrape.

Although most of us started out using good old-fashioned human power, slowly but surely more and more e-bikes started popping up on the quay in the morning.

Before the week was half over the hard-core contingent was whittled down to less than ten. And those that made the switch did not switch back. But they certainly smiled a lot more. E-bikes have enabled the family to play together — and stay together. If mom is hard-core but dad and the kids aren’t as enthusiastic, they can still bike together the live-long day.

Fantastic Views

Pristine Harbours

Spoiler: we were not the first travellers to discover Croatia. Although we arrived in September’s shoulder season, the ports, even at smaller remote islands, were crowded — boats often stacked 6-deep, necessitating a circuitous, ship-to-ship hopping expedition to get ashore. Dubrovnik, the gem of Dalmatia, was crawling with visitors. Circumnavigating the City’s famous wall, a 2-kilometre stretch offering heavenly views of the ancient city and port, was a push and shove affair.

Fortunately, we didn’t spend too much time with the maddening crowd. Our days were occupied riding bucolic island byways, our nights rocking on board with the boisterous satisfaction of having conquered thigh-burning mountain passes.

Most of our ocean crossings took less than a couple hours and land was always in sight. The longest haul was from Hvar to the island of Vis — a two-pack sail for the captain. At the height of cold war fears, communist strongman Marshal Tito installed a secret submarine base along Vis’ rugged coast. But frankly, after an arduous cross-island ride, I was less interested in consuming cold war trivia than in downing a large serving of Viska, traditional island dough aroused with olive oil and stuffed with onion, anchovies and tomatoes.

Lunch!

Relaxing on deck after a hard day

The toughest ride was on Korcula. This leg was only a little over 50km, but there were several brutal climbs. Fortunately the pain was abated by frequent stops to admire the stunning white limestone cliffs spilling into the aquamarine Adriatic. The day ended at a small roadside shop where we quaffed a well-earned Radler (a delicious concoction of flavoured soda and beer) purchased from an indifferent Korculan shopkeeper. To be clear, not all Croatian shopkeepers are indifferent.

Some are also grumpy.

Radler time

On our last night on board the ship, at the Captain’s dinner, Jadran thanked us and offered a toast to all his guests. I manufactured an impromptu rendition of the Azimut Blues on my ever-present ukulele. When I finished the ditty, the captain, who had exchanged his colourful garb for proper navy attire, ceremoniously adorned me with a Croatian captain’s hat. An unlit smoke hung from his lips. I looked down at his feet: flip-flops.

Gerry

If you go: https://www.pedalandseaadventures.com/

Lights out

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

 

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Gerry Feehan

Big Bend Bob: Gerry Feehan takes us on a stunning tour of the Rio Grande River

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The Rio Grande River wends through Big Bend National Park

When I first spied Bob he was hunched over a computer in the dark outside a bathhouse on the Rio Grande River. We were camped in Big Bend National Park, Texas. I nodded hello as I passed. Bob looked up, grunting inaudibly. What an ornery old geezer, I thought.

Later that evening I watched as he folded up his laptop, grabbed his canes and teetered tentatively across the parking lot toward his van. I felt bad. He was entitled to his grumpiness. He could barely walk from the john to his beat-up old RV.

As I fell into slumber thoughts of Bob evaporated. We had a big day ahead: a long hike through parched desert on a rim trail overlooking the Rio Grande. Our destination was an idyllic hot spring seven kilometers upstream; a place where soothing thermal waters spill into this river famous for separating America from Mexico. After a dip and picnic lunch we’d retrace our steps through the dry wilderness. It’d be dark by the time we got back to camp.

G

We started good and early – which for me means somewhere around 10:15 a.m. I thought it wise to carve a few kilometers off the long, sunny march so my wife Florence and I rode our bicycles from the campground to the trailhead. As we pedaled, I was surprised to see Bob wandering down the road, wobbling on his two walking sticks. I waved. He didn’t look up.

We secured the bikes at the trailhead, donned our packs… and promptly headed in the wrong direction. When we finally gained our bearings and started up the proper trail, there was Bob gamely climbing the first steep ascent. As we overtook him I thought it polite to slow and make a final offer of greeting; after all we were headed into the same scorched Chihuahuan desert and there wasn’t another soul around.

“Are you going to the hot springs?” I asked as we passed, masking a patronizing tone; no way was this old guy tackling the hot desert terrain alone all the way to the springs.

“Yup,” he said, opening up.

We marched on but when we stopped briefly to admire a viewpoint where the Rio Grande cuts a scenic narrow gorge between Texas and Mexico up walked Bob, peered over the ledge and said, “Pretty, isn’t it?”

Big Bend Bob surveys the Rio Grande

After that the conversational floodgates opened. We introduced ourselves and spent the next four hours bantering back and forth in clever repartee, philosophizing about life and just shooting the breeze.

Bob is a retired professor of law from Oregon. When his wife passed away a few years ago he bought an old RV and hit the road, solo. Bob proclaims a healthy disdain for authority and a hearty dislike for close-mindedness and fundamentalism of any stripe.

Bob didn’t move very quickly over the rough landscape. Now and then we’d lose sight of him on the rocky trail but eventually he’d mosey up to where we’d stopped to admire a new vantage of the Rio Grande.

“Look, those are spiny soft-shells,” he remarked at one particularly beautiful spot, pointing to a group of turtles spinning slowly in a foaming eddy far below. Above, in a scraggly tree, a vermillion flycatcher regarded us with disinterest.

Vermillion Flycatcher

“Have you two spent much time in those fancy RV resorts?” asked Bob, in a swift change of subject.

“Some,“ I reluctantly admitted, thinking wistfully of hot showers and free wifi. “Why do you ask?”

“I prefer the State and National Park campgrounds. Life is simpler and the company decidedly more enjoyable. In the posh private places there’s always a big mouth in the hot tub. Have you ever noticed that those who talk the most have the least to say?”

For the next few kilometers I spoke only when spoken to.

My concern over Bob’s solitary walk-about into the thirsty desert was ill-founded. Although advanced in years he continues to exercise a life-long passion for long distance running. He ran marathons for many moons before deciding a 42-kilometer run was too short: he moved on to extreme long-distance events.

“But those days are behind me now,” he said. “Mostly I stick to short jaunts like this.”

I smiled knowingly. My feet were killing me.

He continued. “I know it’s not much but once a year on my birthday I still have a decent jog: my age plus the miles run add up to 100.

“How far did you go this year?” I asked, thinking he must be well into his seventies.

“It’s getting shorter all the time,” he laughed. “My birthday was last week. I’m down to 15 miles. A few more years and I won’t even have to get out of bed.”

He hopped off a small outcrop, balanced on his canes and grimaced slightly, “Damn, my knee hurts!”

Eventually we arrived at the hot springs, pulled off our shoes and soaked our toes in the same healing waters enjoyed by pioneers and cattle rustlers alike for over two hundred years. Ancient petroglyphs on the nearby cliffs evidence the appealing – and supposedly healing – powers of these waters.

Ancient Petroglyphs

(At the risk of imprisonment in or banishment from the United States) I decided to flout Homeland Security and waded across the shallow waters of the Rio Grande to set foot in old Mexico. The mud on the south side of the river felt just like American mud.

Gerry on the wrong side of the river

We watched as a horseman a hundred meters downstream did what caballeros have done for centuries: gracefully (but now illegally) ride his mount across the brown waters and up the steep bank into Mexico.

Our long day with Bob was sprinkled with solitude and quiet chuckles. The old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” comes to mind. So does the lesson of the tortoise and the hare. On the return trip he insisted we march on ahead. “Don’t wait for me. I’ll be fine.”

I thought, “Bob’s a big boy… were it not for our chance meeting, he’d be out here in the desert alone.” Off we trundled, arriving back at our bicycles just as the sun set. Although I wasn’t his keeper, I couldn’t help but keep an eye on Bob’s camper as the light waned. After darkness had fully descended and he hadn’t returned, I hopped on my bike and rode back toward the trailhead. I found Bob wandering happily down the road – canes bumping in the darkness – still
a couple of kilometers from the campground.

“You weren’t waiting on me, I hope?” he asked. “I should have been back before now but I got to talking with a couple of interesting folks back up the trail.”

“No, no, I just felt like going for a spin.” I felt stupid, like a worried parent waiting up for a teenager, embarrassed when the youngster inevitably arrives home safely.

We left Big Bend very early the next morning – around ten. As we pulled out of the campground Bob was outside the canteen pecking away at his keyboard, walking canes crisscrossed against his legs. I waved but he didn’t look up.

 

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

 

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