Path of Vikings With Zegrahm Expeditions

2019 Path of the Vikings Field Report

Text by: Mike Stewart | Main photographer: Jim Wilson|November 18, 2019|Field Report

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Reykjavik, Iceland / Golden Circle / Embark Le Champlain

This morning we began bright and early ferrying our luggage down from our rooms at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica Hotel. We have the day to explore the countryside with local guides while our ship, Le Champlain, readies in port for our arrival and the voyage ahead.

Our buses depart the city and journey eastward across a landscape shaped by stratovolcanoes, seismic activity, and over a thousand years of human habitation. The skies are a high ceiling of cloud cover and in the distance, light curtains of rain can be seen above the features of the southern uplands. Today, our guides bring us into one of the most historically, culturally, and geologically significant regions in Iceland, fittingly named the Golden Circle.

The topography transitions dramatically as we arrive at the valley’s edge of Þingvellir National Park. From our vantage point we can see down into a great plain cut through by the braided stream Öxará, which drains into the vast lake Þingvallavatn. The whole surrounds are a rim of sheer bedrock with broad mountains beyond. We are atop the side-wall of the North Atlantic Rift System! There are only two places on earth where the effects of two major plates drifting apart can be observed… here and in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. Bound to the west by the North American Plate and to the east by the Eurasian Plate is an expanse of actively faulting and fissuring bedrock with a level of such diverse natural phenomena that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. And, if all this WASN’T powerful enough… it also is the birthplace of the oldest surviving parliament in the world! In the year 930, men and women assembled here and held the first meetings of the Icelandic Commonwealth. What an incredible feeling to stand in such a truly dynamic spot!

We enjoy a delightful lunch at Friðheimar, whose geothermal greenhouses produce a variety of tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs which find their way into beautiful gourmet dishes. This is followed by a spirited show with Icelandic horses! This remarkable breed is a prize of the Icelandic people and has been central to their way of life since settlement.

At Gulfoss we climb along the escarpment’s edge to watch the mighty waters of the Hvítá River plunge strikingly down a sharply turning staircase of bedrock benches into a tight chasm. At Haukadalur we visit the archetype of the term Geysir. The whole landscape is a myriad of boiling mineral pools and steaming streams of muddy water emanating from the geothermal dome beneath. Geysir and Strokkur are the two largest of the erupting hot springs that never fail to get a huge response from the gathering crowd.

Our buses make their way down to the port and we board Le Champlain to begin our journey. We will bring this 11-month-old ship back over 1,000 years to trace the Path of the Vikings!

 

Friday, August 30

Flatey / Latrabjarg Cliffs

We awake among the Western Islands of Breiðafjörður Bay. The ship has sailed through the night in the lee of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, using it as protection from the low-pressure system that has moved in from the northwest. Blustery 30-knot winds drive breaking seas and light passing squalls across the ship’s bow. Surrounding us are dozens of rocky islets that Captain Boucher has maneuvered the ship among to find safe anchorage. Off the starboard side is a sight that Icelanders have looked upon for nine centuries—the low, green profile of Flatey, the largest and most central island of the archipelago that sits with the arms of its harbor open to us.

Atop the gentle slopes sit tiny colorful cottages and down along the shore lay the many overturned hulls of small skiffs and dories. A darling sight in the gray morning light! We ferry ashore in our Zodiacs and divide into small groups to go off exploring. Ragnar Hauksson, our Iceland expert, awaits in Flateyjarkirka, the church at Flatey, to describe the history of this island and the story of the church’s exceptional interior. Though the building was constructed in 1926, it did not receive its most notable feature until 1960 when the Spaniard, Baltazar Samper, painted it in exchange for free accommodations. What a backdrop for Ragnar’s talk! We learn of the Augustine monks who first founded a monastery here in 1172, helping to shape this place into a center of culture, art, and education. Only in the last century has Flatey turned into the quiet summer hamlet that we see today. Terence Christian awaits behind the church, inside the oldest and smallest library in Iceland, established in 1864! He describes the Flateyjarbók, the largest of the medieval Icelandic manuscripts, which was once housed here.

Outside, hikers wind along the paths of the island viewing meadow pipit, white wagtail, Arctic tern, kittiwake, merlin, and a variety of geese. A pair of shipwrecks can be seen along the low cliffs of the south shore, the largest of which is the Gisli Magnusson, built in Reykjavik in 1947. Those that cruise in the Zodiacs on their way back to the ship see rich purple jellyfish, invertebrates in the intertidal zone, shags, and diving gulls. Fascinating to find such heritage and history this far from the mainland!

In the afternoon, Ragnar presents And They Called the Land Iceland a fascinating survey of the island’s discovery, settlement, and evolution to independence. Later, Captain Boucher brings the ship alongside the impressive Latrabjarg cliffs, the westernmost promontory in Iceland. The sheer walls are a stacked layer-cake of horizontal flow basalts, making the perfect habitat for millions of birds to build ledge nests during the summer season. As the ship proceeds west and clears the end of the cape, we can see just how much protection the landmass of the west fjords has been giving us since the early dawn hours… 10 – 13-foot seas with breaking wave-tops greet us we clear away from land, heeling the ship over a degree or two in the steady 30-knot winds.

The bridge team bring Le Champlain onto her heading and the she rides nicely off the wind upon the quartering seas. We get a gorgeous display of northern lights as our sendoff from Iceland, swirling ribbons of green… Greenland, here we come!

 

Saturday, August 31

At Sea

For a section of water notorious for ruddy fog and heavy seas, the Denmark Strait is playing a docile Dane indeed this morning! We rise for breakfast to a calm sea, a light breeze, and fair weather clouds in the sky. The day ahead will be prime for wildlife watching, listening in on lectures from our expedition staff, and looking ahead to our Captain’s Welcome Gala in the evening. Terence kicks off our morning program with his presentation, The Vikings: A Cultural and Historical Phenomenon in Five Questions. Our archeologist and historian gives us an excellent look into what we know (and don’t!) about the Norse through artifacts, excavations, and the minimal written record that exists of their exploits. Tim Duane, our Stanford Faculty Professor, follows with his talk, What can Iceland do about Climate Change? He examines with us the advances in hydrothermal power, renewable resources, and the country’s ability to adapt to the earth’s changing climate. 

Beneath the ship we sail across the Greenland-Iceland Rise, a shield of raised oceanic crust that deflects deeper ocean currents upwards to mix with surface currents. This effect makes the strait nutrient rich and an excellent feeding ground for marine life. So, it’s no surprise that we come upon small groups of fin and sei whales throughout the morning. Their tall columnar blows can be seen even at several miles distance from the ship’s upper decks. Later, we all attend our mandatory AECO briefing in the theater. The presentation details etiquette for safely viewing wildlife in polar bear country, as well as how to respectfully visit and engage with locals in our Arctic communities. In the late afternoon, our ornithologist, Jim Wilson, spots a pod of long-finned pilot whales traveling with white beaked dolphin off our port beam! In the early evening Tom Sharpe gives a lecture on Rocks Ancient and Modern: The Geology of Iceland and Greenland. He gives us a dynamic picture of the evolution of these islands and the continents that surround them. And we get a sneak preview of the grand sights we’ll have in the days ahead. A perfect segue to cocktails and the Captain’s Gala!

In the main lounge we have a warm introduction by our Expedition Leader, Brent Stephenson, followed by a lovely speech from Captain Boucher. He introduces his department heads and invites everyone to the restaurant for a beautifully-crafted welcome dinner. The only thing that could top this fun and full day at sea would be gourmet Italian hot chocolate in the observation lounge and a display of Aurora Borealis!!! Special thanks to Le Champlain’s hotel staff!

 

Sunday, September 1

Napasorssuaq Fjord, Greenland

Today is a true expedition day. The ship has brought us into the mouth of Napasorssuaq Fjord during the early hours after dawn. The sea around us is full of bergy bits and brash ice and the islands are clean bare rock sparsely draped with thin mats of moss. Upon the mainland, massive valley glaciers descend to sea level from somewhere above the low cloud base. These huge blue/white features are book-ended by solid rock headlands. We are the only sign of mankind here—what a feeling!

We launch a fleet of 13 Zodiacs, loading up at the marina deck, and fanning out to explore the shorelines in search of wildlife. There are incredible “Ancient Mariners” aground in the side channels and adrift in the slow tidal currents of the open bay. This is the name given to the heavily sculpted and huge icebergs that have seen seasons of weathering at sea. We travel among them and scan the land and water for wildlife. During this time, Brent and a small crew head deeper into the fjord in one of Le Champlain’s twin-engine rigid inflatables. Once we all return to the ship for lunch, Brent’s route is reviewed by Captain Boucher and he decides to bring Le Champlain further westward to support our afternoon Zodiac cruising. It’s just how exploration and cartography has been done for centuries, a small pilot boat leading out to survey and clear for a larger ship’s safe passage.

The morning’s breeze lays down and by the time we load Zodiacs, the sea is like a mirror. We cruise through the ice-laden bay of an unnamed glacier along the western shore of Napasorssuaq Fjord. How sublime to be in such quiet calm water encircled by towering mountains and vast crevasse fields! The elements here are few and their magnitude extraordinary. We have a lively recap and head to dinner. A toast to true expedition travel!

 

Monday, September 2

Prins Christian Sund

We awake this morning to rain, stormy gray seas, and low visibility. Le Champlain is several miles from the entrance to Prins Christian Sund, a feature which will give us welcome shelter from the prevailing conditions. The entirety of the day ahead will be spent transiting through the narrow inland waterways that cut through this mountainous landscape. By mid-morning we are within the steep walls of the main linear fjord. As we progress, side channels open off our port and starboard which lead down adjoining fjords. This section of Greenland is a labyrinth of crisscrossing faults, flooded by sea-level rise to form a uniquely gorgeous cruising ground. A dusting of fresh snow has fallen in the high country above us, creating a wild and wintery atmosphere against the heavy cloud cover above. The morning hours are spent out on deck looking up at this majestic mountainscape as the clouds begin to lift and clear.

After lunch, we gear up for our first landing on Greenland! The highest of summits can now be seen as the ship comes to anchor in the outwash of a superbly picturesque glacial valley. Brent has chosen a landing site that has a mountain strikingly similar to Yosemite’s Half Dome! We land our Zodiacs at the edge of the intertidal zone and hike across seaweed beds packed with invertebrates. Some stay behind with Madalena Patacho to beachcomb while others divide into hiking and birding groups to explore the moraine. A jumble of huge blocks that have fallen from the mountain face nearly block the passage of the hikers… but with some careful bouldering they are rewarded with a stunning valley leading up to the debris-strewn terminus of its glacier. The braided network of gravel beds that surround the main drainage channel are carpeted with a thick bed of boreal pixie cup, Arctic finger, and reindeer lichens. On the upper slopes above the lichen and moss communities are millions and millions of crowberries, blueberries, and low bush cranberries! And scattered among them are the delicate pink blossoms of Greenland’s national flower, the river beauty. What a spellbinding location! As we finish loading back onto the ship a humpback whale is spotted right beside the ship. The animal surfaces several times right at the mouth of the outwash directly off the ship’s stern!

We spend the remainder of the evening within the narrow channels of this rockbound kingdom as the ship cruises south and west towards the coast of western Greenland.

 

Tuesday September 3

Qassiarsuk (Brattahlid) / Narsarsuaq / Narsaq City

Le Champlain has traveled inland close to 60 miles from the shores of the outer coast during the night, to the very end of Tunulliarfik Fjord. We awake to completely still air and warm sunshine with a gorgeous view of Eriksfjord, the innermost bay at the head of this long channel. Off our port side is some of the best farmland in all of Greenland, due to the uniquely mineral rich soil and the protection this location gives us from the cold foggy conditions typical to the southern settlements. Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild made landfall here somewhere on the beach in front of us. Today we have an option to go ashore and explore the remains of their farmstead and the Viking village of Brattahlid. We also have the option of touring the remains of the WWII airbase Bluie West One on the far side of the bay at Narsarsuaq. This morning’s landings have rich history to suit all interests!

The Viking group land at Qassiarsuk, a village dotted with just a handful of brightly colored and wonderfully quaint homes. This small collection of families have been raising sheep and living a subsistence lifestyle here since the early 1920s. We are met by three Danish guides that give us an excellent interpretation of what life was like after initial settlement in 982. They lead us inside the beautifully built reconstructions of the Norse church and longhouse, and walk us around the foundations and footprints of the farmsteads. On such a warm early autumn day like this, it’s not hard to imagine the contentment an Eastern Settlement Viking may have experienced standing in the grassy fields around us.

Across the bay, our historians Hector Williams and Terence lead a group to see the buildings of Bluie West One Airfield, a critical addition to the North Atlantic air ferry route in WWII. Construction of the airstrip began in July of 1941, and by the war’s end had staged thousands of planes transiting to and from battle in Europe and North Africa. The museum houses an amazing array of equipment, photographs, letters, and stories of the men and women who worked on post. The visit finishes with a walk up to the site where the military hospital once stood, a facility that housed between 600 and 1,000 beds during the war.

We travel the short way to Narsaq during lunchtime and ferry to shore under cloudy skies and trails of light mist. Our Danish guides have traveled with us down the fjord and they lead walking tours of this bustling little city. Our long hikers enter town after crossing through the picturesque rolling tundra and pasture above town. Since its founding in 1830, this settlement has been a center of trade and fishing commerce. We visit the lovely church at the crest of the hill and then drop down to the historic fishing village and buildings of Bluie West Three, the WWII communications station. A collection of these structures have been very tastefully made into museums with rich cultural and historical displays. We finish this fantastic day with a stroll into the newly opened bar of Qayak Brewery, Greenland’s original craft beer maker. What a gorgeous setting to celebrate our final stop in this wild and beautiful country, Skol!

 

Wednesday, September 4

At Sea

This is our first morning at sea en route to Newfoundland. There is a fresh wind blowing and a three to four foot swell running down along the hull under sunny skies. We are back in Neptune’s arms and once again in the kingdom of the seabird. Fittingly, our morning program begins with Mark Brazil’s presentation on What it Means to be a Seabird. He leads us through some of the phenomenal adaptations of these animals that enable them to call the open ocean their home.

In the late morning, Tim invites us to the theater to join his talk, What Does Climate Change Mean for Greenland? We join in the discussion of what this young government faces as greater access to its mineral wealth increases, including what choices will be made to ensure protection of resources and long-term stability. A stimulating pair of morning talks brings us closer to some of the ecological and political elements unique to this sub-Arctic environment.

In the afternoon and early evening, we have a different tone to our presentations. Kirsa Norregaard shares with us her childhood story of Life in Greenland. Through stunning photographs, remarkable accounts, and candid conversation we all have the chance to join in her experience of growing up along the coast. Our question and answer session was so in-depth it nearly made the tea and coffee go cold in the lounge! And speaking of COLD… Mike Stewart rounds out the day’s presentations with his tale of Traversing the Greenland Ice Sheet, a rather half-insane snow mobile crossing for science! Please don’t let the US Army and NASA know how much fun he had on their budget.

And if these two unusual and life-changing experiences with Greenland weren’t enough to make you shake your head… how about an evening with our host Dan Oslen and the LIAR’S CLUB! This panel, with its Irishman, Englishman, Scotsman, Portuguese, and Californian had us axe over loom-shuttle! (Norse for arse over tea kettle).

 

Thursday, September 5

At Sea

Now this looks more like the Labrador Sea… we are sailing in six to eight foot seas, with steady 25 knot winds, passing rain squalls and solid fog. Imagine being in an open longboat trying to find land with trees and grape vines in this weather! How good it is to have been born in this century and with Rolls Royce stabilizers. Le Champlain is making steady headway towards the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland and, with a final day at sea, we have another set of rockin’ talks from our expedition staff. Madalena presents Oh My Cod! in the theater to kick off our morning program. She shares a wonderfully woven tale about the significance of this single species on the formation of cities, countries, customs, laws, and livelihoods. Mada literally brings us from laughter to tears (that Fado performance!) while orienting us to the place that the cod fishery holds in the story of the western world.

Before lunch, Ragnar invites us to his presentation on The Norse in Greenland. We look in through the lens of the Norse Sagas and Eddas to see if we can tease out concrete elements of their whereabouts amidst the epic storytelling. Ragnar aligns archeological evidence with written excerpts to show us locations and events where academics have a high degree of confidence. And conversely, he also shares some of the gruesome and legendary folktales that span more into magic and myth. There are mysteries about the movements and eventual fate of the Vikings in Greenland, and who betterrrr to hearrrr it from!

In the afternoon we have a showing of the The Vikings, a film about the brothers Einar and Erik vying for the throne of Northumbria. After tea, Terence invites us to join him in the theater for his presentation, Where Light Radiated from the Stone: The Legend, Theory, and Archeology of Norse Navigation. We follow the known routes from the Norse homeland that fan out into the bounds of western Europe, the islands of the north Atlantic, and eventually Newfoundland through archeological evidence. Terence examines the unlikely myth surrounding the use of Iceland Spar and the wooden solar compass at sea. And in its place, he details for us the more plausible modes of coastwise piloting paired with short deep-water crossings to explain the extraordinary seafaring journeys that these Norse made. The evening comes to a warm close with an officer’s dinner, a nice chance to see our own seafarers in uniform, as the engineers and mates join us in the ship’s restaurant. 

 

Friday, September 6

L’anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada

We approach St. Anthony’s Harbor on a windy and clear morning. The strength of the north westerly weather has made the sea states too rough for beach landings in Epaves Bay, at L’Anse Aux Meadows, so we have traveled into the nearest protected water. This is our first experience loading into Le Champlain’s pair of tender boats, which turn out to be a wonderfully efficient and completely dry mode of transport! They bring us right into the center of this bustling little fishing port where we head ashore to meet our local guides and buses. The drive north gives us our first real look at this island’s low rugged woodland of black spruce, black ash, balsam fir, dwarf jack, and red pine. Interspersed are open bogland with reindeer mosses and lichens. It’s an extraordinary thing to be surrounded by such a vast expanse of vegetation after being on Greenland!

Half of our group arrives at Norstead, the reconstruction of an 11th-century Norse village and port of trade. The others begin at the L’Anse Aux Meadows Visitors Center to view the remains of Leif Erikson’s encampment. Upon arriving we have the unexpected surprise of going into full lockdown! Those at the visitors center spend close to an hour retained indoors while the RCMP locate a problematic person out on the loose! Finally this group gets the chance to head out onto the boardwalks to see the footprints of the three halls, the iron smelter, and the five small dwellings that were inhabited for what is believed to be a 10 - 20 year period by a group that may have numbered 60 to 90 people. At Norstead we have the chance to enter beautifully-constructed replica buildings and interact with a cast of Viking re-enactors in period costume. They do an excellent job of demonstrating the crafts and detail for us elements of what life was like 1,000 years ago. The ingenuity of these first European settlers to forge nails, build timber-framed turf structures, and create this base of operations is nothing short of admirable. How exciting it must have been for the team of archeologists excavating remnants of the encampment, particularly those that correspond with stories told in the Vinland Sagas!

We return to the ship and enjoy an afternoon program of lectures from our historians. Hector invites us to hear his account of The Search for the Northwest Passage: Franklin and Before, which describes the fascinating and bizarre events surrounding the famous lost expedition. In the early evening, we join Ragnar for his talk, The Vinland Sagas: Leif the Lucky and his Friends. He takes us on a unique journey into the world as described in The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Sage of Erik the Red. These texts give convoluted but striking evidence to the scope of Norse exploration. An intriguing finish to a day rich with discovery, stunning artifacts, and significant achievements in early expedition travel.

 

Saturday, September 7

Norris Point / Woody Point / Gros Morne National Park

Our day begins with completely clear skies and a lovely sunrise breaking over the top of the Tablelands. We sail into the entrance of Bonne Bay in calm seas and head for our anchorage in front of the Norris Point settlement. The steep valley walls of the inner harbor are covered in impenetrable “tuckamore,” that iconic Newfoundland forest that clings like a dense fur to the rocky shoulders of this land. The village is a collection of quaint and brightly-colored homes and businesses nestled in on the arm of the peninsula. We come ashore and step upon the weather-beaten timbers of the community’s tiny floating fish pier to join our guides and begin our morning excursions. All around us are the high bluffs and strange barren plateaus of Gros Morne National Park, how lucky to have such sublime summer weather to explore.

Those looking for a longer hike join the buses and head northeast to Lobster Cove. Upon arrival, the historic red and white clapboard lighthouse greets us like something out of an old maritime painting. A National Parks interpreter leads us through the building’s history and the families that have kept the light burning since 1889. Outside, we have the opportunity to stroll the winding trails leading off the rocky headland down to the boulder-strewn beaches below. On the way back to town we visit a classic old Newfoundland saltbox home filled with local crafts and original turn-of-the-century furnishings. Those that chose the second option of the morning remained at Norris Point and visited the Bonne Bay Marine Station. This vibrant facility houses an aquarium, research laboratories, and library focused on the ecology and marine environment of Bonne Bay and the greater Gulf of St. Lawrence. A small group finished their visit by taking a coastal hike along the eastern headland overlooking the inner harbor.

During our lunch break, the bridge team repositions the ship across the bay to the community of Woody Point. Our expedition leader and vaptain meet over the latest weather reports and make the final decision to begin our Gulf crossing earlier than planned. They have been closely watching the predicted storm track of Hurricane Dorian for the past week and the newest models are showing it intensifying and arriving sooner to our vicinity. So, instead of offering multiple longer options this afternoon, we all gather together to tour the Tablelands and Gros Morne’s Discovery Center. As the Zodiacs begin operations, the cloud base can already be seen building overhead. The cirrus horse-tails have thickened into a thin gauzy cover of cirrostratus, which creates a full circumsolar halo around the sun. A beautiful sight… but one that also tells us that we’re making the right decision to depart early! We load onto our buses from the charming downtown of Woody Point and begin with a stop at the park’s Discovery Center. Here we get an introduction to the remarkable geology of this region, so unusual that it has given the park its UNESCO World Heritage designation. An afternoon drive takes us through the heart of the Tablelands, a strangely barren landscape of heavily weathered reddish-brown plateaus. These landforms are actually enormous slabs of ocean crust that have been thrust up onto the continent by tectonic forces. We get a spectacular view of Gros Morne Mountain, or the “Great Sombre” as it often is translated by Newfoundlanders. As we return to the docks and make our way back to the ship the winds have begun to arrive along the coast. What a beautiful pair of days visiting two dramatic locations on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, how fortunate to have been ahead of the changing weather!    

 

Sunday, September 8

Havre St. Pierre, Quebec

With a perfectly planned departure, our bridge team routed the ship clear of the storm force winds that arrived off Newfoundland’s west coast. The remains of Hurricane Dorian passed to the east of our location and giving us a morning of sustained 35 to 40 knot winds which Le Champlain rode comfortably on her starboard quarter. We had traveled through the night at full speed to arrive in the protection of Jaques Cartier Strait, with Anticosti Island to our south and the coastline of Quebec to our north. This allowed for a comfortable morning and a great talk by Hector on Champlain and the Birth of French Canada. He summarizes the pivotal events that shifted this region from a set of broadly linked trading posts into an established French settlement that engaged in a seemingly endless string of skirmishes and battles in an attempt to retain its autonomy.

The ship arrives alongside in Havre-Saint-Pierre with strong winds still gusting through the inner harbor. Due to the sea states and wind direction, our planned excursions into the offshore islands for birding and natural history by local boat have been cancelled. In place of that activity, a group of the local town folk have organized a homemade tour of the town and its highlights. This ends up having a stop at the local restaurant for a wonderful slice of cloudberry pie, a free drink at the local bar, a tour of the church, a stroll past the titanium works, and a look in at the local history museum. A second group heads off by bus to visit the Mingan Innu village of Ekuanitshit, the center of culture and heritage for the First Nation people of the region. Here we are able to sample local foods, hear traditional drumming songs and visit the pharmacy with wild-harvested medicines. Both excursions offer a warm-hearted and candid look into the way of life in the remote Côte-Nord region of Quebec. We are given a rousing send-off from dozens of locals honking their car horns, flashing their headlights, waving from waterfront sidewalks, and the windows of shorefront buildings. What a beautifully memorable adieu.

 

Monday, September 9

Percé, Quebec

This morning we awake to blue skies, a light breeze, and distant sea cliffs of the Gaspe Peninsula off our starboard side. After breakfast, small groups of humpback whales are spotted from deck! Captain Boucher slows the ship as we round Bonaventure Island and look at thousands and thousands of northern gannets upon the high rock ledges, resting in rafts upon the water, and careening past in flight. What an awe-inspiring sight perfectly lit by morning light! This island is home to one of the largest gannet colonies in the world, and one of our afternoon options will be to hike across and view their nesting site. We come to anchor off the iconic Isle Percee (Pierced Island) as it was named by Samuel de Champlain in 1603. This block of sedimentary rock has a large circular arch which has made it conspicuous to First Nation and European navigators for centuries.

We head in by Zodiac and land at the pebbled beach of Percé. The town looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, with colorful wooden doll-house homes and dozens of welcoming small shops along the waterfront boardwalks. Percé has been a destination for artists and writers for more than a century and the place simply exudes charm. Some of our group join highlight tours by bus and spend the afternoon hours visiting the GeoPark interpretative museum, with the favorite look-off from the glass platform, and views out over the capes from the winding sea cliff roads.

Those opting for birding and natural history hop aboard local boats and ferry across the bay to the dock at Bonaventure Island. A gently ascending hike through the woodland brings us to what might be arguably the best viewing area for nesting gannets on the planet. We stand mesmerized by the activity and range of behavior occurring at incredibly close proximity in every direction. This colony has been tallied at nearly 50,000 nesting pairs during counts conducted in the last decade and a further 200 plus species of birds have been recorded as visiting or nesting on the island. As we all begin heading back to our Zodiac landing beach, a series of light intermittent rain showers pass overhead creating intensely vivid rainbows. Another magical sendoff for us as we haul back anchor and continue our journey into the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.

 

Tuesday, September 10

Sept-Iles, Quebec

The weather is cold and clear, our first sights of the morning are the grouping of the seven offshore barrier islands that give this settlement its name Sept-Iles. As we enter the arms of the large bay, the first of the city’s infrastructure comes into view. The is a bustling modern port of trade, feeding mineral wealth and seafood into the markets up river. From our berth alongside, hundreds of vessels, primarily from the shrimp fleet, are hauled out to overwinter in the shipyard. The favorable geography of the bay and the proximity to natural resources have made this a commercially viable port of varying scales during pre- and post-European contact. With the expansion of the Hudson Bay Company, Sept-Iles became an established channel for European goods, particularly firearms, in exchange for fur pelts.

As the ship comes alongside, we gather up for a morning excursion to visit Vieux-Poste, the replica of the first European fur-trading post established in 1637. We board our buses and take a turn around the small neighborhoods along the river’s edge before entering the Montagnais First Nation settlement. The Trading Post has been built in a style true to the historical frontier methods of the time and it feels like we have stepped back into the early 1840’s. The local guides share insight into the Innu’s seasonal harvesting calendar and way of life as it evolved with increased trade. We learn the particulars of how furs were purchased from native hunters by the Hudson Bay Company without the use of currency, and how the quoted credit could be used at the post for purchasing items of value. The buildings are full of hand-carved and black-smithed items that would have been made on-site, furs of all the major types that were traded, and a collection of the raw and improved materials that came in casks and bales from the cities of Europe. The experience provided a fascinating look into how this part of the world operated for several hundred years of frontier trade.

We return to the ship and begin sailing for Saguenay during lunchtime. In the mid-afternoon Tom invites us into the lounge for his lecture Rocks along the St. Lawrence. He describes the formation of the basement rocks of the Canadian Shield, the evolution of the Great Lakes Basin, and the succession of events leading up to the last glacial maximum which have shaped this region. In the afternoon we have an astonishing call come over the ship’s PA system, a blue whale has been spotted! Though these animals have a global range, it is stunning to have the largest creature to have ever lived on earth here with us in the St. Lawrence River! The captain maneuvers the ship so that we have the chance to watch several breathing cycles. The characteristic light bluish-gray of the dorsal side can be seen as the whale nears the surface, what a sighting! In the distance we can see the blows of humpback whales as well, feeding and traveling in small groups. As we near the evening hour, dozens of humpbacks are reported from deck. And our day’s events aren’t over yet! Tim invites us into the lounge for our final lecture presentation of the voyage, How did Climate Change Affect the Vikings? He discusses changes that likely occurred in the availability of resources that drove the Norse to resettle, relocate, and eventually disappear from the New World.

In the evening we are invited to join Captain Boucher for a farewell gala. He and Brent both give sterling speeches. These two men made an impressive team and led us on an outstanding voyage, Santé! The finale for the night is a rousing session of sea shanties lead by Dan and a bunch of salty sea dogs in the lounge.

 

Wednesday, September 11

Saguenay

The ship sails quietly up the Saguenay Fjord this morning. We’ve left the broad waters of the St. Lawrence behind us and entered into the more intimate setting of this heavily-forested channel, passing deep into the Laurentian Mountains. The bones of the landscape are gentle and rolling, with a beautifully intact forest running along both shores. The weather is soft and still, and trailing wisps of fog cling to the hilltops. We pass the mouth of the Saguenay River on our starboard side and enter the main basin at the head of the fjord. As we finish our breakfast, the ship lets go her anchor and swings out her tenders from the davits. One group of us load into these covered vessels and head ashore to explore the culture and sights of La Baie and Chicoutimi, the two old settlements which have joined as the city of Saguenay. The second group joins a tour of the Parc National du Saguenay. First by bus along the shore of the fjord and then out onto the water by local boat. The voyage takes them along the shoreline and under steep escarpments of rock, past drainages and waterfalls running down from the high country above. This unique ecosystem with its volume of fresh water input and tidal relationship to the St. Lawrence, make this an excellent habitat for rockfish, halibut, turbid, and Atlantic cod. The city tour visits the Pulp Mill, a delightful collection of installation art, life-sized puppets, archival images, a hand-painted house masterpiece, and the story of the loggers and mill workers. The tour makes a stop at the famous Little White House the survived the flood of 1996 and passes by the picturesque churches and homes of the Old Port. We meet back at the docks and board our tenders to rejoin the ship for lunch. In the afternoon we all gather on the back decks of ship for our group photo. And then we join the expedition team for a scenic cruise down the Saguenay Fjord.

After about three hours of tranquil passage past waterfalls, the occasional rocky buttress, and richly forested slopes… Jim Wilson makes a super-human sighting of a beluga whale at VAST distance from the ship! Captain Boucher takes the helm and proceeds to bring Le Champlain slowly closer to the estuary mouth off our port side. As we all gather out on the forward decks, sightings begin coming in. One small group comes right down the starboard side… and then a pair does the same thing on the port side! The combination of the flat calm conditions, dark reflections created by the forested hill slopes, the deep brown tannins coloring the water, and our height of viewing from the upper decks of Le Champlain made the experience other-worldly! These are St. Lawrence Estuary beluga, a group which is geographically isolated from the rest of the world’s population. The staff estimated that we possibly saw between 30 and 40 individuals and agreed that it was the highest quality viewing they had ever experienced. The only way to properly celebrate would be with champagne and caviar, merci Le Champlain.

After dinner we join our director and producer Madalena for her Path of the Vikings slideshow presentation. It was a super-creative blockbuster scored with a super-hip soundtrack. What a phenomenal job Mada!     

 

Thursday, September 12

Quebec City / Disembark

The skies are a rich pink and orange as the sun rises on the ramparts and skyline of Old Quebec City. The ship has reached its final port of call for this voyage, and we must disembark our home away from home. We have crossed some of the most infamous straits and seas of the sub-Arctic, walked among the remains of 1,000-year-old Norse sites, peered down into the mid-Atlantic Rift, stood upon oceanic crust, seen the largest whale and the whitest one, viewed innumerable birds, and avoided the path of a hurricane! The makings of a true saga!

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