Awe-inspiring iceberg watching off Newfoundland

Icebergs have many shades and some have graffiti-like veins of soil and rock embedded during their creation and movement. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Iceberg watching off Newfoundland is a bucket list experience.

There are very few places in the world where you can see icebergs. And none are as convenient a perch as Newfoundland. Once here, you almost don’t have to “go” anywhere to see them. Some days you can sit in the linen-and-crystal comfort of the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland’s Oppidan restaurant and watch them pass by the mouth of St. John’s Harbour. Or you can walk almost anywhere along the shore to see them.

Icebergs are fascinating, in that odd, mammoth way nature can present itself. Of the 800 + icebergs which make it as far south as St. John’s, most come from glaciers in Western

Larry the crab fisherman who took me out to see a berg up close. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Greenland, the rest from the Arctic. Whatever their nationality, to me, icebergs seem to be some gigantic parade of martyrs on a sacrificial pilgrimage to the warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

In Newfoundland, during iceberg season, which is from April to July, you can sit on the shore and watch these silent behemoths floating, like ghosts, across the horizon. Or you can join a boat tour to get a closer look.

Spurred by my friend’s seductive photos, I made my second trip to Newfoundland to see icebergs. My first experience was off Saint Anthony on the tip of that north-pointing finger which sticks up from the island of Newfoundland.

On a bright July afternoon I joined 16 others at Noddy Bay, between the L’Anse Aux Meadows UNESCO World Heritage Site and St. Anthony’s to board an open boat and head out in search of these floating curiosities.

 

An hour from land, an iceberg reveals itself through a fog bank. (Allan Lynch Photo)

After an hour’s sail, our conversation was suddenly broken by a chorus of “Oh my gawd!”

In the middle of a wall of haze was a dark, ominous structure which gradually revealed itself to be an iceberg. It was frightening and beautiful. This meringue-like mountain glowed in the sunlight on a brilliant blue calm sea, surrounded by hundreds of floating pieces of debris ice. I had a hair-raising glimpse of what it must have been like on the morning after Titanic sank. It’s nature’s perverse joke that the prettiest things are often the most lethal.

Some bergs are smooth, some rough. (Allan Lynch Photo)

While the group struggled to speak – it was so beautiful that coherency and adjectives left us – we snapped photos and pointed as if you could miss an eight-storey-high iceberg a few hundred yards to port. In modern society, we seem to make size comparisons to football fields. The website icebergfinder.com, which is operated by a group of experts at Memorial University in St. John’s, puts icebergs in six, easy to understand, size categories. Extra large is the size of a suspension bridge like Lion’s Gate in Vancouver or the MacDonald over Halifax Harbour. Large would be a football stadium, like Toronto’s Skydome or Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Medium is the size of a 15-storey office building. Small is church size. A “bergy bit” is the size of a house while a “growler” comes in at van size.

The waters around this first iceberg were a calm, Caribbean-like turquoise colour, which glowed against the blue-black of the North Atlantic. The lightness is due to the reflection from the submerged part of the iceberg. For us, there was an Oz-like feel to being here. But we had gone down a different type of yellow brick road to find a piece of ice the size of several football stadiums. Clarence, the man at the helm of our boat smiled, “You should come here in April month – they’re uuge!’ (Pronounced without the h.)

The iceberg looked big enough to me. It was like a white cake whose centre had collapsed to reveal a translucent blue-green interior. Periodically, we heard a crack, like a gunshot, and then thunder as a wall of ice cascaded into the ocean, adding to the debris field. Icebergs have a dangerous, seductive beauty to them, like a forbidden love.

My second foray into iceberg watching was off Bonavista. A four-hour drive north of St. John’s, this is where the explorer John Cabot landed in 1497. A replica of that original ship made a return voyage in 1997. It is on display in the town.

The borrowed lobster boat we used to get up close to icebergs. (Allan Lynch Photo)

I arrived late in the season and was supposed to sail out of Trinity Bay on a scheduled cruise with Captain Art of Atlantic Adventure Boat Tours. Unfortunately, our cruise was cancelled because of heavy rain and fog. However, Newfoundlanders won’t ever leave you high and dry. So Captain Art made some calls and found me icebergs in Bonavista. “The guy at the Elizabeth J Cottages – he’s new, from Ontario (this was several years ago – but by Atlantic standards, he would still be ‘new’) – said there were three icebergs off his place now. And he knows a lobster fisherman who was going out. You could probably go with him.”

I hopped in the car and drove the 55 kms to Bonavista, concerned I might be expected to help haul lobster pots on a working boat. I found the two crayon-coloured self-catering Elizabeth J Cottages perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the North Atlantic. Our man there called Scott, the lobster fisherman, who was already out in his boat. We agreed to meet at the wharf at 1:30.

When Scott motored in to the inner harbour at Bonavista, I was expecting a Cape Islander type of boat, with a small wheelhouse to provide some shelter from the elements. Scott’s lobster boat was 20 feet long and wide open. It takes guts to go out to work on the ocean in something like this.

Scott decided he should stay in port to help his partner sell their catch, so he called his friend Larry to take me out in his boat. Then, looking at my clothes he asked if I had my wet gear in the car? I was wearing a light ski jacket, a fleece, jeans and suede deck shoes. “No, I don’t mind getting a little wet,” I naively said.

Scott shook his head and, in the rain, stripped right there on the wharf. It wasn’t the full monty, he just took off the rubber jacket and pants and told me to put them on. Then looking at my deck shoes, he offered me the boots he was wearing. It’s one thing to take the slicker off a fisherman’s back, but I couldn’t take his boots.

The boat fueled and me covered in fishy-smelling, water-repellent clothing, Larry and I set off in a heavy rain, on a five-mile boat ride, banging over white caps in the North Atlantic, to the closest iceberg. Water splashed over the sides and poured down from overhead. I was more than a little glad for the borrowed wet gear.

Larry kept up a steady dialogue. I don’t know if he didn’t notice the rain or was keeping me distracted or if he was just very sociable. Like I imagine most men of this coast, Larry knows everything about the sea, the catches, where you catch what, which boats are best for which fishery and has opinions on government and the Cod fishery. I don’t think many Newfoundlanders are in the diplomatic corps. I also learned about life on a crab boat. It was a first-hand lesson in the fishery.

As we got closer to the iceberg, it looked more blue than it had from the shore. Icebergs are full of tiny air bubbles which reflect the available light, so the overcast sky contributed to the bluish hue. In addition to their scale, icebergs can be filled with interesting caves, the odd waterfall and can seem decorated by dark lines as if some deft-handed artist decided to detail the structure.

Larry matter-of-factly explained we had to keep our distance while circling the iceberg “because if she tips over or breaks apart, we’re goners.” He seemed not to notice my look as he detailed the dangers: we could be sunk by flying ice or by the waves created by a major breakup or flipped over by a submerged part rising above the waterline. Suddenly, the luster was coming off this little adventure.

After an hour of tasting salt on my lips, trying to keep my glasses clear, of maintaining a death grip on my camera to keep it from flying overboard, and wondering if my feet would ever be dry again, we headed back to shore.

My contact at the Elizabeth J Cottages told me that morning he watched an iceberg disintegrate. “I was walking the dog along the shore and I heard this loud crack and suddenly the iceberg just exploded!” he said. It broke into two halves, with the centre part flying into the air.

Stave Bruno, an engineering professor at Memorial University , and author of Icebergs of Newfoundland and Labrador, explained, “The ice itself is under a lot of tension, so when it does break through some catastrophic failure, like an iceberg breaking in half, there’s so much stress being relieved that things do snap and fly. And the iceberg is quite high, so big chunks may fall and splash or may splinter up and outwards. When huge icebergs roll over and chunks break off and strike the water, they give the appearance of bombs blowing up with water spray shooting way up in the air, so it does look every bit like an explosion.” But that’s one of nature’s illusions.

As amazing as icebergs are to watch, Newfoundland provides an equally curious array of land-based discoveries to fill in your non-water-based schedule. For example, I don’t know that a lot of Canadians understand the importance of the viking settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site. A thousand years ago 75 Norse men and women settled this site, making it the only known Viking settlement in North America.

L’Anse Aux Meadows feels like the place time forgot. Aside from a few houses in the distance, the landscape looks untouched. It’s almost spooky in its raw, rugged naturalness to be in a place where Lief Eriksson and his party lived 500 years before Columbus set sail. It is far enough north that it’s possible to see the Aurora Borealis, polar bears in spring and moose all the time.

L’Anse Aux Meadows is also the first place in the world to earn a World Heritage Site designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It earned this designation – before places like the Pyramids, Great Wall of China and Venice – because when the Vikings landed here, they completed the human circle. Scientists believe the human race originated in Africa. Between 150,000 and 250,000 years ago some tribes went East as far as Siberia, while others went west and north to Europe and Scandinavia. The descendants of the Siberian populations are the indigenous people of North America, so the Vikings’ arrival in Newfoundland was the first time the two arms of the human race reunited and the encirclement of the globe was complete.

Less important to the world, but interesting for visitors, are places like Port Union, which is Canada’s only union-built town, and a place so progressive that it had electricity before New York City. At the Ryan Premises, in Bonavista, I learned about the various fisheries that built a once-prosperous economy here. In the town of Trinity I found a pretty, yet somewhat sad place. Architecturally, it is filled with well-maintained and colourfully decorated homes. The sad aspect is that this once thriving community only has 20 elderly year-round residents. In summer the population climbs to 250. That’s when the place comes alive, when parking lots fill with visitors staying in B&Bs, visiting the historic buildings and attending performances at the Rising Tide Theatre.

This area is off the beaten path for many visitors to Newfoundland, but it has all the elements for a successful holiday. In addition to the raw beauty of nature, there are elegant accommodations, seafood so fresh you can see it being landed, and people so friendly they will literally give you the clothes off their back. And then there are icebergs, whales, seabirds. Where else can you have all this?

Maud Lewis goes Hollywood

It’s a long way from turn-of-the-century Yarmouth County Nova Scotia to Hollywood, but Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis has made the trip. At least by reputation.

This impoverished woman knew just about every hardship life could throw at a person. Her escape was into the bright, busy, happy world she painted.

Lewis was born with several physical challenges in 1903, long before universal health care was available in Canada. Among her identified conditions were severe scoliosis and crippling rheumatoid arthritis that deformed her fingers. These challenges and her diminutive, elf-like size made her an easy target of mockery by other children. So her early years were spent closely protected by her doting parents. Some believe this was the happiest time of her life.

Her parents’ deaths left her homeless. Her brother, who took over the family farm in Yarmouth County on the southern tip of Nova Scotia, made no provisions for Maud, so she went to live with an aunt in Digby on the shores of the Bay of Fundy. In her strained circumstances she answered an ad for a housekeeper placed by Everett Lewis.

The hand-painted interior of Maud Lewis’ tiny home. (Art Gallery of Nova Scotia photo)

Lewis was a part-time fisherman/peddler and jack-of-all trades, who lived in a 10’x12’ roadside shack that lacked plumbing and electricity. Lewis’ own strained circumstances were bottle-induced. Descriptions of him suggest a cranky, miserly individual, who, the cynical believe, proposed to Maud as a way to avoid paying her for the housework she did. Later, seeing she could paint, he peddled her works as a way to supplement the household income and supply his love of drink. He handled what little money there was, so on rare occasions when Maud could visit friends in Yarmouth, they hosted “pound parties” for her, giving her a pound of lard, sugar or corned beef to take back to the shack.

Maud’s her hand-painted cards and paintings sold for $2 and $5. In April 2017, a thrift store find sold for  $125,000! Among Maud’s early fans were former N.S. Premier Robert Stanfield and U.S. President Richard Nixon.

The Digby Vistor’s Centre pays homage to Maud by decorating the exterior of the offices with classic Maud scenes. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Some have described her work as “exuberant.” In artistic shorthand she is also likened to a Canadian Grandma Moses.

Maud used marine or house paints, whatever Everett brought back, on particleboard and cardboard. The subjects of her world inhabit a boldly, colourful world populated by happy people and animals, and movement, whether riding in a horse-drawn wagon through the countryside or children at play. Perhaps it’s a wistful idea of what she wanted. But in spite of her life, there is no time for darkness in her work.

Painting was Maud’s passion and her escape. When not producing something for sale, Maud made her tiny house her biggest canvas, painting every surface of it and in it, from cupboards to windowpanes, woodstove right down to the dustpan. Fortunately, her home was purchased by the Province of Nova Scotia, dismantled, moved and reconstructed in the Art Galley of Nova Scotia. It is one of the most unusual – and moving – art pieces in Canada.

Maud Lewis’s painted house is a 3D canvas. The actual original location of her home now contains a ghost structure to show where it stood.

Now, after many books and documentaries, Hollywood via Ireland, is telling her story in Maudie. Ethan Hawke and Susan Hawkins play Everett and Maud. Their performances are winning praise from critics and audiences at film festivals from Halifax to Calgary, Toronto to Telluride.

The interest in her work, her life, her vision is an amazing tribute for someone buried in a child’s coffin in a pauper’s grave and who likely never saw television or a film.

To see her painted home, visit the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia at 1723 Hollis Street, Halifax, directly across from the Provincial Legislature. It is open seven days a week and fully accessible.

For information about Maud Lewis and other Nova Scotian folk artists, click on:

https://artgalleryofnovascotia.ca

 

Vimy Ridge, Canada abroad

The Vimy Ridge National Historic Site. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Canada’s sesquicentennial is also the centennial of the battle at Vimy Ridge. The fighting began April 9, 1917.

While some Canadians remember Vimy, others will be learning about it for the first time. Vimy Ridge and the nearby Beaumont Hamel sites are reminders of the price of freedom. If Canadians go anywhere outside the country in this anniversary year it should be to Vimy Ridge, Beaumont Hamel, the invasion beaches in Normandy, the Liberation Route across Northern Europe and to the lesser-known areas which comprised the Italian Campaign.

Canada bereft. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Right now, in April, we focus on Vimy.

The fighting at Vimy was the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Army fought together. It was at Vimy that Canadians fought as Canadians and not as part of an Imperial force or under British leadership. The world-wide battle coverage was the first time the actions of Canadians were written about as Canadian and not British troops. That gave rise to the idea that this is where Canada became a country and our national identify was formed.

The Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada comprises a visitors’ centre, trenches, tunnels and memorial.

What is surprising is how close the trenches are to each other. War movies give the impression of vast no-man’s land between the enemy trenches, but in reality some were shockingly close to each other. Were you stupid enough to raise your head above the trench, you could see the faces of those shooting at you.

A view from the German trenches to the Canadian lines at Vimy. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Those short distances were truly no-man’s land because of they were so lethal. Warring empires employed every deadly trick, tactic and element against the enemy they faced at these places. Their efforts were total. Nothing was spared or held back. It was all out warfare. In four days at Vimy Ridge, 3.598 Canadians died, 7,004 were wounded.

One of the lessons at Vimy Ridge are battle tactics. The Germans had arrived at Vimy long before we did. They had the high ground and were well dug in and fortified. The British, in keeping with their stiff-upper-lip reputation, didn’t construct trenches like the Germans. Instead, British trenches were more temporary, because they didn’t want the troops to expect to stay put for long. The Germans on the other hand, saw no reason to advance.

The tunnels under the Canadian trenches at Vimy Ridge. (Allan Lynch Photo)

In response to this Canadians did two things. We initiated the concept of a rolling barrage. Basically we fired 1.5 million rounds in one week! And we tunneled underneath the enemy – they did the same to us, so sometimes we tunneled under their tunnels. The idea was to fill the tunnels with explosives, blow up the enemy, cause havoc among their troops and in some cases provide a hole in the no-man’s land so when our troops advanced, they had cover from the type of machine-gun spray experienced by the Newfoundlanders at nearby Beaumont Hamel.

Beyond Vimy’s trenches is the famous towering white monument. Walking to it one feels like you are coming as a pilgrim and should be done in silence. It is a beautiful, inspiring, reverential place. The base of the monument has the names of 11,285 Canadian war dead, who lay in unmarked graves.

The base of the Vimy memorial is engraved with the names of 11,285 Canadians who lay in unmarked graves. (Allan Lynch Photo)
Among the mass of names, continuous small remembrances. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The Vimy Memorial is that: it’s about remembrance. There are no images or symbols of triumph, no soldiers, helmets, weapons. Instead there is grief. There are grieving statues. In one place a sword is being broken as a symbol to end violence. In the centre one statue, in an allegory to In Flanders Fields, hands a torch to another.

“To you from failing hands we throw

The Torch; be yours to hold it high.”

In a weird, backhanded complement, Hitler found the Vimy memorial so respectful and inspiring that he spared it from destruction.

For visitors we can walk the trenches, tour the tunnels and follow the path through the woods to the monument. In both national parks at Beaumont Hamel and Vimy, visitors can’t go off the clearly marked paths because of the potential for live ordinance which still lay in the former battlefields. In building a new visitors centre in preparation for the Vimy Ridge centennial, contractors found six bombs and four grenades. From the comfort and safety of Canada we forget that long after armies go home their presence is felt. The Belgian army has a 150-person Disposal and Destruction of Explosive Devices unit which fields 3,000 calls a year. That’s because of the 1.5 billion bombs shipped to the front in WWI, a third never exploded. They still lay in the ground all over Northern Europe causing regular evacuations and some deaths of road workers, farmers, construction workers and others.

The view of the Vimy memorial from the Canadian trenches in the bomb-crafted landscape. (Allan Lynch Photo)

On my recent travel to French Flanders I also learned that in addition to unexploded bombs, they are still uncovering the bodies of lost and forgotten soldiers. Unbelievably, a century after the war this happens at the rate of two per month! The number may be higher in Belgium. After the remains are found, it can take one-to-two years to identify the person. But there are teams of professionals who do work to identify the dead. Even after all this time.

Like my other travels to the invasion beaches of Normandy and the Liberation Trail in The Netherlanders, Northern France’s Remembrance Trail is a continuation of a pilgrimage. It is humbling, thoughtful and quietly inspiring.

Near to Beaumont Hamel and Vimy Ridge is the Thiepval Memorial. It is on the site of another part of the Somme offensive. It is the largest British war memorial in the world and commemorates 72,205 British and South African soldiers killed during the Somme offensive.

From this grave, a Canadian soldier of the great war was removed to rest in the tomb of the unknown in Ottawa. (Allan Lynch Photo)

WWI was the first mechanized war, which sadly seemed to facilitate greater numbers of deaths. The deaths from WWI basically would have basically depopulated a small country. The German, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires and the Bulgarians lost 3,366,650 troops. The French lost 1.2 million men. The British lost 979,470 (60,260 of them Canadian). The Russians lost 1.7 million and there were more losses among other European nations.

The landscape of Northern France has endless memorials and graveyards for the war dead. Some are massive, many are smaller. Within an hour of Vimy Ridge are four war cemeteries which contained the graves of 100,000 soldiers.

The German war cemetery contains the graves of 44,000 soldiers. (Allan Lynch Photo)

One of the cemeteries was the German War Cemetery at La Maison Blanche Neuville-Saint-Vaast. With 44,833 graves, it is the largest German cemetery in France, and, like all such cemeteries, is meticulously and respectfully maintained.

The Cabaret Rouge Military Cemetery in Souchez contains 7,655 British graves. Nearby is the French National War Cemetery at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. It has over 40,000 graves – 22,000 of which are unidentified. Next to it is the Ring of Remembrance. This is a new circular memorial where the inner walls of the circle are engraved with the names of the 590,000 soldiers on both sides who died here. Names are listed alphabetically, with no reference to nationality, rank or religion. They are displayed in a circle to show equality in death.

The Ring of Remembrance has the names of the 590,000 combatants who lost their lives in French Flanders. (Allan Lynch Photo)
This one French war cemetery contains the graves of 40,000 soldiers. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Some people may think it morbid to visit cemeteries, but I find it contemplative and instructive. Seeing acre after acre after acre and rows of thousands of graves quantifies the scale of the slaughter and sacrifice. And in a way it clarifies life. So many of the daily annoyances people complain about seem pretty petty when we consider what preceding generations faced. I find these war routes help refocus on what is important in life. I am also impressed at how nations united for a common cause and then later took the peace and sacrifice to express philosophical ideologies of our national traits and aspirations.

For example, in German mythology fallen warriors return to nature, so while their graveyards are as symmetrical as all the others, they wouldn’t cut down a tree to facilitate that precise line, so graves are occasionally positioned out of sync to respect nature. And while those members of the British Empire, now Commonwealth, use the poppy for remembrance and on graves, the Germans opt for Forget-Me-Nots and wreaths of natural materials, like pine cones and moss.

Following the ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ battle cry of their revolution, the French mark all war graves with the same simple cross, same identifier and without distinction for rank. Generals lay next to privates.

Canadian graves in Flanders. (Allan Lynch Photo)

In the Commonwealth cemeteries, all stones are uniform in size and placement. The only variation in decoration goes to nationality. Canadian stones generally have a maple leaf. Some may have a Star of David. British troops may have their regimental crest, if known. South African graves carry the image of a Springbok, while the Irish have a harp. The Indian troops are recognized with Sanskrit inscriptions.

Driving across this flat northern landscape, it seems that every field contains a cemetery, memorial or heart-breaking story, like the battle near the Lochnagar Crater, where 6,000 Australians lost their lives fighting for control of a village of 400 people. In this area of France, 380 villages were destroyed in WWI. It was not uncommon for armies to fight for control of and liberation of villages where no one lived.

The other surprise for me was learning that famed English gardener Gertrude Jekyell determined the flowers and bushes to be used in the Commonwealth war cemeteries. She focused on climate, maintenance, how they would appear year round and were guaranteed not to grow larger than the stones. I also learned that Rudyard Kipling, who lost his only son, John, in 1915, was so heartbroken that he wrote the phrases and verses seen at Commonwealth Graves around the world.

A final act of remembrance should be a stop at the Menin Gate across the border in Leper,

The Last Post is performed every night at the Menin Gate. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Belgium for the Last Post Ceremony. This has been performed at 8 pm every night since 1928, with the exception of WWII. On the evening I was there about 1,000 people attended. A bugler sounded the last post, wreaths were laid, O Canada performed because that evening Governor General’s Honour Guard were in attendance.

French Flanders isn’t all doom and gloom. It is just spiritual in a non-secular way. It is still France, so there is cuisine and culture to experience.

If you go:

French Flanders is a two-hour drive from Paris, an hour by train. Consider using Amiens, Arras and/or Lille, as your base.

For information about Beaumont Hamel and Vimy Ridge and any special events and programming, check Veterans Affairs Canada Veterans.gc.ca and Remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com.

The view from Vimy. (Allan Lynch Photo)

As the other major war commemorations approach I will add details about The Liberation Route, Beaumont Hamel and Juno Beach.

Walking through the fog in an act of remembrance. (Allan Lynch Photo)

There are better recordings of the song by this group, but it’s sung on-site: