Christopher R. Fee, Ph.D., is Graeff Professor in the English Department at Gettysburg College and teaches numerous courses on various medieval subjects. His courses include popular seminars on the Vikings, which Fee has taught for many years both at Gettysburg and at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad in Copenhagen, where his Hamlet class twice has staged that play in Kronborg Slot, aka “Hamlet’s Castle.” Fee earned his PHD in 1997 from the University of Glasgow.
Paddling in the Wake of the Vikings
In July 2022, my collaborator John Regentin and I kayaked “In the Wake of the Vikings,” paddling to the only known Norse settlement site in North America, experiencing the realities of coastal sea-faring in Labrador and Newfoundland by charting tide, wind, sea, and surf, much as small Nordic craft would have a thousand years ago. As an experiential component of our research, we traced sections of the route the Norse likely took around the tip of Labrador into the Strait of Belle Isle and along the coast of Newfoundland.
This expedition culminated with the Viking Settlement, which we approached from the sea, in order to capture a glimpse of what drew the Norse to L’Anse aux Meadows a thousand years ago.
The pandemic, which delayed our journey by a year, taught us all how interconnected seemingly disparate things can be. This was also true for the Norse: The collapse of the walrus ivory market and the economic aftermath of the Plague had a devastating impact on their most far- flung colonies. Climate change was also a factor. The colony in what the Norse called “Vinland” was founded during a period of significant warming. This was not lost on us, visiting Newfoundland during an abnormally hot summer. Saga accounts of First Contact between Vikings and Indigenous Americans likewise were highlighted during our travels, given that the Pope was in Canada when we were, apologizing for the treatment of First Nations.
We used our voyage to explore how the here and now informs our understanding of the there and then, both in terms of the challenges of wind and sea and the realities of changing weather patterns and intercultural conflict in contemporary Canada. Our field research corroborated our scholarly analysis of the ways in which the Norse experience in North America provides a telling counterpoint to contemporary concerns with pandemic, cultural conflict, and climate change.