Helluland, rue Baffin, and my obsession with the Far North
It’s all just a coincidence, but an interesting one I can’t stop thinking about.
First: I grew up on a street called rue Baffin in a suburb of Montreal.
Second: I’d rather be dead than be a slave to someone else’s demands. I had quit great jobs just to say “fuck you” to my boss.
Third: When I was a kid I was obsessed with tales of the Far North, and thought Baffin Island would be an especially amazing place to visit one day.
And lastly: When I was really young I was certain I was once a Viking rowing a ship across the Atlantic. Certain. You know how, as kids, we can latch on to silly ideas like reincarnation and ghosts and spirits? I was definitely a Viking rower. I could feel it.
None of this connected until 8 years ago.
Only in the last 8 years did I find out that I actually am descended from Vikings, that they settled on Baffin Island, that my family hails from Schleswig-Holstein who’s coat of arms has the motto “Lever duad as Slav” (better dead than slave), and that I’ve been reveling at the interestingness of it all. I know it’s just a silly coincidence.
I’m fascinated by how it all came together. Vikings weren’t that publicly interesting when I was a child, not like today. Aside from Asterix. Now Everyone is comfortable with the fact that Leif beat Christopher by 500 years. So I never talked about any of my Viking thoughts with my parents, of course. They were immigrants from Schleswig-Holstein in Northern Germany, Nordfriesland, and they never talked of our family history. My dad: a sea captain, my mom: a farm girl. It’s understandable that they shied away from their German past seeing as how they immigrated to Canada after experiencing WWII as kids and the word “German” alone was practically taboo. They barely spoke it at home.
It was just 8 years ago that I came to learn that both sides of my family did descend from Norway to Denmark to settle just across from the most famous Viking trading towns, Hedeby. After they both died I had a son, and only then reached out to my family in Germany in a quest to find out what kind of human he’d become (tall, blonde haired and blue eyed of course, go figure). One of my uncles spent a few years in his retirement looking up the whole thing, and that’s how our family tree and out-of-Norway history came together. That’s how I came to inherit a beautiful wooden carved Nordfriesland coat of arms with the Lewer Duad as Slav on it, decoded it, and thought “well, fuck, that’s just right on the money, that is.”
As for my fascination with Baffin Island, or Helluland, I’ll chalk that up to the obvious connection to my childhood street’s name. I learned where it was somewhere along the line by reading every book by the two famous Far North writers Farley Mowatt and James Houston, over and over, and the island was frequently named. Another coincidence: these were my first real books after graduating from Dr Seuss, a reading passion ignited by a gift of books from my godmother living in Whitehorse, which is in the Far North.
Many of these books contain very old stories as told by the Inuit, and while my memory of the exact stories from 40 years ago is obviously fuzzy, I’m certain one or more of these stories depicted a visit from Vikings. I don’t remember which book. What I am certain of is that the fact that the Vikings had visited the Far North was well known to me my whole life. I even knew they landed on Baffin Island. I thought everyone knew this. So why is it news?
When the National Geographic wrote in 2012 that an archaeologist announced that they had new evidence of a Viking outpost on Baffin Island, I thought “wait, what? I thought we knew this already?” The settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows has been known since 1960, but until recently that’s it. That was the only one. So how did I put it together when I was 7?
Like I said, it’s definitely a coincidence.
Whatever. I know I’m a mad strong canoe paddler. My Viking back muscles are an undeniable fact.