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How Gros Morne National Park bewitched Lawrence Hill

Last summer, an affable Parks Canada interpreter named Fred Sheppard led Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden and 75 book lovers into the forests of Gros Morne National Park in western Newfoundland. The "Boyden and the Boreal" outing was billed as a chance to share nature and literature. But the moment they chose a gathering place, they stumbled upon a sleeping moose.

"The bull moose was about 30 feet in front of me on the trail, lying to the side and then stood, nostrils flaring, ears back, sure signs of being disturbed from an afternoon slumber," Sheppard said. "We stopped, moved back the trail about 20 feet and then gathered the group to sit and watch and listen. The moose wandered a few feet away and then settled back down as Joseph started to read. Even after [the one-man band]Mountains and the Trees played a few tunes on the guitar with Joseph accompanying on the harmonica, the moose was still hanging out." The moose appeared to listen carefully to Boyden, and it did not move until applause broke out.

You never know what might come out and surprise you in Gros Morne National Park, or while travelling north up the western peninsula of Newfoundland. If not a moose, perhaps a minke, humpback or killer whale breaching in Bonne Bay. It could be an archeologist uncovering remnants of a 2,000-year-old aboriginal settlement near the Port au Choix National Historic Site. You are almost sure to see a musician sliding from the accordion to the fiddle as effortlessly as you or I could switch chairs, a massive iceberg moseying up the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or an explosion of the most curiously named berries in the world: bakeapples, partridge berries, squashberries and black crowberries. Newfoundland, apparently, has 22 edible berries.

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My wife, children and I escaped from Southern Ontario last summer to enjoy a week-long literary and music festival in Woody Point, one of several villages encompassed by the park, the ocean and the rugged Long Range Mountains (the most easterly extension in Canada of the Appalachian mountain range). We all fell in love not just with the festival but also with the village and the national park. Before we had finished our week, we arranged to rent a cottage on the shores of Bonne Bay for the entire summer of 2011. We're in the middle of a fabulous summer.

The graciousness and hospitality of the people, including their warmth and openness to children, strikes us daily. We can hardly spend 24 hours without being invited to someone's house for a lobster boil-up or pan-fried cod, and in every house, shop and café you find the love of literature and music. It may take a day or two to tune into the wavelengths of local speech patterns, but your ears will adapt as get out and meet people. Take a guided kayaking tour in Bonne Bay, a guided cycling tour on the winding, hilly roads (there is hardly a kilometre of flat road in the park - I have to take a break every time I ride a three-kilometre hill aptly named "The Struggle"), or hike on some of the most beautiful trails in Canada.

When my son, Andrew, some friends and I hiked up the stunning 807-metre Gros Morne, we saw caribou, other peaks in the Long Range Mountains and plunging drops to forested valleys below. It's a demanding, all-day trek that requires good hiking shoes, plenty of bottled drinks and warm clothes at the peak. But an easier trail awaits - a flat, four-kilometre stroll along the base of the Tablelands, the most striking geographical feature of Gros Morne. Stretching for 15 kilometres and reaching a height of 700 metres, the Tablelands are a series of flat-topped, low-lying mountains. One of four mountain ranges in the area, the Tablelands were named by Captain James Cook, who was mapping the area for the British government in the 1760s. He clearly had run out of gas when it came to innovative names, because he was also responsible for naming Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa.

The orange-brown rock of the Tablelands, called peridotite, is one of the best examples of exposed rock thrust up when two continents collided about 500 million years ago. Studying the rock helped scientists develop the theory of plate tectonics, and the geological formation led UNESCO to designate Gros Morne National Park a World Heritage Site in 1987. To this day, vast swaths look barren and moonlike. Although it appears hostile to plant life, if you look closely, you will see much vegetation: I saw strawberries soon to ripen, as well as various carnivorous plants such as butterwort, with its sweet, buttery leaves, and the red-haired sundew, which secretes an enzyme to dissolve bugs.

From Gros Morne, my wife and youngest daughters and I take a two-day, two-night drive up to the northwestern tip of Newfoundland. We stay in the swanky Tuckamore Lodge on Little Pond ($500 gets us two rooms, a hearty breakfast and dinner for four at a lively common dining table; $600 a night is what a hunter or fisher can expect to pay for a room, meals and the services of a guide). Owner Barb Genge opened the lodge to attract tourists in 1986 - ignoring the loud voices of dissent ("that's no job for a woman") - when she noticed the cod fishery was in decline. Today, she has 12 rooms (open from May to October), offers wireless Internet access (with a computer in the lobby), as well as a sauna, and attracts more and more female clients. Most of the men come with rifles, she says, while the majority of women prefer to hunt with bows. "You've got to have strong shoulders to bow hunt, and you've got to be really close - within 25 metres to hit a moose with a bow."

For the highlight of our northern exploration, we continue on toward L'Anse aux Meadows, a 1,000-year-old Viking settlement. The roadside itself is enchanting; many enterprising Newfoundlanders fence gardens along the side of the highway. You'll see dozens- some carefully tended, others overgrown. In between, many kilometres inland from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, hundreds of lobster pots are stacked for summer, and countless piles of carefully chopped wood have been left to dry.

These roads leading north toward L'Anse aux Meadows are elevated well above the boggy, acidic soil. It feels like driving along the top of a Dutch dike, with the tuckamore trees - any windswept fir or balsam bent desperately away from the driving wind - pointing the way toward a special discovery. They're not kidding.

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Three things about L'Anse aux Meadows are fascinating: The Vikings muscled across the sea from Greenland to beat Columbus to North America by 500 years; many North Americans still think Columbus was the first non-native to discover the continent; and the site may never have been found but for the obsessive searching of an ex-lawyer from Norway.

In 1960, Helge Ingstad wandered from village to village asking locals if they knew anything about rectangular turf ridges that might suggest a buried Viking village. A fisherman took him to some curious mounds of earth near his home in L'Anse aux Meadows and Ingstad found what he believed were part of the legendary lands described in the old Icelandic "Vinland Sagas." He returned the next year with his wife, archeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, and teams of archeologists excavated for seven summers.

But, before visiting the historic site, we drive to nearby St. Anthony for a three-hour trip into the Gulf of St. Lawrence with Northland Discovery Boat Tours. About 15 kilometres out, we approach a 182-metre-long, 27-metre-high chunk of ice broken off of Petermann's Iceberg (which left Greenland two years ago). It seems like a miracle of nature - I had never imagined that an iceberg could contain so many colours.

We had to taste it. At the fabulous Norseman Restaurant and Art Gallery in L'Anse aux Meadows, daughters Eve and Beatrice were able to distinguish, with their eyes closed, between iceberg and tap water. I was not. The Norseman, run May to September by Gina Noordhof and her husband, is expensive, and reservations are necessary, but it offers the best food we've eaten in Newfoundland. We had lobster, chorizo and shrimp penne, pan-fried cod with scrunchions, and a bouillabaisse made with local shrimp - enough to turn Eve, 15, into a foodie.

While we ate dinner, local musician Wade Hillier played guitar and accordion and sang in the same restaurant. Just a few hours earlier, this same man wore a Norse costume and gave us detailed explanations of life in L'Anse aux Meadows in Year 1,000. Like so many people here, Hillier has to work at many things to survive.

Clayton Colbourne, a L'Anse aux Meadows interpreter, explained that he was just 11 when European archeologists started digging in his childhood playgrounds. "We thought they were a bit crazy, looking for traces of people who had lived here a thousand years ago."

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L'Anse aux Meadows attracts about 30,000 visitors annually, but the village itself is now down to 30 inhabitants. "Give it 10 or 15 years and there won't be anyone left," Colbourne says, wistfully. "No kids are staying, because there is nothing to stay for. Where I live may become Parks Canada property, one day."

So sad to see so much of the traditional way of life in Newfoundland disappearing, even as its culture and history continue to attract tourists from across Canada and around the world.

Lawrence Hill wrote the award-winning novel The Book of Negroes.

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