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Seeking out ancient Norse traders

Descendants of Vikings to set sail for Hudson Bay

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Descendants of Vikings in North America 1,000 years ago will set sail on Lake Winnipeg this year for a voyage to Hudson Bay.

Those descendants, Winnipeggers Johann Sigurdson and David Collette, are on a hunt for traces of Norse explorers in Hudson Bay 800 years ago.

Ancient Viking sagas suggest Norse traders in narwhal and walrus tusks and polar bears may have slipped through the Northwest Passage during a brief period of global warming at the height of Viking settlements in Greenland and North America.

If they did, they may have made it as far as Hudson Bay.

"We're looking for a Viking presence and we want to write another chapter of Viking influence in North America," said Sigurdson, a retired federal fisheries biologist whose work took him repeatedly to Lake Winnipeg and Hudson Bay.

His nephew, Collette, holds an engineering degree and the pair have commercial pilot's licences and years of experience on the water.

The Manitoba expedition is exciting interest in Iceland.

"We've named the expedition Fara Heim," Sigurdson told the Icelandic Ice News this winter in an article that's circulating on archeological news websites. "In Old Norse, 'ao fara heim' means 'to go home,' " he said.

The pair will use this summer to raise funds and outfit a 15-metre sailboat with sonar and radar gear to collect data without digging anything up. They're hoping Icelandic shipping company Eimskip will ship the boat to North America this spring. It's due to launch in Lake Winnipeg this June.

The rest of this season, the expedition will work to generate public interest and attract sponsors and paying passengers for the search in the bay.

Plans next summer call for the crew to sail up the western coast of Hudson Bay, stopping at Inuit centres and talking to elders who might support information in the Norse sagas about a voyage to Hudson Bay.

"We're not going to one place to go and dig. We're going to focus on likely places with a Norse presence. We could be extremely lucky and find an outline of some buildings, like the stuff at L'Anse aux Meadows," Sigurdson said.

The 1,000-year-old base camp in northwestern Newfoundland is the earliest documented Viking settlement in North America.

Then they'll sail through the Northwest Passage, past Ellesmere Island, Skraeling Island and Ungava Bay where archeologists, anthropologists and historians from Thomas Lee to Icelandic speakers Tryggvi Oleson and Viljalmur Stefansson have all placed a Viking presence.

A key element in the Icelandic news coverage about the expedition is the leaders' shared genealogy, which might be dismissed if it weren't documented.

Both trace their roots back to a Viking traveller, Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir, who gave birth to the first European baby born on the east coast of North America 1,000 years ago. Famed explorer Leif Ericsson was her brother-in-law and Gudridur's story was the focus of the book The Far Traveller by Nancy Brown.

Fara Heim's advisory board includes a who's who of modern global explorers, adding credibility to the expedition.

The board includes Capt. Norm Baker, the first mate and navigator for Thor Heyerdahl of the famed Kon Tiki expedition, and Charles Hedrich, an explorer and founder of Respectons la Terre, a European group dedicated to exploration with an environmental focus. Filmmaker Guy Madden is another adviser.

The Glory of the Sea was the third yacht in history to make a sole voyage around Antarctica at latitudes below 69 degrees in 2003.

The Snow Walker

HISTORY suggests the Vikings explored North America as far as Hudson Bay and perhaps beyond.

Farley Mowat, in his book, The Snow Walker, included an Inuit account of how to fashion a crossbow out of caribou antlers, spruce and sinew. The book is tantalizing with its suggestion of a Viking link to Inuit culture 1,000 years ago.

"I've actually seen the crossbows. They worked. They were made by hand by the Inuit at Ennadai Lake. That's at the north end of Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the Keewatin territory," Mowat said from his home in Port Hope, Ont.

"I thought their ancestors had made contact with early Europeans," he said. "And there was certainly communication across the narrow part of the North Atlantic between Greenland and North America."

Modern research is peppered with intriguing clues that suggest the Norse sagas, which are medieval accounts of Viking settlements in Iceland, Greenland and related voyages to North America, may be based on fact.

Genealogies are now accepted as historical as the accounts of Icelandic and Greenlandic settlements.

The sagas were also the source for the discovery of L'Anse aux Meadows, the 1,000-year-old Norse base camp in Newfoundland that's a major historic site and a tourism attraction.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2012 A13

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