Sunday, 28 February 2010

18th Century trapping methods.

Every country has deer or s substitute for deer. Here in Australia it is the Kangaroo, of which there are many types and hybrids all known as Macropodoidea.
The woodland Indians it is said snared deer on the many deer trails that criss crossed through the forests. Snaring, and trapping in general is still far the best and surest way of obtaining food for the time spent, and Kangaroos can be snared for survival purposes just as easy as deer can. If you are a woodsrunner, regardless of gender, then you should know how to make primitive traps, and you should have some knowledge of trapping.
Once the trap line is set up it will work for you day and night. You can hunt when checking the traps so no time is lost. 
This trail snare will catch any game animal if set at the correct height for that animal, and of sufficient size and strength, from rabbits to Buffalo. For anything larger than a hare, but smaller than a buffalo, I suggest using a sapling or small live tree as a spring to lessen the chance of breaking the snare. If the animal runs or fights the snare it will eventually break the snare unless it is of sufficient strength, but a spring will take out a lot of the strain. There is however always the chance that an animal will break the spring. Traps should be checked morning and night unless you are only setting them in the evening.
Small game snares with leather thongs for tying off.

I know there are a lot of people who dislike the idea of trapping, this is mainly because these people do not know enough about trapping. I dislike steel jawed traps/leg hold traps, but I can also see that there is a place for them in certain circumstaces. I only trap for food, or in the case of ferral animal damage, such as ferral cats and dogs. I use snares because they do no physical damage if used properly.
If someone is a meat eater, then I don't think that they have a right to criticise other people for hunting and trapping. You have to think about where your meat comes from, and what that animal has to go through before part of it finds its way to your table!
The reason animals are being poisoned and killed slowly with viral infections distributed by local coucils, is because people complained about the use of jaw traps and had them banned! Now you think about this, because we are all human animals. If you had a choice of being caught in a steel jawed leg hold trap and then when discovered dispatched quickly, or being poisoned to death, or dieing from a viral infection that makes your eyes bug out of your head until you go blind, then it slowly destroys your body and brain until you finally die, which would you choose?! I know which one I would choose.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

The 18th Century Crutch!!!

Starting off with a sapling, I cut it to length green, and then stripped the bark from it. De-barking is easiest in summer when the sap is high. Just hammer the timber along its length with the poll on your hatchet or tomahawk to loosen it, and then simply pull the bark off in strips.
The bark can be left to dry, or you can seperate the inner strands of this stringybark bark while it is green to produce cordage. Green cordage is best for the string of a fire-bow, but dry cordage is just as good for normal usage.

When I cut the stave to length, I added a bit for the top of the crutch, the "T" section that fits into the pit of the arm.
All this work so far has been done whilst the wood is still green. After cutting the top piece off I used an auger to make the hole, then I trimmed the top of the stave with my clasp knife to fit into the hole. I then struck the but end of the stave with a chunk of wood to seat the "T" section on securely.
As it was still green I left plenty of the stave sticking through the top, and then left it to dry in the sun. As the wood dries it shrinks.
When the wood was finally dry the top had stayed very tight on the stave, so I then cut off the excess wood sticking out the top and filed it smooth with a rasp. I could have done this smoothing with a rock or my clasp knife.
The finished crutch looks a little rough, but it works. If the top had become loose in the drying, then I could simply have cut a slot in the top of the stave and added a wood wedge. A mallet could be made in the same manner as making this 18th century crutch.

Anyone want to emulate Long John Silver?!

From Flax To Linen.






John Lord Flint Knapper from teesarch on Vimeo.


Friday, 26 February 2010

Alternatives To The Flintlock Gun.

Some people just don’t like guns, not even flintlocks, but in 18th century few people travelled in the New World without some form of hunting tool, although Peter Kalm did in 1749 (Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America).

So for those people that wish to experience the 18th century colonial lifestyle and carry some form of hunting tool other than a gun, I have been doing a little research on what hunting tools were available from the early to mid 18th century.

The Stone Bow. This crossbow was designed to fire stones or the round lead balls used in muzzle-loading guns.

An 18th century German made crossbow for shooting crossbow bolts. Note the strong resemblance to a musket stock.

A 17th century pistol crossbow.

Woodland Indian style flat bows and arrows.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Primitive Camping, what I think it is and is not.

I looked up Primitive Camping the other day and was amazed at some people’s definitions of “primitive”. Primitive camping for some means not using a modern vehicle to get to the camp site. So I suppose that if one is used to camping in a motor home or caravan, camping in a tent is considered primitive!
So before talking about primitive camping, one must first define what primitive means to you, or in this case what it means to me!
Below is the definition of primitive that can be found in most dictionaries, and I would not argue with that, it seems very fair, and certainly does not mean camping in a nylon tent using a sleeping bag, gas stove, aluminium cookware and freeze dried foods!
primitive definition
primi•tive (prim′i tiv)
1. of or existing in the beginning or the earliest times or ages; ancient; original
a. characteristic or imitative of the earliest ages
b. crude, simple, rough, uncivilized, etc.
3. not derivative; primary; basic
4. ANTHROP. of or having to do with a preliterate, generally isolated, culture with a relatively low level of technology
Primitive Camping to me means pre 1840.
Primitive Skills to me means skills that were first used in pre history.
Any other skills I refer to by date, as in 18th century living skills.
So primitive camping to me means using pre 1840 clothing and equipment, in my particular case I use pre 1760 clothing and equipment and I practice primitive skills and 18th century living skills.
Camping for me started in the 50s. In those days it was cotton canvas tents, open fires, bush poles for fishing, a good sheath knife and a clasp knife, and of course the belt axe. Cooking was sticking some meat on the end of a stick and holding it over the fire.

But as I moved into the 60s, camping got more sophisticated, and this modern equipment that I first thought was fun, slowly took all the fun out of camping for me. For me camping was the thought of camping out like Daniel Boone and other woodsmen of his period and earlier. Digging a small fire pit and cooking over a wood fire was a big part of the attraction. Carrying a sheath knife and a belt axe was compulsory. It was all a part of learning how to be self-reliant.

Putting up a tent or shelter using an oil cloth took some skill, as did making fire, making a bow and arrows, learning to fish with just hook and line. Making a wooden pot hook with a pocket knife and learning how to make snares and snare rabbits. All this the children of today miss out on. Now it is all made for them and little skill is required to set up the modern camp.

So this short article is to try and encourage people to try historical trekking, or primitive camping, it really does put the fun back into camping. If you have kids then for me this is the only way to camp. The skills my three boys learnt have never been forgotten, nor the times we spent together.

First time camper being taught to throw the tomahawk.
Time spent together.
There is much to learn.

A young woodsrunner.
Waiting for that billy to boil.


Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Traditional Australian Aboriginal Dress.

Aboriginal skin cloaks

by Fabri Blacklock

Assistant Curator, Koori History and Culture, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Aboriginal people throughout south-eastern and western Australia wore skin cloaks, as these temperate zones were much cooler than the northern parts of Australia. The cloaks were made from the skins of possums, kangaroos, wallabies and other fur bearing animals. Early European observations noted that many of the local Aboriginal people wore skin cloaks. These observations were recorded in literature, paintings and photography.

illustration 1; Courtesy of Cambridge University. Click to enlarge.

The many processes involved in the making of these cloaks were complex and often time consuming. Some cloaks were made using up to seventy skins taking over a year to collect before beginning the process of making them into a cloak. Once the skins were removed from the animal, the flesh was scraped off using a sharp stone implement or mussel shell. The skins were then stretched over bark and hung out to dry often near a fire as this would slightly tan the skins and protect them from insect attacks . After the skins were dried out they were then rubbed with fat, ochre and or ashes to make them pliable and keep them supple. The cloaks were sewn together using sinew, which was taken from the tail of kangaroos. Holes were pierced through the skins using a sharp pointed stick or a pointed bone needle. The sinew was then threaded through the pre made holes to sew the skins together making them into a cloak. There appears to be some difference in the manufacture of the cloaks across Australia. In New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia the skins were shaped into square pelts and then sewn together. In Western Australia the skin's used were mainly kangaroo and the whole skin was sewn together with another leaving the tail to hang at the bottom of the cloak. The cloaks from Western Australia are called Buka or Boka.

Nahraminyeri, a Ngarrindjeri woman from Point McLeay in South Australia; Courtesy South Australian Museum. Click to enlarge.

Skin cloaks were often the main items of clothing worn by Aboriginal people in the cooler temperate zones. The cloak was worn by placing it over one shoulder and under the other it was then fastened at the neck using a small piece of bone or wood. By wearing the cloak this way it allowed for movement of both arms without any restrictions and allowed for daily activities to be carried out with ease. The cloaks were worn both with the fur on the outside and on the inside depending on the weather conditions. If it was raining the fur would be worn on the outside, providing the same waterproof qualities it did to the animal from which the skins came. The cloaks were also used as rugs to sleep on at night. Many women wore cloaks that had a special pouch at the back in which they could easily carry a small child. This is illustrated in the photo to the right of Nahraminyeri, a Ngarrindjeri woman from Point McLeay in South Australia; this photo was taken in about 1880.

When wearing the fur on the inside the spectacular designs incised onto the skin could be seen and this is well illustrated in the paintings of Aboriginal artist William Barak. Barak's paintings illustrate the magnificent designs that the cloaks were decorated with. Many of his paintings depict ceremonies with people singing and dancing in their cloaks.

Designs were incised into the leathery side of the skin, this was done using a sharp mussel shell. The design's incised onto the cloak were important to the wearer and their clan group. The combination of designs helped identify who the wearer was and what group they came from. The design's often found on the cloaks from south eastern Australia include naturalistic figures, cross hatching, wavy lines, diamonds, geometric designs, lozenges and zigzag patterns.

In his book The Aborigines of New South Wales Fraser (1892:45) discusses the meaning of the designs found on the cloaks. He suggests that each family had their own design or what Aboriginal people called a 'mombarrai' incised onto the cloak, which helped identify who the owner was. He states:

...a friend tells me that he had an opossum cloak made for him long ago by a man of the Kamalarai (sic) tribe, who marked it with his own 'mombarai'. When this cloak was shown to another black sometime after, he at once exclaimed, "I know who made this; here is his 'mombarai'."

Alfred Howitt also notes the importance of the designs found on the cloaks and how these could be used to identify the wearer. He states:

...each man's rug is particularly marked to signify its particular ownership. A man's designs from his Possum-skin rug were put onto trees around the site of his burial. Passing references by others note individual designs on each pelt could represent rivers, camps, animals like grub, snakes and lizards, and plants.

Ivaritji, a Kaurna woman from the Adelaide area. Click to enlarge.

Photo courtesy of the South Australian Museum.
Within Australia the most spectacular cloak is the Lake Condah cloak made in 1872 and held in the Museum of Victoria. The designs on this cloak feature square and diamond shaped lozenges, wavy lines, circles and naturalistic figures. Some of the pelts on this cloak have also been decorated with ochre. Diamond and square shaped designs were commonly used on cloaks as decoration, and they also made the skin more pliable. Louisa Eggington a Narranga woman from Southern Yorke Peninsula made one of the most beautiful cloaks I have seen. This wallaby cloak was made in the early 1900s. It features square pelts and magnificent geometric diamond shaped incisions on the skin. In 1928 Herbert Hale and Norman Tindale from the South Australian Museum interviewed Ivaritji a Kaurna woman from the Adelaide area. She specifically requested to be photographed in this wallaby skin cloak and this was typical of the clothing she remembered wearing as a child. This cloak is currently on display in the South Australian Museums Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery.

There are many reasons why the majority of skin cloaks did not survive to the present day. One of these reasons was because when a person died all their belongings were disposed of, also some people were wrapped in their skin cloaks after their death. During the early colonial days there was not an institution that was capable of collecting and preserving these cloaks and they were also highly susceptible to insect attacks. Also the introduction of European style clothing and with the annual issuing of blankets from the Crown in 1814 the manufacture and use of skin cloaks began to cease. The issuing of these blankets to the Aboriginal community also caused them to suffer colds and serious respiratory problems especially when it rained, as they did not provide the same waterproof qualities of the skin cloaks.

There are only fifteen skin cloaks located in Museums within Australia and overseas. In Australia there are skin cloaks held in the Western Australian Museum, Gloucester Lodge Museum, Western Australia, the South Australian Museum and the Museum of Victoria. Overseas their are cloaks in the Smithsonian Institution - Washington DC, The British Museum - London, Museum of Ethnology -Berlin, Germany and the Pigorini Museum in Italy. European anthropologists collected most of the cloaks found in museums overseas during field trips to Australia in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

During the International exhibitions of the 1800s there were two skin cloaks that were displayed. The Sydney International exhibition held in 1879 displayed an opossum rug from Tasmania, which was awarded a honourable mention. In the Centennial International Exhibition held in Melbourne during 1889, platypus and opossum rugs from NSW were displayed under the category of travelling apparatus and camp equipage.

Today many Aboriginal people have new cloaks and rugs made from kangaroo skins. They are used in performances or often as they were traditionally as a nice warm rug or cloak.


Chisholm, M. The use, manufacture and decoration of possum skin cloaks in nineteenth century Victoria (AIATSIS) 1990.

Cooper, C. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections in Overseas Museums Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1989.

Fraser, J. The Aborigines of New South Wales Charles Potter, Government Printer, 1892.

Lakic, M. Dress and Ornamentation in Women's Work - Aboriginal women's artefacts in the Museum of Victoria. Aboriginal Studies Department Museum of Victoria 1992.

Mountford, C. Australian Aboriginal Skin Rugs Records of the South Australian Museum, 1963.

Mountford, C. Decorated Aboriginal skin rugs Records of the South Australian Museum, Volume 13, No 4, 1960.

Sayers, A. Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century Oxford University Press, 1994.

Smithson, M. 1992, 'A misunderstood gift: the annual issue of blankets to Aborigines in New South Wales 1826-4', in The Push, A Journal of Early Australian Social History

Young, M et al. The Aboriginal People of the Monaro. NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2000.

Snug as a bug: cloaks and rugs Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1984.

Wright, R. A modicum of taste: Aboriginal cloaks and rugs. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1979.

Skin Cloaks held in overseas museums

The British Museum London

Registration No: 4571 Animal: Strip of opossum skin decorated Collector: Received by William Blackmore Esq 1st February 1868 One possum and one kangaroo skin cloak (Kangaroo skin missing) Place: The possum skin cloak appears to be from NSW and the kangaroo skin cloak appears to be from WA possibly Swan River settlement Description: A small strip from a cloak the design forms a spectacular pattern of diamond lozenges.

Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

Registration No: 5803 Animal: Possum Place: Australia near Sydney (Probably from the Hunter River area) Collector: Wilkes exploring expedition Date: 1838-42 Size: L - 58 " W - 57" Description: Features rectangular pelts the skins are laid in 4 rows of six skins each, and sewn on the back, edge to edge with very fine overhand stitch of cotton cord sinew. Fur has been left on and the backside of the skins are completely covered with large diamond shaped designs made by scrapping up a thin layer of the skin so that it stands up in a little curl.

Pigorini Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography Italy

Two possum skin cloaks one decorated and one undecorated Acquired from the Australian Museum AW Franks collector EH Giglioli Collection, 1913.

Museum of Ethnology Berlin, Germany

Animal: Possum Date Made: Collected in 1879 most probably by E. Von Guerard One possum skin cloak Collection area: Probably South Australia E von Guerard was one of the collectors

Leiden Museum, Netherlands
Comes from the Richmond River district in the states north east Registration No: 885/11 (this cloak has since disintegrated)

Many thanks to the following individuals and institutions: South Australian Museum - Phillip Manning and Philip Jones, Museum of Victoria - Nancy Ladas, Joanne Bach. Western Australian Museum - Ross Chadwick. The British Museum, Museum of Ethnology, Berlin. Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. Petra Kanzleiter.

Hawkeye 2.



Tuesday, 16 February 2010


My Father's nick name for me when I was a kid was Hawkeye, and it was early TV series like these that helped start me on a path to 18th century Living History.

Monday, 15 February 2010

An excerpt from Paradise Found Nature in America at the Time of Discovery, Steve Nicholls.

Found that in a fascinating book "Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery" by Steve Nicholls, University of Chicago Press, 2009. His book is devoted to the state of the natural world in North America before the arrival of Europeans. I think you would enjoy reading it.  This is a recommendation from one of my readers/followers,Minnesotastan .

An excerpt from

Paradise Found
Nature in America at the Time of Discovery
Steve Nicholls
The Discovery Of Paradise

At first sight, the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland are bleak, inhospitable places. It’s a sobering thought that if not for the Gulf Stream, that great river in the North Atlantic conveying heat from the tropics to the shores of Europe, we Britons would share this climate. But these places aren’t that bad. This barren-looking scenery refreshes the soul; here a human can understand his place in the world. Nothing can hide from a searching Newfoundland wind, not even the arrogance of a species that thinks itself master of all it surveys.

Besides, these places are far from barren; you just need to know where to look. All you need to do is smell the wind, laced with the pungent aroma of ammonia. Follow your nose to the cliff tops and a cacophony of grunts and squeals rises to greet you. There below you the rocky stacks are crowded with gannets, perched on every available space. Riding the wind on elegant, ink-dipped wings, returning birds hang motionless in the air over their mates, until they’re sure they’ve found the right spot, a familiar call among the symphony. But, as impressive as the smell and din always is in these colonies, it was once even more impressive. Some of the largest seabird colonies in the world used to exist around the coasts and islands of northeast America. A French explorer in the mid-1500s once declared: “All the ships of France might load a cargo of them without once perceiving that any had been removed.”

And there’s a good reason for such unimaginable numbers of birds; the seas and shores around these colonies used to be filled with an equally inconceivable abundance of fish. It was these teeming shoals that drew Europeans here in the fifteenth century, but our first glimpse into this crowded ocean didn’t come from French or English explorers, nor even from the Spanish who, to most people, were seen as the first to encounter the New World. They’re found in two Norse sagas that date to nearly five hundred years before Columbus blundered into the Caribbean. These first recorded encounters don’t tell us a great deal about the ecology of the New World, but they do introduce us to the story of the Atlantic salmon, which is a good illustration of the way history interacts with biology and introduces many of the broad themes that will recur throughout the following chapters.

The Vikings were unrivalled in their seamanship and exploration. By the middle of the 800s, they had begun to settle Iceland, though when they first got there, the island was already populated by Irish monks, who promptly left to find peace and quiet elsewhere. For the Vikings, in the long term, Iceland turned out to be a staging post as well as a new homeland. They pushed further west and had established colonies in Greenland by the tenth century, almost on the doorstep of the American continent.

How they made the final step to the New World is recorded in two sagas, The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Eirik the Red. The Norse and Icelandic sagas are actually just elaborate family histories, with a touch of adventure for added effect, so they don’t always dwell on the natural wonders that these early explorers must have found. And although these two sagas, which describe the same events, disagree in details, they nevertheless provide tantalizing glimpses into the North American continent long before major European contact.

The story begins in the closing years of the first millennium in Norway, from where Eirik had just made a hurried departure to escape punishment for murder. His plan was to settle in the now-thriving colony in Iceland, but it didn’t take him long to become unpopular there as well. He gained his name “Red” from the color of his hair, but it might just as well have been from the trail of blood he left behind. When he became involved in a local feud and decided that life in Iceland was also getting just a little too hot, he remembered that a friend called Gunnbiorn had once run into a landmass to the west of Iceland after being blown off course. Eirik decided it would be expedient to go and find it, and to settle there if he could. He did find land and returned to pick up volunteers for his settlement. He decided to call the place Greenland, perhaps an attempt to make it sound more attractive to potential settlers, just as the first colonists in America half a millennium later would send back descriptions of Paradise to encourage expansion of their own settlements in the New World.

Eirik’s simple publicity stunt obviously worked. These hardy Norse souls did indeed manage to build several settlements along the southwest coast of Greenland. Among deep fjords that would have reminded them of Norway, they found places where sheltered harbors led up to fertile pastures for their tough little cattle. In addition, the coasts to the north were alive with seals and walrus. Offshore there were great shoals of fish and whales and on land plenty of ducks and caribou, so it didn’t take long for a regular trade to build up between Eirik’s Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. They traded whale and seal oil or eider duck feathers for such staples of life that they couldn’t provide for themselves in their remote colonies on the edge of the known world. The success of these colonies depended on regular communication with Iceland and mainland Europe, and that meant sea traffic through difficult and often dangerous waters. Sooner or later something was bound to go wrong.

It did, and it happened to one of history’s unsung heroes, a man by the name of Bjarni Herjolffson. The details of his story are preserved in only one of the sagas, The Saga of the Greenlanders, which tells how he was blown off course as he sailed between Iceland and Greenland. He eventually sighted land, which most now agree was somewhere along America’s northeast coast. He sailed north along this coast, making his way back toward Greenland, but he never bothered to land. If he had, history might have been kinder in recording him as the first undisputed European discoverer of the New World. As it happens, that honor is usually given to Leif Ericsson, son of Eirik the Red, who decided to follow up on Bjarni’s discoveries fifteen years later.

So, in the early years of the second millennium, we get our first glimpse into the nature of North America. Around AD 1000, Leif sailed west from Greenland and encountered land. At first he wasn’t impressed. He found a barren land of flat stones, which he called Helluland—“slab land.” It is now generally agreed that this was Baffin Island, and Leif’s description is still a good summary of the place today. Sailing south, things improved. Next he landed at Mark-land—“wood land”—covered in fine, large trees. Two days sailing further to the south and west, Leif stopped and built houses ready to overwinter in this strange land. The abundance they found soon impressed them. “There was no lack of salmon in the river or the lake, bigger salmon than they had ever seen. The country seemed to them so kind that no winter fodder would be needed for livestock; there was never any frost all winter and the grass hardly withered at all.”

So where were they? The general consensus was that they had landed somewhere on the coast of Labrador or Newfoundland, which makes their descriptions of the mild winters sound like a bit more Paradise publicity. However, the reason that the Vikings had been able to colonize Greenland successfully was that they did so during a period of climatic warming, so perhaps the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland were less bleak than they seem today. Some flesh was put on the bare bones of the sagas in 1960 when, nearly a thousand years after Leif Ericsson, two more Norwegians landed on the coast of Newfoundland. Helge Ingstad and his wife, Anne, were both archaeologists, searching for evidence of their distant ancestors in the New World. What they found was astounding.

A local fisherman told them of an ancient settlement long thought to have been made by Indians. But when the Ingstads visited this site, at l’Anse aux Meadows on the very northern tip of the island of Newfoundland, they saw the unmistakable outlines of Viking long houses, familiar from their work back home in Norway. If that wasn’t convincing enough, they returned in successive years to excavate the site and found evidence of iron smelting, something no Indian had even heard of before 1492. Carbon 14 dating from the iron hearths gave figures around AD 900–1070, so it seemed the story was closed. L’Anse aux Meadows was the reality behind the sagas. But the saga isn’t finished yet.

The Saga of the Greenlanders describes another discovery that caused some consternation among later scholars. One of the party wandered away from the settlement and, when he returned, reported that he’d found the place festooned with wild grapes. There’s nothing too astounding about this. Many later explorers found the trees along the east coast covered in a dense growth of vines sporting wild grapes finer than any in Europe’s vineyards. The abundance of wild grapes impressed the Norsemen so much that Leif Ericsson called this area Vinland or “Wine-land.” But no wild grapes grow in the far north of Newfoundland today. Does this make l’Anse aux Meadows unlikely as Leif’s first settlement? Perhaps, though the Vikings were exploring during a period of warmer climate that probably meant that the range of many plants and animals, including wild grapes, extended further north. So did the saga-tellers leave any more clues?

Leif thoughtfully measured the day length at the winter solstice, which gives a good indication of latitude. “In this country, night and day were of more even length than in either Greenland or Iceland; on the shortest day of the year the sun was already up by 9 am and did not set until after 3 pm.” This should put the general location beyond doubt, but the translation above is deceptively simple. Actually, Leif recorded the sun’s position using arcane Viking terminology, and the translation into a specific latitude involves complex calculations and a few assumptions that have led to suggestions for Vinland being as far south as Florida! Other calculations point to a location somewhere to the south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and well within the range of Vitis riparia, the most widespread of a score of wild grape species that grow across America. V. riparia pushes north into New Brunswick and northern Quebec, so perhaps Leif’s first settlement was around the Bay of Fundy, along the coasts of Nova Scotia or New Brunswick.

The abundance and size of the fish they recorded doesn’t help. We’ll see from later descriptions that all the rivers and lakes down the east coast were choked with so many fish that it left those early explorers lost for words. So it seems the exact location of Vinland must remain a mystery, though in a way it doesn’t matter. We can still stand with those brave Norsemen, somewhere on the northeast coast of the continent, and see a vitality of nature already gone from most parts of Europe.

We can imagine that small party standing on the banks of a river, staring at water alive with the flashing silver backs of Atlantic salmon. Most of the fish are huge, on average around twenty-five pounds each, but there are plenty that are easily twice this size. They must measure four or five feet from head to tail. It’s the height of a late summer run, up river to spawning grounds on exposed gravel beds, and the river is almost solid with fish. It looks as if you could cross without getting your feet wet. These fish were born in this river but have spent the last year or two at sea, feeding and growing. Now they are returning with an almost unerring accuracy to that same river again to lay their own eggs and continue a cycle that began at the end of the last ice age. Many will die after spawning, though a fair proportion will survive to swim to sea again and return to spawn in later years. Atlantic salmon also run up the rivers of Scandinavia, so the sights in Labrador must have been spectacular indeed to have been worthy of recording in the sagas.

Behind the Norsemen, the setting sun is now filtered through arching branches of massive trees, hung with curtains of purple grapes. The vines scramble up every tree, disappearing into the fading light. With the light finally gone, the Norsemen huddle close to their fire, warming themselves against an early fall chill that descends with startling suddenness as soon as the sun disappears behind the unknown land to the west. But none can sleep. The noise coming from the river is almost deafening, like the applause of a vast unseen crowd. The giant salmon are leaping over each other, over cataracts, over and over, falling back into the water with great splashes.

What the Norsemen couldn’t have known was that this was being repeated for many hundreds of miles up and down the coast; by one estimate, three thousand such rivers provided hundreds of thousands of spawning beds for an incalculable number of Atlantic salmon. Certainly, Atlantic salmon would have run up the rivers as far south as the Housatonic, which flows into Long Island Sound, not far from New York City. To the north, they ran in numbers all the way up to Ungava Bay, on the Canadian mainland opposite Baffin Island.

And this spectacle would repeat itself year after year. Seven centuries after the Norsemen left these shores, Nicolas Denys also has sleepless nights on the Miramichi River flowing through New Brunswick in Canada:

So large a quantity of salmon enters the river at night one is unable to sleep, so great is the noise they make in falling upon the water after having thrown or darted themselves into the air passing over the river flats.

I found a little river which I named Riviere au Saulmon.… I made a cast of the seine net at its entrance where it took so great a quantity of salmon that ten men could not haul it to land and … had it not broken the salmon would have carried it off. We had a boat full of them, the smallest three feet long.

Salmon were still hugely abundant when the New England colony had grown from its beginnings as a handful of starving pilgrims, and it’s said that servants along the Connecticut River would only work on the condition that they were not fed salmon on more than two occasions each week. As splendid a comment as this is on the abundance of salmon, Robert Behnke, who wrote a definitive work on trout and salmon in North America, can find no basis in fact for what has become an often repeated myth. Nevertheless, it doesn’t alter the fact that, from Long Island Sound to Ungava Bay, Atlantic salmon abounded.

In 1770, George Cartwright, recently retired from the army, sailed from England to Labrador to set up trading posts for fur and fish. The sheltered harbor where he started his enterprise still bears his name. The community of Cartwright, population 628, stands on the eastern side of Sandwich Bay, not far from thirty-three miles of pristine sandy beach that was impressive enough for Leif Ericsson to call it Wonderstrand. It’s still an amazing place a thousand years later. There are large gannet, puffin, and guillemot colonies within a few miles, and Cartwright claims to have the best fly-fishing for Atlantic salmon anywhere in the world. While that claim might be disputed by some, salmon were certainly one of the things that drew George Cartwright here over two hundred years ago. And he kept meticulous records, not just of his salmon operation but of all the wildlife in the area.

For someone trying to earn his living from fish, Labrador must have seemed like Paradise indeed. The salmon runs in the White Bear River were so dense that George reckoned “a ball could not be fired into the water without striking a salmon.” Between June 23 and July 20 on one river he and his three companions killed 12,396 salmon, and they felt they could have killed thirty thousand if they had left their nets out. Elsewhere, fishermen only gave up catching salmon when they ran out of salt to preserve the fish. Whatever the modern community of Cartwright boasts about its salmon fishing, I doubt it’s anything like it used to be.

But Atlantic salmon, on both sides of the ocean, have had a hard time of it since George’s day. They disappeared totally from many rivers in both Europe and America. I remember the fanfares that greeted the first salmon for many years to brave the River Tees in Middlesbrough, in northeast England, the town where I grew up. The lower Tees is hemmed in by industry: a tangle of chemical works, steel foundries, and docks. They all emptied waste into the river, and although the upper reaches, with their bare gravel spawning beds, still flowed cool and clear through the dales of Yorkshire and Durham, the toxic concoction near the river mouth was as effective as any physical barrier in preventing the salmon from running upstream. And, to return to the rivers of their birth, salmon use the unique aroma of their particular river, percolating through salt water, drifting on ocean currents, to find their way. What rivers like the Tees and many others must have smelled like to the salmon’s sensitive nose is anyone’s guess. I spent many of my weekends watching birds on the Tees Estuary in the early 1970s, and the air there smelled bad enough to my insensitive human nose. To fall into the river around here meant a trip to hospital and an undignified encounter with a stomach pump. So any salmon foolish enough to come too close, even if it could have detected the delicate scent of Teesdale on the water, would soon have gasped its last.

Huge efforts have been made since then to clean up many of these rivers, and salmon have responded. Although most salmon return to the rivers where they hatched, a very small percentage—the Leif Ericssons of the salmon world—explore new territory. These pioneering fish can naturally recolonize rivers, even if all the river’s native fish have long since been eliminated. Thus, the first salmon in living memory returned to the Mersey, in northwestern England, in 2001. By then eighty to a hundred salmon per season were being reported in the higher reaches of the Tees, so presumably many more were running the gauntlet of the concrete and steel-fringed estuary. Similarly, salmon began to run once more in the rivers of Newfoundland and New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. But what happened to transform astonishment at limitless abundance into mere delight at the sight of a few hundred? It wasn’t entirely the fault of George Cartwright.

The problem is that there are lots of ways to kill salmon. Certainly, George and his fellow commercial fishermen contributed. Before the early 1700s, there wasn’t much interest in actually eating the salmon, but they were hauled out of the river to feed hogs or dumped in their thousands on the fields as a substitute for manure. It’s often said that the first settlers in New England were shown how to grow crops by the Indians, who taught them to bury a fish as fertilizer in a mound of earth, before planting it with corn. If so, the Indians can have only stared on in disbelief at the profligate enthusiasm with which later settlers adopted this practice.

Then, after about 1700, Europe developed a taste for salted or smoked salmon. This huge market supported men like Cartwright in growing numbers, and by the end of the eighteenth century some estimates put the total salmon exports from North America in excess of 30 million pounds each and every year. Massive seine nets spread across the entrances to rivers mopped up most of the fish trying to enter. Often the numbers were so great that the nets simply burst. But being caught for human or hog consumption or as substitute manure wasn’t the only problem facing salmon.

To support the expansion of towns and cities along the east coast, rivers were being dammed and water mills built. Then, later, iron smelters and tanneries began to pollute the pristine waters. Finally, as the human population grew, ever-increasing quantities of sewage flowed into the rivers, so both physical and chemical barriers began to impede any fish that escaped the nets. The Connecticut River lost its salmon to a dam in 1798, presumably a cause for great celebration among the working people there, if they really were trying to avoid overdosing on fish. And still the problems for salmon mounted. Wood was needed for ever-expanding building, so sawmills sprang up to serve each new township. Great rafts of logs were floated down river and destroyed the gravel spawning beds. Any that survived often ended up buried in sawdust from the lumber mills. Salmon can only spawn in clean gravel, so the few that finally made it upstream usually found they’d made a wasted journey.

In the late 1800s, a new market, in tinned salmon, stimulated the fishery, and since most of the rivers near the big population centers in New England had lost their fish, the last wild rivers of the Labrador coast were soon being plundered. The writing was on the wall. A few farsighted people could see what was happening, though, as still happens today, no one took much notice until it was way too late. One of the most eloquent of these observers was an English visitor to Canada around 1870 named John Rowan. “Thirty years ago, the salmon fishing in Nova Scotia was superb. But where nature is so bountiful in her gifts man rarely appreciates them. It would really seem that Nova Scotians hate the salmon. Overfishing is bad enough, but to shut the fish out of the rivers is little better that insanity.… By and by, when the forests have been destroyed and the rivers rendered barren, Canadians will spend large sums of money in, perhaps, fruitless efforts to bring back that which they could now so easily retain.” How right he was. In Great Britain alone, the cost of cleaning up just the sewage has climbed to over £30 billion. Industry has had to spend billions more to clean up its act.

But there’s one final twist in the salmon’s tale. Despite well-publicized returns to once-polluted rivers, Atlantic salmon populations have fallen dramatically over the last few decades right around the ocean. In November 2000, Maine, the only U.S. state with any remaining wild salmon runs, listed several of its distinctive genetic stocks as endangered. And not before time. As few as fifty fish may have returned to these rivers the year before. Six months later, in May 2001, the Committee on the State of Endangered Wildlife in Canada met to declare Atlantic salmon in the Bay of Fundy endangered.

Please note that the images are my addition, they are not in the book to my knowledge.