By the time you read this, Leif Erikson Day will be over — autumn Sundays are bad with football and election debates and such — but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it.
Leifr Eiríksson founded a Norse settlement at Vinland in Newfoundland. He was the son of Erik the Red, who founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland, and the grandson of Thorvaldr Ásvaldsson, who discovered Iceland. Exploration and settlement was a family business, it seems, and reunions must have been a heckuva scheduling challenge.
Leif Erickson Day is a more-or-less arbitrary date chosen to celebrate the contributions of Nordic-Americans in general and specifically the early explorers often considered the first whites to visit North America. In fact, new DNA analysis suggests these early Norse not only met but /ahem/ interacted with native tribes, blending races far earlier than previously imagined. We’re all much more mixed than we tend to think!
I spent time studying contemporary ships for my Norse work in progress and I have to say, I have mad respect for those sailors. Longboats of the period were fast and shallow — but were low to the sea and wide open to the weather. A rough sea would have been a never-ending roller coaster with inescapable soaking waves. The Vikings did not navigate by the stars as other cultures did, and of course they had no existing maps of where they were going. Leif himself is reported in the sagas to have picked up shipwrecked men from the strange new coast.
The Havhingsten (“Sea Stallion”) is a reconstruction of discovered Skuledev ship 2, and it has sailed along ancient routes between Denmark and Ireland. I visited both original and recreated ships while in Roskilde and while they are beautiful things, I can’t imagine crossing the North Atlantic in them. Listen to what these experienced seamen said about their crossing (and check out the ship disappearing beneath the waves at 4:40!).