A Walk on the Wild Side

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So there you are, walking along the Atlantic City Boardwalk. The crowds are oppressive, Nature seems to have disappeared, and there’s nary a spouting whale in sight. You’d still like a boardwalk experience, so what do you do? You go to Rigolet, Labrador, of course.

“I don’t even know what street Canada is on,” Al Capone reputedly said. Scarface certainly wouldn’t have known what street Labrador — the northerly part of Newfoundland — is on. So seemingly unimportant was Labrador to Newfoundland that the latter put up the former for sale in 1909 for $9,000,000, but there were no takers.

Rigolet itself is not really on any street or at least not on any highway. A small (pop. 300), mostly Inuit community accessible only by air or by ferry (recommendation: take the ferry), it’s the last place where you’d expect to find a boardwalk longer than the Atlantic City Boardwalk. In fact, its boardwalk is probably the longest in the world.
“We missed the boardwalk that once connected the old Hudson’s Bay buildings here,” Rigolet’s mayor Jack Shiwak told me, “so we decided to build a new one, and then we kept adding to it, finishing it in October 2015. Of course, the Atlantic City Boardwalk was always in the backs of our minds. If it could attract tourists, we thought ours could, too…”

“But you don’t have any gambling casinos,” I joked.

“True, but we do have a major archaeological site,” Jack said.

I decided not to walk the boardwalk’s entire six miles, ending in that archaeological site, all at once. There was too much to see, too many opportunities to stand and stare. Here, for instance, was an old cemetery whose wooden crosses were tilted in every direction of the compass. And here were several seals whose bobbing heads looked inquisitively at me. Benches and picnic ta bles also encouraged me to take my time.

The boardwalk had boreal forest on one side and the tranquil waters of Hamilton Inlet on the other. As I walked, the only sound I heard that didn’t come from the natural world was my own feet on wood. The natural sounds included the chuf-chufs of grey jays, the flutelike calls of pine grosbeaks, Arctic hares or rabbits thumping across the boardwalk, the occasional grunt of a moose, barking seals, and gulls whose raucous laughter suggested that they thought it was hilarious for me to be walking rather than flying.

On another walk, I felt the need to answer Nature’s call, so I wandered into the adjacent spruce forest. While answering that call, I noticed a black bear rummaging for berries thirty or so feet away. The bear saw me and continued rummaging, but politely turned its head away. What civilized behavior, I thought.

After a while, I found myself suffering from a bad case of the Shangri-Las, so I decided to take a break from the boardwalk and visit a local woman, Sarah Baikie. I’d seen quite a bit of lyme grass on my walks, and I heard that Sarah
was one of the locals who made baskets out of it.

“I began making grass baskets as soon as I was old enough to hold a needle,” Sarah told me. She also made grass bowls and mats, along with moosehide boots and slippers. Her crafts as well as those of other Rigolet residents are available at the village’s craft shop.

After “yarnin’” (chatting) with Sarah and her husband, I returned to the boardwalk. After a while, it began to rain, so I climbed up to a gazebo, under whose cover I had my lunch. As I was eating, I saw two minke whales rising and spouting repeatedly in Hamilton Inlet. Eat your heart out, Atlantic City!

On one of my walks, I met a middle-aged local nurse who informed me that she walked back and forth to the end of the boardwalk almost every day, a distance of twelve miles. When I told her that I hadn’t yet made it to the end, she looked at me as if I was a complete wimp.

I asked the nurse about the brick ruins I’d seen not far from the shore. They were the remains of a military fort built to protect Labrador from a Nazi invasion, she told me. I thought she was joking, since Labrador would seem a bit remote for the Nazis. But I later learned they had torpedoed a Canadian ship not far from here.

But by far the most interesting ruins were at the very end of the boardwalk, at Double Mer Point, where the remains of three 18th century Inuit sod houses lie above a Paleo-Eskimo site several thousand years old. Among the many artifacts found here was an Ottoman pipe from Turkey — how the blazes did it get to Labrador?

If you visit these ruins soon, you’ll probably see archaeologists from Memorial University of Newfoundland at work digging or sifting soil— they may even ask you to help them! If you visit later on, you’ll see a reconstruction of one of the sod houses and perhaps a local person in period costume talking about his or her heritage.

On my last day, I happened to be walking back from the archaeological site when I encountered one of the few tourists I’d seen on the boardwalk. “I heard this is longer than Atlantic City’s, eh?” he said, immediately identifying himself as
a Canadian.

“I don’t even know what street Atlantic City is on,” I grinned.

For more information, contact Rigolet Tourism Manager Kerry Pottle or write
tourism.manager@rigolet.ca

Sir John Franklin’s Lost Diary

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On September 9, 2014, Parks Canada discovered the remains of the HMS Erebus, explorer Sir John Franklin’s remarkably newsworthy flagship. Among the artifacts retrieved from the ship was a Fortnum & Mason jar labelled “Sweets.” The jar did not contain any sweets, but rather a diary written by Sir John himself — a diary that solves at least part of the so-called Franklin mystery. What follows is that diary’s final entries:

FranklinApril 30, 1847. Ship lies groaning & straining in the ice off King William Island. On a whim, I brought out my maps of Arctic Canada, only to discover that the Admiralty had provided me with maps of Polynesia — an unfortunate error.

May 2, 1847. Sore gums & loose teeth indicate that many of the crew have scurvy, so I spoke out against this nefarious French disease & initiated tango lessons and likewise bench pressing of the ship’s spittoons to ward it off.

May 3, 1847. Ship still mired in the ice. The bosun, in the midst of a tango maneuver, fell overboard, went through the ice, & was promptly torn to shreds by a school of man-eating isobars. Bloody Arctic!

May 5, 1847. Dreamt Lady Jane came for a visit & asked, “Sir John, why are you late to supper?” “I’m looking for the Northwest Passage, dear,” I told her. “But you can’t eat the Northwest Passage, can you?” she replied ominously, then vanished.

May 8, 1847. Lost three men today, one to scurvy, another to terminal gingivitis, & yet another to ennui. To make matters worse, the steward told me, in his inimitable fashion, “we ain’t got no more elevenses for you, sir.” How can I captain this expedition without my elevenses?

May 11, 1847. The cook extremely upset over our empty larders. Says there isn’t even any solder left inside our food tins. “Hang in there, old chap,” I told him, but the roar of the wind in the ship’s rigging garbled my words, & he tried to hang himself. At least the men are still obeying my orders.

May 12, 1847. Dense fog. We can’t even see the ship’s prow, much less a possible shortcut to the Orient.

May 14, 1847. We’re totally out of crumpets, so I had to feed Cedric [Cedric was Franklin’s pet toucan] a few forlorn scraps of hardtack. Not surprisingly, he squawked in protest.

May 15, 1847. Took bearings & discovered that, instead of corpulent, I am now merely portly. Remarkable that I can now ascend the mast-head as well as descend from it.

May 17, 1847. Men shivering almost constantly, & their beards are hung with icicles, as the Admiralty somehow has seen fit to supply us with tuxedos & cummerbunds rather than parkas. Wrote a letter of protest to the First Lord, then such was my hunger that I proceeded to eat it.

May 27, 1847. Several Savages [Eskimoes] with prognathous jaws visited the ship today. They brought us a batch of pemmican eggs. Alas, all rotten. Must have been laid before the great pemmican migration south. In return, we gave each of the Savages a tuxedo & cummerbund.

May 29, 1847. More misfortune — one of the crew, doubtless a petty officer, has eaten poor Cedric! I said to Fitzjames [Franklin’s second-in-command], “Find the bounder responsible for this & give him a taste of the cat.” “Sorry, sir,” Fitzjames told me, “but we’ve already eaten the ship’s cat.”

May 31, 1847. Lieutenant Orme, a clean-shaven fellow except for his clump of grizzled whiskers, broke into my cabin & consumed the contents of my chamber pot, then began singing “Rule, Brittania.” I put him in the section of the sick bay reserved for nutters.

June 5, 1847. Weary of being mired in ice, we abandoned ship & began making our way to Back’s Fish River, thence, we hope, to England’s green & pleasant land. The men carried me in a sedan chair. Two days into our journey, I realized I’d forgotten my robe & slippers, so we marched back to the ship.

June 8, 1847. Abandoned the ship a second time. Curiously, my sedan chair seems to have disappeared, & I’m now being manhauled in a sledge filled with towels, kettles, sail-maker’s palms, porcelain cups, bedding, checkerboards, our portative organ, longboats, etc.

June 9, 1847. Met a group of Savages & asked them using signs for the route to Back’s Fish River. They fled in terror when Fitzjames produced a loud blast of flatulence. “Sorry, sir,” he said, “but starvation seems not to agree with me.”

June 10, 1847. Longboats abandoned owing to the terrestrial aspect of the land.

June 12, 1847. Dr. Goodsir, our surgeon, tried to enliven things by asking us which vegetable the Admirably forbade us to take on board the Erebus. Answer: Leeks! Only Goodsir himself laughed at this feeble joke, & as he did, several of his teeth loosened in his gums, then fell into the snow.

June 13, 1847. What a nuisance! I seem to have left my monogrammed cutlery & all my medals on the Erebus, so we had no choice but to march back to the ship, which was now a sorry sight — both the fore & aft decks were covered with a thick coat of scurvy.

June 14, 1847. A blizzard has kept us on the ship, so I began working on a talk to be given tomorrow at tea-time. Key sentences include: Eat your boots, men. They’re quite tasty. Give me a nice fresh boot over steak-and-kidney pie any day. [On an earlier expedition, Franklin had been compelled to eat his boots]

June 15, 1847. Hallo, what’s this? Fitzjames has barged into my cabin without a knock. “Sir John,” he says, brandishing his cutlass, “the men & I have made an important decision. The cabin boy is lean & emaciated, while you…”

Here the diary necessarily breaks off, but the percipient reader will have no trouble ascertaining why Franklin’s remains have never been found.

Bibliodeath

Bibliodeath, by Andrei CodrescuPoet, NPR commentator, novelist, literary magazine editor, travel writer, English professor, polyglot, gentleman farmer, and raconteur Andrei Codrescu is a veritable heterogenius whose remarkable new book Bibliodeath takes the reader on an autobiographical journey through the notebooks, typewriters, and computers on which he’s scribbled, pounded, and tapped during the last 50 years. In response to the book, I engaged my old pal Andrei in the conversation that follows.

L: I have to admit, Andrei, that I’m still reeling from the pyrotechnics to which you put your adopted language in Bibliodeath. Why do you think certain European writers — Nabokov, Conrad, and (don’t blush!) you, for example — write a better, more felicitous English than most native-born writers of English?

A: We don’t write better English. We just write slow and breathless English. If you have to think about every word, you travel to its origins, swing through its meanings, and surface with that word subjected to something like cosmic agitation. Or more simply put, we get our writing chops from reading, so we see before we hear. We die in one language, only to be reborn in another. It’s the dying and coming back that makes us so fascinating to anyone who isn’t us. And I’m not blushing: I like my work. I like Nabokov’s even more.

L: In Bibliodeath, you celebrate the evolution of the printed word from notebook to book to (sorry for the obscenity!) cybertext. Can you offer any words of solace to writers like yours truly who see their careers frustrated as a result of the contemporary cyber mania?

A: I think our careers are going down the drain because we’re getting older and are allergic to working for free. When I was young, I did (almost) everything for $100. In the mid 90s, I had a streak of luck and the nerve to ask for real bucks. Amazingly, I got my chutzpah stamped. We’ve also come to the end of the cult of writing and the worship of the writer. Other media have caught up. Some movies are so good that it seems a sin to rehash them in words. On the internet, everybody has an opinion, so the job of “opinion-maker” has gone the way of shoe-cobbling and watch repair (or watches, for that matter). We are fallen gods, and sore as hell because it happened so fast, and we fell so hard. Nobody’s afraid of Virginia Woolf anymore, damn it!

L: We are getting older, it’s true, but elders like us were once regarded as fonts of wisdom. Now we’re flung by the wayside like so much chattel. Unless we happen to write teen-oriented zombie novels. I don’t think the other media have caught up. In the United States of Amnesia, the lowest common denominator rules, so other media have dumbed everything down. With the internet, even a right wing Bible thumper with an IQ of -35 has a voice. As for movies, 99% of them are products, nothing more. Products with pretty faces.

A: I think you’re an ageist, Millman. You prefer literature because it’s older than movies. Rear Window and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator are as good as anything by Steinbeck or Faulkner. But, yes, we’re becoming very good at forgetting, which puts us safely in the arms of the military-industrial-entertainment-cyber complex, a comfortable place in which to fuck up Mother Nature and to be transported to the Bardo of the clueless (where the teen zombies live). On the other hand, we have many good writers of children’s and young adult books. Perhaps those who write such things get back their child-brains from the adult exo-skeleton of received facts. Being infantilized in this way is not so bad for a writer. Personally, I’d rather write something as good as The Lorax at this point in my life than something as hopeless as Beckett’s Molloy. I say this: humor the young, give them no cash, and steal your grandchildren with charming stories.

L: Today’s Boston Globe reviewed the following movies: Wake in Fright, Keep the Lights On, Seven Psychopaths, Sinister, and Girl Model, but there was not a single book review… not even a review of Bibliodeath. Sic semper gloria mundi! I confess I haven’t read The Lorax, but I do like the not necessarily scientific idea of Horton, a male elephant, hatching a bird’s egg… and not crushing it. Which brings me to my last question: it sounds like you’re writing a kid’s book. I know you’re living on a farm in Arkansas, but by “kid” I mean human, not goat progeny.

A: You’re right. I’m writing a kid’s book because I recently read Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle 6 times to my 3 year old grand-daughter Raya, and if I had stayed any longer where she lives, I would have had to have read it to her 120 times more. Who would want to read Ulysses 6 times? Out loud, for chrissakes! But the reason I want to write a book that is not only read and reread many times over is that Yertle the Turtle is a work of genius: at once simple and profound, and a story about justice that a “grown-up” might take 5 years to write. I think I might be old enough now to try something like this. I once met Theodore Geissel (Dr. Seuss) at a party in Old Metairie, Louisiana: he was an elegant tall man, shy and self-contained. It’s too late for “tall,” but maybe I can try the others. Who needs the Boston Globe when you’ve got the ear of an insatiably curious 3 year old?