Bill Arnott’s “Gone Viking” with Canadian Geographic

An armchair excursion this time on Bill Arnott’s Beat, with thanks to Canadian Geographic for requesting this story, a Canadian adventure touching transnational coasts. And like most worthwhile encounters, people were the common connection. But my domestic excursion began overseas. In Norway. Where I trekked while researching my Gone Viking travel memoirs, specifically, Gone Viking III: The Holy Grail (RMBooks, 2023).

I was seaside in Oslo, touring exhibits, concluding the day at a Viking Ship Museum. Two of the featured displays were the Oseberg and Gokstad, handcrafted longships, a visceral blend of function and design. The former constructed, it’s believed, not to sail but to facilitate an elaborate burial, shuttling royalty to Valhalla. Effectively an art installation, designed as a vessel of oak, its role to serve as a coffin. The Oseberg almost certainly never touched water, but still it appeared seaworthy, as though awaiting a crew of rowers, a sail and a breeze. The second craft on display, however, the Gokstad, was very much a ship of the sea.

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I would eventually follow ships much like these, crossing Atlantic and Arctic, in the wake of explorer Leif Erikson. A journey he made with his sister, Freydis Eriksdottir, and their brothers Thorvald and Thorstein. That geographical leap brought me back to Canadian shores, the north tip of Newfoundland, where the children of Erik the Red built a settlement, a home that was used for five years. What we call L’Anse aux Meadows. And no, I couldn’t convince my own siblings to help row or construct a new village when I echoed the Erikson family voyage.

Fast forward more years, more distance, and I’m back on Pacific shoreline, where a lone Nordic longship could be found navigating Vancouver waters. A Viking Ship seemingly out of place, and yet precisely where it should be. Not housed in a museum but free to sail and taste the salt air. Its name was the Munin. Still is, in fact. A replica of Oslo’s Gokstad. I set foot on the Munin as part of a wooden boat festival at Vancouver’s Granville Island. The moment I clambered aboard I was struck by the aroma of resin and wood, the nautical creak of sail-sheet ropes and hawsers. Even calm harbour water couldn’t contain the ship’s longing to sail, to lunge toward open sea. I could sense it in the oak beams, a vibrational hum, the allure of endless horizons.

Another time blip ensued, another blur of geography. And I met with a welcoming group of Scandinavian Canadians: Icelanders, Norse, Swedes and Danes, with a few friendly Finns on the fringe. And to my delight I was introduced to Kris Frostad, builder of Norwegian boats and the artisan who constructed the Munin, B.C.’s local Gokstad, the longship that had fuelled my global adventures. Our visit took place over supper: platters of herring and meatballs. And I asked him about his creation.

“You know the original is eighty feet,” he said, a warm smile, almost impish with enthusiasm. His glasses reflected the light, like sun on cresting waves. “So I thought, okay then, we’ll make this one about forty.” Pushing his chair aside he got up and squatted a bit, as though taking an imaginary seat. “And I figured the oars should go about here, you understand,” he said, miming the action of rowing. Building the boat never felt like a job, he explained. “I loved doing it.” He didn’t work from set plans. “Just go by feel,” he said, breaking into another smile.

Kris’s Munin remains a beautiful craft. A hybrid, dancing two worlds. Artisanal as the earthbound Oseberg, yet as seaworthy as its companion the Gokstad. When I boarded the Munin it was the pride of that wooden boat festival, having spent many years on the Salish Sea, transporting sailors and rowers, tourists too, through Burrard Inlet, around cruise ships and tankers, sea buses and floatplanes, mooring most often at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

By the time Kris and I finally met, the Munin had been pulled from the water, preserved at the Scandinavian Community Centre in Burnaby, which is where we were on that evening. As we spoke we had a view of his ship, set atop grass, while we ate one more course of herring. Aquavit was then set on the table, a digestif, as we admired his ship’s design. I suspect he still heard, maybe felt, as I did, the lap of saltwater on hull and on keel, coax of wind in the red and white stripes of the sail. Canadian colours, Nordic design. Extinguishing borders and space. Again, people the common connection.

Sun slowly set, the view darkened, and the Viking Ship faded from sight. No longer a time warp imagined, the transition present and real. As though glimpsing the last of an age, mystique gripped in an artisan’s hands. And a boat’s oaken beams, history of having Gone Viking, recollecting the surge of the sea.