Boston Sunday Globe: Natural Selection

Quirpon Island, Newfoundland – I spotted the iceberg as my guide and I paddled our kayaks around a granite headland off the northern tip of Newfoundland. From a few miles away, it looked like a bar of soap floating in a big bathtub – not quite what I had expected – but as we paddled closer, I realized it was as tall as a seven-storey building and as big around as a city block. It loomed overhead, and my 16-foot kayak seemed like a little piece of driftwood floating by.

The berg had grounded in a shoal and would stay there and melt of be pushed out to see by the wind. As we approached it, I could see blue streaks running through the white ice (formed when melt water freezes in cracks); water trickling down one side, giving it a shiny glow; and seagulls perched on a jagged cornice high above us.

“If the birds suddenly take off, it’s a good sign that the berg is about to calve [or break apart] – “they feel the vibration,” said Ed English, my guide, who owns Linkum Tours and runs hiking and sea kayaking trips around the province.

A calving berg can let loose an avalanche of ice chunks the size of grand pianos and small houses. If you are too close, when a wave from a block of falling ice can swamp or capsize your boat. There is also the chance the iceberg could roll, and since seven-eights of a berg lies underwater; you do not want to be nearby when it takes a tumble.

This berg had recently calved, and as I followed English around its corner, we found a gray seal sleeping on a floating chunk of ice. The seal lifted its head and watched us quietly slip past.

The iceberg had collapsed in the middle, so the walls on our side swept down to sea level. They were covered with thousands of dimples, formed as the berg slowly dissolved. We stopped paddling and listened to the ice as it melted: a crackling, fizzling sound, created as millions of bubbles released air that had been trapped for more then 12 000 years.

I had hiked across glaciers in New Zealand and Nepal, kayaked around 80 foot blue whales in the Sea of Cortez, and explored remote sections of the Australian Outback, but I had never seen an iceberg firsthand. It was one of the main reasons I drove 3 000 miles last July – a road trip from Boston to Newfoundland and back, via ferries and the open road. Along the way, I also wanted to explore a less fleeting relic of the past: a mountain of rock where the hearth’s mantle was exposed several hundred years ago.

Quirpon Island is blanketed in peat bogs and rocks, and ringed by cliffs and coves with a few sandy beaches. You can explore the four-mile long island on foot – the rolling hills, dramatic sea cliffs, and small historic spots (old foundations from sod huts, which may have belonged to the Vikings, and Quonset huts, which were used by soldiers during World War Two.) – or climb the hill at Cape Degrat, which offers great views across the island and a large cove with eider ducks, common murres, and the bald eagles.

The iceberg-viewing season lasts from approximately May to September and coincides with the whale migrations north. Whales and icebergs cross paths all summer long in the Strait of Belle Isle. Here, the ocean plunges hundreds of feet, making it an ideal feeding ground for humpbacks, minkes, orcas and occasionally belugas, and deep enough for the bergs to slip through.

Each night, I sat on the rocks near the water and watched humpbacks and minkes surfacing 10 feet away. Some guests have reported getting sprayed by the spouting whales and being able to touch them, they were so close.

During a day paddle around Quirpon, it’s not unusual to spot several dozen whales some breaching only 30 feet away. The white belly of a minke whale passed right under my kayak one morning – an amazing experience – and curious white-sided dolphins followed us out to the icebergs.

On the last day, I kayaked up to the dock in the mainland town of Quirpon, and met an enterprising man who has figured out a way to tap into the ancient icebergs. Boyce Roberts, a cod fisherman who lost his livelihood when the fishery collapsed in 1992, harvests ice to make drinking water. When a berg calves, Roberts goes out in his fishing boat and uses a winch to hoist 100-pound chunks of ice into the boat. He brings them back to be melted, bottled, and sold as pure iceberg water.

Kari J. Bodnarchuk