National Geographic Adventure: Touch and Go in Iceberg Alley

In the early warmth of spring, mammoth icebergs calve from the glaciers of western Greenland and begin a slow, 1900 nautical-mile drift- first north with the West Greenland Current and then south with the Baffin and Labrador Currents, spending their first few winters locked in sea ice before finally reaching Newfoundland’s shores.  Then one day, a village on the northern coast wakes to a 200,000 –ton ice-mountain towering over town., and everyone knows summer is coming.  This is Iceberg Alley – stretch of frigid waters running south from western Greenland, and the Davis Strait to the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Nowhere else can paddlers easily get so close to the world’s great icebergs.  The monsters scraping the edge of Newfoundland can rise more than 200 feet above the sea, dwarfing those of coastal Alaska.  They are pinnacled or tabular, crystalline, electric blue, slowly turning, tumbling, melting in the heaving North Atlantic swell.  The ice is ancient-layers of compressed snowfall and air some 3000 winters old – and so pure that its melt-water is used to distill Newfoundland’s premium Iceberg Vodka.

….The Trick is meeting up with bergs.  Their paths are erratic; they’ll appear suddenly and vanish just as quickly, disappearing, with a change in wind or tide.  Ed English, co-owner of Explore Newfoundland, one of the province’s premier guiding services, woke one morning two years ago to find a huge berg parked outside his seaside home.  “It came and sat there for ten days,” English says.  “And then one day, while I watched, it just upped anchor and left.  It went out 500 yards, turned right, and was gone in 20 minutes”  In 1999, English approached six pinnacled icebergs during a single day of exploration, and by sunset all but one had collapsed, the 175-foot towers crashing in to the sea. …

As soon as I landed in St. John’s, in early June, the chase was on.  On my map, I’d circled popular iceberg-sighting areas, including Notre Dame Bay and the towns of Twillingate and Fogo.  But English had spotted two large bergs off Quirpon (Karpoon) Island, the northernmost point of Newfoundland.  So early the next morning, photographer David McLain and I were pushing off from the isle’s eastern coast, set on a circumnavigation.

Cresting six -foot swells in Grands Galets Bay, we quickly found our first berg, a spectacular twin-spired cathedral twirling in the current.  I’d once paddled the entire Inside Passage, from Alaska’s ice-choked Glacier Bay to Puget Sound, but I’d never seen any thing like this.  Along with awe, what I felt was fear:  Those pinnacles were exactly the kind that can collapse suddenly-and catastrophically , for anyone who is lurking too close.

Not that any berg is really safe.  Seven-eighths of the thing is underwater; if you approach the visible ice, the rest of it is looming beneath your keel.  And despite their size, icebergs can roll in a couple of minutes.  Yet the allure is as irresistible as a siren’s song.  Jim Price, a veteran Newfoundland guide, keeps his clients 300 feet away from the bergs-but on his days off he’s been known to ride up onto the edge of one, pausing briefly on the ice before shoving off.  Ed English has even gone scuba diving in to the crevasses and vivid blue caves of icebergs he deemed to be stable.  (After talking icebergs with English for a while, David and I started referring to him, in awe as Crazy Ed )

I’m more conservative. I kept my distance and tightened my grip on the paddle.  Beyond the berg lay the open sea, the tremendous sweep of the horizon, and past that by 700 miles, Greenland.  To our left, the shore steepened into 500-foot cliffs that obscured the view to the north.  Leaving this skittery berg behind, we slowly rounded the promontory.

And then we saw it, a great tabular berg, slightly concave and grounded a half mile from shore.  It looked promising- stable and massive- so we made camp on a rise above a cove and studied it until dusk.

On each of the next two mornings the VHF radio reported ”many to numerous icebergs” in the Strait of Belle Isle, a major shipping lane leading to the St. Lawrence Seaway: an ominous warning to ships , extra excitement for us.  We paddled to and from the berg and tested the surf among rocky islets.  It was a heavy ice year, and the waters were strewn with what the Canadian Ice Service called “bergy  bits” – ice the size of small houses – and treacherous grand piano- size “growlers.”

Tag with the Devil

For hours at a time, I made quick approaches, always sprinting away from the icy rampart when my nerves- or good sense-seized control it was like playing tag with the devil.  On the second day, after a morning of these close passes, we returned to camp for lunch.  Topping the hill, I gasped.  The sea boiled. New growlers floated in the ocean swell. The iceberg was rolling- a gargantuan seaward yaw, mythical in scale.  We’d been planning to move on in search of more bergs, but suddenly I realized how wrongheaded that strategy was:  The beauty of these ice mountains is in their transformations.  In a single day, a berg may calve, fracture, and capsize, heaving its underside to the surface and submerging its highest walls.  It’s like paddling across the sea and finding another iceberg, without every moving camp.

On our final morning, we rounded the northern tip of the island, Cape Bauld.  The sky had cleared, uncloaking the snow-patched coast of Labrador, sweeping north up Iceberg Alley I glimpsed dozens of bergs atop the swells, some maybe a quarter-mile long, all glowing in a crisp white silence.  A hundred yard offshore, I rested my paddle and joined their drift, the Labrador Current nudging my kayak southeast at the leisurely iceberg pace of one knot.  Then I peeled away and headed for Port.

Byron Ricks