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Kayaking with Ancient Ice, Newfoundland, Canada

June 22, 2017

They look like angular snowballs, on steroids, but they aren’t. Icebergs are in fact ice, very old, very dense ice that’s calved off a glacier. Icebergs (made of fresh water) float on denser salt water; oversize ice cubes in a briny cocktail. Different from every angle, like a movie star, a berg usually has a “good side.” Ours seems to offer up the pictured pose as its money shot.

 

I’ve come to Newfoundland, Canada, at what would be the beginning of summer to most of the Northern Hemisphere but here it’s berg season, which usually begins in late April and runs through June. The stretch of coast from Labrador to the northeast coast of Newfoundland is known as “Iceberg Alley.” Berg tourism is big here — in April a very large iceberg caused tourists to flock like puffins to the shores of Newfoundland. Canada’s CBC News, the BBC and Time all covered that high-rise berg. There’s even a berg website: http://www.icebergfinder.com/. It’s used by mariners, offshore oil companies and tourists to track the frozen flotsam.

 

Dave, a local Newfoundlander and our kayaking guide, patiently answers my undoubtedly predictable questions about the floating ice ships. Where do they come from? Bergs here in Iceberg Alley all come from Greenland glaciers, 700 miles away. The Greenland glaciers are thought to be more than 15,000 years old. Roughly 40,000 bergs depart from Greenland every year, with 1 to 2% (400 to 800) of them making it to Newfoundland. This spring has been bountiful with bergs – locals say it’s the heaviest ice pack and berg season in 40 years.

 

But before we can paddle, we need gear…lots of it. First, I don a long-sleeve fleece top and slather my face with SPF 50 suntan lotion. I wriggle into a thick farmer john wetsuit, shove my feet into toe-crushing wetsuit booties and stuff my head and arms though a pullover nylon paddle jacket. Then I step into a neoprene spray skirt, which will seal the kayak’s cockpit. Finally, I pull on a cardboard-stiff life-vest and wetsuit gloves. Even in the land of floating ice, I’m starting to sweat like the Sumo wrestler I’m morphing into. I spread my legs Sumo style so I can bend over to retrieve my paddle. Waddling slowly, Dave and I carry my kayak to the water’s edge. After settling into the cockpit, I seal my spray skirt around the opening, and Dave shoves me off. Despite my XXL size, miraculously I still float!

I ease into a steady paddle stroke, pulling back with the lead hand and aiding the stroke by pushing forward with the other hand. Sea kayaking requires no special skill, just a bit of arm and shoulder strength. (For a list of kayaking tour operations in Newfoundland, visit http://www.newfoundlandlabrador.com/thingstodo/kayaking.)

 

We’re paddling out a mile or two to a “modest” iceberg (just 25 feet tall) in Conception Bay, 14 miles from St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador province. We’ve lucked out — it’s late May and it’s calm and warm, low 60s. Yesterday, an icy wind kept the high to a brisk 42 degrees. The sharp smell of the sea fills my nostrils, salty, fishy and slightly grassy.

 

On the way, we pass a small flat-topped berg, a “growler.” It probably started out quite large, but it’s melting into the sea. Why are they called that? Well locals say small bergs make a growling noise when they bob up and down. Bigger bergs also vocalize, making fizzing or pinging sounds as the ice melts. Icebergs also often wear stripes. Our berg’s distinctive blue stripe (the most common of the stripe colors which include green, yellow, brown and black) is the result of an extremely dense layer of ice. Berg experts say these blue stripes appear when glacial crevices are filled with water and they freeze so fast that no bubbles form.  

 

Bobbing bergs are good for more than just photo ops. Polar bears and seals ride them like giant pool floaties. And these days enterprising businesses in Newfoundland collect iceberg ice and use it to make vodka, beer, wine and bottled berg water. Earlier we sipped some freshly harvested iceberg water. The taste? A bit peaty, like well-aged Scotch Whisky.

 

Paddling too close to a berg is a bad idea. We carefully circumnavigate our ice mountain, giving it a wide berth. Dave says this one is grounded -- its deep base has hit bottom. He estimates the water here is about 60 to 70 feet deep. But grounded bergs can release from the bottom when they melt. When they’re floating free they can roll and upend a too-close kayak or boat.

 

When bergs and ships collide, bergs win, ripping holes in ships and sometimes sinking them. Think Titanic. Hence the need to track the bergs every year. These days bergs threaten more than just ships. Oil companies are building more North Atlantic offshore oil rigs. If a berg takes aim at an oil platform, a giant support vessel will lasso the ice and drag it away. If it’s too big to wrangle, the platform must be moved out of the berg’s path.

 

We circle slowly, slicing the dark blue water with our paddles. Droplets fall off the end of the paddle and sparkle in the sun. I hear the berg’s melting fizz; the sea’s glassy surface reflects its craggy face, bisected with the blue stripe. The water is so clear that in places we can see the rocky bottom. Small jelly fish float by in the water column.

 

After a nearly two-hour tour, my shoulders burn from the paddling and my wetsuit is stuck to my sweaty thighs. We head in. I’ve just visited with a piece of our planet’s ancient past, an oversize crystal ball made of ice. What could it show me? Inuit hunting woolly mammoths thousands of years ago? A sea rich with whales and walruses? Later I’ll sip some berg beer and let my imagination run wild.

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