Paddling with the BERGS

Keith &
Keith & Heather Nicol
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Lots to see, but look out for changing ice conditions

From the "Pole Hill" viewpoint overlooking Little Bay Islands, we could see the spires of the iceberg in Wellman's Cove. Little Bay Islands is located on the rugged Northeast coast and faces the wild North Atlantic.

We had been told there were icebergs around Little Bay Islands but we hadn't counted on having one so close and in a protected bay.

From the "Pole Hill" viewpoint overlooking Little Bay Islands, we could see the spires of the iceberg in Wellman's Cove. Little Bay Islands is located on the rugged Northeast coast and faces the wild North Atlantic.

We had been told there were icebergs around Little Bay Islands but we hadn't counted on having one so close and in a protected bay.

We drove along the shore, put our kayaks in the water and were soon paddling out of the harbour toward Wellman's Cove, just around the corner. It was July 15, 2007 and the air temperatures were in the high 20s C.

We had barely paddled past one of the iceberg's pinnacles when we heard a loud cracking sound and turned to see a large chunk of ice peal off one of the spires and splash into the water. Yikes! It sent out a small wave and as we paddled over to investigate we could hear the ocean alive with fizzing ice.

It turns out that the compressed air bubbles within the icy debris get released when the ice breaks up, which creates this "fizzy-seltzer" sound.

A few minutes later, on the other side of the iceberg, a large shelf broke off again creating, another small wave and a ring of bergy debris. Fortunately, in both cases we had stayed well back from the berg, so we weren't really in danger. But we had been served notice that icebergs are very changeable and when conditions are right they can literally break apart in front of your eyes.

Paddling with icebergs is addictive since in a kayak you can really appreciate their size and beauty. The bergs often look like they have been carved by artists - sailing in with spires and arches in countless shades of white and blue. As the lighting changes they are like a cloudy piece of glass reflecting ever-changing colours. And from a kayak, you can appreciate their size, especially when you think that just one-eighth of the mass is above the waterline.

Paddlers can see icebergs in various places like Alaska, the Arctic and Greenland, but the most accessible place to paddle with bergs is right here in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The whole northeast coast of the island from St. John's to St. Anthony is in the path of the Labrador current and, depending on the year, there are numerous places that can have great iceberg paddling. This area of the province is in the direct line of fire for the 200,000-tonne ice mountains which calve off the glaciers along the west coast of Greenland and then are swept south by the cold Labrador current before entering the waters of Newfoundland, where they slowly melt.

Iceberg safety

But just how close should you get to an iceberg and when are they most unstable?

In the summer of 2007 we made five trips to paddle with icebergs, starting in mid-June and ending in mid-July. In all of these cases, the only time we saw an iceberg break up was when water temperatures and air temperatures really got warm at Little Bay Islands.

Jim Price, owner of Eastern Edge Outfitters, a sea kayak company in St. John's, agrees.

"Early in the season icebergs are melting slowly and are much more stable. But when temperatures warm up, look out. Also, sea state is important. Wavy, windy conditions cause bergs to break up faster. Generally, I will give a large berg a berth of 200 metres or so, but a lot depends on their shape and size. I will let clients paddle up to growlers (small icebergs) the size of a car, as long as there is no chance for waves to push the ice against their kayak.

"Generally tabular icebergs are very stable and I will paddle closer to those than ones with pinnacles or spires. And only if you are very young and foolish will you do what I once did, which was to paddle under an arch and into the lagoon of a grounded iceberg. This berg was in Conception Bay, near St. John's, and a group of us were taking turns dashing in and out taking pictures and video. No sooner had we left than one of the arches collapsed into the lagoon in the centre.

"No one would have survived that," he adds sheepishly.

Hazards out there

Stan Cook, is another St. John's sea kayak guide with 30 years of paddling with icebergs under his skirt. He agrees with Price that the pinnacle-shaped bergs are most hazardous.

"Our rule of thumb with clients is to paddle no closer than the height of the largest spire. I find that at low tide, icebergs may tend to be grounded and they are probably more stable than at higher tide. I also watch for birds that often sit on icebergs. They will tend to fly off if they sense the berg is going to roll or shift position. The waves that a rolling or collapsing iceberg throws out are usually small and most people can ride those out: the biggest danger is being hit by falling ice. I find that usually you will hear a cracking sound just before the iceberg is going to break apart but sometimes it happens with no warning."

What ever you do don't try to get a piece of ice from an iceberg. Cecil Stockley, a Twillingate boat tour operator, recently told me the story of someone he knew in Twillingate who "took his small boat up to an iceberg and used an axe to chop off a piece of ice. They had visitors and he thought it would be good to serve them drinks with ice from a 15,000-year-old berg. The next thing my friend knew he was pushing off the ocean bottom in five meters of water.

"Evidently, the iceberg broke apart and toppled him and his boat into the water. In this case he was rescued quickly and wasn't injured. But several years ago in a community around the corner from us three people were in the boat when they chopped at an iceberg. The father was killed by collapsing ice and the others were rescued by holding onto a small chunk of ice until help arrived."

Stockley, who is a veteran of 4,000 iceberg tours, also had his own advice related to how close you should get to icebergs.

"With my tour boat I use a safety distance of five times the highest spire. I also watch it around grounded icebergs since I have seen 'ice missiles' shoot up, especially in rougher wave conditions. I guess these are pieces of ice that break off the bottom of the iceberg and then shoot to the surface. That might not be that pleasant if you were in a kayak and were hit by one of these 'missiles.' If you want to get a piece of iceberg ice, the best thing to do is to pick up the small pieces that occur after an iceberg breaks up."

That ice will produce some of the purest water that you will ever drink since it was likely formed thousands of years ago when native peoples were building the very first kayaks.

Contributors Keith and Heather Nicol, are avid kayakers from Corner Brook and have paddled extensively in the Atlantic Provinces of Canada.

Geographic location: Little Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's North Atlantic Greenland Alaska Arctic St. Anthony Twillingate Conception Bay Corner Brook Atlantic Provinces Canada

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