7 mins

Hunting for icebergs in Canada

It may have been a trip to the see nature's floating giants in Newfoundland, but the charms of the Canadian coast proved irresistible in a very different way

Nature's floating giants in Newfoundland (Natalie Lucier)

The sea fog frothed over the headland like smoke from a magic potion. It wasn’t a stubborn, dense kind of fog, but a fluid, swirling shroud that flirted with the lighthouse and played tricks with the eye. 

Just when I thought it had snuffed out the sunrise, the fog would thin until a pale tangerine light seeped through its translucent cloak. Then it would suddenly congeal into a stodgy peasouper, cool droplets misting my face; the foghorn rasping through the greyness and resonating across the veiled Atlantic.

A world behind the fog 

“They’re out there.” Gerry, my guide at Quirpon Lighthouse Inn, had joined me on the helicopter pad for the daily dawn vigil. “You mean icebergs?” I said, glancing hopefully at the Canadian who had spent the past five summers at this northernmost point of Newfoundland. Gerry shook his head and laughed. “Maybe, maybe not. I was thinking more about our other visitors.”

There was a 26-second pause between each blast of the foghorn; 26 seconds of calm when all you could hear was a soft chuckle of waves against the base of the cliffs. But then another sound began to permeate the fog – soft and indistinct at first, then stronger and more rhythmic.It was the sound of whales breathing. “Humpbacks often come right into the cove below the lighthouse,” said Gerry. “Too bad about this fog.”

Too bad indeed. I was desperate to scan that ocean, to gaze north where the icebergs would appear on the horizon like tall ships under full sail. Carried south from Greenland on the Labrador Current, many would drift right past the 7km-long island of Quirpon (pronounced “Carpoon”), cruising Iceberg Alley before snagging on Newfoundland’s crinklecut coast.

Icebergs had become an obsession. One of my earliest travel memories was glimpsing them on a trans-Atlantic flight where, from 10,000m, they resembled grains of rice scattered on the sea around Greenland. On later trips I had witnessed bergs calving from glaciers in Spitsbergen and Alaska. But there was something altogether more mysterious and alluring about an ocean-going iceberg carried far from its polar birthplace.

I had barely paused in Deer Lake, my arrival point in Newfoundland, before driving six blinkered hours along the length of the Great Northern Peninsula and taking the boat across to Quirpon.

“Welcome to the island, my dear. Come on in and make yourself a cup of tea.” Madonna, the lighthouse innkeeper had greeted me with typical Newfie exuberance. But no sooner had I stepped inside the wood-pannelled interior of the restored 1922 building than I was quizzing her about icebergs.

“There was one in the bay about a week ago, I think,” Madonna had said before plying me with pancakes and bakeapple jam. “Got some of it in the freezer if you fancy a drink tonight.”

The waiting game

The fog had blown in that evening, but by noon the following day it was beginning to burn back. Although some 40,000 medium to large icebergs are shed by glaciers in Greenland every year, just 2% make it as far south as St John’s, Newfoundland’s capital at 48oN. That still meant 800 or so icebergs would pass Quirpon each spring, their numbers peaking in June. With an average speed of 0.7km/h, however, waiting for one to pop above the horizon requires either luck or the fanatic zeal of a castaway searching for a passing ship.

Soon my gaze began slipping from the horizon. There were too many wonderful distractions. At one point a squadron of gannets began plunge-diving for fish close offshore, folding their wings and hurling themselves at the sea in a salvo of black-tipped arrows. Porpoises then surfaced nearby, no doubt drawn to the commotion. 

Even when the feeding frenzy was over, the sea was rarely a blank canvas. Skeins of eider duck, puffin and black guillemot skimmed its surface, while kittiwake and gull pirouetted above the gentle swell.

Later that afternoon, Gerry took me sea kayaking, nosing into narrow inlets where the water was so clear I could see jellyfish pulsing deep below like globules of liquid amber. He showed me huge slabs of half-submerged rock where humpback whales often rubbed themselves, and described how the 15m-long leviathans occasionally surfaced alongside his kayak. 

We didn’t see or hear any blows during our paddle, but it was impossible not to feel a frisson of excitement and anticipation as you glided inches above the water, wondering if the dappled patterns in the sea beneath you were about to morph into a 35-tonne whale.

Slowly, barely realising it, I was being weaned off my fixation with icebergs. Newfoundland was seeping into my subconsciousness as, one by one, its other natural wonders demanded attention. I had arrived with the sole aim of spotting an iceberg – now I had whales on my mind.

Rough food for dinner

Humpbacks were breaching offshore during my final evening at Quirpon, rising like plump exclamation marks above a peach-coloured sea. As the fiery dusk faded over the Straits of Belle Isle, Gerry described how this area of sea, where the Gulf of St Lawrence met the North Atlantic, was a feeding ground for numerous species of cetacean, from humpback to orca.

Inside the cosy Lighthouse Inn, Madonna served ‘Jiggs dinner’, Newfoundland’s traditional Sunday meal of salt beef, boiled potatoes, cabbage, turnip, carrot, pease pudding and dumpling with molasses.

“Rough food, we call it,” said Madonna, heaping another pile of vegetables on my plate. “You probably saw how local folk grow it by the roadside when you drove up here.”

I nodded unconvincingly, but made a mental note to look out for the intriguing vegetable plots when I left Quirpon Island the following morning. There was much I’d overlooked in my race to reach the island. I now had four days to slowly backtrack to Deer Lake, determined not to become too distracted by icebergs. But Hubert, Quirpon’s boatman, had some news for me the next day.

“Fishermen just been on the radio. About 100 bergs on the south coast of Labrador. Could come across the Straits any day now.”

So I lingered in the north, driving slowly through small fishing communities, snatching glances at the cobalt sea and trying to imagine how a cathedral spire of ice might transform these sheltered inlets and sleepy villages. I’d read that particularly large or unusually shaped bergs gained celebrity status when they ran aground here – hardly surprising when you consider what it must be like to draw your curtains one morning to find a 200,000 tonne, 60m-high ice mountain looming over your house.

Viking apprentice

But icebergs are not the only things that have found their way to Newfoundland on the Labrador Current. Vikings also made landfall here around 1,000 years ago, sailing from south-east Greenland to establish the earliest known European settlement in North America. The 526km coastal highway I’d followed from Deer Lake along Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula (appropriately dubbed the Viking Trail) peters out at L’Anse aux Meadows, the spot at which Leifur Eiríksson beached his longboats and set up camp.

There is now an excellent visitor centre at the site, but what impressed me more was the reconstruction of the Viking community itself. 

“Whoa! Hot iron flying everywhere today,” came a voice as I ducked inside a replica of one of the eight sod houses that were excavated here in the 1960s. A young man in Viking garb and plastic safety goggles was scampering after a semi-molten blob of iron ore that had just skidded off his anvil. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I’m just an apprentice; the real blacksmith’s got the day off.”

With the unruly nugget safely clenched between tongs, the trainee Viking proceeded to hammer it into a crude spike. “That,” he said apologetically, “is the worst Viking nail you’ll ever see. But it’s one of the main reasons they settled here – they used the local bog ore to forge into nails for repairing their boats.”

Conflicts with native North Americans apparently caused Eiríksson and his expeditionary Vikings to abandon their toehold in the Americas after just a decade. It wasn’t until 1497 that the island sparked interest in Europe again. English explorer John Cabot reported finding cod in such numbers off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks that you could scoop them up by the bucketload. 

His revelation fuelled a fishing free-for-all, with boats setting sail from England, Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal – but it was Britain that eventually claimed Newfoundland as its first New World colony in 1583. The island resisted joining the Canadian Confederation until 1949, but unlike more far-flung Dominions of Britain, such as Australia, New Zealand or South Africa – Newfoundland is a mere 3,750km flit across the Atlantic from the UK – it has largely remained an enigma.

Quirpon Island had more than hinted at Newfie’s extraordinary wildlife, but driving south to the fishing port of St Anthony I joined a boat trip that provided three solid hours in the company of humpback whales – their spouts so close I could smell the fish on their breath. But it wasn’t just marine mammals that were making an impression.

Widening the net

Later, as I continued south around Hare Bay, a roadside tree stump twitched. When I slowed for a closer look I realised it was a black bear nosing about in a patch of moon daisies. That night at Tuckamore Lodge, a stylish lakeside log cabin near Main Brook, owner Barb Genge told me how polar bears often walked across the pack ice that links Labrador with Newfoundland each winter.

“We’ve had heavy ‘oice last two years,” she explained in an accent lilted with Irish ancestry. “The bears come hunting seals, but you sometimes get them sniffing around outside the lodge.”

I found myself wondering how all this might change; whether global warming would stop the polar bears reaching this far south – or the icebergs for that matter. “I’m gonna see if I can find you an iceberg,” said Barb on hearing about my quest. She returned ten minutes later having phoned friends in communities along the coast. “Sorry,” she said. “Last one up and went three days ago.”

It was almost like a weight off my mind. Dawdling across the peninsula to rejoin the coastal highway south, I spotted three moose and another bear. I paused to chat to locals who were tending the roadside vegetable allotments that Madonna had told me about. And at Port au Choix, I spent an afternoon marvelling at chert harpoon blades, orca spirit carvings and other artefacts unearthed from a 4,500-year-old settlement once inhabited by Newfoundland’s first people – the Maritime Archaic Indians.

Hugging the Gulf of St Lawrence, the road skirted rocky coves strewn with bleached driftwood and neat stacks of lobster pots. Pools studded the coastal plain like giant sapphires, while, slowly, the Long Range Mountains began to rear inland, their flat-topped peaks hazed with a stubble of spruce and balsam.

Mission iceberg: On the rocks 

A short distance inside Gros Morne National Park, I parked the car and hiked the 3km trail to Western Brook Pond, an inland fjord cleft through the mountains like an Ice Age axe stroke. Further into the park the road turned west, looping around Bonne Bay before climbing into the Tablelands – the setting for another superb hike, this time across stark, salmon-pink rocks sheared from the crust of an ancient ocean floor.

Beyond the Tablelands I couldn’t resist driving to the road’s end where the small fishing community of Trout River crouched around an arc of shingle facing the Gulf. One last look wouldn’t hurt. But even as I crunched onto the beach, wisps of fog began stealing into the bay. A porpoise surfaced, it’s back glinting in the milky sun like a polished pebble; ripples spreading across an otherwise flawless sea. Then the fog thickened, smudging out the horizon.

I smiled, thwarted again. But I knew: they were out there somewhere.

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