The Iceberg Wars

Competition for one of Newfoundland's chief natural resources heats up

"It's right over there where it happened," Cecil Stockley told me as we motored out of the Twillingate harbor aboard the M.V. Iceberg Alley. Located on Newfoundland's northern coast, Twillingate not only has a name seemingly borrowed from The Hobbit—it has the landscape as well. The treeless hills are woolly with mosses and lichens; in the late afternoon light they appeared as if draped in chenille. All that was lacking was a cloaked figure holding a crooked staff and gazing enigmatically off into the middle distance.

What happened is this: in the summer of 1998 an iceberg floated into the harbor and ran aground. That was not in itself unusual—some summers hundreds of icebergs drift just offshore from Twillingate, and occasionally one or two find their way into the harbor. But what happened next was unusual: a barge equipped with a crane loomed from around the headlands, tethered itself to the iceberg, and started noisily and methodically chipping away at it with a device designed for dredging rock. "I think everybody in town was kind of peeved off," said Stockley, who has been running iceberg excursions since 1985. "Here we were, trying to do a boat-tour operation, and people were stealing the iceberg right in front of our eyes."

Iceberg tourism is one of the few new growth industries in Newfoundland, an island still reeling from the collapse of the cod fishery a decade ago. Icebergs are becoming to Newfoundland what wines are to Napa Valley: tourists can be overheard talking about individual specimens in precise yet lofty terms, discussing the cragginess of towers and the sapphire radiance of blue streaks as if comparing rare vintages. Island gift shops sell framed photos of especially charismatic icebergs; the shots have the gauzy, soft-focus feel of cheesy studio photos.

But as the incident in Twillingate suggests, icebergs have lately attracted the notice of another business: the extractive industry, which harvests floating ice for processing into vodka, beer, and drinking water. Although commercial harvesting began only in the past decade, iceberg products are rapidly evolving from a novelty to a commodity, and the business is gearing up for greater industrialization. Sipping iceberg beer at a hotel bar in St. John's the next evening, I chatted with Ron Stamp, the vice-president of sales and marketing at Iceberg Industries, a firm he co-founded in 1996. "We have," he told me with satisfaction, "gone beyond the pet-rock stage."

The possibility of towing icebergs to the Middle East and other arid regions around the world was studied and widely discussed during the 1970s. Nothing much came of the idea, for a number of reasons, chief among them being that it was stupid. (One report noted that it would take 128 days to tow an iceberg from Antarctica to the Middle East—twenty-four days longer than it would take for the iceberg to melt.)

Although towing icebergs proved impractical, harvesting ice at sea did not. The first commercial efforts, by the Canadian Iceberg Vodka Corporation, were modest. Fishing boats would edge alongside an iceberg, and workers wielding chain saws lubricated with vegetable oil would lop off a manageable section and hoist it aboard with large nets. A more ambitious harvesting technology was later developed by Iceberg Industries, the company responsible for the Twillingate caper. This involved a crane and an eight-claw grapple installed on a salvaged barge (originally used to transport molasses on the Great Lakes) equipped with heated storage tanks.

The harvesting of ice is tricky but not terribly sophisticated. During the season, which runs from April to late November, Iceberg Industries sends spotter planes in search of bergs that have drifted into coves, away from the swells of the open ocean. The barge then chugs in, secures itself to its prey, and begins chomping away. Each bite of the grapple picks up about half a ton of ice, which is fed into a crusher and conveyed into the tanks for melting. When the barge is filled to capacity (about 1,200 tons), it returns to the firm's tank farm, on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, where the meltwater is stored for bottling, brewing, and making vodka. "It's not rocket science," Stamp admits. "You hang on, chew it up, hope for the best, and get out of there before the damn thing rolls over."

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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