Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Floating Menace

Good fortune has favoured the search for snappy, unconventional travel sketches. W. Lacey Amy has written "St. John's: the Impossible Possible," "Quidi Vidi: Newfoundland's Show Fishing Village," "The Livoyeres: Labrador's Permanent People". These stories to appear later in our blog/drf


 The Floating Menace

The Icebergs of Labrador
By W. Lacey Amy   photos by the author/drf
From The Canadian Magazine, 1912, April.
This blog post is dedicated to Richard Brown, author of The Voyage of the Iceberg and a scientist at Bedford Institute of Oceanography, who died in 2010.
This story appeared the same month that the Titanic sank!/drf


Naturally we, the ten travellers on the Solway, starting on its thousand-mile run down the coast of Labrador, were watching eagerly for the first sign of icebergs. And when, after rounding Cape St. Francis, one of us caught a gleam of white on the far coast of gigantic Conception Bay he made no delay in informing the remaining nine of his find.
The captain was sitting with us in the stern, trying to answer a few of the questions hurled at him by ten passengers who had heard only of Labrador as a place for exploration or Dr. Grenfell’s administrations; and when the white spot in the distance was pointed out to him his face suddenly became serious.
“Huh!” was all he said at the moment, and that made it all the more serious.
Most of us knew that an iceberg was not a picnic ground, but we had no idea it was so serious as that.
“We’ll have to keep a good way outside of that fellow,” he added, when the silence had become hysterical among the women.
It certainly was disappointing that a tiny spot of white ice six or seven miles distant should be considered such a terrible thing. Personally, I had expected to see towering pinnacles of gleaming white, and this non-scenic thing was not worth mentioning. In fact, I remembered having seen a picture or two of icebergs off St. John’s, Newfoundland, and this did not seem to fit in with them. I looked again at the captain—I had known him merely long enough to be suspicious—but his eyes were as serious as his tone. Fortunately, the mail-clerk was within sight, and around his mouth I recognised the flickerings of an embryo smile. And just then the smile passed broadly into the captain’s face.
“Yes, that’s an iceberg, all right,” he laughed, “a cupful. It’s what we call a growler. About two days from now I’ll be able to show you a real iceberg.”
And he did. We were content to wait, since there was scenery enough along the east coast of Newfoundland to make winter decoration unnecessary. But all the way down to the Straits of Belle Isle growlers showed up here and there, and occasionally farther out at the sea the sun would flash from a real iceberg that had lost much of its size on its travels southward.
In the straits themselves, where the trans-Atlantic passenger on the St. Lawrence route frequently comes within sight of small bergs, there was no trace of ice, except close in on the shore, where stranded chunks were slowly melting in the sun. But once we had passed the Isle, that for which we had been eagerly looking forward began to till the ocean spaces with a persistence that was almost unnecessary for the gratification of our expectations. Stranded off the north side of the island were no fewer than seven of varying sizes, all of them giants to us at that time, but mere refrigerator pieces to our later experiences. All that afternoon, a Sunday, our course was governed to some extent by the icebergs around us, the captain running the steamer as near as he dared, or swerving a little to keep a respectful distance.
Just before sundown, as we were looking forward to our first stop on the coast of Labrador, a long, low, peculiarly straight-topped iceberg that had been within sight for hours was approached closely enough to give us some idea of the size to which these floating menaces attain north of the track of navigation. It was remarkably like in shape to the chunk the iceman leaves at the door for you or the sun, but instead of twenty pounds in size this piece was something like three-quarters of a mile long, a third of that in width, and it towered straight up sixty feet. So far as we could see it was level on top, and the only reliefs to the upright sides were the grooves and grottoes of light shadow where a piece had broken off and left a dent in the surface. All season this berg had remained stranded in the same spot, rapidly diminishing in size by pieces that covered the water for a mile around. In June it had been more than two miles long by a halfmile wide—ice enough in sight in one cake to supply Canada for a few summers.
What its real size must have been could be judged roughly from the accepted theory that but one-eighth of an iceberg appears above the water, and from the fact that it was stranded in the ocean a couple of miles from the shore, where the depth had never been fathomed. In its regular course the steamer ran more than a mile inside, but for the benefit of my camera the captain veered towards it as far as he considered safe. On our return trip, more than a week later, we could see through the moonlight that it had broken into three huge bergs, all still stranded.
Frequently the harbour near which it lay—Battle Harbour—has been closed for weeks at a time by icebergs which come up from the north and run aground on the ocean bottom. And the dozens of little bights and tickles along the Labrador coast are constantly menaced by a similar disregard for the rules of navigation. At one calling place we found that a growler had wandered in during the night and the fishermen were then working to release a fishing schooner that was within when the chilly visitor arrived. By good luck it had stranded to one side of the channel, and they had hopes of being able to work their way out. The one relief in an event of this kind is that the iceberg that can approach a harbour so closely before stranding is of such comparatively small size that the sun will complete its destruction before many weeks.
There is nothing in man’s world so imposing or so grand as an iceberg, and the Almighty has yet to create that which gives a more overpowering sense of relentless power, of greatness, and of brilliance and grandeur. I saw icebergs—hundreds of them—under all conditions—in the bright sun and under the dark clouds of a threatening storm, in the moon’s cold rays and dimly through the shadow of night—but every one of them, from the small growler of mimic shape to the flashing towers of the huge berg floating undisturbedly to its southern death, roused first of all an awe that did not lessen one degree with the growing appreciation of the beauty of the thing. Always before one is the thought that seven or eight times as much as that which is in sight lies beneath the blue-green water, extending down and down to unknown depths and out and out until the captains of the steamers breath freely only when they are miles away. Miles inside of where some of them strike the bottom the largest vessels afloat could pass at full speed without a thought of shoals. In the wildest seas and strongest winds they sail undisturbed on their course; there could be no sea-sickness on an iceberg for its roots are fathoms below the wave disturbance.
The largest steamship would smash itself to pieces in a collision as surely as if it struck the rocky shore, and the iceberg might sail on and on without a tremor. But, again, that huge cliff of seemingly solid ice might be as delicately balanced to unusual disturbance as a watch spring. The whistle of a steamer sometimes breaks off chunks of ice that would bury the vessel without a falter. Sometimes a boat is forced to take the chance of a passage between a berg and an island. At such times the captain may be aware of the condition of the ice and rush through at full speed. And the motion of the propellor through the water will tear apart pieces that may rattle down on the boat as it passes, but the large breaks will come more slowly, and by that time the passage is made. It is dangerous work and seldom demanded.
In the bright sunlight there is a colour-play about an iceberg that defies description and the camera. The chunk of ice to which we are accustomed is lifeless, or at best a blue-white; but around an iceberg gleaming in the sun is an aureola of green and blue and white, gold and silver, light and shadow. Streaks of all these run up and down and across, according to the slant of the sun and the hardness of the layer in view. In the direct sunlight the glare is unbearable, but down below may be a depth of shadow that makes it hard to believe in its natural colour. And every tone and colour is as cold as steel. Under the brilliant moon that lights Labrador the iceberg gleams and glitters, magnificent, but fearsome. A dark night is the terror of navigation, and the captain who would move in the open ocean off the coast of Labrador at such a time is inviting destruction.
The shapes assumed by the icebergs form as interesting a study as the colours. Very seldom do they take on the regular form of the one near Battle Harbour; that was something of a freak in icebergdom. Sometimes they project from the water in one broad angle, and occasionally their tops are quite rounded; but for the most part they rise in peaks and corners, irregular and jagged. Many resemble nothing more than steepled churches, while the whole animal kingdom can be made out of others. One big fellow we passed was like a lion. Its rounded head rose eighty or ninety feet from the water. Underneath a part of it a channel had been worn through large enough for a steamer; it appeared to be standing on the water. At one point another had stranded close against the shore cliffs, throwing up a peak that towered far above the lofty rocks of the coast. It looked like some animal looking over into the interior.
The rivers that rush down from many of them make a very pretty sight. Up there, it is thought the sun melts the ice into a lake, and as this eats its way to the edge it falls over into the ocean in a cascade that varies from a rainbow spray to a small river, breaking in abruptly on the green and blue of the coloured sides.
But the grandest sight of all is the iceberg breaking and turning as the balance is disturbed. Sometimes a mighty piece will break away, and the berg will lose its balance. As it sinks to the opposite side a piece there will become detached, and the berg will swing back. This may continue until there are a half-dozen bergs where there had been but one. Frequently the falling away of a pieee will turn the entire berg over. With its balance gone, that which was above water will sink and be replaced by that which was scores of feet below. At such times there is danger to the boat that is within sight, for apart from the rising of the ice that has been beneath the water perhaps hundreds of feet distant, there is a wave sent up that would swamp a liner if it were too close.
It is told that on a steamer running down the coast of Newfoundland a party of American tourists importuned so hard of the captain to run close to an iceberg that he consented. against his better judgment. When not far away the revolving of the propellors, or fate, broke the berg into several pieces. Instantly the part below the water commenced to rise, and from unseen depths it gradually raised the steamer. One of the tourists turned to the captain with the query:
“What will we do now, captain?”
“Get down on your knees and say your prayers,” was the answer.
But the wave that had been raised by the falling pieces swept down on the boat and slid it into the water, thereby saving the vessel and all aboard.
I was fortunate enough to witness the falling to pieces of one of the largest of the bergs we had seen on our trip. On the way down the coast we had passed a monster in the night, but returning the captain warned me to be on deck in a few minutes as we were approaching a part of the coast where a great iceberg had been stranded all summer. With camera prepared, I was standing on the bridge anxious to see this berg, which even the captain considered worth special attention. Far in front it towered, white against the dark cliffs, tall and stately, poking up a pinnacle higher than the tallest cliff. We had approached to within a mile of it when suddenly the top appeared to shift. I thought it was something wrong with my eyes, until a new peak came into view, and then I held my breath while the captain and I looked on in silence. With apparent slowness the entire top slid down and disappeared into the water in a mighty commotion. A wave splashed above the highest peak, sixty feet or more, and with its fall the berg split into many pieces. For a few seconds there was nothing above the water but the tumbling waves. Then gradually a new shape rose and poked its head out for thirty feet, and seconds afterwards the parts that had broken off reappeared on the surface, after a downward flight into unfathomed waters. When we reached the remnants there were four or five bergs, and all around the water was white with broken fragments that rubbed and grated against the steamer’s side as we passed slowly through. I had seen that which few travellers, even to Labrador, are favoured with.
The mail steamer of the Reid-Newfoundland Company has never met with an accident from an iceberg; one learns to trust Captain Parsons with the utmost faith. There is no fear that he will take chances. For forty-five years he has sailed the coast of Labrador, thirty of them in charge of the mail boat. But in his sailor days he had his experiences. At one time the boat on which he served crashed into an iceberg and crushed in its bows above water. At another time he was thrown from his bunk by the boat glancing from one of the dangers on a moonlight night. Fishing schooners, during the spring trip to Labrador, not infrequently are lost, and sorrowing friends know that somewhere at the bottom of the ocean lies a crushed boat that had no chance with the relentless iceberg.
In the spring these bergs sometimes reach as far south as St. John’s, Newfoundland, in enormous size, and at times the narrow entrance to that harbour has been blocked for weeks. Not long ago two small boys had rowed out in a boat to see a berg at close range. The berg selected that time to break in two. The wave sent up by the splash and the rolling over of the berg rushed into the harbour and broke many boats from their moorings. After the commotion had subsided a search was made for the boys, but without result. Next day a fisherman outside the Narrows heard voices calling and located them far up the side of Signal Point, the cliff guarding the entrance to the harbour. It was necessary to lower a man from the top of the cliff by a rope, and there he found boys and boat resting on a ledge far above the water, having been miraculously thrown there by the tremendous wave. It is part of the story that their mothers did not thrash them for running away.

The icebergs make up, perhaps, the most interesting sight of the Labrador trip. They are unfriendly, to be sure, but their magnificence of colour and size and shape, their stately, unyielding journey southward, gradually breaking up in the sun’s rays and strewing the sea for miles around with growlers and fragments, are much too worthy of sight to allow one to yield to whatever dangers they may threaten. A field of icebergs in the daylight brings little peril to the Labrador tourist in midsummer, and the play of sun and shadow on pinnacle and hollow is something unimitated and unequalled by any other sight in the world.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.