Picnicking on icebergs in Labrador
“Ya heard what happen with de Titanic, eh?” said Nelson, pointing at the wreck of a seaplane. We were on the top of the hill above Battle Harbour, an island off the coast of Labrador in the North Atlantic. Next stop Greenland. It was that rarest of creatures in Labrador, a warm and sunny summer’s day and the views were terrific.
“Of course,” I replied, reveling in the view while keeping my eyes off the wreck. “Everybody’s heard about the Titanic. Hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic, not that far from here. They made a movie.”
“Same t’ing here with dis wreck,” he said, pointing at what was left of the fuselage. “De icebergs, ya can only see 10 percent, eh? There’s 90 percent ya don’t see, underwater, and that’s what kills ya. Dis here airplane, dey thought dey’d cleared de top of de island when they took off, eh, but de top was in da fog, and dey never saw her comin.”
There was a plaque next to the crash site. It had nothing to do with the crash. The plaque mentioned that Guglielmo Marconi had sent a telegram signal from the top of Battle Harbour hill over to England, a remarkable feat of technology for the time. There was no plaque to mark the crash of the plane. The pilot and passenger were killed. Nelson, a young boy at the time, was the first on to the scene. He’d lived in Battle Harbour all his life since then, an old fishing outport that had recently received a second life as a tourist attraction.
The Labrador Tourism Board had done a terrific job of recreating life in an old outport. The original hotel, general store, church, houses, fish plant and dock had all been repaired. You could even stay overnight at the Battle Harbour Inn. The only way to get to Battle Harbour was via a ferry from St. Mary’s Harbour on the Labrador mainland, after a long drive up a rough gravel road from the ferry from Newfoundland, a ride that landed in Quebec. This far north, at night the sunset lingered for hours and the Northern Lights danced like garish green goblins cavorting in an emerald sky.
Fishing outports like Battle Harbour represent the quintessential Newfoundland and Labrador history of poverty and profit. Poor refugees from the Olde Country, lots of them Irish, washed up on the shores of the Promised Land centuries ago to begin a new life catching fish in the open ocean and working for The Man. Actually it was the Basques from France and Spain who were the first to come ashore, way back in the 1500s, killing most of the whales and thereby starting a Newfie tradition. The cod fish were the next species to be nearly eliminated from overfishing in the late 1990s, then the fishing jobs disappeared followed by the general Labrador economy. If not for cultural tourism, there would be no life left at all in these wild and desolate parts.
The cod fishermen lived in cheap rented shacks in poor isolated outport villages along the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts, selling their catch to the robber barons for a song, the rich folk who owned the banks in faraway St. Johns. The robber barons also owned the company stores, selling food and grog and household supplies to their indentured workers and making a fortune in the process. The fish were profitable, but the fishermen’s basic needs far more so. Like the old Tennessee folk song goes: “I sold my soul to the company store.”
“Speaking of icebergs,” I said, looking through the zoom lens of my camera at a large white object floating in the far distance, looking like a cargo freighter painted a ghostly all-white. “Is that one there, way off the edge of the island? Is that a berg?”
Nelson held his hands over his eyes and squinted. “Yep, dat’s one. Dis time of year dey float down dis coast, all the way from Greenland. They call dis Iceberg Alley, dere so many of dem floating down de coast. Way up here, dey’re pretty big, eh? Farther south dey go, dey melt. Dat one there, dat’s bigger dan de Titanic. But ya gotta remember, only 10 percent is above de water, eh? De other 90 percent, you don’t see. I bet dat one’s stuck, dragging its butt on the bottom.”
“You said you have a boat tied up in the harbour?” I replied. “What are the chances of getting a closer look of that great big berg?”
“Ya wanna take some pictures?” he said, nodding to my camera. “For your story in the newspapers? Do ya get seasick easy? I’m telling ya now, boyo, dem waves get pretty damned big out there, eh? Do ya really want to go?”
“It’s an amazing sight, right here, just from a distance,” I said. “Shines like a giant diamond. I’d sure like to see one up close.”
We made an agreement to meet at his boat in an hour and we made our way down the hill carefully so we didn’t add to the casualty count, since I doubted that the tourism board would put up a plaque on my account. First telegram sent, to Europe, first travel writer killed chasing icebergs. I made a beeline for the general store, where I picked up some emergency picnic supplies. Salami sandwiches with iceberg lettuce and mustard, a custom order under the circumstances. A bottle of champagne to smash over the bow would have been appropriate, but I wasn’t sure if icebergs had bows or not so I went with a can of pop.
We set off from the dock without any formalities like putting on life jackets or signing insurance papers and nobody asked me for my passport. We were in a different country now, uncharted waters so to speak, just us and the humpback whales and the icebergs and the long forgotten ghosts of the Titanic. The waves weren’t so bad, although I always prefer a boat that’s bigger than the waves, just to see where I am going. It was a gorgeous day, and the waves were rolling in long smooth arcs, no cause for regurgitation, and we made good time.
Soon enough we arrived at our destination. Which is to say, Nelson decided that we were close enough to the dazzling white behemoth for a photograph and we didn’t need to venture any further. He cut the motor and we drifted up and down with the waves. I attempted to shoot photographs at the top of each wave at the same time as Nelson’s boat rose and the iceberg hoved into view. It was a tricky process, complicated by the fact that there appeared to be small black dots on the iceberg that were moving.
“Nelson, what are those black dots on the iceberg? Why are they moving?”
“Dem is seals, boyo,” he said. “Dey were basking, eh? Now dey hear a motor, dey getting ready to jump in de water.”
“Basking, eh?” I replied. “What are the chances of us tying up the boat on the berg and climbing up there and basking ourselves? Having a picnic. I hear seal flipper pie is good?”
“A picnic?” he cried. “On an iceberg? Are ya daft? Ya have any idea how dangerous that be?”
“I heard there is an iceberg on the east coast of Newfoundland right now that is so big there is a lake on it,” I said, taking a big bite of my sandwich. “Small planes out of St. John’s are taking tourists to land on it.”
“Well, get yourself an airplane den,” he said, gazing over the side. “Dis here one is so big we’re floating on the edge of it right now, as it is. I ain’t taking de belly outta my boat for you to take a picture. Dat’s what happened to the Titanic, ya know.”
With that he shook his head and turned the boat around and we headed back to harbour. I never got my picnic on the berg, but I got my photos, including one of a berg on the ferry on the way back to the Labrador coast that was so close to the ferry I could almost reach out and touch it. I wondered if the captain knew that 90 percent of the berg was under water and chances were the ferry was passing right over top of it. If Marconi was around, I would have sent a telegram. If you ask nicely, I’ll email you a photo because the proof is always in the pudding isn’t it? In Labrador, that would be a bottle of 40 proof rum with seal flipper pie.