They started with snowflakes that fell onto Greenland hundreds of thousands of years ago . Inch by frozen inch, the great glaciers creep toward the Arctic Ocean, where, at water’s edge, tremendous blocks break off in spectacularly violent crashes, calving dramatically into the water and becoming icebergs.
Each year, Greenland’s glaciers deposit about 40,000 young icebergs into the sea ’s salty embrace. By the following spring, only one to two percent of those make it as far south as St. John’s.
But as the tips of these great frozen mountains (which can rise up to 50 stories high) drift along the eastern coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, they briefly come into contact with humans before disappearing forever. This happens in Iceberg Alley, where, in a world coming to terms with the consequences of climate change, we are offered the opportunity to observe the warming process as an awe-inspiring spectacle of beauty.
Iceberg Alley begins at the northern tip of Labrador and jumps south across the narrow Strait of Belle Isle, weaving among craggy coves, fjords, and islands, home to quaint fishing villages and bed-and-breakfasts, for more than 150 miles down the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland, affectionately known as “the Rock.” A bench in the Little Harbour area, on the small New World Island, provides the perfect viewing perch for spotting icebergs floating past the Main Tickle channel.
Icebergs are sorted by size, including growlers (which are the size of a piano), bergy bits (the size of a small house), and large (151 to 240 feet tall). The real draws, though, are the big boys, classified as very large and often the size of office buildings or football stadiums. This iceberg’s massive base -- 90 percent of an iceberg’s mass is submerged -- is stuck on the ocean’s floor, some 350 feet down. When a chunk of an iceberg breaks off and splashes into the water, it shatters the calm air like thunder.
Newfoundland has always been a land defined by the sea and fishing. Discovered by Vikings and settled by Europeans, today it is peopled by hardscrabble anglers like Melvin Horwood (whose fishing cache, a structure used for storage and protection from the elements, is pictured at right). A potent symbol of the sea’s power and beauty, icebergs command respect. Though they often calmly float by like a whisper (such as the one in Jenkins Cove does, as pictured on this page), they can take lives without mercy, sending “unsinkable” vessels such as the Titanic to rest on the ocean’s floor.
The shapes icebergs take vary wildly. Formed by the composition of glacier ice, the erosion of waves, and the rays of the sun, they often look like abstract designs by Frank Gehry. Some appear as fl at as tabletops, while others resemble the spires of the Himalayas, the smooth curves of sand dunes, or intricately connected bridges of cobalt.
Iceberg enthusiasts and tourists flock to Iceberg Alley each year. Armed with binoculars, telephoto lenses, and satellite tracking maps (which pinpoint the locations of icebergs), they race around the back roads of Newfoundland’s coast, zipping from cove to cove in hopes of spotting the next beauty.
Nothing on earth equals viewing the majesty of an iceberg up close while you’re on the open ocean among migrating humpback whales. Circling around an iceberg in a tour boat or a sea kayak, you will find the sheer size, intricacy, and splendor of the formations, completely untouched by man, magnificent.
When to go: Iceberg Alley sees the most activity from late April through mid-June, when condensed Arctic ice breaks up and catches the Labrador current south.
Where to go:
Start your journey in the charming capital city of St. John’s -- just a short trip from American Airlines destinations Boston, Montreal, Toronto, and Halifax -- and work your way up the coast by car. www.newfoundlandlabrador.com
Newfoundlanders are arguably among the most hospitable people on earth, which makes a B&B experience in the area a must. Search listings by location, price, and comfort level at www.newfoundlandlabrador.com
The Canadian Ice Service tracks icebergs and offers plenty of information at www.ice-glaces.ec.gc.ca
. Or check out www.icebergfinder.com
Numerous outfitters offer ocean excursions to see the icebergs up close. These range from afternoon jaunts and kayaking sojourns to fully stocked multiday luxury cruises. www.newfoundlandlabrador.com
Iceberg Quest Ocean Tours has locations in St. John’s and in the small town of Twillingate, known as the Iceberg Capital of the World. www.icebergquest.com