Newfoundland’s green coastline, an iceberg and its hunters
© Greta Rybus

Iceberg cowboys

  • TEXT PATRICK WITTE
  • PHOTOS GRETA RYBUS

Every year enormous glacial shards drift past Newfoundland’s coastline. That is the time when Captain Ed Kean and his crew go hunting for the precious ice using lassos and guns.

Icebergs have to be navigated around: All mariners, whether they sail the Atlantic, the Pacific or around Cape Horn know this golden nautical rule. Icebergs are a lethal threat. They can slice open steel ship’s hulls. They capsize and fragment. When thousands of tons of ice crash into the water, they pull down every ship in close proximity. Icebergs are unpredictable.

However, they are Captain Kean’s passion. Ed Kean is a 59-year-old Newfoundlander, a giant with broad shoulders and a big belly. And he is not one for circumnavigating icebergs. Rather, he and his crew hunt them with lassos, nets and guns. Every year in the springtime, when the island off Canada’s east coast is still under a thick blanket of snow, icebergs start drifting right past Kean’s front door, close to St John’s, the island’s capital. That is when Kean knows he will have to be on his way soon.

Iceberg Hunter Captain Kean on his Trawler

A man like a mountain: Captain Kean is Newfoundland’s most famous iceberg hunter

© Greta Rybus
The old fishing trawler called Green Waters

The old fishing trawler, the Green Waters

© Greta Rybus

  The icebergs break off from the glaciers in Greenland, like the Petermann Glacier, which measures more than one thousand square kilometers. Their journey through “Iceberg Alley” takes several months. By the time the white giants appear off the coast of Newfoundland, they have traveled hundreds of kilometers in the currents of the Northern Atlantic. These glacial formations do not just look fascinating – sometimes they are flat like mesas, at other times wildly jagged – but are also exceedingly valuable. There is hardly any water on earth that is as pure as that of icebergs. It has never trickled through sand or layers of soil and has never been in contact with fertilizer. The glacier it originates from is made up of the unpolluted precipitation that fell in the Artic Circle thousands of years ago and froze. This is why glacier water is a commodity that can be monetized – if you catch it quickly enough. After their trip through “Iceberg Alley,” it is normally the end of the road for the glacial fragments: they melt in the sun of the short Canadian summer and disappear into the ocean forever.

When there are waves, icebergs are as dangerous as dynamite. But don’t they look stunning?

Ed Kean, captain of the Green Waters

That is why Ed Kean has to be quick. This year, he wants to supply 1.2 million liters of the precious raw material to the Canadian Iceberg Vodka Corporation and make C$500,000 (roughly 345,000 euros). The drinks manufacturer’s business idea is simple: making vodka, rum and gin using water from one of the purest sources on the planet. The distillery, which is headquartered in Toronto and was founded in 1995, today has overall sales of several million dollars. The success of the company, which runs a bottling plant in St. John’s, the capital of the province, could not have come at a better time for the islanders. Most of the approximately 500,000 inhabitants used to make a living from fishing, either directly or indirectly, but some 20 years ago sales of cod nose-dived. The fish stocks in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Newfoundland were almost depleted, in addition to which the competition from China pushed prices down. Ed Kean, whose family had been in the fishing trade for five generations, was also affected. So why not exploit the iceberg water that drifts along the coastline. In the beginning he worked with blue plastic barrels, which only held a few thousand liters. But then demand skyrocketed due to the quality of the vodka. The captain invested in bigger barrels. To this day, Kean is the distillery’s exclusive supplier. He uses a hydraulic excavator and water tanks to harvest from the iceberg. According to him, however, after paying out for the crew, diesel and repairs, he does not make a large profit. Nevertheless, it seems to be lucrative enough for him to set sail again every year.

The Iceberg Cowboys during work

Tourist guides sometimes complain that the hunt for icebergs spoils the picturesque panoramic view, but Ed Kean does not pay them much mind

© Greta Rybus

  Maybe he is in it for the thrill. One day in August the captain spots a gleaming white iceberg on the horizon and rounds up his crew. Phil Kennedy, 52, is responsible for filling the water tanks. Dennis Greening, 39, is the mechanic. John Hoddinott, 42, pilots the dinghy, which will be used to catch the iceberg. They are all Newfoundlanders and all men who have “tried their hand at every job out there,” as Hoddinott puts it. They probably made more money working as hunters, fishermen, roofers and on offshore oilrigs, but these jobs are not as adrenalin-fuelled as iceberg hunting.

In their small home port of Port Union, the men clamber aboard an old fishing trawler – the Green Waters. They also start the engines of a barge, with which the water is to be transported later. Then they set sail. They will now be hunting for ice from dawn until dusk each day – weather and ice permitting. The men are often at sea for weeks, sometimes even months. Every now and then, they land in small bays to pick up supplies.

The arctic sea of Newfoundland

In 1912 Newfoundland’s arctic seas gained global notoriety because of the Titanic disaster. It was here that the vessel sank

© Greta Rybus
John Hoddinott in rubber boots, waiting for the next iceberg

Lie in wait, be calm, and bide your time: John Hoddinott is a cowboy in rubber boots. With the aid of a rope, he catches the iceberg shards dislodged by his gunshots

© Greta Rybus

  The freight barge is 55 meters long and is tethered to the Green Waters. It contains six tanks, each of which can hold 200,000 liters of water. That’s 1.2 million liters in total! If you believe Kean, this only represents one percent of all the icebergs that drift past Newfoundland each year. The captain is wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap. He scans the ocean, one arm on the helm. The trawler steadily advances at a speed of nine knots, gliding past lighthouses and green hills. The cries of seagulls penetrate the hatch leading to the bridge, waves are splashing and the ship’s engine chugs along softly.
Seals surface in the water, their skins glistening. They look over inquisitively and disappear again. The curved backs of dolphins and minke whales look like geometric apparitions in the chaos of the waves. All of a sudden, Kean sounds the ship’s horn and yells something that must mean “iceberg ahead.”

Ice poses a danger for cruisers and oilrigs, but it is also a very profitable business

It looks like a hallucination when one of the giants pushes itself along Newfoundland’s panoramic landscape, getting increasingly bigger as it approaches the Green Waters. Kean’s eyes have not been deceiving him: Just off the shoreline, a roughly 300-meter long iceberg has run aground and fragmented into numerous pieces: millions of tons of ice, just a few miles ahead. Kean steers the boat closer. Every move is now executed with bated breath. He has to maintain a safe distance because the ship’s hull must not be breached. With the aid of a crane, the crew lowers the dinghy into the water. It is a tiny wooden vessel, only three meters long, but boasting a 65 horsepower engine. This is John Hoddinott’s big moment. The lanky, wiry pilot of the “speedboat” now has to keep the bow of the barge at a 90-degree angle to the iceberg. It is the only way for Kean to claw away some of the icy spoils from the white giant with the mounted excavator.

The crew uses the aid of a crane

The crew uses the aid of a crane

© Greta Rybus

  The tiny vessel is rocking precariously in front of the wall of ice, which is as tall as a building, and which waves crash into. Spray and jets of water shoot up. Suddenly the gentle maritime wind turns into an icy breeze. In his boat, Hoddinott reaches for the rope, pilots the small vessel around the entire iceberg, and catches it with a lasso that is a kilometer long and as thick as a finger. It is the only way to moor the barge to the frozen giant. That is why Ed Kean and his crew are also called “iceberg cowboys.” Kean starts scraping off the frozen commodity from the top of the iceberg with the excavator shovel and throws it on the conveyor belt, which transports it to the water tanks. If the barge is in danger of slipping off, Hoddinott drives up to its bow with the dinghy in order to push it back into position, while maintaining a safe distance from the white colossus, which could tear itself apart at any moment.

The men succeed, the iceberg has been conquered. Now they only have to wait until the ice melts. What a triumph! They have managed to collect almost a whole season’s harvest in only three weeks. However, they do not take a breather. Kean’s people carry on with their hunt. They are now targeting a smaller specimen. This time they do not want to employ the barge, which is difficult to tether to the narrower icebergs. Instead they will use a gun and hooks. The small iceberg shimmers eerily in the riflescope of Kean’s repeating rifle.
It seems surreal, almost innocent, like a white ball that a fluke has pushed into the waters off Newfoundland. But when the waters are less than calm, these icebergs are like “small pieces of dynamite,” says Kean. One should not be fooled, he warns. Kean knows that approximately only ten percent of the iceberg are visible above the water line ¬– its proverbial tip. The vast majority of it is underwater – and indeed, when you look more closely, you see its turquoise gleam. It is this part that could easily tear a hole into the side of the ship.

John Hoddinott at work: the ice is chopped off with an axe

John Hoddinott at work: the ice is chopped off with an axe. If that does not work, he gets out the chainsaw

© Greta Rybus
Iceberg with blue and white streaks

The crew of the Green Waters used to hunt for fish, today their catch is frozen and ancient, with blue and white streaks

© Greta Rybus
Kean’s trawler, the Green Waters, in the sea

Kean’s trawler, the Green Waters, has sailed through – and survived – innumerable storms

© Greta Rybus
A campfire in a bay

Relaxing around a campfire in a bay. The iceberg hunters are often at sea for weeks

© Greta Rybus
St John’s harbor

St John’s harbor

© Greta Rybus

  Trinity Bay, Bonavista Bay and Conception Bay are Kean’s iceberg hunting grounds. It is a savage and primeval world, but breathtakingly beautiful. There are no beach promenades, no chic restaurants, no marinas. This world belongs to Nature, and to the seafarers. Their wooden houses on the shoreline – painted in hues of green blue and red – look as though they have been casually sprinkled across the landscape. Behind them are dark forests where black bears and moose roam. Like the sea, these too, are hunting grounds.

The iceberg, which is now being targeted by Kean and his crew has a pointed tip. It is 15 meters tall and about ten meters long. A sheet of floating ice permeated by black and sapphire streaks. It is now only 30 meters from the ship. Kean points his gun, closes his left eye and takes aim at the right-hand edge of the iceberg. He adjusts his scope and waits. Then he pulls the trigger, and the shots tear through the silence of the bay. Several white pieces shoot up from the side of the iceberg, but nothing else happens. The mountain of ice has not moved a millimeter. Kean reloads and fires another volley. After three shots the iceberg releases a larger chunk, which thunders into the waters below. With the dinghy, hooks and a trawl net, the men make their way across and bring their loot onboard. This ice will not be supplied to the vodka company, but to smaller customers: to lobster fishermen and corner shops, which utilize the ice to cool their goods and sell it on for use at bars and parties. Kean also has plans for another business as a sideline: bottled water. The first batches have already been produced.

Captain Kean’s latest business idea: bottled iceberg water

Having set course for home in Port Union, he is at the helm of the Green Waters. The ocean, which he has been crisscrossing for years, glistens in the evening sun. He looks at the panorama of the dark green hills in front of him: a time to pause, to be calm. Kean’s gaze wanders to another iceberg. “They are stunning, aren’t they?” he says. Then he falls silent. He knows that at some point, he will have to give up his job and sell the Green Waters. He is now 59 years old and the hunt for icebergs is exhausting, dangerous and time-consuming. But at this point, retirement still seems a very long way off.


 

This story first appeared in Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine. For more information about Lufthansa Miles & More offers, please click here.