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An iceberg had drifted deep into White Bay, near the hamlet of Sop’s Arm, and was stuck there, depreciating quickly in the mild summer waters. Ed Kean and I were riding up to claim it, traveling by bus through a rolling landscape of stone and bright lichen, bald patches and spindly white stubble of third- and fourth-growth forest, through fog and sun and fog again.
This was Newfoundland in June, the middle of the working season, one of long daylight and heavy drinking and erratic weather. A season mild enough for trawlers to make three-day runs off the coast and for cruise ships to pause during North Atlantic jaunts to let tourists swarm the pubs of St. John’s harbor. A time when mainlanders come in droves to hike the cliffs and ogle icebergs drifting south.
Kean was seventy, but still tough, a longtime merchant seaman with some of the archetypal stuff in him: rude blue eyes, boyish and crowfooted; arms tanned and wrists striped from long days in the sun. He gestured with a kind of shyness, but he didn’t suffer contradiction, which was perfectly clear without him having to say so. It was clear in the list of provisions I had scribbled down just a couple of nights ago, as dictated by him: five days at sea; very little sleep, lots of work; earn your keep; oilskins & boots; sleeping bag; wear some wool, lots of wool; five boxes of 12-gauge slugs; 40 oz. of scotch.
The scotch was my idea, because it would be impossible to go five days at sea among strangers without it. Scotch soothes the nerves. You can barter with it. It is an immediately practical item. Kean suggested the slugs, a remarkable improvement over bullets. “Put a slug in one last week,” he said, gazing at the landscape scrolling past us. “Two thousand tons with one shot, boy . . . shattered like a window.” He was talking about shooting an iceberg, which was part of how the Keans, both father and son, harvested its water. And it was my reason for joining them—to take part in the hunt.
It began with the idea of bringing fresh water to US troops in Kuwait but evolved from that failure into Canadian Iceberg Vodka, a Toronto company that mixed Ontario-grown sweet corn with water that the Keans extracted from icebergs lumbering past Newfoundland’s coast, to distill what was marketed as “the purest vodka on the planet.”
With the debate over global warming picking up speed, the preciousness of the Arctic had become a novel commodity. There was already plenty of evidence—which the Bush administration would deny for years to come—that the Arctic was suffering permanent damage caused by man-made industries, that the warming trends weren’t simply part of a larger geological cycle, that we were, in fact, screwing up the planet.
And here, every summer, the proof came down in scraps and pieces: icebergs, prehistoric and luminescent, breaking off Greenland’s glacial shelf to float south along the Labrador Current, finally dissolving in the warmer Gulf Stream. During the pleasant months between March and October, several hundred icebergs moved past Newfoundland this way, at an imperceptible pace, in what locals called the migrating season. It had long been a staple of Newfoundland’s tourism shtick. But for a handful of fisherman for whom the fish had run out—the cod that was once their livelihood now endangered—icebergs had become the next best natural resource, and a way to put their idle nets and gaffs and boats to good use. For Kean, as long as the ice was moving, there was work to be done.
We spent eight hours drifting in and out of sleep, until the bus finally pulled over at a defunct gas station in the middle of the woods, the only sign of man for miles. Kean and I unloaded and were greeted by Eric, a local member of the crew. By now Kean’s son, also named Ed, had joined us. Put together, Ed and Eric carried four times the brawn of the old man and me; but where Ed, Jr. was tall and heavy—a slightly graying, massive facsimile of his father—Eric was short and fireplug thick, with a red mustache springing off his lip. His hands looked like industrial objects—knotted, destructive, slightly destroyed, and stained. But dangerous as he looked, his mood was light, almost giddy. Violently goofy when drunk, I figured. As for Ed, he greeted me with the same disappointed scowl he would wear the whole trip. His mood would always seem twice as heavy as his size.
Sop’s Arm was just a short stretch from the gas station, at the bottom of a dirt path that wound past an abandoned tin-sided warehouse glistening stubbornly in the fog and drizzle. We pulled onto a concrete wharf where our trawler, the Mottak, was docked next to a barge. It was fitted with a stainless-steel tank from a eighteen-wheel rig, along with eighty blue, fifty-gallon barrels that would be used to haul the ice water south to the plant. Looking back toward the warehouse, at the grass bank that sloped up to the path, I could see a few cars sitting idle, with couples inside watching the fog take the water, doing what’s done in a car by a wharf in a light rain—talking, drinking, kissing, smoking. Silhouettes of heads tipping back to take a sip.
The Mottak was the Kean family ship, a sixty-foot vessel painted three coats of green. A winch stood in the middle of the deck; where its arm extended, the deck paint had been worn down to the wood. Sharing the middle of the deck was the hold, the vessel’s hollow storage where I could see a couple dozen of the blue barrels under a clear, thick tarp. They were full of ice water from a previous trip, who knew how clean or valuable. Various canisters of gas (propane, nitrogen, etc.) leaned against the wheelhouse. A little farther up at the bow sat a pair of anchors the size of steamer trunks, painted red. At the stern, a couple of giant plastic tubs held the nets old man Kean wove together in the winter months, which we’d use to corral the iceberg’s smaller chunks.
The Keans slipped down into the forecastle to dump their gear and claim their bunks. I chose the bunk beneath the old man, figuring he was the least risky to sleep under. It hardly mattered, given the cramped air down here. They had set a picnic table at one end, painted the same green as the deck, and built a cupboard-stove unit smack in the middle of the space, with a television strapped to the top. In the racks running along the sides were guns, repair equipment, life jackets, cold-water safety suits. In the farthest corner, a tiny closet with a mirror and pump-action toilet. Old man Kean set tea on the stove, dug crackers and Cheez Whiz out from the cupboard. The Cheez Whiz would remain on the table for the rest of the trip. Tea would always be on, too, for the next few days, the kettle nearly always boiling. Tea was the old man’s addiction.
Toward evening, Ed decided to head out and have a look at the iceberg we’d come to hunt—or harvest, since the ice isn’t exactly elusive. It floats, and seems to wait. It is threatening only in its size: as the iceberg melts, it begins to crumble, and its weight shifts. It becomes unstable, like a rockslide on a floating mountaintop. As the weight is redistributed, the mountain turns bottom-end-up—not completely, but to the degree that a portion of the seven-eighths that had been under water will rise and send a concentric, crushing wake outward. This movement is called rolling, and it can lead to tremendous damage depending on the size of the iceberg and the depth of the water in which it floats. Icebergs as big as cruise ships have lodged themselves in coves, where they’ve melted and rolled and throttled the shore as thoroughly as a hurricane, flipping trawlers like plastic toys against the rocks. Even in open water, an iceberg is dangerous if you’re as close as we’d need to be to harvest it; you could easily be flipped into freezing waters or sucked deep down as the ice rolls over.
The rain was light but bitterly cold, ugly enough that I pulled out the oilskins I’d bought—fluorescent-yellow rubber pants and jacket—from their plastic packaging. I slipped on the rubber boots, too, the whole humiliating outfit reeking of bleach and rubber. Ed was waiting for me in the skiff, a seventeen-footer outfitted with a small outboard motor. I brought the shotgun and shells, as ordered, and tucked them underneath a pair of life jackets, as ordered, and set a pair of paddles on the pile. Ed was giving me a look, something like irritable patience. He had on a light waterproof windbreaker, kept his cap low, and that was pretty much it. His tolerance was, in part, shaped by a lifetime in this weather, and it now had a strange effect on him. He seemed more like the weather than in it.
The old man had seen me put on the oilskins, had chuckled and called the suit a “cheapie”; now, riding out across the bay, I knew what he meant. At a healthy ten knots, a cold drizzle will find its way inside a cheapie. It was a weak defense. My hands and ears stung. I pulled my fists into the sleeves, tucked my head down miserably, and stared at the ribs of the skiff, now and then looking briefly up at the fog tucked between dense ranks of black spruce on the cliff. The dark, oily back of a whale parted the water several yards in front of us, spit a loud breath high into the air, then sank again. I looked out toward the mouth of the bay, but where the wide Atlantic should have been, a close horizon disappeared into the fog—and slowly from the mist an iceberg came into view.
We cut the motor. At close range, the ice was bright enough that it pulsed, just a little. No verse came to mind, no Virgin appeared in the folds. Instead, I was dumbfounded by the physicality of the thing, by how something so massive had relocated here, alien against the muted colors of the woods. A fraction of the four hundred million tons of ice that calved daily from Greenland’s glacial shelf, the iceberg had traveled around that country’s southern tip, then moved with the current north along the western coast, and turned again to ride southward along the Labrador Current. The trip took several years, during which time it melted, so that the fifty thousand tons floating in front of us now was just a fraction of an original piece, itself dwarfed by the immensity of the North Atlantic, but larger still than anything I could imagine as mobile. To understand that it had traveled here, and that it might suddenly rear back on us, or on top of us, created a thickening tension. It seemed alive and merely sleeping.
One face of the iceberg was a sheer drop—a kind of fluted mesa with blue, translucent crevices—but with roughly half of it ripped away, so that instead of a flat, horizontal top it formed a rough arc that rose gently on the left, planed out, and dropped steep again. The crevices were about the width of a fist, and at least a foot deep, running symmetrically between the white ribs that had formed around them. This was where the ice had melted, spilled, and frozen again. Those same blue veins ran along the broad face where the wind had scraped the melting water into it, in long diagonal cuts and cracks where the ice looked as if it might ooze or split.
Ed paddled us around to the other side. Here the ice formed a glassy dome, lined top-to-bottom with the same blue scars as on the other side. Where the dome met the water, trapezoidal shingles fell or were licked off by the wake. At the highest point, about three stories up, a gnarled protrusion jutted out like a mangled limb. We could see that the iceberg had formed a kind of strait where the ice dipped underwater and up again, running twenty feet long, about ten feet wide, just deep enough for us to paddle through, lit from below by its amplification of the sky’s dull light—a natural, luminescent dry dock through which we moved very quietly, so as not to wake the thing.
“Can hear it frying,” Ed said.
I looked down at the water. A hissing surrounded us, amplified by the damp, clutching weather. As the ice melted, the trillions of air bubbles trapped inside rose and burst at the water’s surface, so that an effervescence enveloped the skiff. The fog and rain were warming up the ice, so that the prehistoric gas inside created a faint mist all over—two airs blending, similar in property but radically different in character. If the weather held, the whole thing would disappear in a matter of days.
Once we’d cleared the strait, Ed started the motor and began steering us in slow circles, looking for something. “Trying to see where we can get a piece off,” he said. He noticed the mangled protrusion above and thought it might yield enough. “Give us the gun there, bud,” he said. I handed him the shotgun, a twelve-gauge Winchester Cooey single-barrel, and he gently slipped a shell into it and snapped it shut. A whale blew off to starboard. Ed aimed and fired, a fluid move, and the mangled tip of ice plumed into shards that slapped the water.
Where the whale had been, seals broke.
“Seal!” Ed shouted, and dug a shell from his jacket, thumbed it into the Cooey, and popped a shot off—quick, second nature. The slug sparked across the water just over the heads of the seals that ducked in unison.
“It skipped,” he said, bewildered by their luck. “Fuckers.”
I pointed to the spent casing floating just a few feet away. “Over there, Ed. There’s your shell.”
He observed it a moment. “It’ll just go back to nature there, bud.”
I stared at the shell. “You mean these are biodegradable?”
“Plastic and brass,” he said, glancing at me, and shrugged.
That night, at Eric’s house, we indulged in a long, heavy dinner. Ed used small chunks of the ice he’d shot to cool his glass of vodka, and held it up to admire the tiny bubbles. They argued over who among the men they’d worked with was the laziest, and who among them was worth his salt. Reputations were defended with tales of brawls and small heroics. They argued over salmon routes, and hallelujahed at the injustice of a law that prohibited them from fishing in their own backwaters. They griped about seals, which were voracious and countless and gorged on whatever cod hadn’t already been depleted by the Europeans and their massive floating factory ships. And we got steadily just a little drunk. In that kitchen—the smoke and food and talk—I felt the Zen of new camaraderie among strangers.
Suddenly, Eric popped out his teeth and stared at me. He was trying to remember something; popping his teeth wasn’t necessarily supposed to be provoking. It was an unconscious habit, like rubbing your thumb or twisting a lock of hair. Teeth askew in Eric’s mouth was normal. Fine. But it was sudden, and he obviously didn’t realize that staring with his teeth out of kilter like that might upset a man. Finally he popped them back into place. “How you like that chicken there, Tex,” he asked, smiling.
“Did you just call me Tex?”
“Texas!” he said.
“Why are you calling me Tex?”
“He’s a New York man there, bud,” Ed reminded him.
“He looks like a Tex to me,” Eric said, and winked. “Hey, Texas?”
The name had stuck.
Kean leaned back in his chair. “Te-xas,” he sang, relishing the sound of it, then sipped his tea.
The next morning, the rest of the crew arrived: Paul Anthony was a longtime friend of Ed’s who was out of work after his shrimper had been moored with engine trouble. A seaman for twenty years, Paul was thin and slope-shouldered, mustachioed, and never without his thick, wire-framed glasses, even during the hardest labor; he looked more like a starving mathematician than a fisherman. Matt Budden, Eric’s nephew, a lanky boy of seventeen with a wholesome high-cheeked smile, was here to earn summer money before going back to school in Quebec. This was his first time working on a boat.
The iceberg had dwindled overnight. Pushed by the currents, it was now only a twenty-minute ride from the wharf, just past Wiseman’s Cove. As we approached it, I could see the LORAN navigation system’s impression of its size in how the blue digital line shot down toward the radar’s left corner, then cut right and kept declining until it ran off the grid. We circled wide around the ice a few times, hoping the Mottak’s wake would shake off a fragile section. Failing that, Ed ordered Eric to fetch the gun, then followed him to the bow, where the two of them settled in for a shot. I joined the old man in the wheelhouse and watched. Ed pointed to a spot in the ice, then Eric pointed to another spot, and then Ed pointed again. The idea was to shoot at a blue crevice, a weakness, so that the slug’s concussion would cause the ice to rupture, sending a good-sized chunk into the water. But they couldn’t agree on which blue crevice to shoot. I couldn’t see a difference; it looked like you could hit it just about anywhere and something big would happen.
Eric finally aimed, and held still.
The old man lost his patience. “Go on, now, Eric! Take your shot!”
He fired. A clap echoed off the ice, a thunderous snap followed, and a section—tens of tons, thirty yards long—plowed into the water. It was an enormous kill, and we yawped and cheered and quickly went to work.
Kean drew the throttle down and scuttled from the wheelhouse to the portside rail, where the skiff was, and where, once on board, he piled the twenty-pound nets we fed to him. Eric followed him into the skiff, and with nets and a hatchet they sped off toward the felled pieces.
Pulling up to one piece, they began wrapping the net around it, pushing one side of the net underneath the frozen piece with an oar, guiding it across as best they could. It took some guesswork, since even this piece was too large to see its exact shape. Once the net was around, its ends were drawn together and tied, and the whole catch was then towed to where the Mottak waited. The ice was steadied between the two hulls. Ed ran the winch, cranking the arm outward, lowering the cable until Kean and Eric could grab it, slip the net around the cable’s massive hook, and step aside.
The winch groaned. The arm bent a little. Ed read the scale: seven tons, far too heavy. The winch was already torqued from a previous job, and any piece over five tons would ruin it. So Ed lowered the ice, Eric and Kean loosened the net, and we watched as Eric set upon the chunk with a hatchet. He started hacking at it with an awkward fury. Shards spit out, pieces flew onto the deck. After several minutes of chopping, there was only a small cleft to show for it, with Eric leaning over the thing, panting. Then Ed brought out the ice lance, a seven-foot, stainless-steel pole that weighed about thirty pounds, with one end sharply beveled. From his spot on the deck, he lifted and drove the lance down into the cleft with all his weight. Nothing. Then he and Eric took turns, back and forth, stabbing and hacking at the thing, but it barely made a difference.
The job called for the chainsaw. Paul went and fetched it, a Husqvarna, hopped into the skiff, got the Husqvarna going, and promptly shoved its blade down into that miserably shallow cleft. The cleft spat at him, but he maintained his mathematician’s poker face and kept jamming that wailing tool as deep as it would go, without a wince or even a squint. I winced, and was well away from the action. When Paul pulled back, Ed put two shoulders into yet another strike, and Eric, restless, interrupted them both to scalp it again. A whale breached, but was unimpressive.
Finally Eric chopped through—nearly falling into the water as the ice split open like a nutshell. They let one half roll over into the water, then readjusted the net to fit the remaining piece. Ed dropped the lever, the winch turned, and the ice rose with slow, ceremonious difficulty.
Some hint of an iceberg’s deceptive beauty was suggested by how this five-ton piece, swinging gently in the net, made the Mottak shudder when it bumped against the hull. Eventually it was lowered into the hold and released, and then five tons tipped, found balance, and were still. By this process we filled the hold all morning, piling the ice well above the deck.
We’d finished, the boat’s belly full, but there was room for more, near the lazarette, where a few large pieces would fit. We’d salvaged most of Eric’s kill, and the rest was too small to bother with, or too far away. For more ice, we’d need another shot. I was elected.
Eric and Paul motored the skiff out thirty yards or so and waited. Ed ordered me to the bow, where Matt shoved a shell into the shotgun and handed it over. Eric sang from the boat. “Now you’re going to get your shot, boy!” I could hear him giggle as he lit a cigarette.
“We come all the way out here, now,” Matt said, with a bully’s grin, “so you better make it a good one.”
Ed watched from the wheelhouse, and said to wait until he got close enough—not to worry, he’d tell me when. I held the gun up in the direction of the ice, but didn’t aim it yet. As we got closer, I set it in the crook of my shoulder, held this pose for a while, and remembered daydreaming about this moment back in the city, sweating and jobless in a Spanish Harlem apartment on a day so hot it had become an actual emergency. I was watching a documentary about water, or the planet, or something environmental, and there were the Keans among the icebergs, and there was Eric with the Cooey, raising it and aiming, popping off a shot that sounded puny on the television’s tiny speakers. The ice fluttered like a showgirl’s fan into a sublimely blue sea, and instantly I wanted that ridiculous moment. The ice fell, the North called. And so I set the chase, and by luck and slight cunning found a way onto this same bow to hold this same gun.
The Virgin still refused to show. The wind muttered no encouragement. Even the whales were missing. Instead I had a quick and miserable vision of a misfire and the bloody consequences. I tried to focus on a target—a blue crevice, a hole, anything—and followed the eerily natural motion of aiming a gun, which, even if you haven’t practiced you could still do by virtue of having seen it thousands of times in the stock footage of memory. So I aimed for what looked like a weakness, though I was only guessing.
“Go ahead and shoot, there, bud,” Ed said.
Suddenly the ice rumbled—a deep low-frequency rip—and then a wall of it collapsed into the water. I never even pulled the trigger, no shot fired, nothing. That was it. I turned to Ed and shrugged, apologetic. The ice just . . . surrendered.