When big city folk head for the wilderness we are generally in pursuit of tranquility, not traffic jams. That was certainly our intention when we arrived in Twillingate, a former outport (accessible only by boat) on the north-east coast of Newfoundland. Now connected to the mainland by a causeway, this picturesque little island/town, perched on the shores of Notre Dame Bay, is renowned for being the best place in North America to see icebergs.
And we did see icebergs. Our guides were a couple of retired fellows: Watson had done his time as a school principal while Sterling had owned and operated the local hardware store. When we met them, they were having a ball, spending their retirement tooling around the North Atlantic hunting down whales and icebergs “for the tourists”. Their boat, the M.V. Daybreak is 55 feet, a reassuring size for heading out to open sea. We’d booked a tour with them for 1pm, albeit a little chagrined to learn that we’d be sharing the boat with a whole tour bus. The Daybreak is big, but a whole bus load of tourists? We dutifully waited out the hour till 1 looking through craft shops and getting some lunch.
As 1 pm approached we returned to the boat shed, still no bus tour. “No matter,” Sterling assured us, “happens all the time.” Tourists or no tourists, he and Watson were heading out to check on some bergs they’d heard were moving offshore a ways. He didn’t know if we were game or not, seeing as how they’d probably be out for a lot longer than two hours. Game to spend hours off the Newfoundland coast hunting for icebergs? You bet, we were game.
The ocean air was a bit brisk on deck, but the gents kept the coffee perking on a pot bellied stove inside the comfy cabin. Whenever we needed a warm-up we’d duck in for a mug-up and some conversation. The teacher in Watson expounded on icebergs.
Twillingate is in the heart of what is known as Iceberg Alley, the migratory path of the massive icebergs traveling south. Greenland’s 100 berg producing glaciers are among the fastest moving in the world, gliding towards the ocean at up to 7 km per year. As these glaciers reach the ocean, they “calve” some 40,000 icebergs each year. The bergs settle into Baffin Bay where they bob and scrape about for three to four years, gradually melting and deteriorating in size. Weighing about two million tons, they are extremely destructive and when they collide with the ocean floor, crush everything in their path. Apparently the floor of the Grand Banks is marked by the deep destructive grooves of these passing monsters.
Numbers vary greatly from year to year, but on average, from 400 to 800 icebergs head south down Iceberg Alley each year. Most end their lives in the St. John’s area of Newfoundland, although occasional bergs have ventured as far as Ireland and Bermuda.
Icebergs travel at about .7 km/h but this is influenced by size and shape, currents, waves, and wind. From the moment they plunge into the water off Greenland, they begin melting and once they hit the warmer waters of Iceberg Alley this accelerates. For example, a very large berg may take 90 days to melt at 0 degrees Centigrade, but only 11 days at 10 degrees Centigrade. Icebergs vary a great deal in size, but the average size seen off Twillingate is 100-200,000 tons and the size of a cubic 15 storey building.
That is very, very big and while photographs may capture their ethereal beauty, nothing, absolutely nothing, captures their magnificence but an up close, personal encounter. They are majestic, awesome, breathtaking, overwhelming and dangerous.
As icebergs melt, “bergy bits” and “growlers” break off. In and of themselves these chunks of ice (some as big as a house) are a hazard, but more critically, the fractures cause the iceberg’s center of gravity to shift, causing it to roll over. Two things happen – a massive churning disturbance in the water sufficient to capsize a boat and the upending of the iceberg’s underwater spurs or rams, each capable of catapulting a boat into the air, slamming it into the sea, and submerging it under the berg. This can happen in an instant, without warning.
Watson’s chilling description of this icy end was sufficient to discourage my companion’s enthusiasm for “Closer, can you get any closer?” Adult caution is not unexpected, but then neither is youthful adventurism. We couldn’t resist asking, “Have you ever…?”
“Of course, “ they replied. Although parents have nightmares about it, Newfoundlanders like Watson and Sterling grew up with the bergs. Youthful misadventure and derring-do takes it’s own form wherever kids grow up and in Newfoundland it’s playing on the bergs.
Although it was already late in the season when we were there in late August, we saw several magnificent icebergs, numerous dolphins and a number of Minke whales. Pulling into port after hours at sea, our hearts and heads were full of the wonders we’d seen.
“You’ve got a place, then, for the night, has ya?”
Well, no, we didn’t yet have a place for the night. And as it turned out that was a problem. We’d managed, through serendipitous good luck, to have landed ourselves in Twillingate during the final night of the Fish, Fun and Folk Festival. There were absolutely no rooms to be had. Contemplating a night of sleeping upright in our subcompact rental, we looked at each other with dismay. The fellows noticed.
“I think I know someone who’d take you in.”
“Someone would just take us in?”
A few minutes later he returned with instructions.
“Lloyd and Jean will be glad to have you. Now just take the road through town until you come to the big white church on your right ……”
And indeed, the Bulgin’s, with a house already overflowing with adult children home for the festival, took us in. They showed us to their well-appointed guest room, pointed out the kettle and tea-making supplies in the kitchen and apologized for rushing out and leaving us alone, because after all it was festival night and they had a longstanding date they couldn’t break.
“You are going to leave us alone in your home?”
“Why yes. If you go to the fireworks, just close the door behind you. We never lock it.”
We were to learn that this level of trust and hospitality is typical of Newfoundland.
So we closed the door behind us and wandered into town to see what the Fish, Fun and Folk Festival was all about. We discovered that throughout the three days of the festival there are church breakfasts and fish dinners, street dancing and magic shows. On this particular night, The Ennis Sisters and the Twillingate Tappers were entertaining at the arena. It was an evening of toe-tappin’ Newfoundland music at its best. Some months later we were pleased to see The Ennis Sisters up for a national award. The Twillingate Tappers, an ensemble from the town dance class, may have to wait a little longer for that kind of recognition but they were absolutely charming and a great addition to the evening.
The arena also hosted a craft show. Our personal favourite, and the proof of that now hangs proudly over our fireplace at home, is the work of an artist who scours the beaches of Newfoundland and Labrador for ocean bleached old whale bones. He carts them home and spends the winter carving scenes and faces into them. Each work of art is unique and the absolute essence of Newfoundland.
Following the arena show we, and all of Twillingate, tumbled outside for the fireworks. Reflected in the waters of Notre Dame Bay, they were a spectacular finale to one of the fullest and most interesting days of my life.
After the fireworks? Well, that’s when everyone in Twillingate tries to go home by driving down one road at the same time. They call it the annual traffic jam.
However, flying there would deprive you of half the fun. Most travelers pick up the Newfoundland ferry at North Sydney on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. From June to September there are two options: take a 4-5 hour ferry to Port-aux-Basque on the southwest corner of Newfoundland or the 15-18 hour ferry which lands at Argentia, about 90 minutes from St. John’s on the southeastern corner of the island. These superferries are a unique expression of Maritime style hospitality: musicians, stand-up comics, movies, games and great food make the hours click by much quicker than you’d think. On the longer route, staterooms are available for sleeping, but be warned, these book up months in advance.
Once on the rock, just follow Route 1 across the island to where it intersects with Route 340, known as The Road to the Isles – a lovely drive that winds through the picturesque inlets and islands of Notre Dame Bay.
Go With the Floe