“Iceberg ahead” isn’t a phrase associated with good news. But in Newfoundland and Labrador in the far northeast of Canada, they’re exactly the words I am hoping to hear.
Separated from mainland Canada by water, Newfoundland is referred to by locals as “The Rock”. Massive hunks of ice – having broken off Petermann Glacier in Greenland, entered Baffin Bay and travelled down on the Labrador current – float in these waters from May to August. Some stand up to 30m tall above the water and span 100m.
I’ll spend a Saturday taking on a 20km “iceberg hunt” by kayak, out around the Little Bay Islands, then complete all 2,200 steps of Newfoundland’s famous Alexander Murray Trail the following morning, before catching the redeye home. Newfoundland by land and sea in a two-day weekend. And with iceberg season overlapping with whale migration season, there’s a good chance of finding more than chunks of ice in the water.
I contemplate the ice cubes bobbing in my whisky on the near six-hour flight from Heathrow, ruminating on the size of the ice masses to come. After a late-afternoon transfer in St John’s, the capital, we fly west across the Gulf of St Lawrence, the land below growing notably emptier as we progress. “Welcome to Deer Lake,” says the pilot. From the UK to Canada’s remote east in just under nine hours: not bad.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young play on Newfoundland’s classic rock station as I drive the Trans-Canada Highway from Deer Lake to Springdale. I share the road with pick-ups, juggernauts and house-size RVs, cutting through granite mountains and forests of spruce and white birch. Yellow road signs warn of moose crossing.
I settle in at Springdale’s Riverwood Inn, a spacious, charming wood-panelled house; my balcony overlooks a whispering river. Quiet and still, it’s a world away from London.
With fog over the forest and the glassy river flowing almost imperceptibly, I fuel up on yoghurt and bagels and get going.
My kayaking guide, Grant Cudwell, gives me a lift down to Springdale wharf, where a signpost tells me it’s 2,483 miles to London, 1,058 to New York. A jetboat is waiting, loaded with two kayaks. “Let’s go find some icebergs,” says our skipper, Captain Dike, as we chug through mist into the long inlet of Halls Bay. Ghostly houses, piers and trees appear out of the silvery grey fog. “Pea soup” doesn’t quite describe it – more Stilton and broccoli. “It feels like we’re heading into the abyss,” says Cudwell. We pass a raft of loons; minutes later the sickle-shaped dorsal fin of a minke whale cuts through the surface of the water; this is prime feeding ground for them. The fog rises and Captain Dike opens the boat up to 50mph. Soon we see our first iceberg in the distance.
Another minke in the water, a sociable behemoth that swims up and down, close to nearby boats. I climb into a Gore-Tex drysuit and step into my 18ft carbon-fibre kayak. Weather and water temperatures are taken seriously here. “If you fall in, you’re looking at one hour in the water before hypothermia sets in,” Cudwell explains. We warm up our arms by paddling, allowing the minke to come and go. “I don’t think I’ve ever got so close to a minke before,” Cudwell says excitedly. “This is really special.”
The minke takes a deep dive. No point waiting. We make our way to the iceberg, which sits in a stretch of water known as Long Island Tickle. I’m breathless when I arrive, but it’s a beauty – somewhere between a massive dollop of cream and a modern sculpture, with electric-blue wet patches glowing in the sun. “Each iceberg tells its story: the water lines, the blue streaks, the melted snow that’s refrozen clear,” Cudwell says. “Of course, 90 per cent is under the surface.” We circle it a few times at a safe distance; icebergs are known to calve – break – and roll. “Hear that crackling sound?” he asks, gliding over the mass of ice visible beneath us. “That’s air being released.”
The minke hasn’t left us, either, by the telltale musty odour in the air. “Smell that breath,” Cudwell says. “That’s why we call them ‘Stinky Minke’.”
There’s a rumble of distant thunder as we start our circumnavigation of Little Bay Island. I spot another minke off the headland, his ragged dorsal fin mostly gone – probably lost, Cudwell says, in an orca attack. Further along, a search and rescue team hovers over the island in a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter, completing training exercises.
As the water turns choppier at the island’s north tip and my paddling aches begin to set in, Cudwell reminds me to stay loose: “Tight hips sink ships.” We rise and fall on a big ocean swell. Blue-white water froths over dark rocks; giant cliffs of shale and granite loom over us. High above, I see the silhouette of a huge bald eagle perched on a spruce tree; Newfoundland is home to one of the largest populations in the world.
Further along, we turn into a blessedly sheltered bay filled with a melancholy light; I feel a million miles from civilisation. “One of the romantic things about kayaking here is that we’re travelling in the same place and by the same approximate mode as indigenous people did thousands of years ago,” Cudwell says. “It’s also the same area the first settlers came to in row boats.”
Cormorants dart across the water. Around a corner, a couple of minke whales are “lunge feeding”, driving their bodies through the water to corral fish. “It’s often around here that we see humpbacks,” Cudwell mentions, though sadly we have no such luck.
Thunder booms and reverberates around the island’s harbour. Lightning flashes on the horizon. There’s a sharp white pyramid – another iceberg – across the ocean. But the weather is hammering us, so we make our way into the shelter of the harbour, an arm-testing battle against an onslaught of rain, wind and steadily bigger waves. In a hut by the pier, we tuck into a packed lunch of locally smoked salmon, cheese, capelin fish and India Beer.
Within an hour, blue skies are back. I admire the colourful houses around the harbour, gulls convened on the roof of the defunct seafood factory. Apart from a few more speed boats today, Cudwell tells me, people here lived like this 100 years ago.
We pass cormorants on Salt Rock, wings opened out to dry, as we make our way towards the iceberg. Crossing the tempestuous ocean is a challenge I’m relishing, digging deep into my reserves. But midway across, a huge disappointment: Captain Dike calls in on the radio about darkening skies and the likelihood of lightning. “It’s incredibly dangerous to be out on the ocean if there’s lightning,” he says, arriving to pick us up. Gutted not to get to explore another ice artwork or to complete the final paddle, we load the kayaks into the boat and head for shore.
After a shower at the Riverwood, I drive to the town of King’s Point to refuel with North American-sized portions of shrimp and salmon. Then it’s a long sleep.
I wake with aching arms, like I’ve been bench-pressing a fridge; now it’s time to work my legs. After breakfast, I meet Terry Dawe, a miner and part-time guide, outside King’s Point Pottery, on the edge of Green Bay, and we make our way to the Alexander Murray trailhead. Named after the Scottish surveyor who produced the first geological map of Newfoundland, the trail is a network of wooden platforms and big, steep staircases leading to Haypook Summit. “Twenty-two hundred steps, right?” I ask. “Count ’em if you want,” Dawe laughs, as we make our way through the forest.
“Our flat walk finishes here,” Dawe announces, as we confront and climb the first improbably long staircase. “Now we do it again,” as we approach the next set. I breathe deeply, sweating hard on the steep climb. “Feel the burn,” Dawe says on the third. It’s hard not to.
A brief respite comes as we hike alongside a stunning waterfall tumbling into Corner Brook Gorge. Near the top, several sections of steps, weighed down by the snow load of past winters, look wonky and precarious. Others, too far gone, have been removed, giving way to natural stretches of rock, mud and roots we must scramble and dance over.
The view, in the end, is worth the burn. Sunlight warms the colours of the hills and water as we look out over Green Bay, which winds out to the Atlantic. “Keep an eye out for caribou, moose and black bear,” Dawe tells me. “Caribou especially like it up here.”
The descent is less arduous. A lone loon warbles as we work along a less developed part of the trail, over soil, stone and occasional piles of moose droppings. “Bear to your right,” Dawe calls suddenly from behind me. I grab my camera, scanning urgently for my wildlife encounter – but he was merely giving directions.
After a shower back at the inn, I zoom along the Trans-Canada to Deer Lake and on to St John’s to catch the redeye to London. I’m ready for a couple of stiff drinks, then some sleep. And if they’re short of ice on the flight, I know where to find some quality stuff.