By Bryan Smith
We should be suiting up to paddle, but the windows are chattering in their panes, threatening to succumb at any moment to the onslaught of freezing rain driven before a 30-knot gale. So instead of paddling, I push back from the dining room table and waddle to the overstuffed chair with a book. I’m engulfed in the story of a French princess marooned in Newfoundland for two years, perhaps on the same flinty island where I now sit in the comfort of the Quirpon Inn, once a lighthouse built over 100 years ago to guide ships through the perilous Straight of Belle Isle separating Newfoundland and Labrador.
The princess left in 1650, rescued by a surprised crew of European cod fishermen. Centuries earlier, Vikings came by way of Greenland and settled nearby at L’Anse aux Meadows. The Norsemen sailed away too, or else died off, a millennium ago. Today, visitors from Greenland arrive in the form of massive icebergs that dot the horizon each spring.
The four of us came to Newfoundland to paddle among these great ice mountains and record the experience for our new sea kayaking film Eastern Horizons. We’ve been here for nearly two weeks, focusing on two areas we were most likely to see icebergs—Quirpon Island and Twillingate on Newfoundland’s central coast.
We timed our arrival for mid-May, the height of Newfoundland’s iceberg season, but also a time when the weather is famously truculent, so we opted for the shelter of B&Bs and inns rather than a cold bivouac. It made for a softer adventure, one that provided a better experience of Newfoundland’s renowned hospitality and quirky culture. We took full advantage of the large headlands, exposed coast, clear water and remote, wilderness character. The day-paddling approach also allowed each of us to paddle at our own level, despite very different levels of experience.
We had paddled from the mainland in fine weather four days ago, spending most of our time exploring the six-mile-long island in our sea kayaks. In addition to plentiful icebergs, the island boasts a succession of rugged headlands. And for kayakers who want to play, there are dozens of narrow slot passages, which the locals call tickles. But with the gale gathering force, I’m content to bide my time inside.
We choose to start in Twillingate because the experts said it offered the best chance to find both icebergs and sunshine in May, and as soon as our overloaded minivan crests the hill into town, we see the icebergs standing sentinel, shimmering in the sunlight.
The bergs began life in far-off Greenland, where snow had fallen over centuries and been compressed by its own weight into glaciers. The ice flowed slowly to sea, finally flaking off into the North Atlantic. The bergs then traveled south for three years on the Labrador Current to the Newfoundland coast, where they now sit grounded or bobbing in the swell.
Rising 200 feet above the surface, the larger bergs are more than 1,000 feet wide and weigh nearly half a billion pounds. They look more like islands than pieces of ice, but their remaining days are fleeting. Waves carve relentlessly into their flanks. An iceberg in its death throes is a thousand different shades of white and blue, its surface striped and dimpled and carved.
We hustle into our paddling gear, launching our boats with respect for the giant floating islands of frozen water. Paddling near icebergs is inherently dangerous; their shifting and calving can create falling ice—an obvious hazard—and with it, huge waves thick with debris. The general rule is to stay as far away as an iceberg is wide, or double its height—whichever is greatest. But it’s difficult to resist the draw of something so stoic and peaceful. We answer the call of the siren, inching ever closer, and are rewarded with one of nature’s eye-popping canvases—of blue ice weaving in and out of itself. The sound is artistry as well. The swell creates deep baritone bellows as it strikes and the melting produces a symphony of ominous sounds, from dripping water to high-pitched pops and hisses. It is a mournful song, as these great bergs are here at the end of their 10,000-year lives.
But the trance is also rudely broken each time we hear a pop or see a chunk fall into the water. Our adrenal glands pump a surge of excitement through our veins, a humbling reminder to keep our distance.
My wife Lise-Anne and I became filmmakers to live an adventurous lifestyle and share it with others. It has allowed me to pursue my passion for paddling for over 10 years, including several extensive expeditions. I like it big, I like it stormy and I don’t mind beating into a headwind for 15 miles. Lise-Anne has been paddling for longer than I have—nearly 20 years. Most of her experience is on rivers though; the sea is a new environment for her and despite her rock-solid skill set, she’s prone to seasickness. She also hates headwinds.
Our comrades in this venture, Phil Tifo and his partner Chelsea Manley, occupy the other end of the experience scale. He’s an adventure photographer who made his name shooting snowboarders. His only experience with the sea comes from sailing and a couple of short kayak excursions in protected waters. Chelsea is a Southern California surfer girl with tons of time on the ocean, none of it in a kayak.
What Phil and Chelsea lacked in experience they made up with enthusiasm and camera skills, and because we were day tripping, we could paddle in places and conditions within their abilities. With paddling variety, cozy inns and noted hospitality, Newfoundland was the perfect destination for our mixed group. But that did nothing to soothe my craving for a long, challenging paddle. We had two weeks. Surely I could build my crew’s confidence and notch at least one epic paddle this trip.
We get our chance sooner than that. After two days of perfect weather in Twillingate, the sky darkens and weather moves in. We listen on the VHF to a computerized voice that lists the precise location of 500 large icebergs, but the best information comes from two 50-ish local women we meet in the grocery store parking lot.
The smiling pair stop to enquire who we are, where we came from and to offer advice.
“You’re not goin’ out tere to toz hicebergs in toz canoes are you?” says the first lady.
“My lord love, you be careful,” says the second. “Oh m’deer lord, tat water she’s cold you know. And toz bergs are dangerous—tey roll over, ya know.” The pair tells us they’d spotted the biggest iceberg either had ever seen, grounded near the town of Durrell not far to the east. We immediately decide to see for ourselves.
The weather report isn’t good—rain and southeast winds at 10-15 knots. It suits me just fine though. Rain means a break from filming, and a chance for a longer paddle without being slowed down by cameras. The rest of the team has reservations, but I assured them that the hundreds of islets and tall headlands will provide shelter from the growing wind. We gather around the chart, which depicts a coastline ringed with 100-foot cliffs and a few protected bays to duck into. We decide on a six-mile run to Durrell, with Phil opting to drive ahead in the van for shots from high on the cape.
We shove off just before the rain, with a gentle swell under our keels and the village of Twillingate disappearing into the clouds behind us. I make frequent eye contact with Lise-Anne and Chelsea, and each time they flash bright smiles. For the first time in three days, the cameras are stowed and I can settle into a paddling rhythm. The seas build and the rain begins running down my forehead. We paddle in silence, taking in the coastline, peppered with bright outcroppings of polished granite, and the icebergs floating in the distance.
When we round the last headland before Durrell, we catch a view of the big berg the ladies had told us about, and the weather starts living up to the report. The wind is still building, and I know that the clapotis—standing waves caused by the steep shoreline—will increase considerably as we round the point. Almost instantly, my excitement turns to concern. A strange Newfy voice echoes in my head, “you be careful, oh m’dear lord.”
I can tell by her body language that Lise-Anne is hearing the same voice. We group up and quickly decide to turn back to Twillingate. I hail Phil on my handheld VHF and ask him to meet us. The rain picks up and we slog on, our morale sinking and the big berg already a faded memory. When we reach Twillingate harbor we head straight to the pub.
The bar’s neon sign flickers the lone word, “Canadian” dimly in the gloom. The other word, “Molson’s,” has burned out long ago. As we step into the warmth, a boisterous crabber immediately greets us. In our bright dry suits we couldn’t be anything but tourists, and he soon invites us to see his boat and asked about our plans. We tell him that we’re off to Quirpon Island next, pronouncing it Kweer-pon, which brings on a loud burst of laughter. “Ahh, you mean Khaaaaaaar-poon,” the fisherman says, shaking his head at our accents. The owner seats us at a table with a view of the harbor and rattles off a list of options—pan-fried cod, deep-fried cod, halibut, Atlantic salmon and snow crab—all from sea, the source of life and livelihood here.
We stayed in the Twillingate-Notre Dame Bay area five days
and wouldn’t have left if we hadn’t arranged to meet Ed English, an outfitter, kayaker and owner of The Quirpon Lighthouse Inn on Quirpon Island. So we load four kayaks onto the minivan and drive 400 miles north, following the province’s western shore through Gros Morne National Park. Ed, being a good Newfoundlander, is waiting patiently at the entrance to Quirpon, a hamlet of fishermen’s houses on the extreme northern tip of Newfoundland.
Quirpon Island lays a short distance offshore. We unload the kayaks and set off for the inn, taking the long way around beautiful headlands, paddling far offshore and enjoying a gorgeous sunset. We land at dusk in a little cove and walk the remaining two miles to the inn, a converted lighthouse at Bauld Point, the northernmost part of the island. The landscape this far north is tundra-like, with low-lying brush and hundreds of little ponds scattered atop tall rocky headlands. The views are incredible both from the water and on shore with rocks tinted ochre to moss green, reflections of the sunset in the ponds, colorful berry bushes and young grasses.
The lighthouse was built in the late 1800s to guide ships through the Straight of Belle Isle separating Newfoundland and Labrador. Automation replaced lighthouse keepers in the 1970s, and in the 1990s, the government sold the buildings. Ed snapped up the magnificent piece of property, assembled a staff of friendly and hard-working folks from the nearby town and turned the battered lighthouse into a busy inn during the summer months.
Between the location and Ed’s enthusiasm for the sport, this has to be one of the finest locales on Earth to base a kayaking vacation. Doris, Hubert, and Madonna cook, drive the boats, fix whatever is broken, tidy the house and bring guests whatever they need. Gerry is the inn’s resident kayak guide, and becomes a very popular person when the humpback and minke whales arrive in June.
Over the next few days we paddle around a large iceberg, and when a strong offshore wind whips, we explore the sheltered side of the island. Quirpon’s deep, clean shoreline allows us to feel the power of the Atlantic as it rises and falls up to 10 feet at time against the cliffs. We dub this phenomenon the “swellevator.” The water is deep right to the shore and there is just the right amount of swell. The rides are exhilarating but not dangerous, and the team became more comfortable in the bouncy water. Chelsea, Lise-Anne and Phil are game to explore any swellevator or small surf I probe.
They also are becoming more adept at navigating Quirpon’s many tickles, or narrow slot passages. Some of these narrow channels between Quirpon and smaller islands only fill with water during high tide, and the compression of the incoming swell often causes a wave to rise and break in the passage’s narrowest point. A kayak is the perfect craft to explore these unique passages, but they aren’t without dangers: in many of them, a capsize and failed roll could mean a difficult rescue, or a broken boat. So when Chelsea decides to probe a tickle just south of the inn, I position myself to dash in and help if needed.
After a quick nod my direction, Chelsea makes her move. She paddles forward with the swell, which gathered force. Ready or not, Chelsea begins to surf towards the exit. She executes the classic wobble to the right, wobble to the left, and whoa!-brace on the right. Then the wave passes beneath her and the tickle is calm again. She smiles in slow motion and loops back to try again. We haven’t yet gotten all the footage we came for, and I haven’t logged the 20-mile days I’ve been wanting to. But this moment is priceless, as Chelsea’s smile told me she was hooked on the thrill and adventure of sea kayaking. That makes all the effort and energy to get here worth it.
The day after Chelsea’s surf the storm comes in, and I hole up with my chair and book. The swell is building and the rain was battering the windows with such force it sounds like hail. I look worriedly out the window and Hubert reads my mind.
“Winds gonna shift to the North, means sun I bet by noon,” he says with a smile. He’s spent his entire life within 50 miles of here, and he’s not wrong. After the weather clears on schedule the next morning, we set out on the big trip I’ve been hoping for.
The four of us and Ed decide to paddle around Cape Bauld to the most exposed section of the coast, where we’ll explore a long tickle Ed calls the “whale’s back.” Phil has been eyeing several unique camera angles to capture the obsidian black conglomerate ridge forming the rock sculpture that resembles a humpback whale. If the team is feeling well, we may paddle a couple of miles offshore to the large, pinnacle-shaped iceberg that has been grounded there since we arrived. There’s even the chance of a 15-mile paddle around the cape towards L’Anse aux Meadows, where the remains of sod houses mark the Viking’s presence on these shores 1,000 years ago.
Launching from the beach, we instantly feel the power of the Atlantic and the force of the cool northerly breeze. We push on. As we approach the cape, the wind has built to a solid 15 knots, the sky is clearing and the water near the point is covered in whitecaps. I coach Phil through the crux—just relax, I say. Let the boat move under you, breathe deep. We get around the point and move into a narrow tickle. Lise-Anne, Chelsea, and Ed sneak through the slot on a smaller set of waves, while Phil and I wait for a bigger set to clear.
We see a window and go for it, but soon after we pass the point of no return it becomes clear that we’ve misjudged the waves. A massive roller bears down and rises up as it funnels through the tickle. Phil tries gamely to paddle over the top, but the wave pushes him backwards and flips him violently in the whitewash. I rush in, and as Phil bails out of his boat I shout at him to grab onto my bow and keep hold of his kayak. I back us both out, bracing and back paddling as more waves surge through. On the horizon, I can see another bigger set approach. Phil reads the urgency on my face, and within a minute we’ve managed an adrenaline-fueled rescue.
Phil, back in his boat, charges back out to the rest of the group. In the quiet on the other side, he looks at us all, his eyes wide and bloodshot and his smile uncontrollable. “I totally get why you guys are so into sea kayaking,” he gushes. “I’ve never explored the ocean as intimately as this. I love it.”
We don’t make it as far as I would have liked. The weather worsens, the rain returns and we settle for several hours of bobbing around among the icebergs that had eddied out in Grandmother’s Cove. The Viking village and the longer missions will have to wait until I return in July. Then the weather will have stabilized, the local kayakers will be out in numbers, the whales will be feeding on the abundant capelin and the coast will be covered in brilliant grasses and vivid wildflowers. For now, we’re all content to return to the inn, accept a steaming mug of coffee from Doris and reflect on one of the world’s most magnificent kayaking destinations.