Strategy for Bergs
I live in Upernavik Greenland where we have a continual parade of
Icebergs. Every time I go paddling I think about icebergs, what
they are doing and what they might do. Icebergs are always
challenging because no two icebergs are alike.
Even though an iceberg may not appear to be quite as fantastic as
the monstrous, tunneled icebergs I have seen in Blomster Bay in
King Oscar's Fiord of Northeast Greenland, still for those of us
who venture on the water in our fragile kayaks, any iceberg is
to be respected. Icebergs can be extremely deceiving, especially
when a big iceberg has done very little for a long time. Then it's
easy to become used to it as just another mountain of ice just
sitting quietly on the water and it don't seem as though it can be
such a threat.
But icebergs are full of surprises and one big surprise can be those
hidden dimensions beneath the surface. The last time I was paddling
decided to make a crossing that would be few miles and to start
from an easily identifiable point. So I choose what simply looked
like two small grounded out bergs. The only thing that seemed just
a little bit odd about these two icebergs is that they were the
only two icebergs side by side and there were no other icebergs near.
It just seemed unlikely but I thought that perhaps the current was
just right at the moment they landed in that bay and then by unlikely
chance happened to have grounded out there together. It didn't really
seem all that likely but I just assumed that anything can be possible
While I was making the crossing and found myself precariously out
in the middle feeling very vulnerable because refuge was a mile or so
either way, I heard a thunderous crash. And judging from the tone of
the thunder, this was definitely from a large iceberg that was doing
more than just dropping off a few pieces. The sound seemed as though
it could have come down around the bend in another passage. However
the sound could have been an echo from an iceberg that is next to one
of the nearby the cliff faces.
I stopped paddling and carefully scanned all the bergs in sight just
to be sure that there was no steep wave bearing down on me from out of
nowhere. Surfing is nice and I enjoy experimenting with the dynamics
of waves, but as a solitary cold water paddler, I don't like
surprises like being overtaken by a wall of water. I continued the
crossing without any surprises and I just had to make some minor
corrections for current set. I enjoyed looking in detail at the rocks
studying the formations and enjoying the sculptural abstract shapes
of eroded granite.
This is one of those fine moments, which makes kayak paddling such a
pleasure. When you are in a kayak you are experiencing active water
directly and when you are looking at eroded rock you are seeing
what water does to objects that don't move of themselves but
are moved by water. What's unique about an icberg is that it interacts
with the water as a stationary object being eroded and as a floating
But this is only a small part of the spectrum. An iceberg is exposed
to a constant interplay between different temperature stresses. The
entire structure of an iceberg is a product of it's creation with
unequal structural stresses throughout. So you have this constant
shift in dominance of internal structural stresses pieces fall off,
the whole thing splits, the water currents are constantly eroding the
foot, it can ground out and suddenly the center of gravity abruptly
changes and the whole iceberg rolls over. Now you have an entirely
different shape with a new set of internal stresses vying for dominance.
So when it comes to icebergs there is always something happening and
that is what makes icebergs so endlessly fascinating. After I had
enjoyed myself feasting my eyes savoring this unexpected treasure
of abstract forms it was time to head back across the passage. Now
the confusion set in when I turned and scanned the horizon for my twin
iceberg starting point because everything even the twin icebergs
just seemed to blend together. I was looking for distinctive landmarks
on Long Island, which are in the 50-meter range gently rising to a
maximum of 200 meters.
Coming from the opposite side I had been using landmarks such as the
680 meter Umiak Mountain, a valley and long expanse of columnar
basaltic cliffs which are nearly impossible to miss unless it's
hopelessly foggy. On the return the landmarks were so lacking
definition and even the islands melded together making them look
like one massive island. "Wow," I thought to myself; "I didn't
expect this." If I had I would have turned around a few times on the
way over just to familiarize myself what the land looks like as I get
farther and farther away from it. Oops!” I toldmyself "I am usually
more careful than this. You are getting lazy and overly confident."
I calmed myself and started across remembering that I had come on a
All went fine and the two icebergs came into view so I headed for them.
Then just as I was passing them, suddenly there was a huge crash on the
shoreward side where luckily I wasn't. A chunk fell off followed by
more small chunks of ice and I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn't
decided to come in for a landing on that shore because the waves would
have just grabbed my kayak. Such a large amount of ice fell off that the
center of gravity changed. Next the two icebergs revealed themselves to
actually be just one large berg joined beneath the surface by a bridge.
The end nearest me reared out of the water then rolled part way back
under the surface until the berg restabilized on it's new center of
gravity. Now I realized that this berg was easily more than three
times the original size of what I thought it was as two small bergs.
I was glad that I hadn't passed by on the restricted shoreward side or
any closer than I was. I usually carefully decide on the danger limit
of a berg by its size.
This time I had been tricked and I rethought about my original
assumption. One thing that is definite; never assume anything about
Gail E. Ferris
October 18, 1998
Contributors to this page: Thomas Yost (TDY), Patrick Poirier (PPR), Gerald Maroske (GUM) and Hendrik Maroske (HHM)