April 6, 2009


One Shot Fells a Thousand Tons; Or, The Iceman's Tale (Paul Reyes, Spring 2009, VQR)

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.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 6, 2009 10:43 AM
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