Captain Ed Kean is known as Newfoundland's Iceberg Cowboy and is the only one in the country. A fifth generation fisherman who's been hunting and hauling icebergs for three decades, Mr. Kean spends more than 16 hours a day this summer harvesting icebergs for Canada's Iceberg Vodka Corporation.
What’s an iceberg cowboy?
An iceberg cowboy is someone who hunts, wrangles and captures icebergs for a living. We’ve even featured in the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame in Fort Worth.
I come from generations of experts in the marine business, but I’m the first iceberg cowboy in my family. Growing up on the coast and being surrounded by fishermen, I always knew I would end up working on the water in Newfoundland.
Why would someone want to wrangle an iceberg?
I harvest icebergs because they offer the purest water source on the planet, which I sell to Iceberg Vodka Corp. They uses 100 per cent of this water to distill their vodka. Since the mineral count is so low in icebergs, it’s ideal for distilling spirits, which is why it makes the smoothest tasting vodka that exists. I tell everyone to taste it against their favourite vodka as it will win every time.
I also do it because I take pride in my work, and knowing that the water is going to a Canadian owned and operated company helps me sleep better at night. These icebergs are between 12 to 20,000 years old, formed before the industrial revolutions with zero pollutants so I won’t just sell them to anyone.
Describe a typical day in the life during the summer season.
There were more icebergs in Iceberg Alley this year than I’ve ever seen in my 30 years of harvesting. To capitalize upon the number of available icebergs, we worked 16-hour days without rest. When we target a large iceberg, we attach it to our barge, which is a large flat-bottomed boat that can haul very heavy loads. Then we test the ice for quality control and begin grappling with the claw. Smaller icebergs can often be caught with a net and manually pulled on to the barge.
What makes your job so dangerous?
Icebergs can roll or collapse at any time, causing a tsunami and easily flipping or damaging our boat. Also, some people don’t realize that 90 per cent of the iceberg is below the water’s surface, which means they can develop sharp legs. We’ve had situations where the legs have poked holes in our boats, causing dangerous leaks.
What are some tips you can provide when hunting and hauling?
If someone didn’t grow up on the coast or around the marine industry, iceberg harvesting would be a very difficult line of work. It is crucial that you start with the right nets and boats. Someone would need a lot of engineering experience, not to mention funds, as equipment such as the barge and grapple are very expensive to purchase and maintain.
What happens when an iceberg is about to flip?
Icebergs can flip and collapse at any time, there were many videos of icebergs collapsing that went viral this year. Tourists often get too close and don’t know the warning signs of when an iceberg is about to flip. For example, you will hear distinct cracking noises and see small pieces beginning to fall. There will often be a thunderclap noise right before a major collapse, so my recommendation to tourists who are approaching the icebergs is to listen as closely as they are watching, and of course, be smart, keep your distance and leave it to the professionals.
What’s the biggest catch you’ve ever made?
Using our industrial-size grapple, we harvested seven hundred scoops of ice in one day, which is equivalent to about 200,000 litres of water. That was our best day yet!
How has technology changed over the past century – do you wrangle icebergs the same way as your forefathers?
The main improvement in technology is the ‘Iceberg Finder,’ which is a website developed by the Canadian government to help tourists find icebergs when visiting Newfoundland. We use this same website as a resource to pinpoint the best areas to search for icebergs. We also use modern GPS and sonar equipment, which assists us with navigating the waters.
How long is the season? And what do you do in the off-season?
Iceberg harvesting season goes from May to the first week of August. When we’re not harvesting, we are busy maintaining our equipment, which includes cleaning the tanks and barge every fall.
What are the most difficult and rewarding parts of the job?
The most difficult part of iceberg hunting is that there are no guarantees of when you will find the perfect piece of ice. We have gone five days without finding an iceberg suitable to harvest, which can become frustrating.
The most rewarding part is when we have finished the harvesting season and we’re heading back home. We usually stay on the boat until the job is done, so by the end of the summer, I just want to get home and see my wife.
The job is quite lucrative. How much are you paid to capture these icebergs?
The rates to capture icebergs is something I negotiate with Iceberg Vodka each year which remains a trade secret, but I do make a good living.