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Iceberg Cowboys

Nineteen years after “Titanic” dominated cinemas, newly Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio is enjoying another turn in the spotlight. No such luck for the iceberg.

Unless you live or sail near Newfoundland’s “Iceberg Alley,” you probably haven’t given icebergs much thought lately. You might even be surprised to learn that giant masses of floating sea ice still menace contemporary ships. Of course, we have more safeguards than existed 104 years ago, when Titanic crew members had to rely on their own eyes and a shipboard radio. Today, the International Ice Patrol monitors the iceberg-heavy area with aerial surveillance and radar, feeding the resulting data to ships traversing the dangerous waters. Yet even with these advances, icebergs still pose an ongoing danger to trans-Atlantic shipping.

But to a few dedicated Maritimers in Newfoundland, icebergs are neither an afterthought nor a menace. They serve as a welcome source of income.

Most North Atlantic icebergs come from glaciers on the west coast of Greenland. According to the IIP, an average of 500 icebergs enter the area it monitors annually, though the actual number in any particular year varies widely. In Newfoundland, icebergs are both a fact of life for residents and a reliable tourist attraction. Especially in spring and early summer, locals and visitors come to watch the icebergs from shore or by boat before they melt away. They appreciate the ice’s beauty and, occasionally, its uncanny resemblance to a particular superhero.

The “iceberg cowboys” get much closer than the tourists to the impressive but dangerous formations. So called because they often lasso ice chunks with towlines or nets in order to drag them in, these Newfoundlanders harvest the ice for use by local businesses. According to a recent dispatch from the BBC, they collect about 1.3 million liters of melted iceberg per year during the two-month window in which harvesting is possible.

What do they do with all that ice? Make beverages, for the most part. Iceberg Vodka has been making spirits with icebergs since the mid-1990s, and its vodka has won several prestigious tasting competitions. In 2013, it introduced several unusual flavored vodkas as well, including cucumber and creme brulee. The company also makes rum and gin.

Iceberg Vodka claims to be the only company making vodka with icebergs, but it is not the only Newfoundland company to use them. Quidi Vidi Brewing Co. brews beer with melted icebergs. The ice’s purity, along with tiny bubbles trapped in its structure, gives the lager a very light, unique taste, according to its makers. And Auk Island Winery offers several dessert wines made from icebergs, as well as a view of the icebergs themselves in Notre Dame Bay from the winery’s tasting room.

Given the small window in which icebergs can be harvested and the risks to the harvesters, it is obvious why more companies do not turn to icebergs for making beverages. The Newfoundland government allows Iceberg Vodka to harvest about the equivalent of one iceberg per year, and gathering that much ice is neither easy nor cheap. “If anyone thinks that going out and harvesting an iceberg and dragging it back to our facility via barges and tugboats is an inexpensive proposition they are sorely misguided,” company vice president David Hood said in a 2010 interview.

Still, even if no one is rushing to copy the iceberg-driven business model, the fishermen who spend a couple of months every year shooting icebergs with rifles to knock chunks loose and then roping in the so-called “bergy bits” have developed a unique relationship with these natural phenomena.

Today’s icebergs are calved from glaciers that have been around for thousands, in some cases tens of thousands, of years. Travelers have long known to respect their power and to appreciate their beauty. Now, thanks to the iceberg cowboys, we can enjoy their flavor too.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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