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Back in the 1970s the first column I ever wrote was for a Machias newspaper. Even though I received a lot of letters from may readers, they were mostly from Machias, East Machias and occasionally the distant town of Jonesport - 11 miles away. Once, when I got a letter from Ellsworth - 58 miles to the south - the publisher had it framed and hung it in the newsroom.
These days my column is on the internet and I routinely get e-mails - not just from distant towns but from people in other Hemispheres and on distant Continents. Often these writers begin by saying they know little about North America and nothing Maine and then go on to ask one question or another. Several people have asked in their e-mails if Maine is near the Arctic Circle and one even wondered in print if sailors have to look out for icebergs while navigating our waters.
Then, out of the blue, Mary from Casco writes: “John, I’ve been enjoying your columns for years and even bought several copies of your book "A Moose and a Lobster…" for gifts. That’s why I immediately thought of writing you when this question occurred to me. People say: ‘It’s only the tip of the iceberg.’ It’s a phrase that is used constantly. I know it means: there’s a lot more to something than what is easily visible but - visible or not - there’s a lot I don’t know about icebergs and I’d like to be informed. So, what can you tell me about icebergs, John?”
Thanks for the e-mail, Mary. I guess I should avoid asking why my name came immediately to mind when you thought about icebergs but the fact is I do know a lot about these frozen ocean giants. As a kid I was always fascinated by the story of the Titanic and how the ‘unsinkable’ ship went to the bottom on her maiden voyage after hitting a giant iceberg at 20 minutes before midnight on April 14, 1915. I remember the time 20 minutes before midnight because my mother used to tell me that I was born exactly 20 minutes before midnight, not on April 14 but exactly six months later on October 14. No, I wasn’t born in 1915 but in 1944. As a kid I would take ‘iceberg books’ out of the library and read them cover-to-cover. In one book I read that during World War II there was a highly secret program – code named "Habbakuk" – that was planning to manufacture icebergs for use as aircraft carriers. I think the plan was ‘shelved’ when they discovered they couldn’t fit the ice tray for such bergs in their industrial-sized military freezer. The first European to observe icebergs in their natural habitat was probably the Irish Abbot St. Brendan. In describing what he saw on his legendary sixth century voyage (which was long before Europe had even been invented) St. Brendan describes passing towering crystals that rose up to the sky. We can only assume the good monk was talking about icebergs. Often we hear about how dangerous icebergs are but seldom read about the good they’ve done. According to some maritime stories icebergs have sheltered vessels during fierce North Atlantic storms. Clever sailors have hitched their vessels to icebergs and have been towed against the wind and icebergs have been known to clear paths in areas clogged with sea ice.
I’ve also read that in June 1875 the schooner Caladonia went down off Newfoundland but her crew of 82 were saved because they managed to get aboard an iceberg from which they were later rescued. Sailors routinely go aboard icebergs but have to be careful that the one they’re on doesn’t decide to suddenly roll over. When birds suddenly take flight from an iceberg in great numbers it could be a sign that the monster flip-out. It’s thought that a bird’s keen sense of balance enables them to detect slight movements in icebergs long.before us humans can. In Newfoundland ice is now harvested from icebergs for bottled water. Some is used in making vodka. As more traditional sources of water ‘dry up’ – so to speak – it’s expected that more and more people will enter the iceberg business.
I just want people out there on the internet to know that I've learned all this about icebergs from books – not because I live a stone’s throw from the 'arctic circle.'
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is mainestoryteller@yahoo.com.
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