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What's your job? Ed Kean, iceberg cowboy

Andrew Seale
Ed Kean, iceberg cowboy

There’s no question Ed Kean is the only person in the coffee shop with an ice pick.

He’s fumbling with the lid of a candy apple red cooler to chip at a chunk of 12,000-year-old iceberg. Or maybe it’s 15,000 years old. He’s not entirely sure. 12,000, give or take a couple centuries.

"The water is pure but the locked-in air in the bubbles is probably worth more than the ice if we could figure out a way to extract it," says Kean, his words curling with his Newfoundland accent.

The 55-year-old fifth generation sea captain has brought the chunk from Iceberg Alley, a patch of the Atlantic stretching from Greenland to the east coast of Newfoundland – the wild, untamed eastern waters.

For nearly two decades Kean has gained international attention as Canada’s unofficial iceberg cowboy, wrangling icebergs the size of ships with 2-inch diameter rope, taming it and melting it down in huge containers on his barge for clients like Canada’s Iceberg Vodka Corporation.

In a good season, he can earn as much as $500,000 dollars for the nearly pure water with only 10 parts-per-million (PPM) of pollutants. He points out bottled water often has 400 to 700 PPM.

But spending all summer hunting icebergs is no easy paycheque.

We sat down with Kean to chat about a day in the life of an iceberg cowboy, joining the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Texas – yes, it’s a real thing – and finding frozen war planes.

I see you brought the snow with you. We were doing fine in Toronto until you showed up with a 12,000-year-old iceberg. Seems a bit coincidental don’t you think?

(Laughs) I was here last winter during the polar vortex and there was nobody walking around at all. 

Ed Kean
Ed Kean

We’re not entirely adept to the winter thing like you. Just give us some time. How long have you been doing this?

Since 1996 when we started getting ice for the different companies like Iceberg Vodka. We did research from 1992 to 1996 for C-CORE – the Centre for Cold Ocean Resource Engineering. Before that we used to harvest ice to put fish on to keep it fresh for markets mainly from May to July.

Why harvest the ice that way?

Well our plants are up north and sometimes the icemakers couldn't keep up with demand. So back in 1980s the federal government monitored the ice and the watershed for quality control and when we checked the ice it turned out to be the purest water on the planet. That put a little bug in our head from there, so then we got into doing research and from research the Iceberg Corporation came along with the vodka idea and that’s where we're now.

So you're contract/freelance then?

I'm a subcontractor to the Iceberg Vodka Corporation.

What do you call yourself?

Kean Marine Inc. 

And you have a team you work with?

We've got about eight guys – five on the ship, one quality control person and our safety officer. 

Safety officer, eh? Probably necessary. I mean, it's got to be terrifying at times being out there.

Well it's inherently dangerous. Icebergs can be dangerous pieces of work. We all know that the Titanic sunk because of an iceberg. Actually when Iceberg Vodka started making its first drink, the Titanic movie came out. So that was all tied right into it.

So that was basically just one very long commercial for you guys then?

Yeah, well it wasn’t planned that way but that’s the way it worked out.

Do you get tourists?

We get a lot of professional photographers – we had a lot of Europeans this summer and about six documentaries shot. The Japanese are just fanatics too. Like we'll shoot off a piece of ice to get a sample sometimes and they'll say “shoot more bullets at the iceberg!”

Oddly enough, now one of our new markets is down in the states in Texas. They love the idea of getting out and shooting icebergs.

What's a day like for you when you're not here hanging out with me?

Well the season is from May until August and it takes us about five to six weeks to fill the barge. The barge has six 200,000-litre tanks. We have names for different pieces of ice there’s a dry dock and a castle, which is a huge piece of ice.

Which is what you’re after?

We like to get pieces that are about 5,000 tonnes and we tow them into a sheltered bay or region and then we grapple them with the claw onto the barge and into the tanks. We've got to rebuild the grab every year, it costs about $30,000.

Ed Kean
Ed Kean

When you're pulling them back to the barge do you fracture it beforehand to make it movable?

No nature will cut it off. They’re always melting and foundering and once the water temperature goes up from zero degrees the first of May to around two or three degrees in late June the ocean and the sun do the work for you.

Have you had many close calls?

It seems to be a pretty popular question. Yeah we've had some but we've learned now to stay away from the larger pieces of ice, the overhanging pieces and the top-weighted ones. We do a couple little tests and usually steam the boat around the piece of ice.

That must be where the cowboy moniker comes from, lassoing and dragging those chunks of ice.

Actually the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Texas came up and took some pictures because somebody put the cowboy wranglers on us. So we're sitting in the Hall of Fame in Texas. I didn’t know about it until five years later. Somebody sent up a picture and said we’re in it.

I guess there’s a hall of fame for everything now. Next up the iceberg hall of fame. What’s the biggest iceberg you’ve come across?

Definitely P1. It's a huge piece of ice. Most years all the icebergs are melted down by the first week in August but about four years PL came down and it just got there in September. So there were millions of tonnes melted off it and it was still a huge piece of ice.

Last summer we had a fairly big piece of ice. It was like 300-meters by 300-meters by 20 or 30 meters thick, which converted into roughly 20 million tonnes.

And do you go beyond taking the icebergs?

Well 95 per cent of our ice turns to water for the Iceberg Vodka but we still do research work and some for advertising and PR firms.

If you're working with researchers and the environmentalist side of things do you ever find yourself sparring over environmental impact?

Not per se. Most every year we get about 400 icebergs come up to the east coast of Newfoundland. This year 2014 was an extremely good year, there was probably double that.

Does that affect your opinion of global warming?

No I don’t think. I'm not an expert on global warming. A lot of our icebergs come from the Petermann Glacier, which is up in northern Greenland. What happens is the ice breaks off the shelf, goes into the saltwater, drifts south along Greenland then it's slingshot north by the current up around Baffin Island and then comes down the Labrador coast. It takes three to five years.

We get about 1.5 billion tonnes of ice with all the icebergs, so we get one percent of one percent of one percent of that which turns out to be about 15,000 tonnes with is 4.5 million litres a year.

Is it lucrative? How much would you get for an iceberg? 

It's kind of a trade secret because there’s a lot of competition.

What’s the scale, what could you do in a year?

Well, we're going to get up to two million litres. We just installed some new tanks.

And what would 2 million in a year equate to in terms of profit?

It's a living; it hasn't been a lot of profit yet. It costs a lot to operate a boat and the crew.

Plus you’re out there for a few months.

It’s a month to get ready and a month winding down. 

Do you come home every day?

We generally stay out there until we get the tanks. We want a natural melt so after we get the first 200 or 300 tonnes, you’ve got to wait a few days in order for it to melt down.

It's a tiny bit insane going out there and doing this. I think you might be a little bit mad Ed.

(Laughs) Yeah, we've heard that.

But I’d imagine the landscape is beautiful. Do you come across wildlife often?

All the time – polar bears, white foxes, seals. There was an old World War plane crashed in one piece. They dug it out ten or fifteen years ago.

Wait, you found a piece of an old warplane?

Yeah, well we didn’t but it was documented. There’s been a lot of interest in iceberg water lately.