Almost a hundred years ago a famous doctor and social activist in Newfoundland was sitting stranded on a semi-solid ice field, surrounded by the surviving members of his dog team and drifting away from shore. He was partially soaked, he could see no one on the shore, and darkness was falling. The ice could barely support him and his dogs, and it was eroding away. Due to some fisherman catching sight of him, somehow guessing who he was, and taking risks that I still don’t like to think about, he was rescued relatively unscathed, and was able to continue a career and passion that made him one of the most respected and loved characters in Newfoundland history. As it happens, he got into this mess by trying to get from St. Anthony to a sick boy about 60 miles away by dog-sled. After being rescued, he was able to make it to the boy and treat him. The man was Sir Wilfred Grenfell, and the story of his adventure is called Adrift on an Ice Pan.
This came to mind today for a number of reasons. I was working on the Newfoundland Marine weather forecast, and was passing along numerous warnings for ice pressure and rapid closing of leads (channels in the ice pack that are sometimes navigable by vessels) for much of the Northeast Coast and East Coast. The weather was also fairly nasty with strong northeasterlies and near zero temperatures, freezing drizzle and fog. This was also a bad year for thick ice (some say the thickest ice in 20-30 years). This also happens to be the time that the Newfoundland seal hunt is occurring, with over 100 small vessels trying to get into the main pack near the seals (called the Front) so as to get enough seals to make enough money to make ends meet. These vessels are not designed to penetrate the ice, and can easily be crushed if they get themselves downwind of moving ice, or caught in a closing lead. This hunt has been going on in various incarnations for hundreds of years, and has been crucial to the survival of fisherman along the East and Northeast Coasts up to recent times. Too many of them have never made it home.
In the last couple of days many of the boats involved in the hunt have been caught in the ice or prevented from getting back to the coast, because of the above-mentioned weather conditions. At least one has been severely damaged, and some boats have started to run out of food and water. Other crews are ready to abandon their boats in case the vessels get crushed. The Coast Guard is doing its best, but even ice breakers are having difficulties penetrating the ice to get to those in need.
One of the icebreakers involved in rescue operations is the Sir Wilfred Grenfell, which has become stuck in the ice and currently needs help from other breakers to get itself out of difficulties. The parallels are interesting and evocative, and I’m hoping that the Good Doctor will again be able to succor those in need after he is freed from the ice pans. Grenfell is a big name to live up to, and I wish those on board fair sailing and better weather; the great-grandchildren of those fishermen who risked so much for him still have a Grenfell around to help.
My thoughts and hopes go out to those on the ice tonight.