Twenty years ago my dog Tundra and I spent the winter on the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, house and dog-sitting. The owner of the handbuilt house and of Max the dog warned me that the roaring and pounding of the nearby ocean would start to drive me crazy after a while. Then one morning I’d wake up to … silence. That silence meant the drift ice was in.
It happened exactly as he said. I started by loving the sound of the ocean but eventually I wondered ‘Will it ever stop?’ Then one February morning I woke up and … dead silence. The dogs and I walked onto the beach and gazed across a vast expanse of ice where wild waves had been just the day before.
The pooches and I spent many hours on that shore. The ice, formed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, breaks apart and drifts, blown about by the wind. Some days it crowded up against the shore, other days the wind blew it offshore until it was just a brilliant white line on the horizon. At times it was so tightly packed you could walk on it, but often it was broken into pans, or clampers, that shifted and jostled with the ocean’s motion. Clamper jumping is a sport of sorts, but only for The Young and the Reckless ;-)
One thing these photos don’t capture is the sounds the shifting ice makes. More that once I was spooked by the ghostly moans and shrieks from grinding ice. It put me in mind of those explorers, like Franklin and Shackleton, whose ships became trapped in the ice. The sounds (which included their ships being crushed) must have been hair-raising.
I’ve never been to the Arctic (see ‘bucket list’) but that winter, when I turned my back to the forested highlands and stared across the ice extending all the way to the horizon, I imagined myself there, alone in the arctic. I had a profound sense of my smallness and insignificance in the face of that vast white expanse. Of course, unlike those unlucky explorers, I could turn my back on the ice and head up to the house to warm up by the wood stove.
Unlike the Arctic Ocean, the open Atlantic rarely freezes. Salt water has a (slightly) lower freezing point than fresh and the constant mixing motion of waves, tides and currents inhibits freezing. Harbours and bays are more protected and they do freeze over. Seasonal ice also forms in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Strait of Belle Isle (between Labrador and Newfoundland). When the ice breaks up it finds its way to Cape Breton’s shores, usually arriving in northern Cape Breton in February and staying until April or May. Ice passes into the Cabot Strait between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, arriving here on the North Shore around March. That is, if it comes at all. With milder winters and warming oceans, there are years when there is little to no sea ice in the Gulf.
(Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, the North Shore is on the east side of the western peninsula of Cape Breton, just south of the area called ‘Down North’. Got it?)
I’d heard that the pinkish-red tinge often seen on the snowy ice is a souvenir from Prince Edward Island’s red sandy beaches. But it turns out to be Chlamydomonas nivalis, a unicellular green alga that contains a red carotenoid pigment called astaxanthin. Or, if you prefer, you can skip all the jargon and just go with the delightful name ‘watermelon snow’.
‘The Ice is in!’
The arrival of the ice is something of an event here (we lead quiet lives). Word gets out. There are photos posted on social media and comments about the sudden silence. But drift ice is more than just cool to look at (ha ha). Sea ice forms a protective barrier against winter’s heavy storm surf and reduces beach and cliff erosion. Loss of seasonal ice due to climate change removes that barrier and accelerates coastal erosion.
The ice is also a convenient means of travel for all kinds of animals, including the human kind. It has become more treacherous for people and their heavy vehicles to traverse as our winters warm, but many animals still travel on the ice. I saw coyotes out on the northern drift ice a few times. It’s a convenient shortcut and easier going than deep snow. When coyotes migrated from the mainland to Cape Breton they didn’t need the causeway – they just sauntered across the ice. Drift ice is also a hunting ground for coyotes on the lookout for a seal meal.
Ice is the nursery where seals pup and nurse their young. Years with low or no ice can force seals to give birth on the shore, with greater exposure to predators. Or, as in the picture below, thin ice platforms might fragment before the pups are old enough to survive in the water.
Drift Ice Gallery
What I love most about the ice is the astonishing array of shapes and forms it takes. Last December I posted Winter’s Art Gallery, a photo essay of winter’s beautiful creations of ice and snow. I omitted drift ice from that gallery since it deserves a page all its own. Now, combing through dozens of photos taken over the years, I’m finding it hard to choose. But here are the finalists. Click to see full-size versions of these any of the photos on this page.
The Beauties …
… and the Beasts
In March 2012 an ice wall formed along this beach. Waves jumbled and tumbled ice chunks and also froze in place to form these strange shapes. Do you see sea monsters too? Or is it just me …
And then we go from the sublime …
… to the ridiculous
The drift ice has already come and gone along the North Shore but I spoke with my faithful correspondent and there is still ice down north. So who knows? Perhaps the ice will drift over for one more visit before it goes into a final meltdown. But by July it will be us, not ice, floating about on the ocean.
Not quite lobster season yet but coming soon to a wharf near you!
One final note: I’m a transplanted Albertan and my knowledge of the sea, sea ice and sea-ice terminology is limited. If I’ve made any mistakes or if you have any observations to add, please feel free to let me know in the comments below. I’m always keen to learn.
Sue McKay Miller
April 6, 2022
In memory of Tundra, my faithful traveling companion on the road and in life (1991-2007)