Race Against the Ice

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: May 06, 2021 11:18 AM


By Aubrey Barfoot

I was 11 years old, cod fishing for the season at Fishot Islands with my grandfather, Aubrey Piccott, of Brookfield, NL. We had settled into our small summer residence in late May, after a calm trip on the Winnifred Lee, a Wesleyviille schooner.

Mid-afternoon one Saturday, my uncle Kenneth asked me to go cod fishing with him so we may have a fresh codfish for Sunday dinner. We could see drift ice floating north from St. Anthony and scraping along the shore of Fishot Islands. We were concentrating exclusively on our cod jigging, so we ignored the buildup of ice pans along the coastline.

When my uncle decided it was time to return home, we noticed ice pans had blocked our way back to our harbour. Farther south there was another entrance to which we anxiously rowed our punt. But when we arrived there, this entrance was closed, too, with drift ice. Our only choice was to row around the south of the island and enter through an ice-free harbour on the west side of our island.

We noticed that the tide was taking the ice around the south of the island. We had to force our way through ice pans. About halfway along we found our way blocked with ice pans closely touching each other; there was no open water for us to get through. We were drifting south, the ice taking us away from land.

An ice pan could puncture a hole in our small boat, and then if a pan of ice were available we would have to spend the night on it, hoping to be rescued the next day. All these possibilities depended on good luck. We glimpsed one dangerous choice just ahead of us. A large ice pan, tossing up and down in the water with the wind and the tide, had a u-shaped hole in its centre. When the pan of ice dipped low in the tide, we guessed there was just enough depth and width for us to push our punt through if we could do it with enough speed. Otherwise we would be caught, and the punt would tip us into the icy cold, May salt water. 

With our oars we forced our boat through the ice pans, directing our boat for this ray of hope. We watched carefully for the ice pan to dip low enough for us to push our boat over it to the safety of the opposite side. Holding our breath and whispering a fervent prayer, we pushed with our oars with all our strength as the ice pan dipped. 

Whee! We made it! We were saved. We were in open water on the other side of the ice pans. But we still had to row around the island. And we had a second rival: darkness was falling and we had a long distance to row our boat. Finally, we rowed through the harbour’s west entrance and, with aching arm muscles, made it home to the relief of my worried grandparents.