We have long dreamed of a trip to Alaska to visit glaciers, experience their grandeur, and understand more directly the impact of climate change. We also wanted to visit my brother-in-law, Ric, and his wife, Kathy, who volunteered to lead a road trip through some of the wilder places in that wildest of all states.
And so, we planned a June 2022 trip to kayak in Prince William Sound near the Columbia glacier and hike the toe of the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park—both adventures of great privilege and magnificence. Having Ric and Kathy as narrators/drivers/tour guides was an extraordinary bonus.
We began our trip driving south alongside Turnagain Arm from Anchorage to Prince William Sound where we caught a ferry from Whittier to Valdez. On the way to Whittier, we stopped at the Portage Glacier visitor center. Ric explained how the glacier had been a major feature at the edge of the center when it opened in May 1986. Now the glacier has retreated across the lake and behind a ridge and is no longer visible.
On our six-hour ferry ride to Valdez we passed the mouth of Columbia Bay full of icebergs. (Columbia Bay is one of many bays pouring into the forested, island studded Prince William Sound.) We passed the site of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster in 1989 which dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into these pristine waters. We marveled at islands large enough to have their own mountain ranges and exchanged concerns with Ric and Kathy about the true fragility of the waters of Prince William Sound. Fortunately, we saw sea otters, an orca, and sea lions. We later learned that sea otters had made a better comeback after the oil spill than the resident orca pod.
Glaciers are extremely dangerous/unpredictable rivers of ice. To experience them from the water and on foot we knew the importance of local guides. For our paddle, we joined Anadyr Kayaking because my research and conversations convinced me that their 33 years of experience in Valdez would ensure excellent safety and natural history skills. We were not disappointed! Kayaking the Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound required that guides and paddlers take a two-hour water taxi to ferry our kayaks into Columbia Bay near the calving face of the glacier.
We off-loaded our plastic double kayaks onto a cobblestone beach. The motorized taxi retreated out of sight and we were alone at the mouth of creation. The air temperature on that partly cloudy June day was 45 degrees F. We wore three layers of warmth on our legs, four layers of clothing on our torsos, donned life jackets and spray skirts, climbed into our kayaks and pushed into a sea of floating ice. Our skilled guides maneuvered a pathway through the small to medium icebergs, offering us many angled views of towering walls of blue and white ice.
Glaciers are not rivers that flow. Glaciers are rivers that crack under pressure, burst, boom, grind, and calve. The SOUNDS of the glacier added an element of unease and alertness. Our guides brought us to within 1.5 miles of where ice meets saltwater. We paused, listened, and drifted on this windless morning. I was thrilled to be in a place with virtually no sign of human presence. Here was The Beginning. Rocks that had been crushed and moved and buried for millennia suddenly revealed. Ice that had taken ten thousand years to form, now afloat and melting in two days.
We paddled to another rocky beach for lunch and pulled the boats high enough to avoid the incoming tide. The guides made hot chocolate and tea while we ate standing up, stretching our legs. The scale of the wild in Alaska is hard to comprehend. A “small” calving event occurred across the bay and we watched a wave undulate the ice-filled channel and ripple onto our shore. An occasional gull flew by. The seals and sea otters that we had seen swimming among the ice floes were nowhere to be seen way down in this ice-choked arm of the bay. There were NO lichens on the rocks. Life as we know it had not yet taken hold here in the raw aftermath of melting glacier.
It was exactly 30 years earlier that I had pushed off the shore of Lake Superior to begin kayaking around the largest of the Great Lakes. My life was changed by that journey. I stand humbly in the beauty of these years, grateful for so many adventures, grateful for this day of awe and reverie.
And yet, my awe is tempered by knowledge that this beach was under ice just one year ago. I am standing on human-caused climate change. The World Glacier Monitoring Service has tracked ice changes in relationship to temperature and mass since 1894. The scientific evidence regarding glacial loss is absolutely clear. The Columbia is the fastest melting glacier in North America and is contributing 1% of global sea level rise.
Questions began churning inside me. What can one person do about the magnitude of the problem of climate change? Is that even the right question? Shhhh . . . whispered myself to myself. Just be here. The right question and your own unique answer(s) lie submerged, like the bulk of each iceberg before you. Fill your soul only with beauty and wonder.
Next blog: Glaciers, Part II, Hiking