Glaciers Part I, Paddling
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
I am with tears, have goosebumps, am deeply moved by this profound transmission of your inspiring journey, home, inward and outward. love, Anne
Thank you, friend. I know you know the incredible vastness and beauty of Alaska from your own pilgrimage there.
Oh Ann. All of this, all, gave me shivers. What a dream come true to behold this place, and in this adventurous, brave way. And good for you letting go of the sadness of the melting. What a place to be 30 years after Lake Superior! Was that by design? I suppose so. And I’m in love with Jose and Jose! Thank you for sharing your adventure. I can’t wait for the next installment.
Thank you, friend. It was,indeed, by design. As a fun fact, one of our guides was not even born when I paddled around the lake. Made for some interesting conversations.
This is an exciting and insightful post about your journey! We just got back from hiking in Glacier and Banff Natl Parks. Lots of snow in the high country still. Yet, glaciers receding. With a grateful heart and deep bow, Marilyn
Yes, we must celebrate any glacier that is holding steady and never take them for granted. We were amazed how much snow remained in the high country of Alaska in mid-June. One of the glaciers I mentioned, the Worthington glacier, is located at Thompson Pass—snowiest place in Alaska. Because of this that glacier is “somewhat” holding its own—but as our brother pointed out, still steadily receding.
Ann! This is an amazing account of your recent journey! Wow! I had no clue you did so many things. I’m in awe—and so happy for you and C. John and I talked about it tonight—how we are such armchair adventurers…but with you in spirit. Thanks for such an incredible and inspiring post with beautiful photos.
Thank you, Pam. Glad to provide adventuring inspiration. Love, Ann
Shh – just be here … the soundest of advise!
As usual, I’m so touched by what you write, Annie! I’m glad that you allowed yourself to “…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.” There’s a time and a place for everything, and the answers will come … but as Joana Macy says, the very first step is to register and be in gratitude for what is. I will join you there! ❤️
Gratitude, I believe, is an important basic skill that requires alertness, humility and practice.
Wow! What an incredible experience! And the 30 year anniversary of your journey around Lake Superior with Paul is of such powerful significance. I’m thrilled for you and Christina getting to explore this beauty.
Dear Ann, What an adventure! Your descriptions and photos take me right back to the Turnagain Arm where I lived for a year in the little town of Girdwood 50 years ago. So sad to hear how the glaciers are receding. Yes, as you said, as you stood on human-caused climate change, “Just be here. The right question and your own unique answer(s) lie submerged, like the bulk of each iceberg before you.” You are a fabulous tour guide, for both the outer and inner landscapes, for those reading your blog! Looking forward to Glacier post #2.
Magnificent and tender. Thank you so much for this glimpse of the adventure.
This brings tears to my eyes – Tears of both joy and sorrow. I love reading about your adventures and look forward to the next installment. And I so appreciate reading about your wisdom to shush your worried mind and allow yourself to sit and take in the beauty. It is difficult sometimes to focus on what is still here to love with all our hearts even as we steep in the loss. Both. And. What a world! xo
I’m reading this from just above the shoreline on the Oregon Coast. Here, the largest threat is the chronic erosion caused by over-zealous development. It is stunning to see the photos of glacial Alaska. What a dream trip and such serendipitous timing with your previous adventure. We all have some role, some small part in how this plays out. Thank you for bearing witness and for being astonished and telling about it*
Appreciate your always wise comments, “We all have some role, some small part in how this plays out.” And that is the ongoing journey—to dwell in appreciation and wonder and to act in wisdom. Be well, Bonnie Rae
I am in awe of the place where you were, and I am in awe of you and Christina, Ann, of your adventurous spirits that take you where you need to be. Gratitude for the beauty and gratitude for this post!
Lovely to get a note from a “circleways” email and from an old friend! Be well, James.
I have travelled a little in thos remote parts of Alaska to Cordova and such, and the awe you capture in this post reminds me too of how it feels to be amongst those mountains and islands and inlets. Being a dweller of one of those inlets, I recognize the kin of crinkle in the landscape. And the breathless wonder and awe is famliar.
Not life as we know it, but the Beginning,yes. The Source of our life is rock and water ice and sun and wind and from that we are shaped
To a kindred spirit of wild mountains, islands, and inlets, thank you for taking the time to reach out. Good to hear from you! Ann
I remember the Columbia Glacier in 1979 being incredible in its size and sounds. The ferry would sound its horn and a section would break off into PWS to the awe of the passengers. There is so little of it left now. I lived in Valdez for a year in 1979 before returning to the lower 48. It was a year of great adventures as a police department dispatcher. The power of this primitive land never leaves my soul. Thank you for your wise words about just “being there.”
Wow, that is an important piece of history! Now 43 years later when the ferry goes by Columbia Bay there is no glacier in sight. It has retreated out of view, but the bay near where the ferry crosses is full of icebergs. A police department dispatcher—you never cease to amaze me! Thank you for writing! Ann
What a wonderful way to mark 30 years … and what a rich, generative journey it has been,
I am inspired to see how you and Christina always weave a lot of meaning into your (thoughtful) travels.
I often struggle myself – when (& where) is a good time to travel (knowing that travel comes with an environmental footprint that makes me uncomfortable). On the other hand – I know in my bones that Lover Earth needs acknowledging, celebrating, thanking.
What you shared here is a real honoring of the forces of nature. And here I mean your inner nature too – the awe, the wonder, the reverence.
Thank you for sharing.
Yes, I struggle a lot with my discomfort at the environmental costs of travel and the privilege it entails. “On the other hand – I know in my bones that Lover Earth needs acknowledging, celebrating, thanking.” With appreciation for that language and the ongoing journey of balancing my sense of wonder with my earth stewardship. Ann
Can’t do any better than OH my goodness! WOW! … the expression words escape me has full meaning in your sharing. Thank you most profoundly.
There is so much here, Ann…realizing a dream, being there on your 30th anniversary of another momentous kayaking adventure, your observations and questions. I recently read of an avalanche in the Italian Alps caused by a glacier breaking (is it calving when on land?) taking the lives of several hikers. Too, a post from OnBeing, quoting Rache Naomi Remen “What if we were exactly what’s needed? What then? How would I live if I was exactly what’s needed to heal the world?” These questions resonate and fill me with hopeful possibility. Your writing and the remarks of your friends here are deeply thoughtful. Thank you…
Ah, Katharine, always the wise questions from Rache Naomi Remen. These questions also fill me with hope as I continue to walk the walk of hopeful possibility in the midst of seemingly impossible externalities. But then, perhaps the human world around us has always (even going back a very long time) been filled with precisely the challenges that demand our full, honest, creative selves. And therein lies the possibility of our gift to the world.
Ann, What a journey indeed, marking the 30th anniversary – how appropriate! Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us this portion of it – loved the photos of such beauty.
I humbly stand behind you regarding journeys that change our lives forever! What gifts they are to hold and cherish long after our return home. Priceless.
I also so appreciated your soul’s guidance to just behold the beauty and wonder that was right there before you. Your personal action will surely unfold in good time, aided by those awesome imprinted visuals as your guide. That especially hit home in my heart.
Thank you, Jeanne, for acknowledging the full depth and breadth of undertaking. Ann
Fabulous! I love your blogs and and adventures. I read your book several years ago about you’re kayaking adventure on Lake Superior.
Very much appreciate your taking the time to write. An author never knows the trajectory of her book, so it is fun to get this feedback after all the years that have passed since publishing Deep Water Passage in 1995. Ann
I remember the paddle of 30 years ago!
You remain a remarkable woman and witness for the earth
Thank you, my longtime friend. The last sentence, of course, applies to you as well. Ann
Blue ice! Hot chocolate in June! Rivers of ice “burst boom grind calve.” It sounds like a grand adventure. Please keep us posted about what you learn about what we can do…bearing witness, here.
Thank you, Margaret. Working on my sequel and thinking about this very thoughtful question.