There's nothing quite as chilling as an iceberg. Especially if you're kayaking through Alaska's Inside Passage before the steep, towering face of LeConte Glacier. LeConte is like some great living thing that for 15,000 years has calved ice into the sea in huge, frightening chunks. The crumbling glacier fills the bay with bergs and floes that are as big as the White House.
There's nothing quite as cool as an ice floe. Especially if you're dodging one in the waters of LeConte Bay. The shifting seascape of ice can leave a kayaker as giddy as an eight-year-old finding shapes in clouds. Sort out the jagged images, and you'll see the Wonders of the Ancient World: a pyramid, the Sphinx, godlike figures. You keep waiting for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
It was my own eight-year-old who got me hot over ice. Daisy had been reading about baidarkas, the primitive kayaks in which the Aleuts once ranged the Aleutian ice fields. One morning around our Pennsylvania breakfast table she said, "I want to go to Alaska and paddle a kayak and see a salmon." The only negotiable part was the salmon. Daisy would settle for a woolly mammoth, or possibly Sasquatch, embedded in ice.
So in June, Daisy, my father-in-law and I headed to Alaska for five days of camping and sea kayaking. We signed on with Mountain Travel-Sobek, an El Cerrito, Calif., outfitter with trips up and down the 49th state. We chose down: LeConte is the southernmost active tidewater glacier in the Northern Hemisphere.
Like all freshwater glaciers, LeConte empties into salt water. The chunks break into floes that ply the bay, menacing kayakers like pirate galleys. An awesome armada drifts heavily out to Frederick Sound; some floes have luminous white masts, and others have hulls that glow SaniFlush blue. Those with slick, glassy flanks have recently capsized, as icebergs do when they slowly melt underwater and grow lopsided.
The possibility of getting flipped into water that is 37° rules out climbing aboard a berg. This disappointed Daisy. She had planned a tea party on a berg with her stuffed toy wolf, Claudius. But Daisy was cheered by the spectacle of white ice on green water. "It looks like marshmallows dancing in mint tea," she observed.
Our 10-member, six-kayak expedition picked its way through popweed and sea kelp. I was the helmsman of a two-hole kayak, steering by means of a foot-controlled rudder in the stern. Daisy and my father-in-law took turns in the bow. My father-in-law, a onetime second petty officer on the USS Missouri, navigated as if he had just sighted a rogue iceberg from the deck of the Titanic. "Dodge that ice, dammit!" he shouted.
"Watch out, for crissake!" I said. I was having trouble keeping my bumper-car instincts in check. He said that's not how exploring works: You're supposed to survive so you can tell of your adventures.
Daisy was more intrepid. "Ice at 12 o'clock!" she yelled. "Full speed ahead!" To her, ice is nice, but bumping is better. "I feel like I'm blindfolded in a spook house," she said. The bergs creaked and moaned and crackled in counterpoint to the long, burry whistles of the varied thrush and the high, tinkling trills of the winter wren. A covey of eagles wheeled overhead, and seals and sea otters popped their heads up from the water to stare at us quizzically.
Convinced that the otters they hunted were transformed humans, the Aleuts used to try to lure them by wearing festive gut-skin raincoats and wooden, peaked hats. Daisy was decked out in a far less stylish jumpsuit of polypropylene—the material that accounts, in part, for the recent sea-kayaking boom. It allows you to paddle around glaciers without becoming one.