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A Northwest Passage
E.M. Swift
February 22, 1993
A group of kayakers discovered that the Ice Age is alive and well on Glacier Bay
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February 22, 1993

A Northwest Passage

A group of kayakers discovered that the Ice Age is alive and well on Glacier Bay

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Because of our late departure, we paddled only 2½ hours the first day. Mostly David and Jonathon wanted us to get a feel for the kayaks. I'd been in a sea kayak only twice and was surprised by how stable both the Easy Riders and the Feather-crafts felt once you were in them. David told us that only three kayaks had been tipped over on Alaska Discovery trips in the past 20 years. After five minutes I felt at case, as if I'd been kayaking for weeks. The paddling motion was almost instinctive, the upper-body equivalent of pedaling a bike.

Unfortunately the seat of my Feather-craft began to list to starboard. A strap that secured the seat to the kayak's frame had come undone. Being inexperienced in such matters, I didn't stop to fix it. As I paddled on, slowly but surely my spine became realigned. In the bow Patty began to lean like the Tower of Pisa. The craft itself sat cockeyed in the water.

"You guys look like you're sinking," remarked the friendly couple in the kayak beside us. They were from just outside of San Francisco. I shall refer to them as Ted and Amanda, for reasons that will become apparent later. Ted looked like a banker; Amanda looked successful, sophisticated and refined. They were the oldest members of our group but as fit as any of us.

"We're not sinking. We're leaning," I reassured them.

A throbbing haze of pain began to affect my appreciation of the scenery. Not that you could see much. The low-lying clouds rendered the view a bleak canvas of grays—wet granite plunging steeply into a slate sea. We were heading up Muir Inlet, the east branch of Glacier Bay, one of hundreds of waterways that had been carved out of Alaska's Inside Passage by glaciers. In the rising wind we could smell the glaciers, cold and fresh. The smell was unlike any other.

Two hundred years ago, when the British navigator George Vancouver first sailed up this coast, Glacier Bay was no more than an indentation in the coastline. Today it is 65 miles long and more than 1,000 feet deep in some areas. We paddled past one nondescript point of land that, David told us, was buried under 3,000 feet of ice when the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show. That glacier is now 7½ miles away. The Ice Age is very much alive and well in this part of the world. For while the glaciers in Muir Inlet are slowly retreating, the glaciers in Tarr Inlet, the west branch of the bay, are advancing.

Just before the drizzle became a driving rain, we stopped at a place called Riggs Inlet to set up camp. Patty and I had an inch of water in the bottom of our kayak, but the garbage bags had done their job. My sleeping bag and spare clothing were dry. Clearly, though, this experience had the potential to get old fast. There is nothing quite like setting up and taking down tents in the rain. The inside of a tent starts out looking wonderfully cozy, but then you ruin it by hauling all your wet stuff in with you. Nothing dries. Dampness pervades every corner of the tent, every stitch in your waterproof duffel. Smells ripen. After a couple of days you feel as if you're sleeping inside a terrarium.

During dinner, at the height of that evening's storm, the fly to the cook tent collapsed. Some six quarts of rainwater funneled onto my paper plate, further congealing a pile of spaghetti that had been cooked about 20 minutes past al dente. Already cold, I was now also hungry and wet. That night I wrote in my diary, which had been sealed in a waterproof Ziploc bag, only: "This sucks. Back hurts. Rain. Garlic bread brutal. Bed at 10 p.m." Pretty pathetic. But I never claimed to be Meriwether Lewis.

The next morning I wrote: "Muddah, Faddah, kindly disregard this letter." That's the last line of the old Allan Sherman song about a letter sent home from a hellish summer camp. The kid who wrote the letter, needless to say, ended up having a good time.

I had awakened in the middle of a picture postcard. The rain had stopped. The clouds had cleared. The bay, now a mirror, reflected a snowcapped peak that had not been visible the previous evening. Chunks of pale-blue glacial ice floated in the still lake. The water was aquamarine, the color of the Caribbean. It was one of the loveliest settings I'd ever seen.

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