SI Vault
 
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 22, 1993

A Northwest Passage

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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

And, wonder of wonders, the weather held. For two days we kayaked among Muir, Riggs and McBride glaciers, ogling their 200-foot-high faces. In the sunshine those faces were Popsicle blue. The tops of the glaciers, however, looked as filthy as city slush, soiled by pulverized rock that had been gouged off the mountainsides during the glaciers' snail-paced retreat.

Having fixed my kayak seat, I was paddling without pain, in my shirtsleeves. My rain gear was stuffed into the backpack between my legs. My sleeping bag was between my feet. My duffel was behind my back, and the tent was crammed into the stern. Every available inch of storage space was taken.

Once we had clamped down our kayaks' waterproof skirts, sealing off the hatches, we were struck by a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency and belonging. The kayaks seemed as natural to that environment as the ubiquitous seals—sleek, graceful, quiet and quick. No one complained of sore muscles. Paddling a kayak was comfortable, a far more balanced form of exercise than paddling a canoe. Conversation came easily, and the hours passed rapidly. With only a few inches of freeboard, the kayaks gave one the wonderful sensation of traveling not on the water but in it.

We had hoped to camp on the second night near the base of McBride Glacier, the most active glacier in the inlet. That proved to be impossible. The channel was chockablock with chunks of ice that had fallen off McBride in the last two days. Calving, it's called.

Some of the ice chunks were the size of garden sheds. They were drifting into the bay, so we had to pick our way through them, maneuvering each kayak by means of the foot-controlled rudder in the stern. For reasons I could not begin to fathom, some of the ice floes were drifting faster than others. Small ones stacked up behind big ones, sometimes tumbling into one another like giant dice or burbling unexpectedly to the surface.

We listened as we paddled, ready to push off from anything that tipped in our direction. It was as if the icebergs were alive. There would be silence for a minute, followed by a brrrrrff or a gurgling splash, like the sound of a bird flushing or a seal breaking the surface, and then a small iceberg would sit bobbing in the water. I kept thinking something underneath the water was playing with them. David later told us that's exactly what killer whales do. Orcas in search of an easy meal tip over small icebergs, hoping to catch a seal sunning itself.

I took a walk that evening up to the mouth of McBride Glacier. Just as it came into view, a huge slab broke free from its face and made a titanic splash. Returning to camp, I found several large pieces of wood on the ground far above the high-tide line. No tree of that size was growing within miles. Had the wood been blown ashore during a heavy storm? I asked Jonathon about it, and he told me those pieces were probably 4,000 years old, the remains of trees that had been felled by the glacier's advance. They were perfectly preserved and still burnable.

All night long McBride Glacier continued to calve. The cracking of the ice as it broke away from the glacier reverberated across the bay, echoing off the cliffs on the opposite shore. It sounded exactly like thunder—beautiful and haunting in the windless, starry night—elemental and violent. I listened for a long time before drifting off to sleep.

We were paddling 10 to 12 miles a day. As a group, thank heaven, we turned out to be terrifically congenial. Everyone paddled at a similar pace. There were no stragglers and no speed demons. We saw almost no signs of other people. A crab trawler passed us one morning. And a lone kayaker. Once a day a cruise vessel laden with tourists chugged by on its way to the Tarr Inlet glaciers. The ships were brief and, to me, inoffensive interludes to the wilderness experience, but David hated them.

The farther south we progressed, the more varied the wildlife became. In addition to seals, we began to see greater numbers of dolphins, bald eagles, kingfishers, oystercatchers and pigeon guillemots. We saw a moose cow and calf and, farther down, a sandhill crane. No-see-ums and blackflies emerged from nowhere at dawn and dusk, begging the question: What do they live on when thin-skinned kayakers aren't around?

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9