Southeast Alaska and Glacier Bay
Early September , 2002
East arm of Glacier Bay
 
 
 

I spent the last week of my summer adventure paddling a kayak around Glacier Bay in Alaska. And I wouldn't have interrupted the fun long enough to do anything as silly write about it. I did take several hundred photos.

It was Annie's idea, and she didn't have to twist my arm very hard to get me to go along. We met in Juneau, took a ferry to the edge of Glacier Bay, rented a double kayak, and got dumped off on the edge of the wild. All in a variety of types of rain – drizzle to downpour – that pass for "the weather" in the area.

Our first night of camping, we suffered a tent malfunction that got half of our gear wet -- including Annie's sleeping bag. So we tightened the belts on our stoic attitudes, vowed that if we were to be cold and wet, we would at least refrain from being miserable. And we carried on. Right into a brilliant, warm, sunny week.

We did everything we could to appreciate the gift of beautiful weather in a wide landscape filled with wild creatures. We paddled wide-eyed through the wide blue arm of ocean, past high mountains whose forested shoulders reached upward to bare rock, snow and ice. We saw brown bears and black bears and mountain goats and wolf tracks and moose sign. Mussels and urchins and strange starfish. River otters and sea otters and seals and sea lions and harbor porpoises. Salmon and jellyfish. And birds, which – thankfully – Annie could identify: Mergansers and scoters and puffins and auklets and murrelets and guillemots and harlequin ducks. (All of which – left to my own devices – I would have called "ducks".) Plus glaucus wing gulls and mew gulls and kittiwakes and maybe a shearwater or a fulmar. ("Seagulls.") Oystercatchers and yellowlegs and ruddy turnstones. ("Sandpipers?") Almost anywhere we looked, there was some type of creature, filling it’s niche in the cycle of life that starts with the nutrient rich water of this cold coast.

The earth is warming, they tell me. Glacier Bay is rampant with change. What was a wall of glacial ice in the side of Icy Straight not much more than two hundred years ago, is now a fifty mile deep set of branching and re-branching inlets, sloshing with tides, laden with silt from the many glaciers – which are all beating a hasty retreat toward the North Pole. "New" land is revealed by the retreat of the ice, and more new land springs up from below the water as the earth rebounds from the crushing weight of the vanishing glaciers.

We paddled up the East Arm of the bay, stayed close to the shore of the mile-and-a-half wide fiord, our double kayak a floating feather in the grand scale of the landscape. One day of drizzle burned into sunshine days and starlit nights as we explored and camped. Moments of Awe and Wonder stacked thick upon each other, so to help me wrap the words around the experience, I'll take just one day and try to describe what we saw and how I felt.

On the morning of our fourth day we had our breakfast, as usual, in the intertidal zone, where any crumbs or dropped food would be washed away by the next high tide – an important safety practice, since it helps to prevent wildlife (Read: Large bears.) from thinking of Humans and Food in the same salivating sentence. Then we repacked our food into bear-resistant plastic barrels, loaded them and the rest of our gear into our kayak – which left nearly enough room for us to squeeze inside and push off into the chilly water.

Across the smooth reflection of the small cove where we'd camped, a small stream flowed through red-orange grass into a muddy fan as it met the salt water. A large brown bear wandered out onto the muddy flat. We drifted quietly closer as the bright morning sun behind brought a glowing halo to the thick fur. The bear did its bear thing, searching the shore for its own breakfast, then slipped into the thick growth of young alder trees. We turned toward the main arm of the bay and searched our morning muscles for the rhythm of our paddle stroke.

The smooth water ended as we turned right, headed up-bay and came out from behind the protection of the 1200 foot high Nunatak – a rocky prominence that had split the glacier's flow, way back in the 1930's, when that part of the bay had still been filled with ice. The wind was blowing more-or-less down-bay, into our faces, and the water surface was getting stirred into a dicey chop. We stopped and bobbed clumsily and for a quick consultation. It didn't look that bad. But we both knew that though our combined outdoor experience was reasonably respectable, our kayak experience was somewhat limited. And our Kayak in Big Water skill was, well, lacking. We knew that the longer the wind blew, the bigger the waves would get, and that the Nunatak would probably focus and speed the wind as we paddled past it. The wide double kayak felt stable and secure with our bloat of ballast tucked inside, and we could stay close to the shore. But we also knew that a thirty-yard swim in the icy water was as good as a mile. We decided that if it didn't get any worse, we'd be within our comfort zone. If it got worse, we'd hit the shore and wait it out.

We snugged up our spray skirts, buttoned our rubber jackets and paddled into the fray, so to speak. And it did get worse. But not much worse. The wind stiffened a little bit and waves hit the bow and splashed all over Annie. Things were more comfortable for me in the rear seat. I was responsible for steering, and that proved a little awkward. I tried to keep us close to shore, but the wind and waves were coming in with just enough angle that I had to aim away from shore to keep us from getting sideswiped – which would increase our chances of being rolled. I zigged and zagged. Angled toward the shore until I saw a bigger line of waves coming our way, then turned into them so they could slap the bow and send spray onto Annie. Then back toward the shore.

The time between bigger groups of waves got shorter, and the waves themselves grew in height to what seemed at the time like two feet, but was probably barely one foot. My zig-zag ploy was only marginally successful, and our distance from the safety of the shore grew. I ducked my head behind Annie, she ducked behind her hat brim, and we paddled on, aimed toward a tree-covered point of land protruding from the side of the bay where we hoped we would find shelter.

We found a certain rhythm in the wind, the waves, the paddle strokes. I had time to imagine the results of tipping over. More questions than answers. Stay with the boat and the gear, or try to swim? Would I even be able to swim in the icy water? Could we make it to shore swimming in rubber boots and rubber pants and rubber jackets with life jackets? Would it be better to strip off the boots? The pants? If we did make it to shore, would we be able to get warm again? Why was my lighter packed deep in the boat and not in my pocket with a few other survival items?

That was about it for adventure on the high seas. Some tense minutes, some dark questions, then we were out of the wind on calm water behind the point. We landed, ate some food, and by the time we paddled on around the point, the wind had calmed and our eyes went beyond the tight circle of the immediate water, to the high, jagged mountain peaks, to massive humped-white streams of glacial ice pouring down wide curved valleys.

Icebergs in the water. Strange shapes in white, blue and dirty black, sculpted by sun, rain, time. Just the tip of them visible – as we repeatedly pointed out to each other. High mountain snowfall from thousands of years ago, fallen thick, packed by the pressure of its own weight into ice, heavy enough to flow, slow water, down rough valleys carved to smoothness by the grinding power. Here, the rivers of ice flowed into the sea. We passed a ridge and looked up an inlet to our right. Close, a wide gravel bar with a narrow, ice-chocked outflow, and beyond, a huge lagoon walled off on the far side by a cracked blue wall of glacial ice.

We had been warned to avoid the dangerous outflow, a smooth, narrow channel where the water of the lagoon met with the open water the bay, and we dutifully paddled far around it – wondering what hidden dangers lurked there. A slightly higher concentration of icebergs was the only danger we could see. Seemed silly to be so cautious. We pulled the kayak onto the edge of the gravel bar and I held the boat so it wouldn't float away in the breeze. Annie ran across to the lagoon for a view and then came back and held the boat while I ran across.

Fantastic ice shapes sailed away into the distance where the blue face of the glacier gleamed like a jewel from behind an elbow of bare rock. Above the mass of the glacier, steep valley walls climbed upward, bare scoured rock that gave way to a film of green vegetation, then back to rock and snow at the mountaintops, crisp against blue sky and a brush of clouds. The scale of the scene was difficult to grasp; there was nothing of known size in my whole field of vision to give any clue. The only two things that could lend any sense to the scale – Annie and the kayak – were behind me. Those two clues and my own presence, I realized, were likely all that were to be found in the whole upper bay. The evening before, the last three other kayakers had paddled downbay in the shadowed light, and left us alone in the wild.

The faceted blue face of the glacier seemed so close, but was over two miles away, its face probably two hundred feet high. The creased and ridged mountains, four thousand feet and higher. The floating bits of bergs, (only the tip of them visible) bigger, in some cases, than apartments I've lived in. In such a landscape it was easy to feel small. But also ecstatic. And reverent.

I turned back toward the boat and Annie, back toward my sense of scale. A crack and rumble filled the whole wide sky. I whirled around and saw nothing. A piece of glacier too small to be seen from where I stood had tumbled down and sent its reverberations bounding out across the walls of the valley. Even the scale of Sound was to be questioned.

There was a high point on the gravel bar where some alder bushes were fast becoming alder trees. It looked like a great place to camp. But there was plenty of day left. We decided we'd come back, after paddling on up the bay to explore one more glacier. First, though, we flirted with death.

The warning to avoid the danger of the lagoon's narrow outflow was like a "Wet Paint" sign that we just couldn't keep our fingers off. Fools, we paddled a loop right past the mouth of the outflow, dodged a few of the ice chunks sitting there, and then startled ourselves by bouncing slightly off a rock we didn't see in the silty water. Was that it? Was that the danger? Then we shrugged off, on up the bay, wondering what the big deal was.

The era of the tidewater glacier is almost finished in Glacier Bay. Many of the glaciers have retreated into the higher valleys where their ice no longer falls into the ocean. We pulled our boat up onto squelchy mud - safe in the outgoing tide - and hiked up onto the gravel crest of a moraine. To our right, a dirty arm of one glacier was spilling into a brown river. Ahead, another great glacier was grinding to a halt, one desperate arm flung over a ridge of rock and to the water's edge, while the main face seemed to have ground to a halt in a flat plain of rough silt.

We hiked along the brown river to where the rubble turned to ice, past clear pools where perhaps a buried ice chunk had slowly melted away. One slash of color, the deep vibrant blue of a fresh fracture in the ice drew us forward through a pallet of dull browns. Dry, windblown silt, brown mud, washed sand, dun rock, and dirty white snow shot with streaks of black. The blessing of color was only in the sky, and in that one window into the blue interior of the glacier. There was nothing green. Nothing growing. Few birds ventured this deep into the bay. Even the small flies that had been biting us incessantly for days were nowhere to be found. The land here was too new. Too fresh. Too recently uncovered after millennia of glacial grinding. Ground zero of global warming.

We tried to wade through the river where it ran along the face of the ice, but turned back when it threatened to overrun our rubber boots. When we walked back, the sun was angling off a wide mud flat that had appeared between our boat and the water. The kayak was too heavy to carry with all our gear loaded, but we tugged on the bow rope and it slid just fine over the slick mud until it was floating again. We stuck our butts in the seats and shoved off with our boots dangling, dragging muddy swirls through the water until they were finally clean. We made one stop to get clear drinking water from a small rivulet, and paddled back on the outgoing tide to our glacier view gravel bar.

As we came close to where we'd landed before, I think we both said something like "Whoa!". The narrow outflow we'd so gallantly paddled through was running like a river as the tide swept out of the lagoon. Great chunks of ice were pouring through, crashing into each other, grinding along the bottom, and overturning with groaning crashes. We stared for a few moments, then started to laugh. So that's what was so dangerous.
We landed our kayak well clear of the fast water, unloaded everything in a pile nearby, and grunted and squelched across muddy mussel beds and slippery rockweed carrying the boat way up out of the reach of the tide. We lashed it to an alder bush and went back for our gear, two more trips each to gather all the awkward bear barrels, waterproof packs, water bottles, and the bundles of warm clothes and spare dry clothes that we hadn't needed all week. We set up the tent and got our camp arranged – haltingly, because we kept stopping to take in the scene. The late sun painted the mountaintops. The glacier crashed and rumbled. Bergs slowed and stopped dragging through the outflow. Gulls wheeled away toward night.

Dinnertime was equally distracting. We cooked and cleaned as twilight settled, as the tide turned and slowly began to slurp back in, as mountains turned to silhouettes. It was near dark and I was down at the water’s edge cleaning the last of our dishes in the tidal grit. Some words tumbled out of Annie’s mouth, something exciting, I could tell. Something exciting enough that she could hardly say it. I looked at her. She pointed. I looked to the sky.

We had seen so much already. Our day’s cup of experience seemed full, seemed brimmed over with stimuli, with fragile, just-formed memory. The dark of night waited, and sleep, to set the day apart from others, to build a frame around it all, to keep it safe from the leaky ooze of other, lesser days.

I looked. High in the sky, over sharp black peaks, a glowing green haze, a small whisp of magic light. The Aurora Borealis. It was not the first time I had seen the Northern Lights. On rare occasions the phenomenom is bold enough to be seen in far to the South where I’ve spent most of my life. In Colorado I’d driven north of city lights to see a red wash of sky that slowly rolled and faded. From a remote ranch in Wyoming I’d seen a gaussy curtain of white hanging above the north horizon, undulating in a distant breeze. And in Canada, just weeks before, I’d caught a glimpse of white shimmer, a sway of motion that had quickly disappeared.

So I was prepared to pluck this sight, this fantastical glimpse of green light, and set it gently on top of the treasure of the day. I was not prepared for what I saw. The green light slowly faded, then grew again, then moved slowly across the sky. It nearly disappeared, then emerged again, larger, brighter, swirling faster, a beaded curtain of light that hung from a twisted snake of curtain rod in a gentle breeze. We watched in awe, the only sounds our exclamations, the occasional rumble of nearby glacier, the quiet lap of rising tide. But in my mind there was an electric whir, a buzz, a firery crackle as the green glow grew brighter, fuller, more vibrant, more wild. We watched the sky fill with snake-hung curtains, watched the snakes grow restless, then agitated in the charged sky. We watched the breeze begin to blow through in puffs, then gusts, then hurricane blasts, then wild tornadoes that twisted the green curtains into yellow, violet sparks of blazing electricity.

An hour passed. More. The aurora broke in blazing waves, then pulled back, then rose again to brightness as we lay gazing above, filled with the sight, the experience, the whole scene around us, horizon to horizon of nothing but the wild world of mountians, water, ice, creatures, and the whole wide sky of shimmering green.
Yet there was more. Our eyes so transfixed by the sky that it was hard to miss. Over the grey glow of the glacier face, above the steep slopes of the valley wall, over the highest of the mountains, where black-grey peak met green-glow sky, the moon was rising, its bubble filling with light from the dark mountain. We watched with awe and wonder. And then, I stopped watching in awe and wonder, and began to watch in panic. Maybe even a hint of terror. Because there was no way that the huge disk coursing out from behind the peak could be the moon.

I feel I know the moon. I spend a fair amount of time outside, and I know the patterns and cycles of the moon. I know the science that explains the phases of the moon, and I have the experience of watching the changes night after night. It’s true that my lower latitude experience has some trouble making sense of the strange and awkward motions of the moon’s risings and settings at these higher latitudes. (In Bella Coola, British Columbia I watched a full moon -- which I usually associate with nightime path that runs fairly straight overhead -- as it clipped along the southern horizon, peeking out of valley after valley as the night progressed.) But one thing I am as sure of as I can be, is the month-long cycle of full moon waning to crescent, then to dark new moon, to waxing crescent, back to full moon. There is no jumping from crescent to full moon in a single night.

I knew in an instant, as the strange disk bulged into view, that it was not the moon. The night before, there had been a late-rising waning crescent moon. Which -- scientifically and emphatically -- meant that tonight’s moon would be a slightly thinner crescent. The disk that was moving rapidly into view was already showing much more than a crescent, though the dark surface markings looked very lunar. My mind was working rapidly to come up with some alternate explanation for the scene before me (Internal dialog: “What the...?”), when two cold beams of piercing light streaked out from each edge of the disk where it emerged from behind the mountain.

I admit, not without some regret, that I -- rational, skeptical, somewhat analytical, and generally level headed guy that I am -- had just a thin moment to two when I fully believed in the possibility, even the very present reality, of technonogically superior beings from outer space. A circular space ship. Two brilliant headlights. And a wild and shimmering alien green sky.

The moment passed. The spacecraft slowly flew out from behind the mountain and the two headlights broadened and curved together into the bright slice of the crescent moon. We had been watching the dark side of the moon rise from behind the mountain, the headlights had been the two bright tips of the moon’s crescent. The world returned to order and stability, and I laughed out loud.

I looked at our tent. Bears or no bears, it was not a night to sleep inside. We threw our bags on the ground and even slept some of the night, deep under a greeen sea of light, where secret winds blew ripples across the pulsing surface above.
 

 

 



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