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February 1999

Alaska’s Glaciers: Going With The Floes

When gently paddling amidst the mini-icebergs that grace Prince William Sound, you ponder one question: why walk?

We noticed the sound first. The brittle, crackling quality of nearby lightning, logically followed by a rolling boom of thunder. Like so many Gore-Tex-clad Pavlovian dogs, all six of us spontaneously scanned the bright blue sky and wispy, innocuous clouds for clues to the impending storm. Ten minutes later it came again, a brief crack and longer rumble. Roy laughed at our perplexed responses. “White thunder,” he explained. The ominous sounds were emanating from deep within the 6 miles of super-compacted snow known as Harriman Glacier, creeping from mountaintops to sea just a quarter mile north of us.

Glaciers are what drew us-two other Backpacker staffers and their spouses, photographer Roy Corral, and me-to this rocky slip of beach at the head of Harriman Fiord, a 10-mile-long, 500-foot-deep finger of sea crooked northwest from the hand of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. We had traded packs for sea kayaks and boots for double-bladed paddles, and for the next seven days and 55 miles we’d see classic Alaska from a waterborne viewpoint.

In a land of few trails, harrowing bushwhacking, and navigational challenges, kayaking poses an attractive alternative. Even a neophyte kayaker can see glaciers in their most dynamic environment, float harmlessly by landlocked bears, and soak up amazing mountain views without the epic thrashes.

For Roy, a long-time Alaska resident who entertained us with fantastic tales about homesteading in the Brooks Range and kayaking in Glacier Bay, this would be a chance to paddle another slice of his adopted home. It would be my third trip to the 49th state, and I was anxious to get up close and personal views of glaciers I’d seen as distant white slides during previous cross-country expeditions.

For the others, it was all numbingly new. “I never knew glaciers were in the mountains,” Tanya had said as our drop-off boat motored past icy tongues trapped in the high valleys. A newcomer to outdoor life, Tanya absorbed the Alaskan expanses like a child at Disney World: excited and awestruck by the incredible spectacle, but a little apprehensive about the safety of the rides. Chris, her husband and Backpacker’s associate art director, grinned with the zeal of the newly converted and nodded in agreement. “I’ve always thought glaciers and icebergs were the same thing,” he said. Before this trip was over, we’d all be thoroughly familiar with glaciers and their floating offspring, commonly called icebergs or, when somewhat less than titanic in size, “bergy bits.”

We spent the first day on a shakedown paddle to get acquainted with the boats, then tried to fall asleep in the Alaskan twilight. During the night, I half-awoke to rain drumming on the tent and fell back to sleep still expecting lightning flashes to accompany the distant thunder.

The next morning, we staggered out of our tents groggy and late, having missed our 4:30 wake up by nearly an hour. The peaks we’d marveled at the day before were obscured by a motionless bank of clouds, and rain tattooed the receding waterline, which was already a foot and a half closer to low tide.

The tide marked a force that would dictate all of our most important decisions. Twice every day, the seas on our side of the Earth would swell from the Pacific north into Prince William Sound, lapping at the shore and anything else within its 12-foot vertical rise.

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