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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?

And then, after a brief slack tide, when the waterline stayed put, the process reversed. Waves licked progressively lower as the water was sucked away. That’s when we had to be loaded and ready to launch. Riding the outgoing flow, we could easily travel 4 or 5 miles in an hour. Get up late, dawdle too long, and we’d be working for every stroke as though paddling upstream against a wide, deep river.

Every day, we attempted to ride the tide to our home for the night. Day three, our goal was a hidden black-sand beach dubbed “not to be missed” by the kayak outfitters. It was tucked in beside Coxe Glacier, one of three glaciers that ringed the head of a giant inlet known as Barry Arm. We would need to hit the mouth of the inlet just as the tides changed, catching the rising flow for the last few miles to the site.

We timed it perfectly, reaching a tidal spit at the entrance to Barry Arm just as the water receded to its lowest level. Eerily sculpted icebergs perched on the gravel, stranded by the abruptly lowering tide like abandoned parade floats. It was the perfect spot for a break, and we passed a leisurely half hour mugging for the cameras next to the biggest ‘bergs.

Just as we were pushing off, we heard a sudden rush of water behind us. The largest ‘berg, some

15 feet high and 25 feet long, had fractured in half, collapsing outward where Chris had stood with his tongue pressed to the ice just minutes before. “Guess I won’t be doing that anymore,” he laughed nervously.

We paddled on, mostly in silence. On our left, the spit gradually rose and acquired vegetation. First grasses, then low alders and willow, until eventually it was far enough above the sea water to support Sitka and white spruce. “We’re camping over there in bear country,” joked Gary, who was more apt to be scanning for wildlife than making idle chatter. Moments later a black bear emerged from the brush to amble along the shore, and our destination for the night was sealed. It was the black-sand beach or bust.

Just when we were getting cocky about how easily we’d mastered this paddling routine, the tides and glaciers converged to test our patience, endurance, and even a couple of marriage vows.

Ahead, the three glaciers loomed like crystalline monuments. On our left, the aptly named Cascade tumbled to the water in a quarter-mile-wide jumble of corrugated ice and suspended rock. Barry lay directly ahead, twice as broad as Cascade but much more gently sloped. A third of a mile of rocky headland separated Barry from Coxe, which mirrored Cascade. All three were calving with alarming frequency, sending showers and rubble and whole slabs of icy architecture tumbling into the water. It was spectacular, but the incoming tide had compacted all this glacial flotsam into an icy slough at the head of Barry Arm. The campsite we sought lay on the other side.

For a mile, we floundered through slush and spinning bergy bits like drunken flies in the frozen margarita from hell. Jagged-edged blocks of ice made ominously sharp, grinding sounds against the hulls of our boats.

Roy led the way, I brought up the rear. The two couples, hampered by their double kayaks’ greater heft and slower turning capability, honed their communication skills.

“Are you on drugs?!” Tanya’s voice skipped from the bow of their yellow kayak like a flung stone. Chris, unable to see ahead but spurred by his wife’s sarcasm, paddled even more furiously, propelling them squarely into a doghouse-size abstraction of ice. Nearby, Deborah and Gary beached their kayak on yet another rotting ice floe.

For the next hour, “fun” was not the F-word I heard flying from the lips of my cohorts.

The little black-sand beach became a sun-baked haven where we dried our gear and thawed our frosted nerves. We spent the evening reflecting on the day’s events. Deborah and Tanya revealed their fears-born more of unfamiliarity than reality-that the ice would rend gashes in their boats or that a giant ‘berg would suddenly flip, capsizing them into the frigid water. That day marked the turning point of our trip, and we paddled smoothly over or around the remaining obstacles. Petty conflicts became insignificant in a landscape where our presence was no more than a ripple on the vast acreage of water.

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