Friday, November 14, 2008

Crusing Glacier Bay and College Fjord

Cruising is something I have not done very much of. My typical vacation excursions are usually nothing to get terribly excited about, even if they might be good for some garden variety hiking trip write-ups. I’m usually into keeping it simple. Just like on weekends, we usually just pick someplace that interests us, make reservations if necessary, and just spend some time touring around. Perhaps camping, certainly hiking, and whatever else seems like fun. Not an unplanned trip, but very unstructured. Little trips like this are important to us because being outdoors helps us recharge our mental batteries and energize the spirit. I would go crazy if I couldn’t go out and visit the planet. But this year we had different plans, sort of. We reserved two weeks in August to go along on a cruise tour to Alaska with 13 family members. If my wife and I were to plan our own trip to Alaska, we would be more inclined to travel by more conventional means, and explore specific areas that have interesting potential. This was a new experience for me.

One intriguing feature of this tour package was the opportunity for viewing glaciers, some of which would be inaccessible any other means except by sea or air. And with global warming increasingly imposing its ugly specter on the planet, it occurred to me that this would be an opportune time to do this tour while there still are some glaciers to see. Even today many of the great glaciers have receded alarmingly, while a few others have actually increased in size. You couldn’t convince me that human activity hasn’t contributed in a major way, or that we couldn’t make major changes to control it better, right now! But enough of that for now.

After departing Juneau, our next destination was Glacier Bay National Park, but only to cruise for a few hours. Covering 3.3 million acres of mostly designated wilderness, and including a national wildlife preserve covering an additional 57,000 acres, it would take a whole vacation to experience all that Glacier Bay has to offer. I couldn’t help imagining the sight of John Muir in a small dugout canoe, guided by Tlingit Indians, making their way into the waters of what is now a national park. That was his first visit in 1879, and by that time the glacial ice had retreated up into the bay 40 miles from where it was in 1794 when Captain George Vancouver and Joseph Whidbey of the HMS Discovery described Glacier Bay as “a compact sheet of ice as far as the eye could distinguish”. The ice has been receding ever since, but more rapidly in our modern age. And since the glacier has been retreating and removing its weight, the land is actually rising, in some places at a rate of over an inch per year. Glacier Bay has a maritime climate, heavily influenced by ocean currents. The result is mild winters and cool, moist summers while at sea level.

The weather while we were there was misty, grey, and overcast, with intermittent drizzle. Rain gear is always a good idea there, and we made good use of ours. We wouldn’t have had time to cruise all of the various avenues within the expansive park. We cruised up close to the Margerie glacier, and the Grand Pacific Glacier, while slowly moving past stately snow-capped mountains partially hidden in mist and fog. This is an awesome setting; the glacial ice revealing itself by its light bluish coloration. Glacial ice is much more dense than normal ice. The tremendous pressure created by the sheer weight of constantly increasing layers of snow and ice compresses upon itself until it refracts light in that distinctive bluish tint. The great walls of ice were towering even taller than the ship in places. It would have been great to have time to go ashore at the park headquarters, but alas on we went to the next days destination.

Prince William Sound has a secluded little area within it’s north-eastern region called College Fjord. Discovered during the 1899 Harriman Expedition, one side of the fjord has a collection of five tidewater glaciers, while the other side has many large valley glaciers, and lots of other permanent moving masses of ice, most of which were named after prominent colleges. E H Harriman had chartered the luxury steamship the George W. Elder for a scientific expedition primarily to study the flora and fauna of Alaska when he made the discovery. Today the fjord is primarily a cruise ship destination, because it would be nearly impossible to get here by land. It’s well worth seeing even if only for the scientific value, but more so for the first hand experience of one of natures most formative of ancient forces. Ice!

When we were there it was overcast, with a chilly wind, and intermittently drizzling. Less than optimal conditions for photos, but still nice enough to get good views. Actually the weather conditions gave the pictures a kind of moodiness that I enjoyed, and the air was crisp and clean. But the lack of direct sunlight could not conceal the brilliant yet delicate green hues of the surrounding mountain slopes. They contrasted dramatically with slightly turbid turquoise waters of the fjord. Sea otters were seen lounging and frolicking on small chunks of floating ice. Sea gulls also seemed to claim their own small bergs as resting and lounging points. They all seemed to wonder what this gigantic mass of metal is doing floating around in their backyard. The Harvard Glacier is largest of the tidewater glaciers with a width where it meets the water of over one mile. It is actually a confluence of several high mountain glacial flows that combine symmetrically at the bottom like some vast frozen freeway of ice. The incredible forces being exerted could scarcely be imagined. I would have really liked to get a aerial view. As you cruise up close to it you lose perspective, with your only remaining view being of a massive jagged wall of ice. Such strange and placid beauty concealing the awesome forces at work beneath. Below are links to pictures taken by myself and my brother-in-law Dave.
Click here to view my Glacier Bay photoset on flickr.
Click here to view Dave's Glacier Bay pictures (
Click here to view my College Fjord photoset on flickr.
Click here to view Dave's College Fjord pictures (

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