Kayaking through a floating iceberg.
Another double rumble of thunder rips the air. It’s the sound of a nearby glacier calving, shucking huge slabs of ice into the sea and throwing a wake that ripples under my kayak. We’ve been paddling a couple of hours, and it’s all still a bit scary: the creaking, groaning 122-m-high glaciers that dwarf our little boats; the Bunyan slam of their ice on water; the possibility of finding ourselves flipped upside down in these super-frigid seas.
But the sun is out, the water is calm, and the adventure is on, with a nice, wild Alaska edge.
We have arrived at Blackstone Bay via water taxi, a 12-m landing craft operated by Lazy Otter Charters out of the busy little seaport of Whittier, a super-saturated spot on the planet with an average 470 cm of rain a year. In Anchorage, 105km to the west, locals joke that the “weather is (fill in the rhyming expletive) in Whittier.”
My brother, a seasoned sea captain on these waters, has arranged our family outing and filled me in on the details: Blackstone Bay, named for an 1890s miner who froze to death in a brutal storm, sits at the western edge of Prince William Sound. The sound covers 38850 square km of water, ice and mountains, and most of it is protected wilderness. Orcas and humpback whales, sea otters and sea lions, salmon and waterfowl travel its abundant waters.
But we can’t see a thing as we head out in a blur of fog. It’s so soupy that the captain leans forward over the wheel, a grim study in concentration as his eyes shift from radar to invisible horizon. When the fog finally clears, it’s as though someone has lifted the velvet curtain on a grandiloquent 19th-century Western landscape painting – one with a few climatic adjustments.
On the rugged mountains that rise all around us, bedrock teeth protrude through what were once massive snowfields. Catcher-mitt basins that once cupped Ice Age glaciers are bare. Water from melting glaciers oozes, splashes, crashes down sheer cliffs, creating magnificent new waterfalls. It’s a warmed-up 21st-century landscape that today is not only a get-away-from-it-all destination, but a get-it-while-you-can experience for adventurers seeking close encounters with tidewater glaciers.
Tidewater glaciers, by definition, touch the sea. But the big Blackstone Glacier we will kayak today only tiptoes on the surface now. Locals predict that within a year or two, it may, like other retreating glaciers in this sound, pull back from the water altogether, a phenomenon that could have a profound effect on the popular local “paddle the ice” tourism industry.
“This will definitely change the way we do business,” says Kelly Bender, who owns the Lazy Otter Charter business with her husband, Mike, and heads the local chamber of commerce. “Maybe we will have to change itineraries and go farther out into the southern part of the sound – which will be more expensive to get to. Or maybe we’ll change the way we market the trips: as visits to beautiful fjords with abundant wildlife.”
For now, with companies already booking glacier adventures for summer 2016, business is chill.
We get our first good view of the glaciers we’ll be visiting and the sprawling icefield that feeds them as we near our drop-off point, a rocky, isolated beach 45 minutes from Whittier by water taxi. We unload our sea kayaks, grab life jackets and spray skirts, and get a safety run-down from Lazy Otter guide Amanda Goss, an athletic young outdoorswoman who throws her kayak around like a kid’s toy and wears a headband circumnavigated by polar bears. Amanda plants her X-tra Tuff rubber boots in the sand and gets down to business.
“The water is real cold and you are not in dry suits, so pay attention!” she says. She begins with the “wet exit,” one of dozens of delicious vocabulary terms to savour on this journey. If we do find ourselves upside-down in the water, Amanda advises, we must yank the tabs on the spray skirts that seal us in, push ourselves out of the kayak, hang onto the boat and head to land. She reassures us that our boats are sturdy and stable, with comfy padding for our six-hour paddle. Even beginners can do this, “but they have to be gung-ho!”
She assists this particular gung-ho tourist, with modest kayaking skills, into a beamy single, and I am off, gliding across gray-green waters that are milky with the fine silt of glacier-ground rock.
Within minutes, my daughter has spotted a mature black bear, lazily ambling along the precipitous cliffs above us. A seal pops up with a small salmon in its mouth – a pink salmon, lowly cousin to the mighty king. Jellyfish pulse beside us, root beer-coloured and ghostly white. I think I spot a giant turquoise variety – it looks like a super-size alien brain from Futurama – but it’s actually a chunk of compressed ice. The bluer the colour, I learn, the denser the ice.
We hear the monster hissing of our first site before we round a cliff and see it. Northland Glacier is a hanging glacier situated on a rocky shelf high above the water and as it melts, it has produced a mighty waterfall that zigzags down bedrock and pounds into the water, sending up shimmery rainbows. It’s one of the sound’s tallest, most spectacular waterfalls, and one of its most dangerous. Two entranced kayakers capsized when they put the bows of their boats under the fall, misjudging its power. Others, drawn too close, have been crushed by ice calving from above.
Amanda warns us to keep our distance and keeps an eye out to make sure we do. “Far enough!” she yells.
Black-footed gulls wheel overhead as we proceed to Blackstone Glacier. These are the bay’s beloved kittiwakes, small gulls that nest in the cliff’s crags in warm months. They are named for the sweet, trilling call they make, high notes that play soprano to the continuous baritone boom-and-crack of the moving ice around us.
As we close in on the eight-mile-long Blackstone Glacier, cold “katabatic” winds sweep down its ice face and descend on us. I’m grateful for my double layers of fleece. It’s a strange sensation, sitting so low in the water before this crunched-up, crevassed, quarter-mile-wide behemoth. It seems to be tumbling toward us, like a crush of people rushing toward a Tokyo subway – a crowd suddenly flash-frozen in time.
I had hoped to encounter some “bergy bits,” sizeable pieces of icebergs that have long floated these waters. What we find instead are smaller “growlers” – ice chunks larger than six feet across but less than three feet above water – and “brash ice,” large patches of accumulated small, floating fragments.
That brash ice thickens as we approach Beloit Glacier, the most active of the three glaciers on our tour and the source of much of the moaning and groaning. In the water, floating little “ice crispies” snap and pop around us, detritus from the scar-faced granddaddy ahead. Soon enough, the old one gives us the calving show we’ve been waiting for, tossing off part of its body with a crash that sends up a curtain of spray and makes the ice around us shake, rattle and roll.
We’ve lollygagged too long on this rare clear day and have to hurry to our final pick-up spot. I’m thankful for the rudder on my boat as we navigate east while dodging ice. It’s an obstacle course: right, left, clunk, oops, right, right, left, clunk, dang. I know that, in an instant, this ice can suddenly close around me. I am moving. It is moving. And it’s a mean trick to ram through an ice jam in a little fibreglass kayak and remain right-side-up, my goal on this expedition.
I take one last break for a picture and scoop up a bit of floating ice portside, popping it in my mouth. I roll it around, sucking and paddling and thinking. This little odd-shaped cube – killer cold, sparkling fresh – could be almost a thousand years old. All the ice around me, slapping at my hull, could be positively medieval, birthed from ancient glaciers some 10,000 years old.
I am, like my warming surroundings, swallowing history, one drop at a time.
The Inn at Whittier, 5A Harbor Loop Rd. The boutique hotel, with its beautiful views of mountains and Prince William Sound, has 25 guest rooms and two townhouse suites. Open April 15 to Sept 30. Rooms from US$145 (NZ$215).
Glacier View Suites, 100 Kenai St. If you want to live like (and with) the locals, try this newly remodelled onetime military barracks where about 90 per cent of Whittier’s population resides. The two-bedroom suites are in the 14-story Begich Boggs Towers. Open May 1 to Sept 30. Rooms from US$250.
Varly’s Swiftwater Seafood Cafe, 1120 Triangle Area Lot 8. The hands-down favourite place to eat in Whittier, famed for its fresh fish ‘n’ chips. Cheeseburgers and fresh shrimp are big on the menu, too. Outdoor harbour-view seating. Open from May through Labour Day.
Lazy Otter Charters. Guided Blackstone Bay day kayak tours run US$325 a person (four-person minimum). For independents, kayak rentals are US$55/single and US$95/double, with multiple-day discounts. Customised sightseeing cruises also offered.
Sound Paddler, 101 Billings St. One of the longest-running sea-kayaking outfitters in Whittier. Guided Blackstone Bay day kayak tours run US$300 a person, with a party of six. Shorter tours start at US$79 each for parties of four or more. Kayaks rent for US$70/single, US$120/double, US$150/triple per day, with multiple-day discounts. Paddleboard rentals run from US$25/hour to US$65/day. It also offers escorted overnight camping/kayaking adventures.
Alaska Sea Kayakers, Harbor View Dr. Guided Blackstone Bay day tours run US$345 a person (four-person minimum). Shorter trips begin at US$89. Kayaks rent for US$65/single, US$110/double, with multiple-day discounts. The company also arranges custom live-aboard-the-mothership multi-day adventures.
Paddlers’ Realm, 8375 Wasilla-Fishhook Rd. Guided Blackstone Bay day tours run $325 a person (four-person minimum). Shorter trips begin at $80. The company has different kayaks to choose from, starting at $45 a day. It also runs custom camping and kayaking expeditions.