Watching the World Melt
Suntans and Melting Ice in Alaska’s Far North
By William Boot
The Washington Post
Granted, it is still a niche market. But if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to be believed – and why not? – it’s a growth opportunity. The traveler in the very near future might be ready for some global warming tourism. Vacation destinations? You could do the Maldives and watch the sea level rise before your very eyes. Glub glub. Bye-bye, happy island nation. Or perhaps a trip to the African Sahel to experience some scary soil evaporation. Subtle, but profound. Or you can do what we did and journey to Icy Bay in Alaska and just watch the world melt.
Seriously melting. A century ago, when the naturalist writer John Muir visited the region, there was no Icy Bay. It was all ice, all the way to the coast. Now? A lot more ice water. A coastal exploration three generations ago would have found an immense tidewater glacier blocking the bay, an inlet that today is 30 miles long and hundreds of feet deep and four or five or six miles wide, depending. Welcome to one of the fastest-receding glacial systems on the planet. It is geology on fast-forward. Genesis on speed dial.
Surrounding the bay, the landscape left behind by the retreating glaciers is so brand spanking new and raw that you have the impression the wolves and grizzlies show up each summer and go, whoa, bro. Wasn’t this an ice field last year? It is like a baby Earth. The ice retreats. The ground looks raked, lunar, but then summer after summer the successional parade of plants comes through, first with fireweed and lupine, then alders.
The soundscape: Plink. Plonk. Drip. Drop. It’s like God left the water running in the bathtub. Then a terrible nerve-rattling craaaaaack, like a high-powered rifle recoil, echoing. It is the sound of birth, of the glaciers calving off chunks of ice the size of your garage into the bay.
Oh, and this calving? It goes on and on and on. Day and night, except there is no â€œnightâ€ night, because it’s July in the far north, and you never really sleep; you just sort of pass out for a few hours from sensory overload and giddy exhaustion in the midnight twilight, with a smelly fleece layer wrapped around your head to block out the sun. I brought along a tube of SPF-70 sunscreen and came home with exposed skin as brown as a dead lizard.
Every once in a while, a big ice block cleaves, splits, splats. A super-size heifer. Size of a building. And when you’re boating around Icy Bay in a collapsible kayak with a 12-year-old paddling partner, you don’t want to think about that, but in fact your vivid moviegoing imagination won’t give it up, and your mind’s eye envisions the horrible splash, and then wait for it, wait for it. Cowabunga! There would be one moment of the most hellacious surf, and then of course, you would be out of the boat, in the water, and that would be bad (so you have to be careful and not get too close).
We didn’t bring a thermometer. In July and August, when kayak-trippers venture into Icy Bay and the glaciers do most of their melting, the weather ranges from freezing rain to the sunny 70s, sometimes in the same day. During the fast but intense Alaska summer, the inlet fills with thousands of icebergs and a gazillion gin-and-tonic-sized ice cubes. When the clouds rolled overhead (frequently) and the temperature dropped, I would float in the boat and watch crinkly ice begin to re-form on the water’s surface. You dip one of your paddling hands into the milky-blue, sediment-green, freaky-calm water, and as the sensation goes from really, really freezing to pin-stabbing, you pull it out a minute later. It looks like a boiled lobster claw and feels as numb as a Novocain target.
Our group of good friends traveling to Icy Bay include five kids (boys and girls, ages 7 to 13), one environmental writer, one bear biologist, a family court judge, a president of a charitable foundation, a land conservationist, a journalist and, best of all, the founder (but no longer the owner of) Alaska Discovery, a wilderness adventure travel company, who was a pioneer of kayak trips to Icy Bay: a man with the perfect name for such a job, Ken Leghorn. Lost in the Alaskan wilderness without a Swiss Army knife or a prayer? Ken Leghorn would bring you home. My personal motto: Cling to Ken.
We spent a week beach camping, kayaking from cove to cove, and exploring, hiking up creeks to the glacial edge. We brought our own tents and gear, and we cooked our meals with a propane stove, carbo feasts of pastas and rice, with a shared bottle of wine for the adults, as the kids ran around like happy nuts.
So if you’ve read this far, naturally you’re thinking, OK, Bill, we’ve done Legoland and Epcot and you seem relatively sane and this adventure sounds exactly like the global warming vacation I would love to experience with my family and friends, and I’ve got a couple thousand left on my MasterCard limit, so where exactly is Icy Bay and how do we get there?
We flew in peanut class from the Lower 48 to Juneau (lovely city, almost steamy in comparison) and then on a 50-minute Alaska Airlines flight northwest to a village called Yakutat, a place famous for its fishing. Immediately upon exiting the terminal, one faces the Yakutat Lodge, which announces its presence with a sign that reads: â€œFood. Shelter. Booze.â€ Ahhh, Alaska. We fortified ourselves alongside burly fishy brethren and then lugged tremendous quantities of duffel baggage and survival gearage around to the back of the airport to the waiting chartered bush plane.
The first inkling that the bush plane ride is part of the fun is when you see that the six-seater prop job sports oversize landing gear with cartoonish spongy tires. Why? Because Les the pilot is going to land the thing on a beach. On purpose.
It took four round trips to get us (a dozen people) and our six kayaks, wine, tents, kitchen, food, paddles, propane, wine and approximately 17 pounds of Skittles up to Icy Bay. The 45-minute flight from Yakutat was a revelation. Really. We could have turned around and gone home with fond memories.
I have traveled a few times to Alaska, and I was a dim bulb about the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, home to Icy Bay. Never heard of it? It is the largest national park in the United States. It is six times the size of Yellowstone. That would be 13 million acres. In a state that boasts superlatives, it is a superlative superlative. The park contains the largest assemblage of glaciers on the continent.
Not enough? Well, it does have … volcanoes. Mount Wrangell is one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. The park boasts the greatest collection of peaks above 16,000 feet, including Mount St. Elias, which is the second-highest mountain in America at 18,008 feet, and which just happens to be within 10 miles of the Taan Fiord on Icy Bay, so it is the tallest mountain close to a tidewater. So when the clouds part and you are paddling or camping at Icy Bay, the edifice staring you in the face is your very own private Mount Kilimanjaro.
In the little plane, flying north from Yakutat’s food/shelter/booze, you cross over the Malaspina Glacier, a classic example of a piedmont glacier. That, we learn from the guidebooks, is one that has spilled out of a valley and onto a relatively level terrain, where it creates wide, whirling, swirling lobes. It looks like day-old white frosting. For a cake the size of Rhode Island. It is 40 miles wide. The astronauts can see it from the space station.
The bush plane banks, bumps, lands, disgorges us on the beach at Kageet Point near the entrance to Icy Bay. And then it leaves. And then we are alone. I mean it.
By profession and proclivity, I’ve spent a few days in some lonely outposts. But I have never been in a wilderness so empty of humans. Because of brown bears, Ken advised us not to go on long hikes alone, but if we did he suggested making a lot of noise, so as not to surprise any bears. But even a walk down a beach or up a creek was a sublime solitude. You could turn around 360 degrees, search the horizon and see no dwelling, no road, no trail, no scar, no imprint. It was just pure. And a mind trip. This, I feel, is what it was like when the first bands of rugged outdoor types crossed onto the continent thousands of years ago. This is what they saw. They didn’t have my Patagonia parka, but wow, they had the same view.
In seven days and six nights paddling and beach camping, crisscrossing the bay, moving from place to place, we see no one. On the morning of our departure, a single sailboat probes the bay and then, just as quickly, exits. Every time we step onto the dark sand and round pebble beaches, which are covered in melting icebergs stranded by the high tides, our footprints are the first human soles of the season.
And we did right by the place for the next visitors. When we made a fire, we built it in the wet sands at the low tides, so that the rising waters would wash away all traces (there are 18-foot tides). So, too, with our, umm, biological necessities. We were instructed to walk down the beach and drop trou at the water’s edge.
Not so the animals. We found scat land mines everywhere. We heard the yaps but never saw the coyotes. But upon our arrival, Kageet Point was pocked with grizzly prints the size of NBA sneakers. One day out on a hike, we spotted a brown bear foraging along a far cove, and we watched it for an hour, snuffling along, occasionally stopping to flip over a rock.
We stumbled upon a moose munching veg in a marshy meadow. I was very impressed with the size of this moose. We spotted parasitic jaegers and the rare and endangered Kittlitz’s murrelets. These are birds. We saw otters, which circled us, that came even closer, and seemed as interested in us as we in them, and because so few outsiders visit Icy Bay, you wondered whether you might be the first people the yearlings had ever seen. On our last night, we set up the spotting scope and watched a pair of wolves far down the beach, and they were almost dancing. Running up and down together, like a couple of nutty mutts at the local dog park.
Because it is so (relatively) protected, Icy Bay is (surprisingly) ideal for a kayak trip. Our boats were the tried-and-true two-person Kleppers, which we assembled on the beach. You put together the Lincoln Log skeleton struts and then the boat is wrapped in a rubberized canvas skin. Into the Kleppers we stuffed our gear, and then stuffed ourselves. They are admirably stable watercraft. Which was very important. Remember the cardinal rule. In our paddles around the bay, we passed through iceberg-studded fiords.
One day, there were so many bergs that they blocked our path, and we retreated. The floating ice was so plentiful and so close that sometimes you had to push the smaller chunks out of the way with your paddle. The bergs floated. We floated. The icebergs were sculpted by melt and wind into fantastical geometries, lit with internal flares of blue and green light. Four immense glaciers keep pumping out the product like an assembly line. On the flattops, harbor seals hauled out, and summer is a time for pups and molting adults. According to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Icy Bay can host 3,500 harbor seals, and we saw a hundred of them, staring at us with those earnest, inky black eyes.
Another day, we paddled to the terminus of Icy Bay, a round amphitheater of high bedrock walls topped with spires of glacial ice pushing over the cliffs in slow motion. Years before, Ken had christened the place the â€œArc of Creation.â€ We turned the boats and faced it. Cracking, crashing ice. Seabirds wheeling over our heads. We counted the waterfalls. Twenty? Thirty?
I thought about the laws of mass and energy, how it is neither created nor destroyed. I thought about birth and death. Water to snow to ice to water. We are alone but not lonely. I felt very global, with very warm feelings about this icy bay. I wanted it to stop melting.Filed under: Travel & Culture