Under a nacre sky the cruise ship noses into Yakutat Bay. Clouds part and tantalize us with a glimpse of white mountain breast, a hint of the St. Elias Mountains, one of the highest coastal ranges in the world. "Bergie bits," ice chunks not quite big enough to be icebergs, are scattered on the slate sea like broken glass on a dance floor.
Our ship knifes through the floe, sending titanic shivers along the hull, while behind us the ice fills in, so we leave no trace of our passing.
"It's about time we got to Alaska," a man proclaims, red faced and clapping his hands. Everyone agrees. It's June and we have been cruising the Inside Passage, chasing down glaciers for eight days. The weather has been so unseasonably warm and sunny we've been calling our northernmost state "Baked Alaska."
We've been cavalier about the great architects of our planet, the mighty glaciers that carved valleys and fjords from mountains, chiseled coastlines, and pulverized everything in their paths. We've come to witness the hulks whose advances and retreats affect climate and therefore life.
The term "Ice Age" conjures up images of tribes and herds, backs to the storms, moving inexorably southward before the snows, entire species succumbing along the way. Even Antarctica, coldest place on the planet, harbors deep within its frigid heart fossilized ferns and remembrances of trees.
As most dreamers long for tropical lagoons, my husband and I—who live in Hawaii—imagine vast fields of ice, towering crystal ramparts and awesome glaciers on the move. We had booked passage on the Seven Seas Navigator, a Radisson cruise ship able to inch into narrow, icy fjords. We sailed from the sunshine of Vancouver Island, moving northward like the sun toward solstice.
Our first evening at sea, nine orcas cross our bow while the sky burns with the brightness of a tiger's eye. Like most Navigator passengers, we have our own private balcony over the water to watch Alaska. By morning, the mountains around us are dusted in snow. Small isles appear in the early fog, rocky and pine whiskered.
The Navigator heads into Misty Fjords, a 2.3 million-acre wilderness within the Tongass National Forest, accessible only by boat or small plane. A clear line in the water divides incoming ocean from milky glacial runoff.
Golden spruce pollen floats in the tides and ducks with their babies on their backs dance in sunbeams. We fall under the spell of the North.
Ketchikan is our first Alaskan port. It gets 47 sunny days a year and we've snagged one. We catch a bus out to Saxman Village, a Tlingit settlement, where the main road is lined with totem poles. These faces of ancestors and guardian spirits looked out from the pines upon the magnificent wilderness back when the Tlingit had it all to themselves and thought they always would. Now cities and towns rise in impossible places.
Juneau is the only state capital with no road leading in or out. Alaska's most visited glacier, Mendenhall, is here. I helicopter over the vast Juneau Icefield that blankets more than 1,500 square miles, pierced by fierce hag-toothed mountains called nunataks. The chopper lands gingerly on Mendenhall and I step onto ground so blue it's like a lagoon. I kneel to drink meltwater rushing through ice chutes and over ice cliffs. The whole world is white and incredible blue.
As impressive as it is, Mendenhall is less awesome than it was in the past. It's been retreating up to 300 feet per year. This brings up the controversy of global warming and its possible effects on glaciers, which prompts one of the lecturers on board to note, "Scientists can argue for or against global warming's effects."
But Dave Hamre, avalanche expert for the Alaska Railroad, says, "Glaciers are affected by global warming—just not in easily predictable ways." He points out that although a few are advancing, most glaciers are currently receding. Another lecturer aboard the Navigator speculates that a warmer climate might result in more snowfall at some elevations, setting glaciers on the move. Hamre concurs: "Snowfall is the primary factor adding mass to glaciers, but the effect is not measurable for 100 years."
Glacial ice is dense. Over time, snow high in the mountains is compressed by its own weight into crystals that refract all colors but blue, which it holds to itself. The soul of the ice is a blue so intense that it beckons us to lose ourselves in it.
The Tlingit have been living with glaciers for eons. David Ramos, whose Tlingit name means "Father of the Large Tree," says glaciers were created male and female. "A female glacier has lateral striation and moraine," Ramos says. "She's not active. A veil settles across her face. A male glacier is on the move, always showing off, flexing his muscles."
By Ramos's definition, Davidson Glacier at our next port, Skagway, must be male for it is senatorial in its bombast, stirring up great katabatic winds. To get there, we ride a motorboat to Glacier Point, then climb into canoes. Davidson's toes are Aqua Velva blue, its white surface smudged with remnants of the mountains it has digested. The wind coming off it is fierce and cold as we paddle among growlers that look like sparkling tiaras, an anvil, chunks of raw crystal. They snap and crackle as they pop apart. Our guide, Molly Connelly, who lives at Glacier Point in a cabin surrounded by wild strawberries, refers to them as "ice krispies."
Perhaps the most interesting port of call is Sitka with its Russian heritage. The small Russian Orthodox St. Michael's Cathedral blesses the town with its glorious gem-encrusted icons. We stop in on a Sunday morning to say a prayer and give thanks that the Russians sold us their 375 million acres of Alaska for $7.2 million in 1867.
Next we enter the port of Valdez, terminus for the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline and scene of the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. I'm surprised by the ethereal beauty of Valdez, its quiet green waters and mirrored rain forest and mountains. It's been called "Little Switzerland," but Switzerland might well be called "Little Valdez": One good-size Alaskan glacier contains more snow than all of the glaciers in Switzerland.
Our two most spectacular sightings are the mighty Hubbard, right before Valdez, and College Fjord, right after. Hubbard is known as "the Galloping Glacier" because it's advancing at the speed of a foot a day, which may not qualify it for the Indy 500, but as glaciers go, it's a Ferrari. Hubbard makes headlines during our cruise by expanding to briefly block Russell Fjord. Tidal currents reopen the fjord, but Hubbard may win in the end. It's calving so much ice our ship can't get near it.
College Fjord could be called Glacier Alley for its 16 tidewater giants, each one named for a school. Harvard is the largest, Yale a decided second. Radcliffe is flat and dirty. Barnard and Holyoke are awesome hanging glaciers, and Bryn Mawr has a lovely cascade of what looks like laundry water.
In College Fjord, we finally feel as though our azure, ice-encrusted dreams have been realized. And we imagine that even our ruddy fellow passenger, looking out on this glacial lineup, has no doubts we've arrived in Alaska.
This article was first published in September 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.