A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about glaciers

Yodeling Under a Glacier

A Thom Style Adventure...

rain 51 °F

It is raining as I step off the number three bus and onto the side of the Mendenhall Loop Road. It has been raining since I woke up hung over at the Alaskan (a Juneau tradition), and it has been raining all morning. I don’t mind. Rain is a fact of life in Southeast Alaska, and you can’t let it get to you lest it crush your spirit.

The bus pulls away and I am free to choose my own adventure. I have only a rough idea where I am going. I vaguely remember the roads on a Google map I looked at earlier in the morning. I also have a soggy paper map that shows the bus route and a glacier towards the top of the map. This map is not to scale, and I don’t know how far away the glacier is from the road.

I’m aiming for that glacier. If all goes well, the road I’m walking will lead to Mendenhall Lake. If I can find the lake, I can find the glacier. If I can’t find the lake, then I have no idea where I’m going.

I met a guy in Antarctica who put the idea of this adventure in my head. That was back in November. It’s been simmering in my mind since then. I purposely chose to fly out of Juneau so I could make this day happen. As I walk, I try to remember what he said about the trail. “I walked up the trail and there was a sign that said, ‘West Glacier Trail’ with an arrow to the left and another arrow to the right that said, ‘Primitive Trail.’ I went to the right.” Once I find the lake, I have to find the trail.

I feel good. My stride is strong. My pace is quick. It isn’t long before I find the lake - right where I hoped it would be. I pass a small covered shelter near the edge of the lake. Applause erupts from within. I know it isn’t for me, but I pretend it is. “Why, thank you,” I say. “I’m very happy to be here.” Smiling at my own silliness, another bout of applause opens up and my smile grows.

There it is - the west glacier trailhead. I stop briefly to text a few people my exit time. I often travel by myself. If I know I’m heading in the wild or about to do something dangerous, I will text a few buddies who I can count on to send help if I need it. My text said: “Hi. I’m in Juneau and taking a hike on the west glacier trail. I should be out by 9 a.m. tomorrow. I’ll text you by then. If not, wait 3 hours, and then call the cops. Thanks.” Now, I didn’t mention the fact I was going to the glacier. I also didn’t mention that I was looking for ice caves. But, at least it would give them a place to start looking for me. By the way, nobody in their right mind should go looking for ice caves on a glacier by themselves. I am the only exception! Remember that!

Anyhow, I have my safety net in place. I turn off my phone and start up the trail. It’s a great forest trail. Moss covers everything. The forest is green. The path crosses several creeks gushing with clear water. The air is cold, and the rain continues to fall. I’m very tempted to take pictures of the forest scenes, but my camera would be soaked in minutes.

I stop briefly at a viewpoint with a covered roof. There is a family taking a break. They ask me to take a picture of them. I’m happy to do it. In return for my good deed, they tell me how to get to a good ice cave. The information matches what I already know about this enterprise. I thank them and head back onto the trail. My confidence grows.

The trail starts climbing the ridge and it gets steep and rocky in areas. The rocks are wet from the rain, and the tree roots are slick. I slip a couple of times, and I remind myself to take it easy. Getting hurt is not an option.

Finally, I reach the sign I am looking for. The main trail cuts to the left, the primitive trail goes to the right. I step off the easy path onto the rough track. It passes through a thick stand of twisted alder trees. I slip several times on the roots. Picture James Brown in his prime dropping down into the splits. Now picture me doing that on a steep rocky trail. I bet if you compared screams, they would sound oddly similar.

As I walk, I start putting together a songline of my landmarks. If I remember this little song, I will be able to find my way out if I get lost. It’s an idea I’ve taken on from the aboriginal people of Australia and I find it works rather well. The landscape is a song, you just need to remember the lyrics.
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The trail leads to an open rocky area. I jump across two creeks and follow small rock cairns which now mark the path over the rock. It isn’t long before I’m looking at the massive expanse of the Mendenhall Glacier. It is truly awesome.

I have seen many glaciers in my life, from Alaska to Antarctica. I’ve watched them calve off huge chunks of ice. I‘ve flown over them, and I’ve stared at them from a ship. This marks the first time that I have seen one on foot. I smile. I love it when a plan comes together - especially a half ass plan such as this one.

I pick my way down the side of a rock bluff and skip down a steep talus pile to the very edge of the Mendenhall Glacier. I take a few tentative steps on the ice. I feel tiny. I am treading on just the tip of the toenail of this giant moving ice sheet. I know enough about glacier trekking to know I am not prepared. I’m not wearing crampons. I don’t have an ice axe. I don’t have any line. I don’t have a partner. I am smart enough to know that I have no business walking around on top of the glacier. However, I’m hoping to walk underneath the glacier on solid ground, and that is a different matter.

The trail has ended at the glacier, and I’m left to my own devices. I start walking along side of the ice sheet picking my way along a steep bank of loose talus. The stones are muddy from silt, and I sink up to my ankles in stones. A handful of rocks tumble down the slope with each step. It is not easy to walk here.

I follow the side of the glacier for about a half a mile before I see two waterfalls cascading down the side of the fjord. The two waterfalls meet at the base of the slope to form a larger creek. This creek disappears into the side of the glacier forming a giant ice cave.

“Holy shit,” I whisper. Good words fail me when I confront grandeur.

I slide down ten feet of loose rock to get to the waterfalls. I slowly spin in a circle taking in my surroundings. There are two waterfalls dropping down from the clouded heights of the fjord face. There is the glacier itself - massive and impassive. Finally, there is a jeweled ice cave cut into the ice. I’ve never seen anything like this, that’s for damn sure.
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The entrance is large perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. On one side, an overhanging arch forms one-half of the ceiling. I’m a little leery about that arch. It doesn’t look very sturdy. The entrance appears more trust worthy on the other side of the creek. It looks more like a cave. There is a narrow gravel bank between the side of the cave and the creek. I pick my way across the waterfall hopping from rock to rock to get on the side I want to enter.

I pause at the entrance. This is scary as hell! The thought of stepping into the cave sends tingles down my entire body. My heart beats loudly in my chest. I start giggling. I love this high. I know I’m going in. I didn’t come all this way to chicken out now. Do you remember the movie, “Field of Dreams?” Do you remember the scene where the writer Terrance Mann was about to step into the rows of corn for the first time - to see what is on the other side? That’s how I feel. Though they are one in the same, I ask for courage from Buddha, The Universe, My ex-girlfriends, Tao, Zeus, Krishna, The Great Spirit, The Glacier, God, The Great Pumpkin - anyone I can think of, and take ten steps inside the cave.
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It’s too much for my senses. The ice walls of the cave amplify the roar of the creek tumbling through the rocks. The sides of the cave are smooth, dimpled and sparkling like facets of a cut jewel. The ice is very clear. I half way expect to see an iceman frozen inside of the ice. Ancient rocks are stuck in the walls. Water drips from the ceiling. The whole cave glows with a dull blue color. I am standing inside of a cold sapphire. It takes a while to get used to this.
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My initial high dies away, and I settle down. I walk deep into the cave. The creek tumbles over the bedrock creating a never-ending set of rapids and waterfalls. I can’t see the white glow of the opening of the cave anymore. I wonder if I kept following the creek would it lead me to the face of the glacier. I’m tempted to try, but the bank of the creek has ended. I will need a dry suit to investigate further.
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I reflect on my situation. I am standing alone underneath a glacier. There isn’t a single person on this planet that knows where I am. “Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown,” I say to myself. It’s an interesting thought.

I start mindlessly humming aloud. It sounds really cool. The acoustics of ice caves are great. Soon, I am chanting “Ohmmmmmmm…” really emphasizing the mmm’s. My voice never sounded so good. I take it up another notch and try out a yodel. Now, yodeling can go one of two ways. It can sound amazing, providing the yodeler can hit the notes clearly or it can sound terrible, like a teenage boy reading aloud in English class. I’ve had it go both ways. I will only yodel under the right conditions. I’ll test my voice first, and if it seems like it will hold, I will let ‘er rip. I don’t know if it was the acoustics of the cave, or just being in that moment, but my voice rang loud and true over the roar of the water.

I’ve never yodeled this good before and I let it flow out of me (I know how ludicrous this sounds to those of you who don‘t know me). My last efforts end in a bout of laughter. I am a happy man.

My time in the glacier is nearing an end. I still have to find my way back to civilization. I knew before I entered the cave that I would have to keep track of time. I stick to my rules and leave the cave. I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I have no regrets. I’m riding an amazing high of discovery and I am tingling with the experience.

I back track down the glacier to the trail. I remember the lyrics to my songline: “Climb the creek to the shallow valley. Follow the cairns past the open rock area. Cross two creeks and follow the little snake through the alder. At the duck tape and orange flagging, veer left back to the bigger snake. Follow the bigger snake back to the lake and you are home free.” When I get back to the trailhead, I text my people. I let them know that I have made it out and all is well.

I am satisfied with my efforts. I am drenched to my skin, cold and hungry, yet I am completely euphoric. It has been a great day.
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Life Accomplishment No. 37,824: Yodel Under a Glacier. Check!

Posted by Rhombus 10:03 Archived in USA Tagged waterfalls hiking adventure ice alaska glaciers photography icecaves Comments (0)

Waking Up In Sitka

Lounging In Dandelions, Photos of an Alaskan May, Complacency, Waking Up

all seasons in one day 65 °F

I remember very clearly lying on a picnic table in Petersburg, Alaska. I said to my friend, “I wish we could do this all afternoon. We could get a bottle of wine, maybe do a crossword and fall asleep.” She agreed. Then we checked the time. Our sunny revelry was over. We had to go back to work.

Well, my life has changed since that sunny afternoon. A week has passed by and I’ve fulfilled my contractual agreements with that ship. It left me behind in Sitka, Alaska and I’ve been happily unemployed for the last four days.

I spent my last week on the ship working a very odd schedule. I started my shift at 9 pm and finished it at 9 am. It’s not a good schedule to have, especially if you have any desire to be social. But, I did it without complaint, as that was what they asked of me.
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I was in a sleepy torpor for two days as I tried to shift my sleeping schedule to more traditional patterns. I spent a lot of time lounging in sun strewn dandelion patches. Sitka has great dandelion patches. The flowers are bright and robust - nestled into the thick mat of fresh green grass. I thought back to my afternoon siesta with my friend back in Petersburg and I knew that lying around in a sunny park is everything I thought it could be.

At one point, I thought to myself that I should really write about my last week on the ship. I had a lot of fun teaching some new deckhands the tricks of the trade. I enjoyed the Alaskan seascapes in full bloom. I knew it was a passing thought, when I looked up at the clouds. I was just too tired.

The following photos will be my voice for the past week. They ring loudly and true about the supreme beauty in which I live, work and play.

Alaska in May

The Waterfalls of Tracy Arm
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Midway Islands
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Three Shades of Gray
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Point Anmer, Point Styleman and Grave Point

Sunrays Over Taku Harbor
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South Sawyer Glacier Explorations
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Arctic Tern Taking Flight
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Harbor Seals and South Sawyer Glacier
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Icebergs
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Davit Crane Fancy Work
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This is the best piece of fancy work I have tied so far. This sling holds the hook of our davit crane to a rail. There are two different types of chain sinnets, two different types of whippings, and a four strand star knot atop the wooden button I made out of an old piece of wood. Look for another article on knot tying in the near future.

Early Morning in Glacier Bay
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I love working the night shift in Alaska because the sun rises so early in the morning. I saw this scene around three thirty in the morning. It is a very peaceful time.

Afternoons in Front of the Marjorie Glacier
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I’ve been spending a lot of quality time watching the Marjorie Glacier. Glaciers, like whales, often require many hours of patient observation before they will do anything of note. More often then not, they will remain motionless for hours at a time before rewarding the persistent with a grand show. Even if nothing happens, the suspense and pleasure of watching glaciers is time well spent.

Complacency
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A friend of mine asked me, “Do you ever get complacent about the views around you?” It was a fair question. Have I become jaded? Maybe I have, I don’t know. For example, I remember the awe I once felt about seeing a humpback whale from a distance and hearing its powerful blow. Now, after seeing hundreds of them up close for the last three years, I wonder.

I enjoy seeing a whale as much as I always have. It is fair to say I’ve gotten much more fussy about which whales I’ll choose to photograph. After sorting through thousands of boring whale pictures and deleting most of them, I know what I’m looking for: An interesting composition in good light of a whale. If it isn’t intriguing, I’ll set my camera down and simply enjoy them.

Speaking of which, another friend of mine came down to my cabin to wake me up. “Thom! There are twenty orca outside, right now!” I leaned on my left arm and sleepily replied, “Twenty, hunh? Twenty one is the magic number.” With that, I rolled over and feigned sleep. I thought it was a good line, considering she shook me out of a dead sleep. Now, don’t get any ideas. After a few minutes, I got up and went out to watch the orca. There were three pods with about six members in each group. There might have been a single or two swimming around as well. It was the most orca I have seen together in one big pod. I didn’t take many photos as the whales were far away, but I like this one.
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Waking Up In Sitka
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On the third day of my stay in Sitka, I started waking up. My friend Annie and I went for a long walk in one of the most beautiful forest settings I have ever found. I called it a “Celebration of Green.” I’ll offer more on that later this week.

Today, I woke up to a beautiful blue bird sunny day. I lay in the warm womb of an afghan blanket as cool air from the open window wafted over my supine body. It was the best night of sleep I’ve had this year. I felt totally refreshed and energized. I was a new man. I looked at my clock, which said 7:32 a.m. I knew in that moment I had my mojo back! I have left that sleepy torpor behind, and it is time to embrace my life projects with all of the energy I can give them.

I wish I could convey just how happy I am right now. Words can’t do it.

Posted by Rhombus 22:32 Archived in USA Tagged mountains flowers ice alaska oceans ships glaciers photography sitka icebergs fancywork Comments (0)

Consider Alaska

Unique Views of a Sparkling Jewel

sunny 43 °F

Considering Alaska

Here are some things I’d like you to consider about Alaska.

Male Orca
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This whale marks my first orca sighting of the season. This male carries a fin that can grow up to six feet long. It was part of a four whale pod foraging somewhere near the border of British Columbia and Alaska.

Sunrise South of Ketchikan
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Sunlight arrives in the early morning hours in May. I love the energy that a new day brings. The sun removes any lingering listlessness I might carry after working through the shadowy night. This beautiful scene rings of cold air, placid waters, and good color.

It soothes me.

Bow Riding Dall Porpoise
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When I talk of “bow riding” animals, I am referring to dolphins and occasional porpoise that ride the cushion of water that our ship pushes as it makes way through the water. These animals ride this wave because they don’t have to expend any energy to move. In short, they are surfing a wave that lasts forever.

However, most of the animals that bow ride can swim much faster than the paltry ten knots our ship makes. They use us for as long as they want, before diving away. In my experience, dall porpoise don’t spend very much time bow riding.

The pod that rode our bow this morning stayed with us for twenty minutes -shattering my opinions. I took hundreds of photos of the porpoise, but really only liked this one. I like the color.

Aerial Views of the LeConte Glacier
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I’ve given up making prejudgments about experiences I’ve never had. When I learned that I was going to take a float plane flight above the LeConte Glacier, the crew kept telling me, “That‘s so awesome!” To which I replied, “Yeah, it might be. I don’t really know, I’ve never done this before.” My lack of enthusiasm bothered many people. My friend Eva really got her dander up. “Well, I think it’s f’ing awesome…” I don’t know how I do it, but I always seem to push the right buttons. I’m just being realistic. Yes, it sounds great and I’m excited to go. But there is a possibility I might hate it, and I’d have to retract my previous declarations. I’d rather not.
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It turns out, taking a low flying flight over a glacier IS f’ing awesome. I was blown away. I’ve seen many glaciers but I’ve never seen them from the sky.
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Glaciers are essentially slow moving rivers of ice. We spiraled from the top of the glacier down to its face. It was a gigantic jumble of jagged ice. We banked steeply over the main ice field several times, finishing each loop with a grand view of the broken face.
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Reflections of Endicott Arm
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This was my first visit to Endicott Arm since the late summer of 2011. I had forgotten how beautiful the reflection of the Dawes Glacier looks on a bed of perfectly smooth water.

Evening Over the Fair Weather Range
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I was having a great conversation with my brother Karl. You know the kind, where the topics are interesting, the one-liners are sharp, and the laughter rings true. Towards the end of our chat, the sun began its descent over the Fairweather Mountains. This range of high snow-capped peaks protects the western side of Glacier Bay National Park. I went downstairs to grab my camera, and warned my brother that I was going to take some photos while he talked. I’m a guy. Multitasking is something I cannot do very effectively, despite my delusions. While he talked on, I took this photo. When I look at it, it reminds me of him.

A Birthday in Glacier Bay National Park
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Yep, I’m 32. I like the number much better than 31. I am now divisible, as where before I was an awkward prime number. It has been a good day. Glacier Bay was bathed in crisp sunshine. The mountains that surround this waterway were brilliant, wearing their snow shrouds proudly.
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The Marjorie Glacier tossed ice off its face. Most of the crew were high up on lido, laughing, hamming it up, singing and dancing. I like the camaraderie. The glacier liked our energy and responded in kind.
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It was a tranquil day of work. I didn’t over tax myself, that’s for sure. I stayed up late last night, enjoying the social scene, and I felt tired most of the day.

My friends presented me with the following:

3 types of chocolate in different shapes. My weaknesses are well known it seems.
3 awesome journals. I’m a writer, and therefore easy to shop for.
3 bookmarks, which I’ll put to use in my journals.
1 Sperm Whale
1 loaf of homemade pizza bread. How I love this tasty treat.
Lemon pound cake. I can’t wait for breakfast tomorrow.
Countless hugs and salutations

It occurred to me after work, that I wouldn’t be who I am today if it hasn’t been for all of the good people I have met along the way. Those experiences, whether good or bad has been important in the making of this Thom. For that, I thank you.

I would consider Alaska to be one of the sparkling jewels in my crown of travels. It continues to surprise me, to stun me, and to inspire me.

Posted by Rhombus 20:16 Archived in USA Tagged mountains alaska friends oceans ships glaciers Comments (0)

The Grand Finale: Four Alaskan Jewels

Glacier Action at John Hopkins, Ice Kayaking, Aurora Borealis and Bubble Net Feeding Humpback Whales

sunny 57 °F

I love the way Alaska says goodbye. I’ve spent a lot of time here this season-just shy of three months. There are so many moments, images and people to celebrate. I have sublime memories of it all. However, I feel as though Alaska has saved the best for last- a grand showcase of the Southeast Alaskan environment. I am an appreciative audience. In the past week, I’ve seen the best glacier calving I’ll probably ever experience. I’ve gone kayaking among the ice floes and icebergs of South Sawyer Glacier. I’ve witnessed a spectacular show of the northern lights off our stern. Finally, in Snow Pass I spent two hours in the evening among bubble netting humpback whales against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset.

I feel as though Alaska is reminding me why I love it here (as if I needed one). It’s successfully planting the seeds of adventure in me for next season. There aren’t enough creative adjectives to describe what it like to witness what I’ve seen these past few days. How many times can I say something is beautiful? The same goes for words such as, fantastic, wonderful sublime, spectacular, awesome, amazing, and so on. These are good words, but they are no substitute for being in my shoes.

John Hopkins Inlet, September 4th, 2012
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Can you feel the warmth of the bright sunshine on your face? Can you sense the fresh coolness of the air with every breath? Can you hear the small chunks of ice “crick” together as the ship negotiates through an icy passage of bergy-bits? Can you see the sheer black walls of the fjord, covered in a swirl of passing cloud? Can you see the jagged grin of the glacier as we weave closer to its face? I can, and I hope I never forget this day.
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I’m standing atop the highest point on the ship laughing and bantering with my mates. A quarter of a mile away from me is the John Hopkins Glacier. The John Hopkins is a tidal glacier-meaning that the face of the glacier is over the ocean. The glacier face is very wide. It stretches from one side of the inlet to the other for several miles. It is also quite tall, rising several hundred feet above the greenish gray waters of the inlet. The face is a crooked smile of jagged icy teeth. There are twisted impacted spires and buttresses that would repel any attack from below. If I were designing a castle, I would replicate the face of glacier, complete with unstable and unpredictable falling of massive ice chunks.
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The glacier is very active. I’ve never seen so much calving. Normally, seeing one section of the face of a glacier calve off and fall into the ocean happens maybe once per visit. It is a memorable event. Today, the ice is rolling off the glacier every couple of minutes. I hear the icefall before I see it. A calving glacier sounds like a mixture of a thunderclap from a strong thunderstorm and an avalanche. The natives called it “white thunder” - an apt name.

Rivers of ice and snow flow down crevasses in the glacier like a waterfall. There are white explosions of water backlit against the shadow of the glacier. The cloud dissipates, and I wait a few more minutes for the next “crack” of ice.
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While I wait, I realize the improbability of our timing. The John Hopkins Glacier is a hard glacier to reach. It has a narrow fjord, which is normally jammed with ice. This ice often thwarts most vessels from getting close to the face. On previous attempts, we have only navigated within a mile of the face. Today, we’ve reached the safe and legal limit - a quarter mile away. Besides our proximity, the fact that the glacier is almost continuously calving is amazing.

Then I heard several loud “cracks” off in the distance. In a sequence I’ll never forget, several apartment-sized chunks of ice tumbled and fell off the face of the glacier into the greenish silt water of the inlet with explosive force. It looks like they are falling in slow motion, but they aren’t. It’s a matter of perspective and distance. When the ice hits the water, the detonation of foam, ice chunks, water and spray is tremendous. It is awesome, truly awesome. The force of the ice creates a surge wave that radiates quickly in all directions. We are soon bobbing up and down, rising and falling four feet with each swell. The shoreline closest to the glacier takes direct hits from the wave. Seconds later, another even larger piece of ice dislodges and hits in the same spot. This time the splash is gigantic. I can’t believe it. The surge wave is HUGE, and not only did I get to see it, I managed to keep my finger on the shutter.
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Tracy Arm, South Sawyer Glacier, September 5th, 2012
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My expedition leader burst into the crew lounge and asked me if I wanted to go kayaking. Not feeling particularly energetic, I came up with a quick barrage of excuses as to why I shouldn’t go. She looked at me, and began picking apart my defense, as a well-practiced prosecutor would have. I buckled under the cross-examination. I put on my rain pants, grabbed my little point and shoot, and loaded myself into a red kayak. I like Sue. She’s good like that.

And, of course, she was right. This was to be my last chance to kayak among icebergs for the season, and I soon began to enjoy myself. I paddled over to a likeable iceberg. It had a giant sculpted sphere of ice balanced on top of it. It was lit up beautifully in the mid-morning sunshine. It took awhile to maneuver into the position I wanted, but in the end, I was satisfied. I had this beautiful berg, a kayaker in the distance, and finally the massive face of the South Sawyer Glacier.
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Frederick Sound, 11:10 PM

I was making a complete walkthrough of the ship as part of my nightly engine rounds when I decided to peek off to the north to see if the northern lights were out. To my surprise, I saw a large greenish halo just below the big dipper (as I call it). To make sure, I pulled out my camera and took a test photo. When I looked at the playback, I saw the green sky of the aurora borealis. I smiled, and walked into the dining room to spread the word. Before I could check them out, I had to finish my engine round. By the time I returned to the bridge, there was a small crowd of people on the aft portion of our bridge deck gazing in awe at the greenish swirls in the northern sky.
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The second mate released me to go enjoy the show. I grabbed my camera, and joined the small crowd. A waxing half moon was rising out of the east, which cast a long moonlit reflection on the water. Though not ideal for watching the foxfires, it was pretty in its own right. To the north, halfway between the big dipper and the horizon, tall greenish spires began to form. They intensified in brightness and design, dancing among the stars to a sonata few people get to hear.
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For my part, I set my camera for night work and tried to keep it as stable as possible. I love the way the camera can the greenish light of the borealis. It makes for a beautiful scene - far more intense than what the eye can actually see of the foxfires.

It was the best northern lights show of the season. I made a mental note to myself: Remember to look off to the north once in awhile on clear nights. You never know when the foxfires will burn.

Snow Pass, Southbound, September 7th, 2012

I knew this was going to be the last group of bubble net feeding humpbacks I was going to see this year. Fortunately, I was working on the lido deck. The lido offers a great vantage point to watch whales because it is our highest deck. I had my camera, and I was in position, just as the group surfaced. It was going to be a good show.

The world was gorgeous. God rays snuck through heavy clouds to the west illuminating the sea with a heavenly backdrop. The water patterns were a hypnotic swirl of blue, gray, black and white. A kaleidoscope of the sea.
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The captain gave permission to stand on top of the pilothouse, which offered an even better view. The whales did not disappoint. There was a pod of six whales working together.
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After they dove down in single file, we dropped our hydrophone to listen to their calls underneath the water. Nobody really knows what is being communicated. However, the noises they make seem to have some effect. It is surmised that once the whales dive below, one or two of the whales circles the bait ball while blowing air bubbles. The bubbles rise and form a net, which traps the fish inside of it.
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Other whales are crying out with and eerie short like blast of calls. This is to scare the fish into a tighter ball. I know it would scare the crap out of me, if I saw a pod of six whales entrapping me in a net and began crying at me. The noise they make does kind of sound like a whimper, but a whale sized whimper. This goes on for twenty seconds to a minute, before the call changes. One whale blasts a tremendous long trumpeting call, which seems to be the signal for the whales to swim through the net. Think of a cavalry brigade’s trumpet and the order to “CHARGE.”
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Meanwhile, on the surface, nothing seems to be happening. Then, if conditions are right, you can see a perfect circle of air bubbles appear on the surface of the water. If birds are present, they begin flying around and calling to one another until they zero in on the surface point. The bird squawking reaches a frenzy just before the whales break through the surface. When the whales do lunge through the water, it is surprisingly quiet. For an animal fifty feet long and weighing ninety thousand pounds (I weighed one, it's true), they hardly make any noise at all except for the expelling of their breath.
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I’ve seen bubble netting whales dozens of times, and I’ve yet to tire of it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Alaska is very good to me. I will miss it, but I know I will be back for more. The season has ended and it’s time to search for new adventures somewhere else.

Thank you, Alaska.

Posted by Rhombus 15:04 Archived in USA Tagged alaska oceans kayaking glaciers photography whale icebergs foxfires auroraborealis Comments (0)

Icebergs, Fox Fires, and Orca: An Alaskan Week to Remember

Kayaking in Icebergs, Euology for a Glacier, Fox Fires, and Orca

semi-overcast 50 °F

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I could see the mass of white blue ice floating on the placid rain speckled water of Williams Cove from the fantail of the ship. I asked our Bosun if he would drop some kayaks for two of my friends, and myself. I slid into my raingear, and hopped into the shuttle that would take us to shore.
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Now in the kayak, I paddled directly towards the massive blue iceberg that had drawn my attention earlier. It was even prettier up close. I love glacier blue. This color only forms in the ancient ice of glaciers. The glaciers are a living entity, though they are slowly passing away.

Eulogy for a Glacier
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In life, a tidal glacier creates some of the prettiest landscapes on the face of the planet. The glacier spends thousands of years, slowly grinding and polishing dense mountain stone until it is a perfect. Sawyer Glacier (before it split into North and South Sawyer) was the master carver of Tracy Arm-a stunning array of angled rock, white ribbons of waterfalls, green water, and beautiful ice floes.
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In death, the tidal glacier melts and disintegrates. As a parting gift, it sheds magnificent pieces of ice from its face that slowly melt into the sea. The cracking roar of white thunder signifies the birth of another berg. Once the berg settles, the tidal currents pull them away from the face and carry them out to sea. As children leave home, icebergs slowly disappear around the bend, never to be seen again. Over time, the tidal glacier retreats further into the fjord until at last the final piece of ice falls into the sea. There is nothing left but a rumbling creek, and the smooth rock of memories past.

A tidal glacier is unique, because it only creates beauty. Its life work is left to see in the short term exquisite melting of icebergs, and in the long lasting beauty of a fjord.

Zen Morning

It is in the wondrous backdrop of Tracy Arm, that I spent my morning kayaking around stately icebergs. It was another Zen morning for me. I heard the sound of raindrops tapping the surface of the slate gray water with a tiny blip. Two ravens call in the distance. The watery sound of small waves lapping the ice was musical. The ice itself is exquisite. Each piece of ice was worthy to be on the wall of the Louvre. The seawater and rain have melted it into intricate shapes, and each piece could be a plate on the Rorschach test.
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My friends went in search of warmth. I went in search of ice, and with it, Zen. I fell into deep breathing, satisfied to float around the bergs as the current would take me. I opened my eyes, and a leaf floated right to my canoe. I marveled at its vein system. Then I let it go.
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Blue
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We visited South Sawyer Glacier right at sunset. We were deep in the fjord, deep in blue shadow. A giant iceberg glowed against the rich backdrop of sun-streaked stone. It was a beautiful a work of art, a sapphire set into a locket of fire.
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The face of the glacier held still. It looked as though the entire face could fall at any minute, but it held its piece, frozen and unmoving for the moment. Dozens of harbor seals were atop the ice floes, basking in the beautiful evening. The seals live on the floes, in front of the glacier. In real estate, it’s all about location. I’d like to meet their agent.

Fox Fire
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The Inuit call it “Fox Fire.” The phenomenon is more commonly called the “northern lights” (in the northern hemisphere). Astronomers prefer to call it Aurora Borealis. It has been many years since I’ve seen the northern lights dancing in the sky. And I’ve never seen it in Alaska. I’ve seen them three times this week. Last night’s show was amazing. At three thirty in the morning, I looked to the north and saw an intense column of green light. Then a halo appeared and began pulsing. I was in awe. I ran down to the bunks, and woke up my roommate, and two other friends to share the experience. It’s a gamble to wake people up, because the northern lights are a fickle entity. As quickly as they show, they can disappear -even on a perfectly clear sky. Luck was with me, and the lights continued to dance when I returned to the stern of our ship. My friends appeared, one by one, and I was glad to have awoken them. We stood in companionable silence in the chilly Alaskan night watching the dance of all dances. I wondered what ancient man thought of the foxfires. As they dance ended, I smiled. How lucky can a guy get?

Close Encounters with Orca
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I’m working nights this week. I awoke around four, and headed up to the top deck our ship to eat my breakfast. It was a beautiful day. The air was cool. The sun broke through the high patchwork clouds, bringing warmth, and chill. I read philosophy aloud to a friend as we watched the Alaskan seascapes slowly change with our movement.
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Then the boat slowed, and we spotted a pod of orca. I put down my philosophy book that I was reading to a friend, and we watched the whales for a while. Then, as they swam away, I went back to my book for a few pages. Suddenly, we heard the whale spout right next to us, and we jumped up to see them. They were right next to the boat, skimming the surface just underneath the water. Then, as a family, the big male popped up, followed by two females and a calf. It was amazing!

Needless to say, I’ve been eating a lot more breakfast up on the lido. There is no finer way to start my day.

To recap, this week I’ve seen six different glaciers. I’ve kayaked among icebergs. I saw a beautiful iceberg scene of seals, ice and sunset. I watched an orca pod for several hours. I watched humpback whales bubble net feed. The aurora borealis danced across my sky three times on three different nights, and I’ve shared it all with some great people.

Alaska. It’s such a small name, but it gives me such a big smile.
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Posted by Rhombus 10:15 Archived in USA Tagged wildlife whales alaska oceans kayaking glaciers photography orca icebergs foxfires auroraborealis Comments (0)

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