It didn't look like we'd be kayaking in the morning after all. My wife and I had hoped to paddle in Alaska's storied Prince William Sound, but biblical amounts of rain had fallen...
VALDEZ, Alaska It didn’t look like we’d be kayaking in the morning after all. My wife and I had hoped to paddle in Alaska’s storied Prince William Sound, but biblical amounts of rain had fallen overnight.
We’d even abandoned our rugged campsite outside Valdez after midnight because the gravel road leading to it had turned into a Class I whitewater rapids. Sleeping in our vehicle, we were already resigned to exploring Valdez in a downpour rather than cavorting with orcas in the sound.
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Then something magical happened. Dawn broke under clearing skies, and by midmorning we were navigating our two-seater amid towering chunks of luminescent blue ice, lost in Shackletonesque reverie below the face of the Columbia Glacier.
It was a remarkable transformation, and, after our dank night, we were dazed by the crystalline brilliance of the ice, the sea and the sky.
The Columbia has many claims to fame. It’s one of the world’s speediest glaciers, it’s the size of Los Angeles, and it mothered the iceberg that sent the Exxon Valdez off course and into environmental infamy.
But the 400-square-mile field of compacted snow is also notable for the kayak-friendly waters where it meets the sea.
The glacier’s fast retreat in recent years has clogged a vast bay with icebergs, like a giant bathtub filled with oddly shaped ice cubes, and kayakers can frolic among the bergs near the bay’s mouth.
We were traveling with Valdez-based Anadyr Adventures in a small group just us, an amiable German couple, and our guide, Jen on a 10-hour day trip, spending about six hours on the water and exploring the nearby shore. When we first spotted a bleach-white iceberg from the shuttle boat that brought us to the glacier, it looked like a sailboat in the distance. But then more and more of these “boats” appeared and we soon were launching our kayaks in the middle of a veritable frozen regatta.
Small icebergs are known in maritime lingo as growlers, a vaguely menacing name I grew to prefer over “iceberg,” which now sounded dull, Titanic associations and all. As we paddled nearer to the bay from which the growlers emerged, we found we were in luck: The timing of the tide today allowed immediate access to the bay.
The growlers had been impressive from a distance, but up close they were even more amazing and nuanced. Most striking were their forms, designs sculpted by sun, wind, rain and the physics of frozen water. Like clouds, some conjured creatures raven, seal, dinosaur while others tended toward artful abstraction.
Freshly sheared faces retained their jagged edges, while long-exposed areas had mellowed into curvaceous blobs. Surface ice had turned white and crumbly, like a snow cone, yet the core of the growlers remained deep blue and brittle. We had escaped from a hot Minnesota summer back home, and just looking at all this ice was as refreshing as drinking a tall iced tea.
We spent hours meandering through this icy wonderland, exploring the mazelike network of channels and arriving at dozens of dead ends where the ice was jammed together. Then we landed on terra firma and hiked up the terminal moraine, the rocky mound created by the surging ice, for lunch.
Noodles in a foam cup never tasted so good, but this might have had something to do with the view, a panoramic sweep that included the ice-choked bay, the distant 300-foot glacier face, the tallest peaks of the Chugach Mountains, and the richly colored wildflowers and plants on the moraine around us. A ruby-throated hummingbird even whizzed by and added another unexpected dash of color to the scene.
Natural changes ahead
The Columbia is a tidewater glacier, meaning it empties directly into the sea, and this is partly responsible for its hasty retreat.
The end of the glacier is floating and, scientists say, stretching out like a piece of taffy. The glacier is calving faster as it grows thinner, and experts predict an ever-quickening retreat or even an “abrupt event” in which it disintegrates. The valley carved by the Columbia is expected to become a steep-walled fjord rivaling Glacier Bay, in as little as a decade or as much as 50 years, and tour boats will likely be more prominent than kayaks on its waters.
Scientists have been cautious about linking the Columbia’s “catastrophic” retreat to global warming, because neighboring glaciers aren’t retreating so dramatically, but they acknowledge it’s a likely contributing factor.
After lunch, we glided among the growlers a bit more and then made our way out to a prearranged pick-up spot, stopping to play in a scenic waterfall plunging from a lush gorge.
On the boat ride back, we all looked a bit slackjawed and stunned, as if we’d seen more natural beauty in a day than is healthy.
If you want to kayak among the icebergs at the Columbia Glacier, don’t wait too long:
This is a show that won’t last. And leave a little room to wait out a rainy day in Valdez, just in case magic doesn’t strike at dawn.