Saint Paul Pioneer Press
AMONG THE GROWLERS – KAYAKERS HAVE AN ICE TIME PADDLING AT THE COLUMBIA GLACIER IN ALASKA’S PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND.
Keith Goetzman, Pioneer Press
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.
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.
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.
If You Go
Valdez-based kayak outfitter Anadyr Adventures, 1-800-865-2925 or 907-835-2814; www.anadyradventures.com, offers guided day trips, multiday camping trips, “Mothership” trips with a support vessel, and lodge-based trips with day excursions. Anadyr also rents kayaks to experienced paddlers and provides boat shuttles for self-guided trips.
Keith Goetzman can be reached at email@example.com.
A version of this story ran in Alaska Magazine Story and photos copyright:
John Woodbury and Angel Boga; Alaska Adventure Media
Reality Bites Back
There’s 1,000 ways to die in Alaska, yet cheechako kayaker Michael Myers was unconcerned with them all.
Riding gray elevators of Gulf of Alaska swells while behemoth Steller sea lions bumped into his two-seater kayak, Mike held his own against high water and hypothermia.
A chilly, four-day drizzle hounded us neophyte paddlers as we dipped and pulled our way along some 50-plus miles of unpopulated Prince William Sound, creating prime conditions for hypothermia while allowing risk some leg room.
Rocky points jutting into lengthy fjords created confused seas, tossing our small crafts about like toys, and 1,000-pound sea lions amused themselves for miles with their new playthings. The foul-smelling and frisky pinnipeds kept pace with our group, occasionally nudging a kayak rudder or easing under a paddle stroke. Grunting invitations to come play, the sea lions stank up our immediate air with a musky, sour fish smell.
Splashing us with cold brine, they would dive into a swell in unison and disappear for minutes at a time. Always they would come back, plowing white water off their stout necks as they raced en masse toward our sterns. The intimidation forced a speedier paddle, then all strokes stopped once the animals darted and dove beneath each of our kayaks. Bumps were routine, and bold sea lions nosed up to elbows hanging inches below spray skirts. This cycle continued for nearly five miles as we made our way along the open-ocean side of a verdant and cliff-ringed island.
On land, black bears left an abundance of calling cards along the marshes and trails we strolled during leisure time at camp. The plump mounds of scat reiterated to the group that we were not alone out here, no matter how quiet and desolate the area seemed.
Prince William Sound’s misty and subdued demeanor hides real threats, and there was plenty out here to put a nasty spin on our five-day guided kayak trip with Anadyr Adventures.
Mike was unfazed by all the potential hazards. I watched the talkative school teacher from Illinois for four days, impressed at the way he manhandled his kayak through growling ice bergs, dealt with unrelenting rain and trotted carefree along myriad bear trails. Despite never having spent one night under the stars, Mike blended in nicely with a touring group comprised of five Alaskans and five Lower 48 visitors.
He seemed unusually at ease in this environment, this city kid from back East. He paddled with confidence, chipped in like a pro with camp chores and had nerves of steel while in bear country.
Turns out, he didn’t know any better. Turns out, he had bigger concerns than just the perils that confront a wilderness adventurer in the wilds of Alaska.
His biggest fear, deep in the wet coastal woods of Prince William Sound, was that one of us would go mad in camp and later dine upon his flesh.
He is a product, I fear, of too much reality TV.
Mike’s studied gazes through narrowed and suspicious eyes earlier in the trip made sense once he revealed his inexperience in the outdoors and his fears of becoming the group’s next pu-pu platter.
All Mike knew about camping with strangers in the deep woods was what he learned from Hollywood. You could almost see the ballots being tallied as Mike arranged our group in terms of who would be voted off first and who he would become aligned with once minds started to crumble under the quiet, unrelenting pressure of nature.
Albeit naive to the ways of backcountry travel, Mike was no dummy. He knew that his best chance for survival, if things went awry, was to align himself with crucial members of the group. Naturally, he choose to acquaint himself first with the guides, Paul Nylund and Ryan Morrill. The guides, he knew, would be his best bet at getting out of this trip alive and, he also knew, they carried a bulk of the food and therefore would be less likely to make a dish out of him.
His next strategy was to endear himself with a mom and her two lads, perhaps caching an escape route from the cook pot by convincing the group that a 10-year-old filet mignon would be much more tender than a hardened 20-something chuck roast.
My partner, Angel Boga, and myself were two of the last people Mike aligned himself with. Perhaps because Angel and I were well-prepared and self-sufficient, we remained a bit to ourselves during the meal preparation routine. Maybe the fact that we were already a duo made it more intimidating to bust into our two-person tribe.
He did warm up to us, tough, but only after we had paddled along Fairmont Island and stopped for lunch at Gil Rodriguez’s oyster farm. Humus and bagels provided a fine foundation for the scores of dripping-fresh oysters I slurped down my gullet. Gil, generous with conversation and shellfish, gave us a tour of his operation and sent us on our way with treats that included a weighty bag of oysters destined for our evening spaghetti.
With only two days left on our trek and a freshly recharged food supply, Mike’s anxiety about becoming the main course seemed to ebb a bit. Once at camp that evening, he entered into conversation with Angel and myself while we hiked along well-trodden bear and Sitka black-tail deer trails.
Dense thickets of underbrush crowd towering Sitka spruce, cedar and western hemlock trees on most of the islands and mainlands of Prince William Sound. This creates prime habitat for deer and other animals, which, in turn, creates prime hunting areas for predators. Negotiating our way along a packed trail, we met Mike and his tent mate, Jeremy Schreifels, as they were exploring the area near camp. Inviting them to join our hike, Angel and I led the two visitors up the obvious route to a knoll providing a grand view of Columbia Glacier.
Mike, marveling at the ease of travel in such thicket, remarked how fortunate it was for us to stumble upon someone’s trail. That someone, I replied, was Mr. Bear, and punctuated my statement by stepping aside to reveal a fresh pile of scat in the trail. Unbelieving, Mike discounted the scat and refused to acknowledge that the trail we were on was a bear highway. I shrugged at his refusal to comprehend that the trails were not man-made and plodded up the hill, making enough noise to alert any keen ears that may be hiding in the tall grass.
But the scat, as scat will do, sunk in. Mike slowly began to gain awareness that maybe, just maybe, his travel chums were less of a threat than the natural world around him. Perhaps nature and its residents, not his companions, might find Mike’s pink flesh more appetizing as a meal.
He quieted down a bit, lost in thought and the realization that there’s different sets of rules governing Hollywood than the deep woods. He sat down to take in the view, and to view the trip and his companions with an enlightened mind. Instead of being the folks who might make a meal out of him, his paddle partners were the only ones who would save his bacon this far from marquee lights and television sets.
I chuckled at Mike’s choice of a seating area. He plopped down in the middle of a recently vacated black bear bed, but finally he was giving bears their proper place in the hierarchy of potential threats, bumping us hungry kayakers down a notch or two. After assuring him that bears have more couth than to eat in bed, we made our way back to camp in time for the dinner bell.
For at least one more evening, Mike sighed with relief knowing he was on the right end of the serving spoon. I think he realized that, while Mother Nature may eat guys like him for lunch, it’s rare your travel companions would do the same.
John Woodbury is a lifelong Alaskan and free-lance writer who lives in Anchorage. His column appears monthly in Alaska magazine.
Follow the Leader Guided Trips something to Sleep on
Made it back alive again. It’s always a bonus when you can claim that at the end of a trip.
Granted, the latest excursion was a bit unusual. Certainly, it had all the elements for raw adventure: Wild animals, uncooperative weather, genuine risk.
What made this sojourn into Alaska’s wild country a bit different was that it was my first guided trip. Two guides would lead myself and seven others into the chilly, glacier-choked fjords of Prince William Sound via kayak.
We had the Sound to ourselves for five days and, best of all, a loose itinerary that we had the power to manipulate to match our whims.
Or so it seemed.
In actuality, the kayaking trip morphed from a playful and pleasant paddle through scenic, salty waterways into a grunt of a traverse covering some 50-plus miles of sheltered inlets and open-water crossings.
Without becoming melodramatic, I again reiterate we had the right to set our own agenda for each day. But a group’s dynamics can play on the outcome of a trip.
Reliving the trip in my mind, without needing to exaggerate at all the splendid vistas or the anxious moments involving loaded kayaks, shifting swells and curious sea lions, I chuckled at the alternate outcome of the journey had I been guide-free and in the company of my usual travel chums.
Our progress would’ve been laughable. We would’ve been so captivated by the first camp alone that days would’ve been lost exploring the region. If we made it 10 miles in five days we would’ve applauded ourselves for setting such a blistering pace. Afternoon naps, whether floating in kayaks or on a pebbled shoreline, would’ve occupied every midday.
Instead of traveling the length on one fjord, out across an open stretch of Prince William Sound and circumnavigating a rugged island, the usual suspects and I would’ve lingered on every detail of plant and animal life, wet a fishing line or two and napped incessantly. Part of our enjoyment of the outdoors comes from our innate ability to thoroughly relax in it.
In my very limited experience traveling with a guide, this rarely happens. Certainly, as the client you control the trip to an extent. A guide will almost always acquiesce if you demand the pace slow, or request to linger at a particularly scenic area for a while. But the guide, by nature of his or her craft, knows what else is out there. Good ones, like the ones we had at Anadyr Adventures in Valdez, allow the group time to satisfy their desire to explore or take in the vistas while gently prodding the group along when need be.
We watched a calving glacier for hours, and would’ve liked to linger there longer, but the guides knew even more spectacular adventures lay ahead. We begrudgingly shoved off from the glacier viewing area and followed the guides, unaware that even an advancing glacier could be outdone.
Our wondering about why guides Paul Nylund and Ryan Morrill left such a splendid fjord ended once we chanced upon a sea lion rookery on the open ocean side of a verdant and cliff-ringed island. Foul-smelling but frisky pinnipeds kept pace with our group for nearly five miles, splashing about in the small bay long after we had left the water to set up our tents. It was a magical moment that, more than likely, my usual chums and I would’ve missed if we hadn’t had the motivation of a guide in the know.
Motivate. That’s what a guide does best. A good guide is experienced not only in leading people, but is also well acquainted with the area in which he or she guides. In short, they know the best of what a region has to offer.