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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Experience Alaska and its jewel-like glaciers

Here are excerpts from a San Francisco Chronicle article we thought you would find interesting.

The first five objects to strike the hull were, in order, a case of beer, a rowboat, a TV set, a refrigerator and a 1957 Chevy (cherry red with whitewalls).

Then a condo duplex.

At least that's how it sounded inside my cabin on the Bargain Basement Deck of the Spirit of Columbia, where at 6:30 a.m. my head lay inches from a steel hull being battered mercilessly by prehistoric blue ice.

Did this captain even see "Titanic"?

Each crunching thud rang the cabin like an oversized gong. The mallets in this case, however, were pieces of what I had come to Alaska's Prince William Sound to find: massive glaciers, crenelated rivers of frozen snow that sculpted almost everything in the state. Although judging from the increasing attention to rising global temperatures -- and from what was ramming my cabin wall -- I hoped there was still some left standing.

The goal: Experience Alaska and its jewel-like glaciers up close (although in hindsight, maybe not this close), instead of just viewing them through binoculars. I booked a four-night voyage on Cruise West's 79-passenger Spirit of Columbia because, it turns out, a small ship isn't just the most reliable way to get close to the ice and the wildlife, it's just about the only way. Faced with a chance to see a dozen or so of Alaska's celebrated icons, I set out to experience them -- before they disappear like party ice in a picnic cooler.

Glaciers are like the world's slowest lemming stampede: All the pressure is from behind, and by the time the guys in front figure out where everyone is going, they're over the edge. The result is a thunderous cataclysm, starting with distant crackling and bone-jarring snaps, and ending with the kind of subatomic detonation you'd expect when a slab the size of a Hilton Garden Inn hits the peaceful fjord.

Alaska's best-known tidewater glaciers (the ones that shed icebergs in a process known as calving) are in Glacier Bay, the requisite big-ship cruise stop on the state's droopy southeastern tail. The mother lode, however, is around Prince William Sound, a wonderland of jagged peaks and snaking flows of super-compressed snow, many of which terminate violently into a sheltered, Medusa-like sea.

Just so we're clear: For whatever reason -- internal-combustion engines, Mother Nature's biorhythms or (my favorite) cattle flatulence -- the majority of Alaska's tidewater glaciers are retreating. Columbia Glacier alone has dropped back almost 10 miles since 1980, and has, at times, calved off 2 cubic miles of frozen chunks a year into the sound. That is why I came to be at College Fjord in south-central Alaska, standing on the observation deck with my 78 fellow passengers, waiting for the Harvard Glacier to lose another lemming.

Capt. Laura Tritch (informally, Capt. Laura) kept the ship within a few city blocks of the 250-foot cliff that filled 1 1/2 miles of our horizon. But not too close: Beyond the obvious dangers of falling icebergs and subsequent monster waves, there are the little-discussed underwater calvings, when pieces break off the submerged face and pop up from underneath like a champagne cork.

As we hovered near Harvard's face, I tried to gauge the crowd's interest based on shutter clicks per minute from the armory of digital cameras: general scenery (five clicks); each other (11 clicks); harbor seals eyeing us from their icy rafts (26 clicks); the crash of the glacier calving (4,876 clicks). I considered for a moment that this is one of the few places where it's socially acceptable to celebrate the collapse of historic structures, all older than any Mayan ruins.

As if on cue, a piece bigger than the ship toppled from the right side, seemingly in slow motion, prompting a collective gasp, 4,876 shutter clicks and a warning from Capt. Laura to hold on or, I assumed, some of us might do a little calving of our own.

Maybe it's the close quarters and absence of a casino -- or the zillions of trees and lumbering bears -- but our cruise didn't seem so much a luxury vacation as a summer camp.

The passengers on our voyage, a relatively diverse band of mostly 40-and-up-somethings, all seeking some cocktail of scenery, wildlife, education and relaxation, were friendly and proved hearty enough to brave steady Alaskan rains to catch a glimpse of sea otters, waterfalls, harbor seals and bald eagle chicks.

The summer camp vibe was fostered in part by a captain who was as personable and relaxed as big-ship captains typically are stodgy and removed. Capt. Laura passed out cookies during one evening's lecture, gave highly entertaining bridge tours and hung around with a small group of us late one night as we watched a bear cub taking a swim.

The exception to the summer camp vibe: a chef and kitchen staff, including a full-time baker, who might well merit a Michelin star or two on land. This was no summer camp cuisine.

The only stop on an otherwise mobile itinerary was at the tiny fishing village of Cordova, one of only three towns on Prince William Sound (along with Valdez and Whittier). Inaccessible by large cruise ship and with no connecting roads, Cordova remains a rustic working community. Shops are more likely to stock peanut butter and toilet paper than the ulus (knives), sweatshirts and "I (heart) Alaska" snow globes that fill shelves in Juneau and Skagway.

At the stop, I paddled up Orca Inlet with a small group from the boat. I shared a two-person sea kayak with Joan, a fellow passenger.

After a few moments of synching our paddle technique, we breezed along a shore that, once we left Cordova behind, looked as pristine and unexplored as anything Capt. George Vancouver encountered while searching for the Northern Passage.

At times, we would pull ahead or drop behind the pack of six other kayaks, mostly to filter out the collective splash of paddles and glide in total silence. It was during those dead-stick moments that I began to hear Alaska -- dozens of burbling waterfalls, birdsong, light breezes and the "splash-plunk" of pink salmon breaching 3 feet in the air (our guides attributed the bizarre gymnastics to fish being "really happy").

In this place, I could relate.

Three miles up the inlet, we spotted a bald eagle 20 feet up a spruce and glided toward it, lifting our paddles in time to see it take off on a course directly overhead. The clearly audible "whoomph, whoomph" of its massive wings, like the sound of a helicopter played at one-tenth the speed, stunned us both. And for a moment, I swore that I felt its breeze.

Most bodies of water age in geologic time, but our ship was bobbing in a bay that, until two decades ago, was under 1,000 feet of ice. The spot where the glacier loomed even a few years ago now is a barrier island of calved icebergs stuck on a moraine shelf, the tortured ruins of a once-mighty ice castle.

Capt. Laura eased the ship to the edge of the moraine and touched the nose to one of the stranded bergs. I inhaled the smell of ice and felt the cold radiating off its eerie, milky blue skin.

Passengers and crew on the Spirit of Columbia stood in silence for a moment, then started taking photos, at first of the field of upended blocks, then of each other, posing with the ice that had taken on a bizarre kind of celebrity status.

After most of the light leached out of the sky, we turned away and sailed out of the bay that was thick with reminders -- ice chunks the size of TVs and refrigerators and cars -- that it had recently been buried under an iceberg.


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