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Get it while it's cold: Touring Prince William Sound glaciers by kayak

  • Author: M.L. Lyke
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 10, 2016

WHITTIER — Another double rumble of thunder rips the air. It's the sound of a nearby glacier calving, shucking huge slabs of ice into the sea and throwing a wake that ripples under my kayak. We've been paddling a couple hours, and it's all still a bit scary: the creaking, groaning 400-foot-high glaciers that dwarf our little boats; the Bunyan slam of their ice on water; the possibility of finding ourselves flipped upside down in these frigid seas.

But the sun is out, the water is calm and the adventure is on.

We have arrived at Blackstone Bay via water taxi, a 40-foot landing craft operated by Lazy Otter Charters out of the little seaport of Whittier, which averages 185 inches of precipitation a year. In Anchorage, 65 miles to the west, locals joke that the "weather is (fill in the rhyming expletive) in Whittier."

My brother, a seasoned sea captain on these waters, has arranged our family outing and filled me in on the details: Blackstone Bay, named for an 1890s miner who froze to death in a brutal storm, sits at the western edge of Prince William Sound. The sound covers 15,000 square miles of water, ice and mountains, and most of it is protected wilderness. Orcas and humpback whales, sea otters and sea lions, salmon and waterfowl travel its abundant waters.

But we can't see a thing as we head out in a blur of fog. It's so soupy that the captain leans forward over the wheel, a grim study in concentration as his eyes shift from radar to invisible horizon. When the fog finally clears, it's as though someone has lifted the velvet curtain on a grandiloquent 19th-century Western landscape painting — one with a few climatic adjustments.

On the rugged mountains that rise around us, bedrock teeth protrude through what were once massive snowfields. Catcher-mitt basins that once cupped ice age glaciers are bare. Water from melting glaciers oozes, splashes, crashes down sheer cliffs, creating magnificent new waterfalls. It's not only a get-away-from-it-all destination, but a get-it-while-you-can experience for adventurers seeking close encounters with tidewater glaciers.

Tidewater glaciers, by definition, touch the sea. But the big Blackstone Glacier we will kayak near today only tiptoes on the surface now. Locals predict that within a couple of years, it may, like other retreating glaciers in the sound, pull back from the water altogether, a phenomenon that could have a profound effect on the popular "paddle the ice" tourism industry.

"This will definitely change the way we do business," says Kelly Bender, who owns the Lazy Otter Charter business with her husband, Mike, and heads the local chamber of commerce. "Maybe we will have to change itineraries and go farther out into the southern part of the sound, which will be more expensive to get to. Or maybe we'll change the way we market the trips — as visits to beautiful fjords with abundant wildlife."

'Water is real cold'

We get our first good view of the glaciers we'll be visiting and the sprawling ice field that feeds them as we near our drop-off point, a rocky, isolated beach 45 minutes from Whittier by water taxi. We unload our sea kayaks, grab life jackets and spray skirts, and get a safety run-down from Lazy Otter guide Amanda Goss, an athletic young outdoorswoman who throws her kayak around like a kid's toy. Amanda plants her Xtratuf rubber boots in the sand and gets down to business.

"The water is real cold and you are not in dry suits, so pay attention!" she says. She begins with the "wet exit," one of dozens of delicious terms to savor on this journey. If we do find ourselves upside-down in the water, Amanda advises, we must yank the tabs on the spray skirts that seal us in, push ourselves out of the kayak, hang onto the boat and head to land. She reassures us that our boats are sturdy and stable, with comfy padding for our six-hour paddle. Even beginners can do this, "but they have to be gung-ho!"

She assists this gung-ho tourist with modest kayaking skills into a beamy single, and I am off, gliding across gray-green waters that are milky with the fine silt of glacier-ground rock.

Within minutes, my daughter has spotted a mature black bear, ambling along the precipitous cliffs above us. A seal pops up with a pink salmon in its mouth. Jellyfish pulse beside us, root beer-colored and ghostly white. I think I spot a giant turquoise variety — it looks like a super-sized alien brain from "Futurama", but it's actually a chunk of compressed ice. The bluer the color, I learn, the denser the ice.

We hear the monster hissing of our first site before we round a cliff and see it. Northland Glacier is a hanging glacier situated on a rocky shelf high above the water and as it melts, it has produced a mighty waterfall that zigzags down bedrock and pounds into the water, sending up shimmery rainbows. It's one of the sound's tallest, most spectacular waterfalls, and one of its most dangerous. Two entranced kayakers capsized when they put the bows of their boats under the fall, misjudging its power.

Kittiwakes everywhere

Amanda warns us to keep our distance and keeps an eye out to make sure we do. "Far enough!" she yells.

Black-footed gulls wheel overhead as we proceed to Blackstone Glacier. These are the bay's beloved kittiwakes, small gulls that nest in the cliff's crags in warm months. They are named for the sweet, trilling call they make, high notes that play soprano to the continuous baritone boom-and-crack of the moving ice around us.

As we close in on the 8-mile-long Blackstone Glacier, cold winds sweep down its ice face upon us. I'm grateful for my double layers of fleece. It's a strange sensation, sitting so low in the water before this crunched-up, crevassed, quarter-mile-wide behemoth. It seems to be tumbling toward us.

I had hoped to encounter some "bergy bits," sizeable pieces of icebergs that have long floated these waters. What we find instead are smaller "growlers" — ice chunks larger than 6 feet across but less than 3 feet above water — and "brash ice," large patches of accumulated small, floating fragments.

That brash ice thickens as we approach Beloit Glacier, the most active of the three glaciers on our tour and the source of much of the moaning and groaning. In the water, floating little "ice crispies" snap and pop around us, detritus from the scar-faced granddaddy ahead. Soon enough, the old one gives us the calving show we've been waiting for, tossing off part of its body with a crash that sends up a curtain of spray and makes the ice around us shake and roll.

We've lollygagged too long on this rare clear day and have to hurry to our final pick-up spot. I'm thankful for the rudder on my boat as we navigate east, dodging ice. It's an obstacle course: right, left, clunk, oops, right, right, left, clunk, dang. I know that, in an instant, this ice can suddenly close around me. I am moving. It is moving. And it's a mean trick to ram through an ice jam in a little fiberglass kayak while remaining right side up.

I take one last break for a picture and scoop up a bit of floating ice portside, popping it in my mouth. I roll it around, sucking and paddling and thinking. This little odd-shaped cube — killer cold, sparkling fresh — could be almost a thousand years old. All the ice around me, slapping at my hull, could be positively medieval, birthed from ancient glaciers some 10,000 years old.

I am, like my warming surroundings, swallowing history, one drop at a time.

Lyke is a freelance writer living in Anacortes, Washington, who has written for the Washington Post on subjects ranging from fly-fishing the Louisiana Bayou to exploring medieval castles in Southern France.

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