See glaciers, while you can

By William Booth
The Washington Post

Granted, it is still a niche market. But if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to be believed — and why not? — it’s a growth opportunity. The traveler in the very near future might be ready for some global-warming tourism. Vacation destinations? You could do the Maldives and watch the sea level rise before your very eyes. Or perhaps a trip to the African Sahel to experience some scary soil evaporation. Or you can do what we did and journey to Icy Bay in Alaska and just watch the world melt.

Seriously melting. A century ago, when the naturalist writer John Muir visited the region, there was no Icy Bay. It was all ice, all the way to the coast. Now? A lot more ice water. A coastal exploration three generations ago would have found an immense tidewater glacier blocking the bay, an inlet that today is 30 miles long and hundreds of feet deep and four or five or six miles wide, depending. Welcome to one of the fastest-receding glacial systems on the planet. It is geology on fast-forward. Genesis on speed dial.

Surrounding the bay, the landscape left behind by the retreating glaciers is so brand spanking new and raw that you have the impression the wolves and grizzlies show up each summer and go, whoa, bro. Wasn’t this an ice field last year? The ground looks raked, lunar, but then summer after summer the successional parade of plants comes through, first with fireweed and lupine, then alders.

The soundscape: Plink. Plonk. Drip. Drop. It’s like God left the water running in the bathtub. Then a terrible nerve-rattling craaaaaack, like a high-powered rifle recoil, echoing. It is the sound of the glaciers calving off chunks of ice the size of your garage into the bay.

Oh, and this calving? It goes on and on and on. Day and night, except there is no “night” because it’s July in the far north, and you never really sleep, you just sort of pass out for a few hours from sensory overload and giddy exhaustion in the midnight twilight. And every once in a while, a big ice block cleaves, splits, splats. A super-size heifer. Size of a building.

In July and August, when kayak-trippers venture into Icy Bay and the glaciers do most of their melting, the weather ranges from freezing rain to the sunny 70s, sometimes in the same day. During the fast but intense Alaska summer, the inlet fills with thousands of icebergs and a gazillion gin-and-tonic-sized ice cubes. When the clouds rolled overhead (frequently) and the temperature dropped, I would float in the kayak and watch crinkly ice begin to re-form on the water’s surface.

Our group of good friends traveling to Icy Bay includes five kids (boys and girls, ages 7 to 13), one environmental writer, one bear biologist, a family court judge, a president of a charitable foundation, a land conservationist, a journalist and, best of all, the founder (but no longer the owner of) Alaska Discovery, a wilderness adventure travel company, who was a pioneer of kayak trips to Icy Bay: a man with the perfect name for such a job, Ken Leghorn. Lost in the Alaskan wilderness without a Swiss Army knife or a prayer? Ken Leghorn would bring you home. My personal motto: Cling to Ken.

We spent a week beach camping, kayaking from cove to cove and exploring, hiking up creeks to the glacial edge. We brought our own tents and gear, and we cooked our meals with a propane stove, carbo feasts of pastas and rice, with a shared bottle of wine for the adults, as the kids ran around like happy nuts.

We flew from the Lower 48 to Juneau and then on a 50-minute Alaska Airlines flight northwest to the village of Yakutat. a place famous for its fishing. Immediately upon exiting the terminal, one faces the Yakutat Lodge, which announces its presence with a sign that reads: “Food. Shelter. Booze.” Ah, Alaska. We fortified ourselves alongside burly fishy brethren and then lugged tremendous quantities of duffel baggage and survival gearage around to the back of the airport to the waiting chartered bush plane that would take us farther north to Icy Bay.

I have traveled a few times to Alaska, but I was a dim bulb about the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, home to Icy Bay. Never heard of it? It is the largest national park in the United States. It is six times the size of Yellowstone. That would be 13 million acres. In a state that boasts superlatives, it is a superlative superlative. The park contains the largest assemblage of glaciers on the continent.

Not enough? Well, it does have … volcanoes. Mount Wrangell is one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. The park boasts the greatest collection of peaks above 16,000 feet, including Mount St. Elias, which is the second-highest mountain in America at 18,008 feet, and which just happens to be within 10 miles of the Taan Fiord on Icy Bay, so it is the tallest mountain close to a tidewater. So when the clouds part and you are paddling or camping at Icy Bay, the edifice staring you in the face is your very own private Mount Kilimanjaro.

By profession and proclivity, I’ve spent a few days in some lonely outposts. But I have never been in a wilderness so empty of humans as Icy Bay. Even a walk down a beach or up a creek was a sublime solitude. You could turn around 360 degrees, search the horizon and see no dwelling, no road, no trail, no scar, no imprint. In seven days and six nights paddling and beach camping, crisscrossing Icy Bay, moving from place to place, we see no one. On the morning of our departure, a single sailboat probes the bay and then, just as quickly, exits.

But there were animals everywhere. Upon our arrival, Kageet Point was pocked with grizzly bear prints the size of NBA sneakers. One day out on a hike, we spotted a grizzly foraging along a far cove, and we watched it for an hour, snuffling along, occasionally stopping to flip over a rock.

We stumbled upon a moose munching veg in a marshy meadow. We spotted parasitic jaegers and the rare and endangered Kittlitz’s murrelets. These are birds. We saw otters, which circled us, that came even closer, and seemed as interested in us as we in them, and because so few outsiders visit Icy Bay, you wondered whether you might be the first people the yearlings had ever seen. On our last night, we set up the spotting scope and watched a pair of wolves far down the beach, and they were almost dancing. Running up and down together, like a couple of nutty mutts at the local dog park.

Because it is so (relatively) protected, Icy Bay is (surprisingly) ideal for a kayak trip. Our kayaks were the tried-and-true two-person collapsible Kleppers, which we assembled on the beach. On one day of paddling, there were so many icebergs that they blocked our path, and we retreated. The icebergs were sculpted by melt and wind into fantastical geometries. Four immense glaciers keep pumping out the product like an assembly line. On the flattops, harbor seals hauled out, and summer is a time for pups and molting adults; we saw a hundred seals staring at us with those earnest, inky black eyes.

Another day, we paddled to the terminus of Icy Bay, a round amphitheater of high bedrock walls topped with spires of glacial ice pushing over the cliffs in slow motion. Years before, Ken had christened the place the “Arc of Creation.” We turned the boats and faced it. Cracking, crashing ice. Seabirds wheeling over our heads. We counted the waterfalls. Twenty? Thirty?

I thought about the laws of mass and energy, how it is neither created nor destroyed. I thought about birth and death. Water to snow to ice to water. I felt very global, with very warm feelings about this icy bay. I wanted it to stop melting.

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