Rivers of Ice

Like a little kid, I barely resist the urge to push people out of my way so I can get up to the ship’s rail to see better, but people around me are also excited and I’m afraid they might push back. When I see a hole open, I dive for it. Directly in front of me is the face of Johns Hopkins Glacier, about one mile wide and about 250 feet high. It extends another 200 feet or so beneath the water’s surface. This tidewater glacier moves about 8-12 feet a day, a slow river of ice heading for the sea. Occasionally, a big section will crack off and splash into the water, a “calving,” but we’re not lucky enough to see that today.

Johns Hopkins Glacier, September 2013 (courtesy of the Potter)

Johns Hopkins Glacier, September 2013 (courtesy of the Potter)

I doubt that I’ve ever seen so many cameras in one place. I sense that we’re all aware of being swept back into that earlier Ice Age when continental-scale ice sheets covered much of the Northern Hemisphere, reaching as far south as what is today the Upper Midwest. My friend Jean lives near Ice Age debris in Wisconsin. She helps maintain her section of the Ice Age Trail.

The glaciers came and went, but in the mid 1700’s up in the Glacier Bay area, just north of Juneau, Alaska, they started a final retreat. Since then, many inlets and bays have opened up, and in 1980, President Carter signed the conservation act that turned that whole area into Glacier Bay National Park.

The air is cold and it’s raining lightly, but these sightseers, unlike glaciers, do not retreat. Occasionally I move aside to let someone in, and then go to a different deck for another view. I try to memorize the scene in front of me, especially that beautiful, deceptively soft, light blue color of the glaciers.

We finally retreat to our room and watch from our little deck. Here, away from people, we can actually hear the glaciers–a kind of crackling or rustling sound. Once we hear a loud crack that sounds like a gunshot.

The ship, moving very slowly through the inlets and bays in order to protect the area’s humpback whales (we’d seen a group of about 14 a day or two before), visits a number of other glaciers that day. Chunks of ice float in the water around us, and with the binoculars we see a harbor seal resting on one of them.

You, too, can visit Glacier Bay National Park. There are some stunning photos and videos at their website, www.nps.gov/glba/index.htm You can explore the whole website, but don’t miss “Photos & Multimedia” in the menu on the left hand side of that first screen. Scroll down to the bottom of the next screen and watch the two videos. Perhaps take a quick overview flight in the first one, “Glacier Bay from Above,” and then watch “What’s So Special about Glacier Bay NP?” You will see Glacier Bay like very few visitors do–in sunshine and blue skies. This is rain forest country, with only about 50 sunny days a year, so most of these videos were taken on very rare sunny days. Treat yourself!

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2 thoughts on “Rivers of Ice

  1. I have one pronounced memory of trying to gaze with enough intensity to burn the image in my mind to keep forever. It was also in Alaska.. as I knew that I was leaving.. on one of the last small plane trips I took I stared so intently out the window that a fellow passenger mentioned the attempt one makes to keep the images so the memory remains.

    Thanks for a great article that rekindled a great memory. Jean

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