A ripping sound, followed by a crackle — and the crowd holds its collective breath. A thick chunk crumbles and falls off the crenellated wall of ice with a thunderous roar, raising a spume of gray and brown flecked spray.
A moment later, another whip-crack reverberates on the afternoon air and farther along the glacier front a second sliver breaks free and disappears into a foam of churning green water. A collective “Aaah” shudders along the ship’s rails. Like the other passengers now paused before the Margerie Glacier in Alaska’s Glacier Bay.
I am spellbound by what the Tlingit Indians call “white thunder.” I am also reduced to ant-like proportions before a mass of ice rising 250 metres above the surface of Tarr Inlet. Silhouetted against a cerulean sky, the glacier is a fantastical sculpture of castle turrets, spires, battlements and ramparts.
Stray fingers of sunlight, find their way into fissures, transforming the ice into turquoise crystal caves.
Farther away, to the right of the Margerie, the Grand Pacific Glacier cascades down the mountainside like an unfurled bolt of white satin. Glacier Bay National Park encompasses a tracery of fjords winding through 1.3-million hectares of primordial Alaskan wilderness. Our ship travels past four of its 16 active tidewater glaciers: the Margerie, the Lamplugh, the Grand Pacific and the Reid glaciers.
The Reid Glacier from a distance resembles the ruffled jabot of a dandy at the court of Louis XVI, but as we move in closer, the “ruffles” turn into jagged chasms, some of which fall precipitously to a depth of 24 metres.
The water streaming by our aft deck is flecked with popcorn-like blobs of icebergs, but as we progress deeper into the fjord these become larger, and take on a blue-fire translucence — blown-glass sculptures, which, with a little imagination, become long necked swans and leaping ballerinas.
The public address system on the aft deck of our cruise ship now crackles to life. “Folks, take a look at the lower slopes of the mountain on the starboard side … you’ll see a couple of mountain goats.”
At this distance the goats are gray-white balls against a furze of brown gorse and, absorbed in their meal of spring-tender lichen, they are oblivious to the sound of clicking cameras.
A little later, the dorsal fin of an Orca whale causes a stir along the deck railings on the port side. In a split second of magnificence, the whale surfaces, breaches and disappears below the waters with a flourish of its tail flukes.
Farther along a shoreline, a bald eagle swoops and soars on the wind. Moose, wolves, wolverines, lynx, Sitka black-tailed deer, marten and mink inhabit Glacier Bay’s pristine wilderness.
Grizzlies too, prowl through these forests, but for now they remain curled in hibernation, for the wind blowing hard across our ship’s deck still carries the bitter chill of winter on its breath. In another month, along with the burgeoning of willows, cottonwoods, sapling alder and spruce, the mountainsides will be covered with horsetails, yellow bell-shaped dryas blooms, starry-flowered sandwort and bright stalks of dwarf fireweed.
Puffins, guillemots and terns will speckle the waters and harbour seals along with their pups will sun themselves on the ice-floes.
Looking out across the glinting waters, it is hard to believe that when Captain Vancouver arrived here in 1794 this arm of Glacier Bay was locked in ice to a depth of 1,220 metres. In the space of 200 years — a mere nanosecond of time in terms of the Earth’s evolution— some of these glaciers have retreated at the astonishing rate of three metres a day.
Geologists have determined, however, that the advance and retreat of glaciers is cyclical, and it is conceivable that as climatic conditions change, this fjord we are now cruising through could, in the distant future, be an ice-field once more. Later that evening, I stand on the aft deck and watch the setting sun turn the sky to copper.
Chiffon trails of clouds wreathe the blushed snow-capped peaks. It is dinner time and the deck is almost deserted. Other than the wash of water against our hull, dusk brings with it a silence, accentuating the harsh beauty of these desolate towering mountains.
The sheer immensity of this landscape stills the mind, evoking a sense of awe which borders on the mystical. Perhaps that’s why the Hoonah Indians centuries ago, called it The Abode of God.
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