Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Travels in Alaska: South to Seward's Glaciers

We briefly boomerang back through Anchorage (consciously avoiding the Beck-Palin rally), then head off down the Kenai Peninsula. The road south of Anchorage snakes beside Cook Inlet and around poetically named Turnagain Arm, where a roadside BBQ shack smokes the best brisket I've gnawed on outside of Texas. Sunlight flashes on the waves and the permanent snow fields and glaciers that coat nearby peaks like dirty cake frosting.

On Hwy 9, the Sunday traffic dies out before Moose Pass, where the liquor store reminds passersby that it's 27 miles until the next chance to buy booze (apparently in either directio
n, because the sign faces both ways). Both the road and the railroad peter out at the water's edge in Seward, a fishing port named for the man who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia (assumedly, with love) in 1867. Quickly nicknamed Seward's Folly and Seward's Icebox by political wags, the territory cost the USA just over $7 million, or about 2.3 cents per acre. Today, with our human population booming and wilderness shrinking at a precipitous rate, that seems like a bargain.

It's wildness that we're here to see, after all. In the luxuriously long
daylight hours of Alaska's late summer, we take a sunset walk to the base of Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. The mosquitoes are out for blood, but the breezes pick up as we clamber up the rocky trail to the base of the blue ice. Never before have I been so near a glacier, almost close enough to touch -- that is, if I didn't know the cracking ice might swallow me up if I stepped beyond the roped-off lookout. Two hikers with bear bells tinkling come loping down the trail from the Harding Ice Field atop the glacier, where nunataks -- solitary mountains peeking above the glacial ice like islands -- are lonely landmarks.

Early the next
morning, we fill up on eggs benedict topped with snow crab from a diner inside a train car by the harbor. With zoom lenses around our necks, we board a boat to sail through the Kenai Peninsula's wind-whipped fjords, past rock outcroppings where Steller sea lions bask in the sun, every king of the mountain barking and pushing off lower-rung juveniles. Porpoises swim in the boat's wake. Although no whales are spotted, sea otters splash near shore and a bald eagle alights on an evergreen treetop in the distance.

Hours later, the boat's engines hum as the captain negotiates thr
ough a frosty bay filled with icebergs at the foot of mile-wide Aialik Glacier. The tidewater
g
lacier audibly groans, snaps and cracks as it calves ever more icebergs. It's hard to know where to look to catch the next falling blue ice, which you hear only after the dramatic drop of another icy chunk into the sea. Everyone on board is silent with awe, like John Muir was when he first paddled into Glacier Bay. Here, too, the giant glacier moves of its own will, utterly ignorant of ant-like humans floating beneath its seductively dangerous face. It's impossible to look away.

Related links:
Travels in Alaska: A is for Anchorage
Travels in Alaska: The Road North to Denali
10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Big Sur

Photos: Alaska (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

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