|Exposure Alaska guide Kailey observing the calving face of the Beloit Glacier in Blackstone Bay|
We would witness several small calving events in the time we drifted there - I can't say how long it was, maybe 20 minutes, maybe 2 hours - but nothing of a full-size top to bottom breakage like we all hoped to witness. Each time the ice fractured and fell toward the water there was an explosive crack of a whip breaking the silence, delayed by several seconds after the ice had broken free, then the sound of the splash echoed off the cliffs around us only after the water had nearly settled back around the new iceberg. Such a significant time delay between sight and sound suggested we were quite some distance from the glacier itself. Was the calving face 50 feet tall or 5,000? Well, probably somewhere in between, but with no visual reference between our four kayaks and the massive glacier, it was impossible to truly grasp the size of the frozen beast. My shipmate, Kasih (pronounced Ka-seesh), helped me navigate our tandem kayak among the many floating icebergs so I could capture all the photos of our fellow travelers I could before we would make our way to camp for the night.
|Iceberg from the Beloit Glacier in Blackstone Bay|
I was tagging along as the photographer on a trip for two clients on an Exposure Alaska 3-day kayaking tour from Whittier out to Blackstone Bay. Culminating with our time staring into the mesmerizing blue ice of Beloit and several other glaciers high up on the cliffs surrounding the bay, the trip would end the next morning with a water taxi back to Whittier. Running the show was our guide, Kailey, and apprentice guide, Kelsey, joined by Kasih, who was a logistics team member from MICA Guides, in addition to the two paying clients, and myself. I had been working closely with the team at MICA photographing ice climbing clients for three seasons now, and the owner, Don, runs both MICA and Exposure Alaska, so guides often work between both companies. In need of some new marketing materials for his Exposure website, I was in the perfect spot to tag along and provide him with whatever I could capture - any time I wasn't paddling like crazy to keep up with Kailey and her two "most fit clients of the summer." Just my luck.
Our trip ran about as smoothly as it could have. I had previously been warned by nearly everyone on the team at MICA that Blackstone often produced, shall we say, less than favorable paddling conditions. Rain is more common than not, and winds can pick up out of nowhere, forcing paddlers to stop where they are and wait out the wind when waves become too much to paddle the small boats through. Whittier, it should be noted, was built in a location chosen by the U.S. military as one of the worst weather areas in all of coastal Alaska. Seriously. It was a consideration during World War II because they needed a naval base in the area, and figured, hey, if the Japanese can't see it through the clouds, they can't bomb it. Mother Nature would hide the base for them. The town is isolated in the back of a fjord and separated from the rest of Alaska by the Chugach Mountains, through which a single lane, 3 mile long tunnel allows passage only once every hour. The mountains surrounding the small port town trap in clouds and storms, often isolated to just the immediate area. As the locals say, "it's always shittier in Whittier." This trip would be my third time through the tunnel, and I was surprised upon exiting to see blue skies, along with mountains and glaciers immediately surrounding the town. I knew they were there, they were on the maps, I'd just never seen them. It was a strikingly beautiful area in the rare sunshine, and it seemed we had entered a completely different town than the previous times I had visited.
|Unusually calm waters just before launching from the Whittier Beach|
After picking up our kayaks and other gear from the friendly folks at the Sound Paddler, we launched from theWhittier beach into a rising tide of what has got to be the calmest ocean this little town has ever seen. Some headwinds would pick up later on, but nothing we couldn't push through. On our way to the first night's camp at Decision Point, we passed so many waterfalls spilling from the cliffs into the fjord, Kailey finally had to just tell me to put the camera away so the group could make it to camp at a decent hour. What...? It's July in Alaska, it's not like its going to get dark any time soon...
But I turned my attention to paddling and we continued on amidst cruise ships, fishing boats, more waterfalls, rocky cliffs below massive peaks, and several hanging glaciers high above. Roughly 11 miles into our day and after a few welcome rest stops, we arrived to an already crowded camping area at Decision Point. One of few accessible flat areas with a decent landing for miles around, Decision provides the perfect stop for many groups with different itineraries and often becomes overcrowded with kayakers. A pit toilet and several tent platforms make it even more attractive to passing ocean travelers.
|One of our rest stops the first day included the shipwreck of an old ferry in the Prince William Sound|
While Kailey and Kelsey put together a spectacular meal, I was mostly focusing on staying busy setting up camp and not complaining about the searing pain in my shoulder and back, hoping not to look like a wimp in front of our active-military-couple clients who were already out-paddling Kasih and I by the end of day one.
Luckily, I would awake the next morning with only moderate shoulder pain and a couple pain pills had me back to paddling shape in no time. After another amazing meal, courtesy of our guides, we carried the boats down the rocky shore to the water, now near low tide, loaded everything inside and continued on, finally entering into the mouth of the legendary Blackstone Bay.
We would soon have to cross open water to follow the opposite shore along to the glacier, and with a bit more wind than the day before, combined with large fishing boats to avoid, we encountered much larger waves than anything we'd hit so far. A little added excitement, but I was surprised at how well the little kayaks handled themselves. Though, by ocean standards these were still very calm waters!
Lunch came shortly after our crossing, and Kailey decided we would push on to the glacier at the far end of the bay that evening. All of us, guides included, wanted a nice leisurely day, but with winds continuing to pick up through the afternoon and a potential storm coming in the next day, she opted to push for the glacier rather than possibly not be able to see it if we waited another day. So on we went, seemingly always into a headwind - tired, sore, and ready to get out of the boats and explore. But instead we paddled. Past more waterfalls, peaks, and glaciers. A few seals would pop their heads up from the blue-green waters to investigate our colorful flotilla. Otters were seen playing near the base of a waterfall - by everyone but me. We all hoped to see a whale or two, but none showed - despite Kelsey's best efforts to call them to the surface - her whale call was nearly perfect, there must have not been any within earshot. And on we paddled. Soon passing the Lawrence Glacier on our left, it looked but a short stroll away from the perfect camping beach. Kailey said they had camped here on a previous trip, some of the group had even walked up and touched the glacier. I desperately wanted to stay here. To walk to the glacier and drink it's perfectly clear water spilling down the face as the sun melted the crystal blue ice that had remained frozen for hundreds of years. I wanted to step out onto the ice, and hike to the top. To witness the Névé, the birthplace of the beauty of the glacier. It was so close! But the beach was full of another group's tents, and alas, we had other objectives - and too short a timeline.
So we paddled on. Passing more glaciers, equally accessible by short hike. It was almost heartbreaking to be so close and not be able to walk up to them. Even more heartbreaking was hearing Don later report that only a few years before, several of these had come all the way out to the bay, some with their own calving faces, dumping icebergs into Blackstone's waters. Now they had retreated well back from the ocean, their ice now simply melting into rivers that are on no map, running over freshly exposed earth that no human had likely ever set foot on. The same fate likely awaits the Beloit in the coming years. A large rock face has begun to melt out below the wall of ice. Kailey said even last summer the rock had been almost entirely hidden by the glacier ice. It's hard to say how long until the cliff holds only a steep waterfall spilling down the rock face that for now holds this truly glorious glacier. But for today, none of that matters. Nothing matters. Nothing but the massive wall of crystalline blue becoming larger and larger as we paddle toward the Beloit. Icebergs begin to appear, crackling - like those old Pop-rocks candies in your mouth - as they melt and release tiny air bubbles trapped inside from centuries past.
We slow down as we approach the glacier, not even Kailey can say how far it is to the ice, but we dare not go too close. A significant calving event would send a massive tidal wave our direction, and we want to give it time to dissipate before rocking our tiny boats. No such event occurs, though, and too soon we must turn our kayaks around and head for tonight's camp on Willard Island, in the middle of Blackstone Bay. In the morning heavy winds will keep us from paddling off the island and Kailey will call in the water taxi to bring us back to shittier Whittier, but for now I will spend a majority of the evening on the beach, sitting on a rock, staring out at a number of glaciers, listening to the occasional distant cracking of the Beloit, and contemplating the future. I wonder about the fate of these glaciers glaring in the light of the late evening sun, of the others I've gotten to know, or just briefly experienced in my three short summers in Alaska, and I dream of the hundreds of thousands of glaciers around the world I have yet to see. I hope to return to the bay soon with my own boat, and a lot more time - though no amount of that will ever seem like enough. I reckon I'd need to spend at least an entire year, or perhaps three, to give proper respect to the beauty of Blackstone Bay.