Chugach National Forest: Ice, Ice, Baby

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Glacier colors
On our final day in Alaska, we had the opportunity to take the 26 Glaciers Cruise out of Whittier.  This was a special excursion for the people attending Frank’s EIPBN Conference, and there were some special buses chartered for the attendees to drive them down to Whittier.  We opted for the van, so for the second day in a row, we headed down to Whittier from Anchorage.  This time, there was a line of traffic waiting to go through the Whittier Tunnel, so the experience was quite different than being the sole car through the day, as we were on our fishing trip.

Klondike Express

It was pouring rain in Whittier, and it didn’t look good for our glacier viewing extravaganza. Nonetheless, we boarded the double-decker catamaran Klondike Express with high hopes of seeing some cool glaciers in action on our trip.  Since Frank was in charge of booking the tour, he scored the best seats in the house on the top floor in the front of the boat for our various family members.

Glacier window
Even so, once the catamaran pulled out of the harbor, the windows fogged up so badly we couldn’t see a thing.  This was not good.

When we checked in for the tour, we were giving numbered tickets with a seat/table number on them, and were told to sit in our seats for the first part of the trip, then we could move around and go outside if we wanted.  The Klondike Express was roomy inside and comfortable.  Since it was pouring rain and freezing outside, I didn’t really think we would be going outside much.  Almost immediately after we departed, the crew served up hearty baskets of fish and chips (or chicken if you didn’t like fish).  We ate our lunch and hoped the windows would clear up so we could see something.

Glacier waterfall

As we made our way through Prince William Sound, the rain let up some, and the windows cleared as the temperature stabilized.  The scenery outside was breathtaking, with snow-streaked mountains, evergreens, and blue-green water.  Long, skinny waterfalls wound their way down from the snowcapped mountains to the blue-green water below.  Some of them were still frozen.  As we got closer to the glaciers, the water took on a deep aquamarine hue from the glacial run-off.  It stopped raining, and although it never got sunny, the visibility was just fine.

Glacier water
When we visited Alaska in 1996, we had the chance to see Portage Glacier, which was then an impressive site.  It has receded back to nearly nothing, so it was not on the tour.  We saw a series of glaciers in College Fjord named after Eastern Colleges for some reason. My alma mater, Barnard College, was represented along with other Seven Sister Colleges like Bryn Mawr and Smith.  The Park Ranger did a good job of explaining things along the way, but I was too busy taking pictures and enjoying the scenery to jot down notes on which glacier was which.

The glaciers are part of Chugach National Forest, a 5.4 million acre forest that is home to hundreds of glaciers.  We were only able to see 26 of them, but the Park Ranger onboard said that there were so many that some had not yet been named.

Otter babyOn the glacier route, we kept our eyes peeled for bears on the shoreline, but didn’t see any.  The Park Ranger said that they tend to come out more when the salmon are running, which makes sense.  We did see hundreds of cute sea otters, so many that the captain of the ship said he would not stop for only one or two, but only if there were a large grouping or “raft” of sea otters.  We got close enough to see that some of the mama sea otters were carrying babies on their bellies as they did the backstroke through the icy water.  Otter babies are just about the cutest critters anywhere, and it was a treat to see a thriving population of sea otters around the glaciers.

Glacier calving close We got up to one of the larger glaciers, and we able to see it calving, with two big chunks falling off within about 15 minutes.  The park rangers were very excited about this, saying that they rarely got to see something this big, and two in less than an hour was unheard of.  I was not terribly impressed, having seen the glaciers calving in Greenland, which made these look puny in comparison.  When I sniffed at this, Frank pointed out that the glaciers we saw in Greenland were four miles wide, and this one was maybe the length of a football field.  He also noted that we were able to get much closer to these glaciers than we were in Greenland.  He had a point.

Glacier peopleEven though I was not that impressed, everyone else on the boat was excited.  Even so, the glaciers were beautiful, with streaks of black and blue through the ice.One of the crew members retrieved a big chunk of glacier ice from the water so the kids could feel it up close.  They uses a portion of it at the bar to make “glacieritas”, which we bought to try out.

Kittiwake rookery

On our way back into Whittier, we stopped near the marina to see thousands of small white birds nesting on the side of the mountain.  These were black-legged kittiwakes, small white gulls who make their home on the side of this mountain, between two waterfalls.  Someone on the boat said she saw a wolf pursuing a mountain goat above the rookery, but I looked and didn’t see anything.  I guess I was not meant to see wolves this time around. The tiny white birds and the glaciers, however, were beautiful.

Glacier sediment ridges
Chugach National Park is one of the most amazing wild places left on the earth.  Vast fields of ice like the ones we saw in Greenland, but with more vegetation.  We saw people kayaking through the icy water, and there were several camping spots within view of the glaciers.  Whether you’re going by cruise, boat, kayak or hiking, Chugach National Park is a must-see for natural beauty and wildlife.

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