Glaciers are things of ineffable beauty, in which the purest tones of lightpulse and shimmer, lovely and untainted as anything on earth or in the sky. –John Muir
“That’s Culross Passage,” Captain Ted announces, gesturing to the right through the gray rain, which streams off the windshield like a beaded curtain. “We just came through Dangerous Passage.” For two-and-a-half hours, the Cody Brown, named after Ted’s pit bull, has been punching through the chop of Prince William Sound. The rough open water flings our cruiser around like a bathtub toy, but Ted steers unflinchingly. Cody, oblivious to the turbulence, sleeps at Ted’s feet.
“In just a few minutes, we’ll enter Nellie Mae Passage, and just beyond that is Whale Bay, where you’ll put in,” Ted shouts over the wind. But the pea soup weather has obscured everything. We could be anywhere. Not only is the landscape invisible, but it’s very hard to stave off seasickness when there is no horizon line. I watch the back of Ted’s neck instead, ruddy and wrinkled, with a pale, smooth line where he has just had a haircut. This helps to settle my stomach.
My sister and I are traveling with a group of strangers on a Sierra Club sea kayaking trip. As we bounce across the water, we size up our fellow paddlers. We have all just met a few hours ago for the first time, so the mist that obscures the magnificent mountains and sinewy shoreline serves as the perfect backdrop on which to project my first impressions of the group. There is a neurologist from New York decked out in Patagonia, Marmot and North Face so brand spanking new that some of the tags are still on the clothes. By his own admission, he is a very wealthy man with pied-à-terres in Manhattan, Easthampton, Paris and Jerusalem. Luxury fits him like a glove, but he hasn’t camped in thirty years, and I am worried about how he’s going to fare in a tent for week. He immediately earns the nickname Adonis because he constantly combs his hair and smiles at himself in the ship’s mirror, making us wonder if he’s wearing a toupee or is just a narcissist.
In our group there’s also a hunter from Hannibal, Missouri, dressed entirely in camouflage. After we have pulled away from the dock, he announces that he’s a card-carrying member of the NRA, this is the first trip he’s ever taken without a .44 clipped to his hip, and he plans to pee around his tent to keep the grizzlies away. Hannibal the Cannibal has yellow eyes like a fox. When he stands up, one foot points east, the other points west. He’s being cornered by a used car salesman from Detroit whom we call Muscles because his trapezoids are so huge, they’ve swallowed his neck. He’s holding forth about the powers of creatine supplements. Adonis is fascinated.
“I eat 8, 000 calories a day,” Muscles declares proudly. “I have a 19-inch neck, 5% body fat and twice the ejaculate of other men.” This is way too much information for my already queasy stomach, but Muscles, who has just eaten a whole chicken and a quart of yogurt for breakfast an hour ago, announces that he can’t wait for lunch, and struts like an automaton to his backpack to get a power bar and a Gatorade to hold him until we make camp.
A 70-year-old Alaska native watches with an expression halfway between amusement and grandmotherly concern. She reaches into her green Gore-tex and pulls out a silver flask. “Have some home-made blueberry wine,” she says. “I made it myself.” Muscles disdains, but a frizzy-haired woman from California, who pops pills like they’re salted peanuts, accepts a swig.
How am I going to last for a week in the wild with these weirdos? Fortunately, there is a Nice Man from Iowa who looks like a librarian (perhaps because he wears reading glasses around his neck at all times), a Bishop’s daughter from Philadephia with eyes like sea glass and a laugh like lace, and my sister, who helps me to see the hilarious in the absurd.
Around noon, the wind dies down and the mists part, revealing snow-capped mountains and humpback whales breaching in the distance. The water is like liquid jade. Porpoises play in our wake. The granite cliffs are covered with barnacles, mussels and kelp, as though Jackson Pollock himself had a hand in turning this random chaos into such beauty. Soon we pull onto a shallow gravel beach at the end of Whale Bay. Cody jumps overboard and wades ashore to do her duty in the intertidal zone. The Nice Man from Iowa and Muscles unload the gear. Adonis is on a self-proclaimed voyage of self-discovery. He takes off down the beach to explore. The first thing he discovers is that stepping on sharp rocks is a really bad idea in sunflower yellow, waterproof rubber rain boots. He learns to mend the gash in his boot with duct tape, but the unanticipated fashion statement causes him much chagrin, especially since these boots were brand new at Nordstrom’s yesterday. Adonis’ second dismaying discovery is that he can’t get a signal on his cell phone. He walks to the end of the gravel bar and holds his phone to the sky, as though that will help. For a brain surgeon, he seems to misunderstand something pretty basic about living in the wild.
We spend the afternoon setting up our tents and getting the feel of kayaking in a protected inlet. The water is smooth and silvery, now that the storm has passed, and there are otters all around, napping on their backs as though lying in hammocks. Muscles takes it upon himself to teach Adonis to paddle, and they both end up flipping their kayaks. I am watching a mama black bear and cub nose along the beach when I hear Hannibal yell. The bears nonchalantly amble off into the alders, and Hannibal starts marking his territory. His tent is right next to ours. I hope he has good aim.
Fifty feet from the water’s edge, the Nice Man from Iowa builds a campfire from lichens and driftwood. Adonis is in charge of dinner on our first night, but cutting the onions makes him cry, so he bails. My sister and I, along with Lace, are only too happy to take over KP. Grandma Alaska is enjoying a pre-prandial cocktail on a big rock. Frizz is meticulously sorting her drugs for indigestion, diarrhea, headache, asthma, nausea, insomnia, and depression, all of which she plans to experience this week. A few paces away, Hannibal is whittling sticks into spears.
The sun remains high in the sky until 10:30 at night, at which time it disappears behind a ridge, just barely out of sight as though playing hide-and-seek with us. We watch the sky turn from salmon to rust to the duskiness of a ripe peach. Hannibal is the first to retire to his tent. Within minutes, he is snoring. Frizz sighs loudly and begins rummaging anxiously through her backpack until she finds her earplugs, which she inserts with great aplomb. As the rest of us talk late into the night around the fire, the tide stealthily creeps up and begins lapping at the wood. With tin can lids and spatulas, we move the embers farther up the gravel, out of reach of the tide’s salty tongue. This is our first lesson that Mother Nature rules.
The next morning, the reddish mountaintops striped with snow look like giant ribcages. The tide has turned, strewing carrot slices. broccoli flowerets and tangles of spaghetti from last night’s pasta primavera along the shore. Orange and gold bulbs of kelp glow like Christmas lights. Barnacles small as baby’s teeth reflect the sun like thousands of diamonds. This is our second lesson that Mother Nature rules.
We spend our first morning exploring the nooks and crannies of Whale Bay. Arctic terns whoop and dive around us, winging tighter and tighter circles over the water until they plunge in and emerge in a spray with wriggling silver fish in their beaks.
“Did you see that?” I ask the Nice Man from Iowa. “You betcha,” he answers. As we slip into the meditative trance that rhythmic paddling evokes, he tells me that during the 60s, he spent two years in federal prison for dodging the draft. This was the first time he met black people. The blacks were there for dealing drugs, and the whites were there for refusing to fight, but they all considered themselves political prisoners, doing time for rebelling against the government. The Nice Man from Iowa is an underdog, a fighter, an affirmative action lawyer with real heart and soul. I have so underestimated him. He is anything but beige.
At lunch, we draw the kayaks onto a beach that looks inviting, and bushwhack up the hills. We traipse through wild purple irises, chocolate lilies, raspberries and Denali shooting stars. Their fuchsia petals explode from what look like sharpened pencil points. We come to a mountain pool. Adonis strips immediately and plunges in to bathe. Muscles says he can’t wait to tell the guys at work he went camping with a pervert. But they bond when Adonis asks Muscles for bodybuilding advice, and by the end of the week, Muscles and Adonis are toasting each others’ camping cups three times a day with creatine supplements.
Every day, we paddle for about ten hours. We float past anemones as big as pizzas, snow white seals sunning themselves on rocks, and granite walls whose scratch marks hold the history of glaciers that have passed through here millennia ago. The hypnotic repetition of paddling encourages us to slowly reveal our histories to each other. Frizz shares that she has bungee jumped twice in New Zealand. She has come across as so timid and fearful, we are shocked and impressed, and even a little jealous of her inner daredevil. Grandma, it turns out, is an expert on all things Alaskan. She regales us with true stories of campers who have been mauled by grizzlies, teaches us how to make blueberry wine, and helps us identify all the flora and fauna in the intertidal zone. And most delicious of all is the revelation that she was crowned Mrs. Matanuska Valley for her finesse at setting a table with crystal and china, sashaying down a runway in a skirt she sewed herself, and for cooking a crab casserole which, despite its runniness, clinched her the blue ribbon. Lace does not share her hidden talents until the third day, when she confesses that she once put peanut butter all over her white poodle and that she was a nationally ranked ping-pong champion.
On the fourth day we reach Icy Bay. Thick clouds gather overhead, bleaching the turquoise water white. In the distance, I can just make out a cruise boat with a dark blue hull. The Sound is silent but for the strokes of my paddle slicing the glassy water, the creak of my seat, the rustling of my life vest against my skirt. Suddenly a peal of thunder explodes and trundles across the bay. I scan the bright white sky. There are no dark clouds gathering, there is no wind.
“Did you hear thunder?” I ask Muscles.
“That’s a jet on its way to Anchorage,” he says authoritatively.
We keep paddling towards the ship. Thunder rumbles again, so powerfully this time, I feel it ricocheting in my chest. I put my paddle across the gunwales to stabilize my kayak. Now we are close enough to the boat to see that it is really an iceberg several stories tall. We are not more than a quarter mile away when it lunges as though something has hit it. It begins to roll violently, heaving from side to side, exposing the blue keel with every yaw, groaning and creaking under the stress. Sparks seem to fly, electric white against midnight blue, and the iceberg rises out of the water as if lifted by an invisible hand. It splits apart. Jagged house-sized peaks topple in slow motion, churning the black water frothy from the impact. The smaller ice chunks disappear momentarily and then resurface like breaching whales, smashing the water with their powerful tails. The reverberations from the calving are followed by another sound: a crackling static as the underbellies of the pieces that have broken off rise to the surface and express air. The ship-sized iceberg regains its equilibrium, and Prince William Sound is even stiller than it was before.
I have just witnessed something divine.
A big, flat wave undulates from the iceberg towards the kayak, and jolts me out of my awe. I turn my bow into the wave to keep from flipping, and paddle as fast as I can back to the group.
85% of an iceberg is underwater. 100% of icebergs are unpredictable. They can roll or calve without warning; their edges are razor sharp and can easily slice open a kayak. The rubber-bottomed Klepper kayaks are especially vulnerable to the icebergs’ sharp and invisible teeth. The closer one gets to a glacier, the more icebergs there are surrounding it, and therefore, the more dangerous it is to be paddling in close proximity. For this reason, we decide that when we approach Chenega glacier, the mother of all glaciers, we will form a caravan, with the heavy fiberglass double kayak threading a clear path through the ice. The group suggests that Hannibal and I, the strongest paddlers, lead the way in the double kayak, the strongest boat. I don’t relish the idea of sharing a kayak in a dangerous situation with a man who is comforted by a gun and his own urine, but I don’t want to call attention to my distrust, so I get in the bow and set my intention to paddle with as much equanimity as I can muster.
The day begins with a pod of orcas swimming across our path. The fear that they will think our kayaks look like seals from below is replaced by exhilaration as we near the glacier. The wind picks up and driving rain begins pelting us painfully, but that drama only heightens our excitement and determination to reach the glacier as soon as possible. The closer we get to it, the bluer and milkier the water becomes.
“Doesn’t it feel like we’ve been paddling for hours and aren’t making much headway?” I ask Hannibal. I look back over my shoulder to find him fishing off the side of the kayak. His laugh is a cross between a hiccup and a guffaw. “Keep paddlin’ ma’am,” he says, smiling impishly through his crooked goatee. Chenega’s blue face peers through a gray veil of fog as we continue to inch our way towards the snout, vying with the icebergs for a front row seat.
We snake forward through the ice and Hannibal tells me about his past. He grew up in the Missouri woods in a house on stilts by a river. He studied math, physics, geology and psychology in college, before finally getting a degree in horticulture. He now lives on a 40’ houseboat and travels up and down the Mississippi, living off the land and hunting his own food. I realize there is a lot more to this modern-day Huck Finn than meets the eye, and he’s growing on me, despite my initial reaction to him.
Icebergs are all around us now, towers of emerald and cobalt, turquoise and battleship gray, opalescent white and inky black. They are boiling, popping, fizzling, cracking, hissing. Producing a deafening symphony that makes me feel small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. This is my third lesson that Mother Nature rules. The closer I get to the glacier, which is at least a mile across and a half a mile high, the smaller I feel, like a suppliant in the face of god. Tiger Glacier has a pregnant bulge, and as we inch closer, I believe I can hear her laboring under the exertion of the liquid river of slowly descending ice. The rift expands before my eyes. I am drawn closer and closer towards the danger, but the powerful ebbing tide and Hannibal’s urgent voice of reason convince me to leave the mesmerizing glacier, pulsating with life.
On the paddle back to camp, Hannibal catches a four-pound salmon. He hauls the flashing silver fish into the kayak and bops it on the head with the bailer. I plug my ears to drown out the dull thuds of ebbing life, but the shock of the blows still travels up my spine. The salmon flips and flops its way to death. As it passes, Hannibal prays, “Thank you Mother Nature and Father Sky. Thank you Poseidon. Thank you, salmon, for offering your soul so that we may live.” That night, Hannibal skins the fish and roasts it in butter, salt and pepper over the coals. We all share in the feast. Mrs. Matanuska Valley passes around the blueberry wine. Muscles offers to share his creatine shake. Chenega Glacier is visible from our campsite, but it looks different. I realize that while we were eating dinner, she gave birth. An iceberg, round as an igloo, glides by on the outgoing tide. The sky is now dark as stonewashed denim. Summer is seamlessly fading into winter just as the castles of ice are melting into the saltwater of Prince William Sound.