Walking on a glacier. Check.
Climbing an ice wall on a glacier. Check.
Kayaking in front of a glacier. Why not?
Glaciers don't just terminate on a lake. They also end up right at sea. In Alaska, the pristine coastline is dotted with glaciers loaded with ancient ice calving right into the sea, thus the so-called tidewater glaciers. Chunks of ice that break off become ice bergs. Y'all already know why the Titanic sank, right?
|Safety briefing with our guide|
After that exhilarating walk up High School Hill, we met Jack at the Pangaea Adventures office. An Oregon native, Jack's on his first season in Alaska guiding people on sea kayaking trips. He brought out equipments for us to use: paddles, rubber boots, spray skirts and dry bags. A quick instruction on kayaking basics followed. We helped haul our kayaks into the Mayflower Star, the water taxi that will ferry us to the bay.
|Hauling kayaks to our water taxi|
The timing was perfect even on an Alaskan autumn. The sun was shining brilliantly that it felt sub-tropical to the skin. But just because it was almost cloudless did not mean I came unprepared for foul cold weather. It all boils down to proper layering. Getupandgotours, which organized this action-packed trip, has an extensive packing list most of which I already own.
What did I bring with me? First, because I didn't want to risk my Nikon D7000 in the water, I bought a DiCAPac WP-S10, a budget-friendly waterproof housing for DSLRs. Part of what I wore on this day trip:
1. Columbia Sportswear Omni-tech rain jacket and pants
2. Columbia Sportswear "Bora Bora" booney hat
3. The North Face "Momentum" fleece jacket
4. The North Face "Apex Elixir" soft shell jacket
5. The North Face "Horizon Surplus" pants
6. Sierra Designs moisture-wicking tshirt
7. Coldpruf thermals
8. Fits wool socks
Mayflower Star sailed away from the port and into the calm waters of Prince William Sound. Looking back, we could see how prettily located Valdez was in this fiord-like setting. A pair of harbor seals and otters were in the bay, enjoying the sun just as much as we were of them. In the aftermath of 1989's Exxon Valdez oil spill, this area was reeking with crude oil - a huge eco-disaster that dramatically changed people's perception of the odd marriage between oil use and conservation.
About half an hour later, we unloaded the kayaks on a secluded spot on Shoup Bay. The waters were still and our excitement was sky-high. No sooner had we paddled away from shore and we already saw bald eagles resting on tree trunks. We continued paddling, with two persons on each boat. Jack was on a single-seat kayak leading us into the tidal basin. Soon, a distant view of the glacier beckoned us. We were the only visitors!
Once inside the tidal lagoon, we made our way into a rocky beach, securing our kayaks. With our dry bags, we hiked up the moraine and into a gorgeous spot right in front of Shoup glacier. For lunch, we had sandwiches we made ourselves earlier back at the camp. Jack brought out his thermos filled with coffee. It's a warm day and the warmth of the coffee further amplified what we already know - this glacier, like most glaciers everywhere, is steadily retreating due to global warming.
Back on the kayaks an hour later, we paddled even closer to the glacier. Jack kept reminding us to always be very careful - an ice calving could happen just anytime. If that occurs, a mini-tsunami could ensue which would easily flip our boats and send us to kingdom come. The water is definitely frigid, and I certainly don't want to end up like Lenardo DiCaprio's Jack in "Titanic".
We've been paddling around in circles for about half an hour in front of the glacier that it wore us out. No calving happened anyway. So we all padded into this small waterfall gushing on a hillside straight into the lagoon. We each took turns maneuvering right beside the cascade and quickly refilled our water canteens. Surprisingly, the water was lukewarm - the heat of the sun must be that intense!
|Water refill station|
Nearby, the very noisy nesting colony of black-legged Kittiwakes welcomed us. The sound felt like the equivalent of an avian "rush hour". The birds flit between rocks strewn with their own poop, flying lowly as if about to 'dive bomb' us even while we paddled slowly. There's more than 20,000 of them, plenty enough for an ear-splitting chorus.
It was getting late and before the waves get any bigger, Jack led us back into where Mayflower Star left us off earlier. However, high tide caught up with us and there wasn't much space in the cove for us to safely go ashore. This left us with no choice but to move across the now choppy water (which required more arm work) and into a much wider beach. As our kayaks bobbed along, I got worried one of us will flip over. Thank God no one did.
Shoup Bay State Marine Park has 3 cabins for public use (from $50/night up to 8 persons). One of them, the McAllister Creek Cabin is on the west side of the bay and this was where we ended up - all exhausted after battling with rougher waters. The cabin was empty except for ferocious mosquitoes. Jack had radio contact with the boat skipper and soon enough, our water taxi came to pick us up.
|Waiting for Mayflower Star|
One of the boat's engines however conked out just as we were midway. We drifted there, right in the middle of the sea while the sky was darkening. Ominous clouds have formed to the east. Lights from Valdez Oil Terminal were flickering in the distance. The skipper, feeling hopeless about the other engine, decided we could still sail even with just one engine.
(Note: Trip was arranged by Get Up and Go!, a locally-owned adventure tour company based in Anchorage, Alaska)