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Most of us choose to live our lives on the grid. Somewhere between the nearest strip mall and the local farmer’s market we carve out a personal niche that is well padded with the particular creature comforts of organized society that we enjoy. Most people, even the most free-thinking, prefer modern life’s amenities. The rest go to Alaska. Attached to the Lower 48 in name alone, Alaska is a different state, and a different state of mind. This is the place you come to when you want to clear your head, or your life, for a little while.
Kayaking to an Alaskan is like driving to a citizen of the contiguous United States, it is well engrained in the historic legend and lifestyle of the people. Water is all around in Alaska, no more so than in Valdez. And that water comes in many forms; most notably, the frozen variety: glaciers. Glaciers are essentially frozen rivers moving through the landscape in very slow motion. As one might expect, Alaska is full of glaciers.
The Columbia Glacier is the second largest tidewater glacier in North America at 435 miles in length. Named by Captain Cook in 1890, it is approximately 30 miles from Valdez, Alaska. The glacier was first explored by Salvador Fidalgo’s cartography expedition at the behest of the Spanish court in 1790. This glacier is a bit of a phenomenon to geologists. Starting high in the Cugach Mountain range, the Columbia advances its frozen flow as much as 50 feet a day, or up to three miles a year. Seeing the Columbia is like seeing a long, frozen river winding ribbon-like through the mountains of the Cugach range. As the glacier empties into the Prince William Sound, it pushes a wave of rock and debris forward of its flow. This is the terminal moraine of the glacier, and it forms a crusty ring-like cork between the ocean and the glacier.
In a kayak it is possible to boat over the moraine depending on the tide. It is also possible to portage the kayaks across the moraine. That is the only way to actually reach the virtual city of ice-bergs that are calving off of the base of the glacier. Kayaking amidst the loud pings and bangs of ice floats breaking away from the mother glacier is made even more profound when you realize what those sounds are: thousands of pounds of ice cleaving off of the glacier. The bergs range in size from the ice cube variety, to the titanic-sinking office building size.
Approaching the glacier on the water is only possible by charter vessel. There are two ways to accomplish this. If you are familiar with the territory, you can hire a boat to take you out there. The port of Valdez has a variety of options if this is the route you want to take (please refer to the Fact File at the end of this article for names). If you’re not familiar with the area, and I was not, there are two companies in Valdez that offer day long trips to the glacier: Anadyr (1-800-TOKAYAK) and Pangaea (1-800-660-9637, www.alaskasummer.com).
There are few things in my world worth getting up at six o’clock in the morning for, but the Columbia glacier is one of them. I met my guide, Andrew, and the owner of Pangaea, Kenny, as well as the other three people on the tour at Pangaea at a little before seven. We geared up and had a short introduction to the kayaks and each other, and then we were off to our charter boat. It took about an hour to traverse the thirty or so miles from Valdez harbor to the glacier’s moraine. We kayaked abut four miles from the drop off point, until we reached the moraine. The tide was working in our favor and we were able to paddle straight into the glacier pool inside the cap of the moraine. Once inside, it was a playground of calm blue water and a gallery of floating ice sculptures. The air was crisp, the water was clean, and we were as close to the original state of nature that our planet can still offer.
We stopped off on the moraine, which is a living island of rocks and flora. Amidst a field of purple lupine we had lunch. As we ate our ham sandwiches, hot chocolate, and gorp, we talked about Andrew’s seasonal career path. Under his shock of sea-salted, blonde hair, he indulged us with stories about New Zealand, where he leads ice climbing tours in the winter months. Alaska is his summer gig. Most of the tour guides in Valdez winter in another part of the world. Camping out in the tent city just north of Valdez proper, he is one of many local guides who come to Alaska to lead tours by day (which lasts until 11 p.m.), and explore by night (when the sun never sets). Mostly young, and well educated, these are America’s frontiersmen and women. At twenty-four, Andrew had chosen to move off the grid after graduating from college. A native of Iowa, one wonders how he got to the Prince William Sound leading kayak tours of the Columbia Glacier. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because he did and that is fortunate for us. His degree in marine biology made him the perfect guide for us that day.