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Alaska's Primeval Wilderness
By Margaret Deefholts
For Travel Writers' Tales

A ripping sound, followed by a crackle-and the crowd holds its breath. A thick chunk crumbles and falls off the crenellated wall of ice with a thunderous roar, raising a spume of gray and brown flecked spray. A moment later, another whip-crack reverberates on the afternoon air, and further along the glacier front a second sliver breaks free and disappears into a foam of churning green water. A collective "Aaah" shudders along the ship's rails.

Like the other passengers paused before the Margerie Glacier in Alaska's Glacier Bay, I am spellbound by what the Tlingit Indians call "white thunder". I am also reduced to ant-like proportions before a mass of ice rising two hundred and fifty feet above the surface of Tarr Inlet. Silhouetted against a cerulean sky, the glacier is a fantastical sculpture of castle turrets, spires, battlements and ramparts. Stray fingers of sunlight, find their way into fissures, transforming the ice into turquoise crystal caves. Further away, to the right of the Margerie, the Grand Pacific Glacier cascades down the mountainside like an unfurled bolt of white satin.

Glacier Bay National Park encompasses a tracery of fjords winding through 3,280,000 acres of primordial Alaskan wilderness. Our ship travels past four of its sixteen active tidewater glaciers: the Margerie, the Lamplugh, the Grand Pacific and the Reid glaciers. The Reid Glacier from a distance resembles the ruffled jabot of a dandy at the court of Louis XVI, but as we move in closer the "ruffles" turn into jagged chasms, some of which fall precipitously to a depth of 80 feet. The water streaming by our aft deck is flecked with popcorn-like blobs of icebergs, but as we progress deeper into the fjord these become larger, and take on a blue-fire translucence-blown-glass sculptures which, with a little imagination, become long necked swans and leaping ballerinas.

As we make our way along Tarr Inlet on this sun-drenched May afternoon, the public address system on the aft deck crackles to life. "Folks, take a look at the lower slopes of the mountain on the starboard side…you'll see a couple of mountain goats." A woman with her binoculars trained on the shore, stiffens. "There they are," she says to me, "Just below that rocky outcrop." At this distance the goats are gray-white balls against a furze of brown gorse and, absorbed in their meal of spring-tender lichen, they are oblivious to the sound of clicking cameras. A little later, the dorsal fin of an Orca causes a stir along the deck railings on the port side. In a split second of magnificence, the whale surfaces, breaches and disappears below the waters with a flourish of its tail flukes. Further along a shoreline, a bald eagle soars on the wind.

Moose, wolves, wolverines, lynx, Sitka black-tailed deer, marten and mink all inhabit Glacier Bay's pristine wilderness. Grizzlies too prowl through these forests, but for now they remain curled in hibernation, for the wind blowing hard across our ship's deck still carries the bitter chill of winter on its breath. In another month, along with the burgeoning of willows, cottonwoods, sapling alder and spruce, the mountainsides will be covered with horsetails, yellow bell-shaped dryas blooms, starry-flowered sandwort and bright stalks of dwarf fireweed. Puffins, guillemots and terns will speckle the waters and harbour seals along with their pups will sun themselves on the ice-floes.

Looking out across the glinting waters, it is hard to believe that when Captain Vancouver arrived here in 1794 this arm of Glacier Bay was locked in ice to a depth of 4000 feet. In the space of two hundred years-a mere nanosecond of time in terms of the earth's evolution-some of these glaciers have retreated at the astonishing rate of ten feet a day. Geologists have determined, however, that the advance and retreat of glaciers is cyclical and, global warming aside, it is conceivable that this fjord we are now cruising through could, in the distant future, be an ice-field once more.

Later that evening, I stand on the aft deck and watch the setting sun turn the sky to copper. Chiffon trails of cloud wreathe the blushed snow-capped peaks. Other than the wash of water against our hull, the dusk brings with it a silence, accentuating the harsh beauty of these desolate towering mountains. Their sheer immensity evokes a sense of awe which borders on the mystical. Perhaps that's why the Hoonah Indians centuries ago, called it "The Abode of God".


Several cruise ships to Alaska from Vancouver operate between May and October. Holland-America Cruise lines and Princess Cruises include Glacier Bay in their itineraries

For more information click on :

PHOTOS: Margaret Deefholts except where otherwise indicated.

1. We approach Glacier Bay
2. Passengers get their first glimpse of the Marjerie Glacier
3. Marjerie Glacier
4. Marjerie close up
5. Approaching Lampugh Glacier
6. Ice floes, Glacier Bay
7. Glacier Bay - courtesy National Park Service Digital Image Archives

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