Icy Bay's glaciers do most of their melting in summer, when temperatures can reach the 70s.
Icy Bay's glaciers do most of their melting in summer, when temperatures can reach the 70s.
Jon Tigar

Getting Warmer . . .

Icy Bay's glaciers do most of their melting in summer, when temperatures can reach the 70s.
Icy Bay's glaciers do most of their melting in summer, when temperatures can reach the 70s. (By Jon Tigar)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007

Granted, it is still a niche market. But if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to be believed -- and why not? -- it's a growth opportunity. The traveler in the very near future might be ready for some global warming tourism. Vacation destinations? You could do the Maldives and watch the sea level rise before your very eyes. Glub glub. Bye-bye, happy island nation. Or perhaps a trip to the African Sahel to experience some scary soil evaporation. Subtle, but profound. Or you can do what we did and journey to Icy Bay in Alaska and just watch the world melt.

Seriously melting. A century ago, when the naturalist writer John Muir visited the region, there was no Icy Bay. It was all ice, all the way to the coast. Now? A lot more ice water. A coastal exploration three generations ago would have found an immense tidewater glacier blocking the bay, an inlet that today is 30 miles long and hundreds of feet deep and four or five or six miles wide, depending. Welcome to one of the fastest-receding glacial systems on the planet. It is geology on fast-forward. Genesis on speed dial.

Surrounding the bay, the landscape left behind by the retreating glaciers is so brand spanking new and raw that you have the impression the wolves and grizzlies show up each summer and go, whoa, bro. Wasn't this an ice field last year? It is like a baby Earth. The ice retreats. The ground looks raked, lunar, but then summer after summer the successional parade of plants comes through, first with fireweed and lupine, then alders.

The soundscape: Plink. Plonk. Drip. Drop. It's like God left the water running in the bathtub. Then a terrible nerve-rattling craaaaaack, like a high-powered rifle recoil, echoing. It is the sound of birth, of the glaciers calving off chunks of ice the size of your garage into the bay.

Oh, and this calving? It goes on and on and on. Day and night, except there is no "night" night, because it's July in the far north, and you never really sleep, you just sort of pass out for a few hours from sensory overload and giddy exhaustion in the midnight twilight, with a smelly fleece layer wrapped around your head to block out the sun. I brought along a tube of SPF-70 sunscreen and came home with exposed skin as brown as a dead lizard.

Every once in a while, a big ice block cleaves, splits, splats. A super-size heifer. Size of a building. And when you're boating around Icy Bay in a collapsible kayak with a 12-year-old paddling partner, you don't want to think about that, but in fact your vivid moviegoing imagination won't give it up, and your mind's eye envisions the horrible splash, and then wait for it, wait for it. Cowabunga! There would be one moment of the most hellacious surf, and then of course, you would be out of the boat, in the water, and that would be bad (so you have to be careful and not get too close).

We didn't bring a thermometer. In July and August, when kayak-trippers venture into Icy Bay and the glaciers do most of their melting, the weather ranges from freezing rain to the sunny 70s, sometimes in the same day. During the fast but intense Alaska summer, the inlet fills with thousands of icebergs and a gazillion gin-and-tonic-sized ice cubes. When the clouds rolled overhead (frequently) and the temperature dropped, I would float in the boat and watch crinkly ice begin to re-form on the water's surface. You dip one of your paddling hands into the milky-blue, sediment-green, freaky-calm water, and as the sensation goes from really, really freezing to pin-stabbing, you pull it out a minute later. It looks like a boiled lobster claw and feels as numb as a Novocain target.

Our group of good friends traveling to Icy Bay include five kids (boys and girls, ages 7 to 13), one environmental writer, one bear biologist, a family court judge, a president of a charitable foundation, a land conservationist, a journalist and, best of all, the founder (but no longer the owner of) Alaska Discovery, a wilderness adventure travel company, who was a pioneer of kayak trips to Icy Bay: a man with the perfect name for such a job, Ken Leghorn. Lost in the Alaskan wilderness without a Swiss Army knife or a prayer? Ken Leghorn would bring you home. My personal motto: Cling to Ken.

We spent a week beach camping, kayaking from cove to cove, and exploring, hiking up creeks to the glacial edge. We brought our own tents and gear, and we cooked our meals with a propane stove, carbo feasts of pastas and rice, with a shared bottle of wine for the adults, as the kids ran around like happy nuts.

The Really Great Outdoors

So, if you've read this far, naturally you're thinking, okay, Bill, we've done Legoland and Epcot and you seem relatively sane and this adventure sounds exactly like the global warming vacation I would love to experience with my family and friends, and I've got a couple thousand left on my MasterCard limit, so where exactly is Icy Bay and how do we get there?

We flew in peanut class from the Lower 48 to Juneau (lovely city, almost steamy in comparison) and then on a 50-minute Alaska Airlines flight northwest to a village called Yakutat, a place famous for its fishing. Immediately upon exiting the terminal, one faces the Yakutat Lodge, which announces its presence with a sign that reads: "Food. Shelter. Booze." Ahhh, Alaska. We fortified ourselves alongside burly fishy brethren and then lugged tremendous quantities of duffel baggage and survival gearage around to the back of the airport to the waiting chartered bush plane.

The first inkling that the bush plane ride is part of the fun is when you see that the six-seater prop job sports oversize landing gear with cartoonish spongy tires. Why? Because Les the pilot is going to land the thing on a beach. On purpose.

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