It was our first full day of paddling, and the warmth of the sun and mantralike rhythm of our synchronized strokes had lulled us into a meditative state. As our kayak quietly slipped through the clear, icy waters of Alaska's Russell Fiord, we saw a bald eagle vaulting off a rocky cliff. We watched as it gracefully banked a few turns and disappeared around a corner. Suddenly, screeching filled the air as an arctic tern furiously dived into the rocks on the beach. Moving closer to shore, we saw that the eagle was the object of the commotion.
The drama continued as the eagle took off, the tern in hot pursuit. Had the eagle plundered the tern's chick or its most recent catch? We couldn't tell. Finally, the chase ended. The eagle, perhaps with food for its young, flew into the trees across the fiord; the tern returned to its vigilant watch over its nesting site.
Quiet once again reigned, and our attention snapped back to the big picture. We realized that our instinct to root for the underdog was senseless here: Similar confrontations unfold thousands of times a day in this bay alone. We had come to southcentral Alaska to experience this wildness, but were we ready to accept it on its own terms? Both the eagle and the tern are predators, each making its living in this remote land.
It was largely on the basis of Russell Fiord's remoteness that we had selected it for our sea kayaking trip. Russell Fiord is one of those rare places where you can witness the physical forces shaping our planet. Here, as in better-known Glacier Bay National Park 125 miles to the south, walls of ice plunge into calm tidal waters. But, unlike Glacier Bay, Russell Fiord is seldom visited. There are no roads, hotels or regularly scheduled air flights; no cruise ships ply these waters.
Although we were only 15 miles from the small fishing community of Yakutat off the rough coast of the Gulf of Alaska, it could have been hundreds. But thanks to folding kayaks, bush planes and a well-qualified guide, our group of five was able to spend a week in this undisturbed wilderness. Our sturdy two-person Klepper kayaks, which we assembled from snap-together wooden frames and heavy canvaslike fabric, carried us and all our gear. We saw no other people as we explored the sights and sounds of Alaska's most active tidewater glacier, the Hubbard.
The Hubbard Glacier is something of a celebrity. It made national news in the summer of 1986 when it surged and sealed off the entrance to the fiord. Abruptly, this inlet of the sea became the world's largest glacier-formed lake, covering more than 75 square miles. After four months, the ice dam ruptured and water at speeds of up to 35 miles an hour disgorged into Disenchantment Bay, once again connecting Russell Fiord with the sea. Geologists predict a repeat performance during the decade, but with more permanent consequences.
All glaciers, alpine or tidewater, are dynamic; they are either advancing or retreating. There was no escaping that fact here. Although we could not see the glacier from our first campsite, the evidence of its presence came with the incoming evening tide: Small chunks of ice several feet in diameter floated by with the current. As the tide went out, some of the chunks were left on shore. In the late afternoon sun, they glistened like diamonds against the velvety black sand.
The following morning, as we paddled toward Marble Point, we got our first glimpse of the Hubbard. Although it was seven miles away, we were impressed by its enormity. At this distance, though, the pinnacles and spires that soar hundreds of feet along its six-mile face are dwarfed by the 15,000- to 18,000-foot peaks of the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains.
Out of view was Mount Hubbard itself, no slouch at 15,012 feet, where the glacier begins its 92-mile journey from Canada to Russell Fiord. Hubbard Glacier is the longest tidewater glacier in North America and is advancing. This means that the annual amount of accumulated snow exceeds that which melts. Over time the snow compacts into ice, and gravity slowly teases it downhill. In its wake, it bulldozes tons of rock into massive ridges along its sides and front. A tidal glacier, such as the Hubbard, pushes this debris across the floor of the fiord or bay into a protective shoal. Although anchored, the ice is constantly battered by saltwater. As it melts and fractures, it breaks off, or calves, into enormous blocks, some measuring hundreds of feet.
Our goal was to get as close as possible to this amazing scene.
On our third day, we covered the final 3 1/2 miles of our journey to a campsite directly across the fiord from the Hubbard's towering face. The closer we got to the glacier and the calving ice, however, the trickier the kayaking became. Although the protected waters of Russell Fiord are a perfect training ground for novice paddlers such as ourselves, we relied on the experience of our guide to interpret tide tables and teach us the techniques for coping with floating and surging ice -- necessities for safe travel here.
The tides change direction every six hours, and we tried to time our landing to coincide with the few minutes of slack that precede the change. The last place we wanted to be was on a collision course with truck-size icebergs. Even smaller bergs are not to be trusted: Most of their mass is concealed below the water line, and a sudden roll could have flipped our small boats.
The ebb tide keeps most of the floe at bay, but there is a substantial surge every few minutes when a high-rise building's worth of ice cascades into the water. Getting ashore was like crossing the shipping lanes in New York Harbor in a small sailboat. Taking a deep breath, we headed our boats into the direction of the surge to prevent being hit broadside by a wave and capsizing.
With surprisingly little effort, we crossed safely and were relieved to be on shore. We jumped out of our boats and quickly dragged them high up the beach, away from the reach of the incoming tide.
Setting up camp entailed a good bit of bear avoidance strategy. We were in prime grizzly country. We pitched our tents well away from our cooking area, yet within easy reach of our kayaks, in case a visiting grizzly necessitated a quick getaway. Good sense dictated keeping tent sites away from game trails, but more often than not they were unavoidably synonymous.
Bear scat on the beach, the grizzly's favorite highway, confirmed their presence. But somehow, the remoteness of Russell Fiord made us feel less vulnerable. The bears here, unlike those in more heavily visited areas, have fewer opportunities to associate humans with an easy meal. Nonetheless, we were meticulous about picking up every scrap of food, keeping our clothes free of scents, and wading out into the water in high-top rubber boots to wash dishes. The flaw, of course, is that we had no way of knowing if our tents were sitting on the very spot that the last group of campers had carefully selected for their kitchen.
The weather had deteriorated -- no surprise, since the area receives more than 100 inches of rain a year. We set up a tarp suspended from four kayak paddles as a communal refuge from the cold rain. The dark thicket of dead alder trees -- victims of the 1986 water level -- looked particularly menacing under overcast skies, but provided a ready supply of firewood. The black sand, which had been an elegant foil for shimmering ice in yesterday's sun, added to the sinister nature of the place. The blanket of thick clouds amplified the sound of calving ice, which rumbled and reverberated like peals of thunder. The cacophony was relentless. This was wilderness, but it was anything but serene.
The scene was was eerie and disquieting, but we settled in to watch the show. With the change in the tide shortly after our arrival, the parade began, as ice floats cruised by our viewing stand. The current, which flows through the narrow passage between the face of the glacier and Gilbert Point up the beach from us, moves at an impressive velocity. The floe traveled faster than we could walk -- we estimated its speed at 6 to 8 mph.
We sighted a harbor seal hitching a ride on top of one of the bergs, and we waved and cheered as if she were our local beauty queen. Seals and porpoises were not the only acrobats out there. Chunks of ice flipped and turned while others cracked apart. Pieces drifted toward shore, and the smallest ones clinked together in the shallow water like ice cubes in a glass. As the tide receded, many were left stranded. We wandered among them, clambering aboard the largest ones to pose for pictures. We wove our way through the parked ice and rocks toward Gilbert Point for a closer look at the glacier. The beach ended, and we scrambled up and along the boulders.
Clouds hung low; we could see nothing but the palisade of ice across the narrow outlet of the fiord. Bands of black, blue and white made it look more like a weird layered rock formation than ice. Fissures sliced down through the layers and receded into mysterious indigo chasms. Every few minutes, as if it were being hit by a wrecking ball, parts of the wall collapsed into exploding sheets of ice. They hit the water with tremendous force, sending up fountains of water and spray into the air. Just about the time the floe gurgled to the surface and took off to join the rest of the parade, the creaking and groaning began again, signaling the next cascade.
Through our binoculars, we picked out what remained of Osier Island. Before it was engulfed by advancing ice in 1986, kayakers could paddle to it and sit on its banks, a quarter of a mile from the mighty Hubbard's face. This tiny speck of land, however, was no match for a galloping glacier and is testimony to the transitory nature of Russell Fiord. Although we have been in what geologists call an interglacial period for the past 10,000 years, at this latitude Russell Fiord is still at the mercy of the waxing and waning of ice.
When the Gothic cathedrals of France were being built, as much as 3,000 feet of ice filled the fiord and Yakutat Bay. Sometime after A.D. 1400 the ice receded, and great forests grew to cloak the sides of Russell Fiord -- only to be submerged by glacial gravels in a later advance culminating in the 18th century. Expedition journals and native Tlingit Indian history report that the fiord was ice-choked at various times during the last century as well.
We were in reclaimed territory, land recently unglaciated. Sitka spruce and hemlock have scarcely had time to regain their tenuous foothold. In not too many years, the Hubbard, which has been advancing for the past 100 years, will close off Russell Fiord again. The alder doesn't have a chance.
The following morning, we could barely see the glacier through the brooding fog. The dazzling vistas that had wowed us on our first days here were smothered and snuffed out. Sky, ice and water melded into an undifferentiated gray wash. I fought to keep the bleakness from getting to me.
Nothing, of course, had changed. Harbor seals continued to swim by and crane their necks to check us out. Their silvery coats, well adapted to the gray weather, made them more difficult to spot through the thick mist. My yellow slicker, however, made me an easy sight. Aerial dogfights between jaegers, the bandits of the sky, and gulls, the predators of the sea, went on regardless of rain and fog. The jaegers seemed to win most of the battles, and I still felt sorry for the screeching gulls.
The oyster catchers, our most frequent companions, had not abandoned the beach. Patrolling the water's edge, they feasted on mussels uncovered at low tide. As they picked through the dense mat of kelp, their bright orange beaks flickered like candles against the monochromatic backdrop. And probably not too far away, fully aware of our uninvited presence, was a grizzly bear waiting to reclaim its beach.
Life went on, in spite of the weather and in spite of us. Cut off from the visual grandeur of the place, I began to sense something more elemental. Our comings and goings were timed to the arrival and departure of the tides. The distances we traveled were not great; the energy we expended was measured. We watched ice flow in one direction, disappear and, when the tide turned, reappear, much reduced and reshaped. The thunder of calving ice was constant, but we became accustomed to it, and it lulled us to sleep much as the roar of a pounding surf.
Just two weeks beyond the summer solstice, it was never totally dark. The demarcations between day and night were vague; our own diurnal cycles became correspondingly vague. Time, like space in the mist and fog, was seamless. Days and hours, human measures, had little relevance here. In a land of baffling size and distance, finally, something was comprehensible. There was a fundamental rhythm. Unknowingly, we had fallen into step with its beat. Judy Mannes is a Washington writer. WAYS & MEANS GETTING THERE: Hubbard Glacier is located in the Russell Fiord Wilderness Area of south-central Alaska. At the northern extreme of the Tongass National Forest, Russell Fiord is a 20-minute bush flight from the historic Tlingit Indian community of Yakutat.
There are no direct flights from Washington to Yakutat. We flew Delta Air Lines from Washington to Anchorage, where we connected with an Alaska Airlines flight to Yakutat. Delta is currently offering a promotional round-trip fare of $478 from Washington to Anchorage, with restrictions. Alaska Airlines' round-trip fare from Anchorage to Yakutat is $182, with restrictions. Gulf Air Taxi (Box 367, Yakutat, Alaska 99689, 907-784-3240) shuttled us and our gear from the Yakutat airport to the fiord.
Once in Yakutat, it's a good idea to spend a day to re-sort your gear and recover from jet lag. Rooms at the Glacier Bear Lodge (Box 303, Yakutat, Alaska 99689, 907-784-3202) run $70 single, $90 double. At the Yakutat Airport Lodge (Box 287, Yakutat, Alaska 99689, 907-784-3232), rates are $60 for a single and $10 for each additional person. OUTFITTER: Unless you have access to a folding or inflatable kayak, a guide service is essential. There are no kayak rental facilities in Yakutat.
We signed on with Alaska Discovery (369 S. Franklin St., Juneau, Alaska 99801, 907-586-1911), the sole outfitter offering guided expeditions into Russell Fiord. The company runs a well-organized trip and provides kayaks, life preservers, tents and all food and cooking equipment. The seven-day trip, which begins and ends in Yakutat, costs $1,000 per person, including the bush flight to the fiord. Trips are offered during July and August and are limited to 10 participants each. KAYAKING EXPERIENCE AND PREPARATION: Prior kayaking experience is not necessary for this trip (although camping experience is recommended). Unlike white-water kayaks, sea or touring kayaks are stable and designed to track. A keel and foot-controlled rudder kept us on a straight course. It's important that you feel comfortable in a small boat sitting literally inches above the water -- something we adjusted to.
As with any extended outdoor adventure, good physical conditioning is a sensible prerequisite. Kayaking is an upper body activity; strengthening the arms, wrists, shoulders and back go a long way toward eliminating fatigue and muscle soreness. In the final analysis, rhythm and stamina, as opposed to raw strength, are the important elements. WEATHER: By Alaskan standards, the weather in Russell Fiord is relatively mild -- summer daytime temperatures range from 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but can dip down into the 40s at night. Southeast Alaska is often very wet. WHAT TO TAKE:
Good-quality rain gear, including a broad-brimmed fisherman's rain hat (more comfortable than a hood when paddling).
Knee-high rubber boots, de rigueur for getting in and out of kayaks, numerous stream crossings when exploring and hiking, and general camp wear in wet sand.
Pile and polypropylene clothes -- more water resistant and less bulky to pack than wool, an advantage with limited storage space.
Synthetic sleeping bag (better than down in damp conditions) in a three-season weight.
Insect repellent, sunscreen and sunglasses, as well as shorts and T-shirts. We had a number of sunny days.
Alaska Discovery provides a number of rental items, including rubber raincoats and rain pants, rubber boots, dry bags for packing gear and sleeping bags. RECOMMENDED READING: Russell Fiord is remote, and there is not much written about it specifically, but material on Glacier Bay will give the flavor of the experience and much of the relevant natural history:
"Glacier Bay: The Land and the Silence," by Dave Bohn (Alaska Natural History Association, 605 W. Fourth Ave., Anchorage, Alaska 99501, 907-274-8440).
"Alaska's Glaciers," by the Alaska Geographic Society (Alaska Northwest Publishing, P.O. Box 93370, Anchorage, Alaska 99509, 907-258-2515).
"The Starship & the Canoe," by Kenneth Brower (Harper and Row).
"Travels in Alaska," by John Muir (Sierra Club Books). INFORMATION: Alaska Division of Tourism, P.O. Box E, Juneau, Alaska 99811, (907) 465-2010. -- Judy Mannes