There’s often a cold breeze blowing off the glacier when we arrive to admire it’s icy blue front. Wind that can make July feel like January. It plays games with my seasonal clock. I remember one time while watching Dawes glacier, a guest told me he was going to go river rafting in a week when he got home. I gave him a quizzical look. It took me a moment to remember that it was July, and the rest of the North America was enjoying water slides and shaved ice, not icebergs sliding into sea water.
Visiting a tidewater glacier in Alaska is pilgrimage. You go observe something bigger than yourself in nature. It’s something you need do. For us, getting to the glacier is part of the journey. It’s more than just checking it off as a bucket-list item. On the David B, we are tuned into the rhythm of the glacier and the ebb and flow of the tide as it carries discarded icebergs up and down the fjord. We watch the glacier’s ever-changing snout and it’s mood. We’re aware that the glacier sometimes makes us work hard for our visit by packing the fjord densely with ice shed from its towering face. Sometimes its bergs are enormous – big like a building. Sometimes they are small – like a basketball. Some are white, some are blue, some have dirt and rocks riding along. Some have seals nursing their young. Some are clear and difficult to see. (We call those sneakers.)
Iceberg sizes have official names too. Most of the ice we see in Endicott Arm or Tracy Arm are growlers, less than 1 meter above the water and and less than 5 meters long. We also see lots bergie bits that are up to 4 meters above the water and and 14 meters long. The small and medium
icebergs, which range in size from 15 meters high to 45 meters high are often floating at the entrance to the fjords. The large and very large icebergs, which top out at over 75 meters high are rare.
Picking our way though the ice is always a challenge, and depending on the mood of the glacier, it can make for a long day. When we travel to a tidewater glacier, we always have two hopes. The first one is that the ice in the fjord will be light and the work of getting there will be easy. The second hope is that when we arrive, the glacier will awaken, and as Captain Tyeen said to John Muir in 1880, when they first saw Dawes Glacier, “The ice mountain is well disposed toward you. He is firing his big guns to welcome you.”
This past year we had several good visits to Dawes glacier, the ice was light and the glacier did fire its “big guns,” but one day stood out. It was a cool day with a strong wind coming off the glacier. Travel was relatively easy. Jeffrey piloted the David B to about 400 meters from Dawes’s formidable blue-white front. The feeling is always the same for me. I feel really small when I’m face to face with Dawes, which towers like a wide-angle skyscraper. At 400 meters, the wind, as if laughing at our smallness, pushed us back away from icy Dawes. We were the only boat there. Jeffrey re-positioned the David B several times, and each time we faced the glacier again. Our reward came with patience, hot coffee, mittens, and hats. The glacier became well disposed toward us and began to “fire it’s big guns”.
It started with a cracking and a rushing sound. Ice sloughed off the center-right side dumping a cascade of bergie bits and growlers. It continued and dumped some more, then something big broke, and more bergie bits and maybe even a small or medium iceberg was cast away from Dawes. The sounds and the sight made my heart beat quickly with excitement. Soon the waves arrived with a long low gentle role. We moved in sync with the nearby growlers and bergie bits.
When the show began to slow up, Jeffrey moved us into the wind one more time. It was time to go. The ice mountain was good to us, other boats were approaching, and a hot bowl of chili and sweet cast-iron-baked cornbread with melting butter was waiting in the galley.
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