. . . and other things I've learned about glaciers.
(Three things, in fact.) (Because Thursday.)
When Tom and I were trying to decide just where we might want to go to commemorate our 60th birthdays, we had a lot of ideas. Italy? Iceland? London? Alaska? So many places we want to go! But we ended up choosing Alaska. It seemed appropriate: We were turning 60; Alaska was celebrating 60 years of statehood. Although Tom has been to Alaska several times before for fishing trips, he'd always wanted to see the Inside Passage, and I've always wanted to see the glaciers (before they melt) (sad, but totally true).
So. North to Alaska!
And we certainly did see glaciers! Today I'll share some of our adventures -- along with three things we learned about glaciers along the way.
Thing One: Glaciers are constantly changing. They truly are "rivers of ice," and although they move quite slowly, they are constantly melting, advancing, receding. (Although I learned this long ago in geology classes, SEEING it makes it so much more . . . comprehensible.)
My view . . . from the cockpit of a helicopter.
Best view of glaciers ever! (Highly, highly recommend a helicopter trek.)
Our helicopter landed on the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, and we were met by a scene that looked like an Arctic expedition or something. (Freaked out much, Kym?)
No worries, though. By that time, I was fully outfitted for my expedition. . . including hiking gear, special boots, a helmet, extra-tough gloves, and crampons (talk about footwear I never thought I'd wear!) -- and I was on my way to pick up my ice axe when Tom took this photo.
Yes, my friends! Tom and I were about to set off for a 2-hour (guided) hike on the Mendenhall Glacier!
Thing Two: The surface of a glacier is much like broken glass -- sharp pieces of ice of varying sizes and consistency. The terrain varies constantly -- steep uphills, sharp drop-offs, cliffs, holes, little streams of water, canyons, caves, moulins. The ice is actually blue, too -- because it is super dense from years of compression (like . . . we're talking hundreds, thousands of years). The air pockets between crystals has been forced out, making the ice appear blue. (And that's as scientific an explanation you'll get from me, folks!)
Thus . . . the crampons, helmet, and extra-tough gloves!
Our guide (who looked amazingly like a young and fit Yukon Cornelius) quickly taught our group of 6 how to walk, climb up, and (most freaky of all) climb down. (If you're a skier, you have to forget EVERYTHING you ever learned about leaning into the slope and digging in your edges, because if you do that in crampons? Not. Good.) (And I was reminded - over and over again - of the power of muscle memory!)
And because we were a well-guided, adventurous group . . . we had a long way to come down!
But the amazing things we saw!
This was just an AWESOME experience. I'm so happy to have seen a mountain glacier . . . up close and personal!
We also saw a tidewater glacier, which leads me to . . .
Thing Three: Icebergs are pieces of glacier that have broken off into the water. Icebergs are actually called different things, depending on their size and how much they rise out of the water. "Icebergs" rise out of the water over 14 ft. "Bergy bits" are smaller (or melting) icebergs that rise out of the water between 3-14 ft. And "growlers" are the smallest yet -- any glacial ice chunks under 3 ft.
It's slightly unnerving to wake up to see mini-icebergs floating past your cruise ship! But that's exactly what happened the morning we arrived in Disenchantment Bay to see the Hubbard Glacier. (We actually got on an even smaller boat that morning, so we'd be able to get even closer to the glacier.)
It's hard to imagine how BIG this advancing, tidewater glacier really IS until you see it (or try to fit it into a photograph).
The face of the glacier is 400 feet tall (most of that is under water), and it's over 75 miles long!
There was lots of ice in the bay -- mostly "growlers" and a few "bergy bits." We were 1/2 mile away from the face of the glacier that day, and there was a lot of "calving" activity (when the ice breaks off from the face and crashes into the water) going on. It was . . . Very Cool. You can hear the loud cracking and booming thunder when the ice calves. It's amazing! (I'm sure there were big icebergs nearer the face).
If you look at the bottom of this photo, you can see some calving going on. (An accidental, lucky shot -- because I didn't take many photos while we were at the glacier. )
One more thing I learned? Glaciers. Are. Awesome.