I have visited Alaska twice. On the Carnival Spirit in 2003 with 8 members of my family including my parents. And on the Regent Seven Sea Mariner in 2009 with my wife, her parents and my sister- and brother-in-law.
To me Alaska cruises are a spiritual experience. And visiting a large glacier is the moment when this is most obvious.
When we approached the 6 mile wide Hubbard Glacier in 2009, there was a Tlingit shaman on our ship who asked the glacier’s permission to approach. A strange notion for the supposedly civilized, but at that moment it felt right. We needed to ask permission. When coming into the presence of a six-mile wide river of ice, there should be a ceremony.
Getting closer the low clouds hung over the water and we worried that we wouldn’t see much. The water was dramatically still and seemed to be coated with an icy film. The low roar of the engines was the only sound. Blue tinged icebergs floated by and the black spots of seals slipped into the water as we got too close. Nearer the glacier the sky became bluer and the air clearer. When the captain shut off the main engines the silence was nearly complete and the air was chilled and still.
We were hoping to see calving, but the day was calm and quiet. We heard distant clicks from the ice, but saw only the majestic blue-white wall as the ship pirouetted so all could see the ice god. How can unchanging stillness and silence remain fascinating for so long? I don’t know, but the Hubbard Glacier taught us that it can.
In 2003 it was 630am when we traveled down the College Fjord to see the Harvard Glacier. It was a gloomy morning but as we got closer rays of light broke through over the ice. The quiet drama was broken as a medical emergency was announced on the intercom and we headed to Whittier to drop off the unfortunate passenger. We returned later that morning as the day brightened.
The narrow fjord has many glaciers all named for colleges. Some reached the water while others hung precariously on the steep slopes clinging to the dark rocks and digging up dark strips of earth to drag to the sea. Glaciers cut rock fatally and leave scars. The College Fjord is an old scare left by the Harvard Glacier from an ice age long ago.
The mighty glacier was tumultuous that day, falling in large chunks into the still water, exploding against the surface in thunderous alarm. Our eyes scanned the long wall for evidence of the next calving, but every time it started with a hard crack somewhere our eyes were not looking. The sound came from every direction but the calving was in one place, a huge blue-white sliver slipping down the wall and then colliding with the water. The sound was so like thunder but even bigger, louder and longer. And then a sudden wave would ripple out from the spot rocking the icebergs in its wake.
Glaciers are the ultimate Alaska experience. If this is God’s country, the glaciers are God’s voice speaking to us with a power and majesty we rarely experience.