Kayaking the Big Melt
This story featured in the 2013 Beginner’s Guide.
By David Goodman
We’re drifting in our sea kayaks toward the imposing face of the glacier, when a sharp crack splits the silence. The seven of us watch, speechless, as a block of ice bigger than a three-bedroom house slides off the glacier and vanishes beneath the inky black water. A large swell rolls toward us.
Alaska promised drama. Grandeur. Beauty. Tranquility. Thrills. This kayaking trip to the inlets and glaciers of Kenai Fjords National Park was delivering all of those things, sometimes a little too close for comfort. In all the tears that I’d explored wilderness by foot, skis and boat, Alaska—the “last frontier” as state license plates proudly proclaim—had eluded me. But suddenly this bucket-list trip felt urgent. The reason is simple: the Alaska we know today will not be the same in 50 years. Alaska is on the front line of climate change, with the titanic forces of sky, water, and earth colliding in dramatic fashion.
Everything about Alaska is larger than life. The 49th state is twice the size of Texas and one-fifth the size of the Lower 48 states put together. Its 6,640-mile coastline is half again longer than the East and West coasts of the United States combined.
Alaska is home to more than 100,000 glaciers, a staggering 99 percent of which are receding. Each year some 40 cubic miles of ice melts in Alaska. Still, the fossil-fuel industry and its allies in Congress have succeeded in sowing doubt and blocking meaningful efforts to curb global warming. Even as the glaciers retreat and Alaska endures record heat, wildfires, and drought, Shell Oil is preparing to begin the first offshore drilling operation in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s northern coast, one of the most extreme environments on the planet. The impact of warming combined with the renewed threat of oil spills has turned Alaska into possibly the most contested and threatened landscape in the United States. (In December, a Shell drilling rig being towed from the North Slope to Seattle ended up on the rocks about 200 miles south of Kenai Fjords.)
So last summer, I ventured to the top of North America with my wife, Sue, our 19-year-old daughter, Ariel, our son, Jasper, 11, and nephew Thomas, a 25-year-old marine scientist recently out of grad school. We wanted to experience Alaska and its endangered glaciers as intimately as we could: We chose to travel in sea kayaks deep into Kenai Fjords National Park, home to the Harding Icefield, the 700-square-mile expanse of ice that covers the southern portion of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.
The Harding is the largest icefield in the U.S. But as we saw from our kayaks, it is shrinking by the day.
Our trip begins in the fishing town of Seward, a two-hour drive southeast of Anchorage on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. There we meet up with guides Kayti Rowen and Brian Studiali of Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking. Kayti and Brian, an energetic and knowledgeable pair, orient us to what lies ahead. We will sea kayak for five days in Northwestern Fjord, a unique and remote landscape where five glaciers pour off the Harding Icefield and three tidewater glaciers tumble directly into the sea.
“Northwestern is probably the most pristine place I’ve ever been,” says an excited Kayti, a tall, effusive woman with an easy smile. “It makes me feel really small.”
At 5 a.m., we are driving on a rough road chipped into the side of a cliff. About 15 minutes outside of Seward, the road vanishes into the water. This is land’s end, Alaska.
A steel skiff awaits us just offshore. We change our mode of transport and load four sea kayaks and a week’s worth of food and camping gear onto the boat. It is not lost on us that our trip to experience the impact of climate change has itself had an impressive carbon footprint, as our trip to Northwestern Fjords has required planes, cars, and now a motor boat.
Chance Miller, the raffishly handsome 27-year-old skipper, backs the skiff out into blustery
Resurrection Bay and begins the several-hour journey to Northwestern Fjord. As we motor out into the Gulf of Alaska, he motions with a sweep of his hand to the vast body of water around us.
“Welcome to the largest expanse of wilderness on Earth,” he says. “The next landfall is Antarctica.”
This waterscape teems with life. Our boat passes an island crawling with thousands of barking seals. Birds circle overhead crowing hysterically, and puffins peer out quizzically from their rocky perches. Miller casts his deep-sea fishing rod overboard and lands several 10-pound fish in quick succession, as easily as if reaching into a fish bowl.
After several hours, our boat makes a broad turn and slows down. A deep fjord hemmed in by towering rock walls and glaciers opens before us. We have arrived in Northwestern Fjord (also known as Northwestern Lagoon). Miller glances at a GPS but does not pay it much heed.
“Ten or 20 years ago, we had no charting at all of these areas. It was just local knowledge where to slow down,” he explains as he maneuvers the boat around unseen underwater hazards. “Even now, it’s charted but not well. This is still a raw pioneer-type place. When you look at pictures, you realize how much it has changed.”
The pace of change in Northwestern Fjord has been breathtaking. In the little more than a century since Northwestern University geologist Ulysses S. Grant (no relation to the 18th U.S. president) surveyed and named the fjord in 1909, the glacier that once filled the inlet has retreated more than six miles.
Indeed, everywhere we will be paddling for the next five days was covered in ice less than 100 years ago. Scientists note this is evidence that the climate has been warming since the last Ice Age, but the pace of change has accelerated dramatically in recent years due to human activity.
The loss of glaciers has serious implications for the global climate. Glaciers regulate regional surface temperatures. Even slight changes in surface temperatures in Alaska contribute to powerful global atmospheric changes that have never been experienced before. When glaciers melt, sea levels rise, threatening to displace millions of coastal residents around the world.
The rapid changes in the land lead Chance Miller, whose family has been running a water taxi to these remote fjords for decades, to question what will happen to Alaska, and to his way of life.
“I wonder, ‘Is it a viable thing to keep taking people to these places? Are they going to be around that much longer? Will people want to come here?’” Miller says.
He peers out at the fjord’s stunning hues of green, white and gray and concludes, “The answer is basically yes … It is a beautiful place, and it always will be.”
Miller finally pulls up onto a rocky beach, unloads my family and our multicolored mountain of gear, makes arrangements for a pickup in five days, and bids us farewell. The sound of the boat’s motor fades and instantly is replaced by the shriek of a bald eagle circling overhead. I look along the beach and see a large bear scampering away.
We are alone in a landscape of mythical scale. Waterfalls tumble 700 feet down a cliff face, the height so great that the water simply vaporizes before hitting the ground. Massive glaciers at the far-off head of the fjord twist and split like a slithering snake, then plunge dramatically into the sea. It evokes images of Harry Potter—of magical creatures soaring and darting about and the intoxicating sense that danger lurks just out of sight.
For 11-year-old Jasper, the best magic in this place is happening at the end of his fishing rod. Within an hour of our arrival, he reels in a 12-inch cod, which quickly becomes a dinner appetizer. Sensing a kindred spirit and an opportunity, our guide Brian, a Florida native and avid angler, politely asks if he can borrow my rod and share a kayak with Jasper for the next few days. From that moment on, their kayak is transformed into a fishing boat with a line permanently in the water.
Meanwhile, my nephew Thomas, flush with knowledge about all things aquatic, manages to reel in only seaweed.
As we travel deeper into Northwestern Fjord, the seven of us increasingly are dwarfed by our surroundings. Soaring rock walls tower overhead, polished clean by the retreating glaciers.
On our third day, Jasper and Brian are paddling lazily when they sense that they are not alone. Suddenly, about 50 feet in front of their kayak, a humpback whale blows a tall spout of water. Its massive barnacle-encrusted tail flips skyward before vanishing beneath the water’s surface. A sulfurous stink lingers in the air.
Our kayaks come to a standstill. We are unexpectedly in a dance with this primordial creature. The whale resurfaces a few hundred feet away, then dives again.
“Let’s head the other way,” urges Sue from the front of my kayak.
But I can’t break free from this call and response with the world’s largest mammal. The whale breaks the surface again, this time about 75 feet away, then blows another spout before disappearing. We all drift toward the center of the fjord, giving each other enough room to maneuver in case one of us needs to get out of the whale’s way—quickly.
Kayti assures us that the whales—which weigh about a ton per foot and strain water through their teeth so only small food passes through their grapefruit-sized throats—are curious but not aggressive to kayaks. “But I’ve never had one come this close before, either,” she says breathlessly.
About 15 feet in front of Jasper’s and Brian’s kayak, the water abruptly parts to reveal the whale’s shiny black humpback. Its massive tail momentarily stands straight up, water cascading off it, then silently disappears again.
“I felt like I could reach out and touch it,” Jasper exclaims. “That was freaky!”
“That was way too close,” declares Sue, whose voice belies the mix of awe and alarm that all of us feel at the encounter. We paddle onward in amazed silence while the whale swims slowly away.
The temperature drops noticeably as we round the bend of a large granite island on our fourth day of paddling. Suddenly, three tidewater glaciers burst into view. “Bergy bits”—small, floating pieces of ice—are everywhere. My paddle pushes off against the ice as we glide noisily through this slurry.
Kayti paddles in the lead and acts as an icebreaker, clearing an ephemeral path for us to follow closely behind through the icy slurry that she calls “margarita mix.”
Harbor seals abound on the larger ice pieces, and they closely track our progress through their world. The cute, doe-eyed creatures are skittish and playful, slipping off their perches into the water anytime we come close, then popping up alongside our kayaks to get a better view of us.
Northwestern Glacier is the dramatic natural highlight of our trip. It is a tidewater glacier that ends abruptly in the sea. The vast swath of blue ice appears smooth in the mountains above, but as it approaches the water it breaks into what look like rows of chess pieces that march slowly and inexorably downward. We float a quarter-mile from its face, alert for the large pieces of ice that constantly are calving into the water and sending rolling waves in our direction.
The cracking, exploding Northwestern Glacier is the sharp, violent edge of where the ice world meets the warming climate. The thunderous rumbling of the glacier is the soundtrack to this epoch.
The boundaries between man and nature, between modern and primitive, between environmental policy and reality, all vanish here in the Alaskan wilderness. As politicians equivocate, and fossil-fuel companies obfuscate, this icy wilderness simply disappears.
Without action to stop climate change, there is the very real prospect that this breathtaking landscape might not exist when my kids return in kayaks with their children. It is one of many reasons to fight to save the ice.
The glaciers crack and calve throughout our final evening. A humpback whale breaches in the distance. It feels as if we are present at the creation.
Which, as this endangered landscape continues to change, perhaps we are.