Seismic Wiggle Room: Paddling Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

A paddling journey through Southeast Alaska's living landscape.

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Words and photo by Chuck Graham

When I was kayaking with my friend Carl Donohue toward the calving Tyndall Glacier last summer, I had an uneasy feeling about where we were going. It was just a feeling.

We were on sea kayaking trip through Taan Fjord inside Wrangell St. Elias National Park in Southeast Alaska. We camped in the first row of spruce trees at Icy Bay about 15 miles west of the Tyndall Glacier. Donohue leads kayak trips there but had never had the opportunity to paddle all the way to the end of the valley.

“Then a chunk of ice the size of a Mack truck broke free from the outer edge of the glacier. An enormous splash followed, sending a three-foot wave our way.”

As we left Icy Bay and paddled inside the Taan Fjord, we were feeling really small. The fjord narrowed and the St. Elias, Chugach and Wrangell Mountains, the largest coastal range in the world, towered on all sides, their peaks rising well over 10,000 feet above us. Massive waterfalls spilled off broad cliff faces cascading down to where we paddled. The smell from natural oil seepage was thick in the air and the emerald green water was silky smooth.

As we closed in on the glacier the ice floes increased, creaking and cracking as we banged into them with the bows of our kayaks. When we got to the glacier we sat and relaxed, marveling at its chunky face. Ice floes swirled around us and the glacier was calving inside, the sound bellowing across the fjord. Then a chunk of ice the size of a Mack truck broke free from the outer edge of the glacier. An enormous splash followed, sending a three-foot wave our way. We both sat up and pointed our bows into the oncoming roller. It barely capped and afterwards we moved away from the glacier in no small hurry.

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It was a great trip mainly because it was just us; the Taan Fjord isn’t a major sea kayaking destination. It's very remote, cold and I recently learned it's also one of the most seismically active regions in the world. Just before Christmas, Donohue sent me a link from Columbia University about an earthquake that occurred last October 17 at the backend of the fjord, four months after our trip. The quake sent a 200-million ton landslide down to the base of the Tyndall Glacier. Satellite images showed the landslide covered more than half of the glacier's chunky face with rock and dirt, filling up the fjord where we had been paddling and observing the glacier.

The landslide was the largest detected since the collapse at Mount St. Helens back in May 1980. Its signature appeared almost simultaneously in seismograms monitored by the Global CMT Project at Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory all the way on the other side of the country.

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A tsunami followed and satellite images show the damage done on one of the steep peninsulas that are exposed inside the Taan Fjord about six miles from the Tyndall Glacier. The fallen trees lying around the peninsula were in a pattern associated with the affects from a tsunami. Donohue had slept there before. He’d left his camp one day only to find it ravaged by a grizzly bear upon his return. And we had paddled around this peninsula. The shoreline was rocky and steep and the treeline began at the water's edge. Up until this summer, trees continued up a steep knoll but based on the satellite images, now only the trees at the top of the knoll still stand.

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When we returned to our camp at about 9 pm after our trip to the glacier, the tide had moved in and with it the pulse of a swell. A set was rolling up the entire shoreline of Icy Bay. Gray overcast was hanging low over the frigid water and ice floes were choking the bay. Long, sweeping lines wrapped around Kageet Point and the sound of the surf rolling toward us was like nothing I had ever heard. They bellowed and groaned getting louder as the waves ran past us on the edge of a steep berm of cobble, nullifying the repetitive honks by Canadian geese flying by.

"I've often thought about how screwed I'd be if something happened there," said Donohue after hearing of the earthquake. "Fortunately, such events are rare, but I'm glad we weren't there then."

–More info: www.expeditionsalaska.com

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