May 16, 2013 at 11:58 AM
Alaska cruise: Glacier Bay is like a religious experience
I walked out on deck from my windowless cabin Wednesday morning to spirit-soaring sunshine glinting off jagged, snowy mountains that seemed to be reaching for the North Pole.
This day, the Star Princess would be the first cruise ship of the season into famed Glacier Bay.
The weather was a huge gift. But a half-hour later as we chugged past Russell Island, where John Muir camped in 1879 because that’s where the glacier reached then — more than 10 miles further south than today — a little black cloud sneaked in past 15,300-foot Mount Fairweather, which usually catches all the weather. Everybody crowded out on the bow was suddenly pummeled by an icy wind that blew off hats and knocked over empty chairs.
“We get the fog, but we’re not used to THIS,” shouted Vicki Sullivan, from Santa Rosa, Calif., as she huddled in the lee of her big husband, Steve Sullivan. All over the Star Princess, passengers were wrapping their heads in the plaid blankets handed out by deck stewards.
But when we reached the head of Tarr Inlet, where chunks of ice and larger bergs dotted the water like salt covers a pretzel, and the mammoth Margerie Glacier towered in an almost inestimably large blue and white hulk of ice, the wind disappeared, the sun fought back through the clouds, and the Sullivans were happy.
“This is great, I love it!” Steve exulted about their first cruise.
“We’ve been planning it for over a year!” Vicki said.
The glacier, as high out of the water as a 25-story building and rivaling an aircraft carrier in its bulk, humbled our giant ship. Fueled by snow coming off Mount Fairweather, a coastal mountain that collects winter precipitation by the truckful, the glacier moves downhill about seven feet a day, meaning it is constantly losing chunks, or “calving,” as it reaches the bay.
Earlier in the morning, three National Park Service rangers had pulled alongside in their small boat and climbed a ladder up the side of our ship to spend the day aboard as our guides to Glacier Bay National Park, part of a preserve about the size of Connecticut.
For that, the experience wins big Brownie points. Instead of gawking and guessing about the glacier, cruise passengers had experts to answer questions and even narrate the voyage from the ship’s bridge.
Another plus: The park limits visits to two cruise ships a day, and also limits smaller tour boats. Even private pleasure craft must get a permit, limited to 25 per day. So the bay is never really crowded with anything but icebergs.
Our ship slowed and coasted within a quarter-mile of the massive ice face. Camera-hoisting passengers crowded the rails, and an uncharacteristic church-like hush came over the ship. The only sound was the distant “skree-skree” of a colony of Kittiwake gulls – they swoop down to catch fish struggling to escape falling ice – and a curious creaking and cracking. It was the “breathing” of the glacier.
Then a sound like a cannon shot shattered the quiet as a chunk of ice crumbled and slowly fell into the water. “Woooo-hooo!” responded the crowd onboard, as camera shutters went on rapid-fire.
It happened again and again, some chunks the size of a station wagon. Star Princess stayed there for an hour, very slowly spinning so everybody got a good look, including dozens in wheelchairs and mobility scooters. If everybody on board shot the 200+ photos that I did, more than half a million images of the glacier are going home to places such as Indianapolis, Illinois and Iowa.
“No matter how you felt about cruising, this has to be worth the trip, isn’t it?” asked Nancy D’Amour, my new friend from Wenatchee. That was hard to deny, though my biggest inspiration is to return in my own sailboat.
Up in the wheelhouse, Ranger Andrew Gertge summed it up on the P.A.: “Perhaps this place has taught us a little bit more about beauty, and perspective…When we return home, why don’t we carry some of the power of this place into the rest of our lives as well?”
Amen, one could say.
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