There's nothing quite as chilling as an iceberg. Especially if
you're kayaking through Alaska's Inside Passage before the
steep, towering face of LeConte Glacier. LeConte is like some
great living thing that for 15,000 years has calved ice into the
sea in huge, frightening chunks. The crumbling glacier fills the
bay with bergs and floes that are as big as the White House.
There's nothing quite as cool as an ice floe. Especially if
you're dodging one in the waters of LeConte Bay. The shifting
seascape of ice can leave a kayaker as giddy as an
eight-year-old finding shapes in clouds. Sort out the jagged
images, and you'll see the Wonders of the Ancient World: a
pyramid, the Sphinx, godlike figures. You keep waiting for the
Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
It was my own eight-year-old who got me hot over ice. Daisy had
been reading about baidarkas, the primitive kayaks in which the
Aleuts once ranged the Aleutian ice fields. One morning around
our Pennsylvania breakfast table she said, "I want to go to
Alaska and paddle a kayak and see a salmon." The only negotiable
part was the salmon. Daisy would settle for a woolly mammoth, or
possibly Sasquatch, embedded in ice.
So in June, Daisy, my father-in-law and I headed to Alaska for
five days of camping and sea kayaking. We signed on with
Mountain Travel-Sobek, an El Cerrito, Calif., outfitter with
trips up and down the 49th state. We chose down: LeConte is the
southernmost active tidewater glacier in the Northern Hemisphere.
August 18, 1996
Like all freshwater glaciers, LeConte empties into salt water.
The chunks break into floes that ply the bay, menacing kayakers
like pirate galleys. An awesome armada drifts heavily out to
Frederick Sound; some floes have luminous white masts, and
others have hulls that glow SaniFlush blue. Those with slick,
glassy flanks have recently capsized, as icebergs do when they
slowly melt underwater and grow lopsided.
The possibility of getting flipped into water that is
37[degrees] rules out climbing aboard a berg. This disappointed
Daisy. She had planned a tea party on a berg with her stuffed
toy wolf, Claudius. But Daisy was cheered by the spectacle of
white ice on green water. "It looks like marshmallows dancing in
mint tea," she observed.
Our 10-member, six-kayak expedition picked its way through
popweed and sea kelp. I was the helmsman of a two-hole kayak,
steering by means of a foot-controlled rudder in the stern.
Daisy and my father-in-law took turns in the bow. My
father-in-law, a onetime second petty officer on the USS
Missouri, navigated as if he had just sighted a rogue iceberg
from the deck of the Titanic. "Dodge that ice, dammit!" he
"Watch out, for crissake!" I said. I was having trouble keeping
my bumper-car instincts in check. He said that's not how
exploring works: You're supposed to survive so you can tell of
Daisy was more intrepid. "Ice at 12 o'clock!" she yelled. "Full
speed ahead!" To her, ice is nice, but bumping is better. "I
feel like I'm blindfolded in a spook house," she said. The bergs
creaked and moaned and crackled in counterpoint to the long,
burry whistles of the varied thrush and the high, tinkling
trills of the winter wren. A covey of eagles wheeled overhead,
and seals and sea otters popped their heads up from the water to
stare at us quizzically.
Convinced that the otters they hunted were transformed humans,
the Aleuts used to try to lure them by wearing festive gut-skin
raincoats and wooden, peaked hats. Daisy was decked out in a far
less stylish jumpsuit of polypropylene--the material that
accounts, in part, for the recent sea-kayaking boom. It allows
you to paddle around glaciers without becoming one.
On the final day we ricocheted off a refrigerator-sized floe and
veered within 30 feet of a pack-ice cathedral whose two craggy
pinnacles rose three stories from the bay. Suddenly the berg
crashed into the water with a thunderous splash. A small wave
rocked our kayak. Where the cathedral once sat, a small chapel
now bobbed. Daisy's face turned a glacial white. "I've got goose
bumps on my goose bumps," she said.
The close encounter didn't cool Daisy's ardor for ice. She had a
big crush on a 50-foot slab in the shape of a decaying tooth.
She suggested that we lasso the berg and haul it ashore. By the
time we got it to the airport, she reasoned, it would have
melted enough for us to strap a seat belt around it. "Let it
float," I advised. "That's not the only tooth in the sea."
In fact, it's just the tip of the iceberg.