June 14, 2016
We left Valdez at precisely eight in the morning, as evidenced by the Coast Guard crews saluting the flag on their cutter’s aft deck as the national anthem played through tinny speakers from the bridge. Out past the breakwaters we were met by Dall’s porpoises who escorted us out of Port Valdez past enormous rafts of Black-legged kittiwakes and Herring gulls, and later past a humpback whale exuberantly lunge-feeding just feet from a rocky beach where a group of kayakers were encamped.
Yet another day of still and warm -almost hot- weather, which is rapidly melting the low-lying snowpack, making the waterfalls shoot out sparkling from the cliffs. A number of the graceful torrents dot our passage as we make a slow loop to the west into Columbia Bay, where the Columbia Glacier disgorges rafts of jumbled ice. Glacial Ice comes in a wide range of colors depending on how long and how hard it was compressed by the mass of the overlying ice. Air bubbles disrupt and confuse the passage of light through ice, causing it to appear white, while older, more compressed ice is nearly free of air pockets and shows a clean aquamarine or deeper blue, which seems to glow with an interior light when the sun hits it.
The Columbia Glacier has been in rapid retreat since the early 1980’s, and its terminal moraine, a bar of silt sand and mud that marks its farthest extent is nearly 9 miles distant from the face of the glacier. The warm weather and rapid disintegration of the glacier have left the interceding area chocked with ice, and it isn’t long before we are stymied by the drifting bergs. The ice melts into crazy shapes, flipping occasionally as its center of gravity shifts until the forms of surreal waterfowl, giraffes, and more begin to appear. Much like cloud-watching, the interpretation has to do more with the mind of the viewer than the medium itself.
Turned back by the ice we continue to our destination after filling the coolers with thousand-year-old ice cubes. The western arm of Long bay offers a very secure anchorage and lovely scenery, and soon after anchoring we set out to explore the small island which lies in the middle. Bare rock, deep mosses, peatlands, and berry-chocked spruce forests all compete for limited real estate on the island. The late Alaskan spring has brought out wildflowers throughout, casting flecks of blue white and purple over the entire scene. The breeze comes and goes throughout the afternoon and evening, bringing ravens who glide over the fleet screeching and quorking with curiosity.