ALASKA: LEG 5 – NAKED ISLAND TO COGHILL ANCHORAGE – July 18, 2016
Our long string of sunny weather continued today as we set out this morning on a northwest course bound for the strikingly beautiful College Fjord. Prince William Sound never ceases to dazzle, and every day it shows a different face. Today, the densely packed treetops of Axel Lind and Bald Head Chris Islands shine a brilliant emerald green in the sunshine and beckon us onward through the winding passages that lead into Port Wells and beyond into the glacier-cloaked fjords in the heart of the mountains.
With the fishing fleet tied up in port and most recreational boats reaching their boundary of northward progress at Icy Strait some 300 miles south of us, it is not at all uncommon for us to cruise all day in Prince William Sound and have the waters entirely to ourselves. Today was no different, and we saw no one and heard only far away radio chatter as the green slopes slid by and the great rivers of ice that even now continue to shape this land came in to view.
Looking at the enormous masses of ice we have come all this way to visit is to peer into the engine room of the earth. The immense forces that shape this landscape and its inhabitants are laid bare and clear for all to see. The erosive power of ice and water seeks to flatten the mountains raised up by the violent collision of tectonic plates. Here in the Chugach Mountains the battle has reached a slow motion crescendo and the ice has torn the fat off of the mountains and left behind lean rocky horns and cluttered frozen gullies littered with crumbled stone. Plants creep slowly back into the raw places like skin over a healing wound. Lichens and mosses are first, followed closely by fireweed, lupine, and shrubby alders which build the soil until at last the spruce and hemlock return to stand tall over the healed land, at least until the glaciers advance once more.
We idle and drift in the silty waters at the base of Harvard Glacier’s great face, listening to the deep bass groans and rumbles that issues out of its shattered bulk. On occasion blocks or ice break away and tumble into the water with a roar. The mind struggles to nail down a sense of perspective in this alien land, and it is easy to assume the falling pieces are small, refrigerator-sized perhaps. It is only when you see the gulls as tiny white pinpricks circling at the base of ice that everything snaps into focus; these blocks are huge, bigger than our boats. A 300’ tall flake separates from the face and arcs outwards, the splash reaching nearly to the top of the glacier.
Our anchorage is at the mouth of the Coghill River and hour back down the fjord, where a glance in any direction reveals icy mountains, lush forests, and the calm waters that tie it all together. We are visited in the early evening by Ranger Tim Lydon of the US Forest Service. He is part of a small team that manages this vast public wilderness of over 2 million acres of untrammeled backcountry comprising most of western Prince William Sound. His warm welcome and expert knowledge really help us to better understand the complex relationships that govern both the ecological and political landscapes of the region and also reaffirm the importance of responsible stewardship of our natural resources.
With our planned activities for the day complete we return to our boats to eat dinner and watch the full moon rise over the mountaintops. What a sight!