June 16, 2016

Blog Day 11 Siwash Bay to Coghill Anchorage Via College Fjord

Seen from above, Prince William Sound is roughly ovoid in shape, with fjords radiating away from its northern edge like the rays of a sun drawn by a child. At the head of each of these rays sit glaciers. Not all of them are massive rivers of ice disgorging ice into the sea, others are of more modest stature and sit perched high on frozen mountain walls. Our trip today takes us from the fjord that is home to the Meares Glacier to College Fjord, where one can find no less than 12 glaciers, all named for prestigious east coast universities. Our route sends us looping south and west through the main body of Prince William Sound.

A narrow passageway between Esther Island and the mainland provides a scenic shortcut into College Fjord and shaves a solid ten miles off of the trip besides. We might have reconsidered going that way however if we had known that the combined gillnet fleets of Cordova, Valdez, and Wittier were to be found all madly setting, checking, and pulling their nets at Esther Passage’s southern end. The small fast boats carry more than 500’ feet of net on a large hydraulic spool on the forward deck, and to fish, they toss one end of the net into the water and back away, playing out net as they go. The nets hang vertically in the water, the bottom pulled down by a weighted line, while the top is suspended by another line strung every 6 feet or so with a small white buoy. From the surface the net resembles a string of tiny white pearls stretching away from the fishing boats, and the result is a nearly invisible and constantly shifting labyrinth. Easily negotiated by the fishers who know the rhythms of the fishery and zip around each other’s nets at 30 knots, a tad befuddling to the outsider. The fleet tucked in close behind Deception and we threaded our way carefully through with no mishaps and friendly waves from the fishermen. The work looked enjoyable on a gloriously sunny day like today (although today’s weather is certainly not the norm!) and we looked on enviously at the thrashing quicksilver Sockeye as they came in over the gunnels. Unlike so many other places in the world, Alaska has managed to successfully manage their Salmon fisheries to ensure the longevity not only of the species but also the industry, and the fishermen, researchers, and regulators all rightly take great pride in that success.

Having passed unscathed through the gauntlet we marched quietly through Esther Passage and out into the majestic expanse of College Fjord, bound in on each side by massive peaks that gain in height to the north. Here and there great glaciers drape off the dark granite cliffs and flow down towards the sea through ragged forests of spruce and alder. A stripe of skeleton trees lines the shoreline all along the western shore, all of which fell victim to the 1964 good Friday earthquake which shook the region so violently that the shoreline dropped six feet, drowning the roots of those trees nearest the water.

Soon ice began to appear in the water around us, giving us our second opportunity of the day to slalom through obstacles and hunt a peck for an open path. In places rafts of brash ice blocked our path, and Deception used her hardened bow to clear a path for the fleet. In good time we arrived at the striking Harvard glacier which curls down out of the mountains, festooned with long black stripes of rock-filled ice called moraines that show its ancient twisting path. Where it meets the sea, the glacier abruptly ends in a jumbled anarchic wall of chaotically fractured ice three hundred feet tall. Pushed inexorably onward by the mass and inertia of the ice behind, thunderous cracks and booms echo from the depths of blue-white ice, and with an unpredictable regularity great masses of ice shatter off the face and crash into the water below. Even a half mile away we rock in the five foot swells these waves generate. The face of the glacier is over a mile wide, and predicting where the next block will fall is anybody’s guess and a matter of great speculation. We are the only humans here to watch the spectacle and stay for well over an hour watching the show before the chilly wind flowing off the glacier pushes us back down the fjord and into the fabulously beautiful anchorage at the mouth of the Coghill River where we pass the evening and head for bed as the mountains that surround us catch the last of the day’s light.

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