ALASKA: LEG 3 – COGHILL ANCHORAGE TO CASCADE BAY | NW Explorations

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ALASKA: LEG 3 – COGHILL ANCHORAGE TO CASCADE BAY

June 26, 2016

Once you get your anchor on deck at Coghill Anchorage, you have only to swing wide around the west point of the bay and you are immediately presented with a staggering view up the fjord of the massive form of the Harvard Glacier, which marches down out of the 13,000 foot peaks beyond in bold streaks of black and white. Still some 15 miles distant it is from this perspective wreathed by other smaller glaciers also named for the prestigious universities of the east coast; Bryn Mar, Yale, Barnard, Dartmouth and more. Even at this distance the ice is in places thick, and we begin a measured careful approach, coasting at times through mats of brash ice in neutral. The ice begins to melt as soon as it meets the comparatively warm seawater and bergs quickly break apart into smaller and smaller pieces, rolling and cracking as their centers of gravity shift.

The mats of shrinking ice produce an audible hiss as they melt, something like the whisper of carbonated water or the far-off clink of silver on china. Deception opens a lead with her hardened bow and the rest of the fleet slips through behind.

By mid-morning we have gotten to within three quarters of a mile of the face of the glacier. The ice is constrained by the land around it and the pressure of the ice moving downhill behind it, and the sounds of cannon shots and rifle reports reveal the immense internal stresses at work under the tortured surface of the ice. Great black stripes of crushed stone known as moraines vertically bisect the glacier and reveal where the edges of two smaller glaciers have come together far back in the mountains. The ice form these seams is riddled with black stone dust and stands out starkly against the blues and whites of the cleaner ice.

Formed first as even horizontal layers of compressed snowfall, the glacial ice is heavily fractured and folded by the time it reaches the sea. Now and again jagged blocks or jumbled avalanches split off of the face without warning and tumble into the water at the base of the glacier, sending up flocks of surprised gulls and terns shrieking with surprise and powerful swells that radiate outward from the site of the impact. It is a captivating and otherworldly experience.

In time, we turn and slip back southwards through the ice floes where seals and sea otters nap and play, and back though Esther Passage, until in the late afternoon we turn into the mouth of Cascade Bay. As the crow flies it is only a few miles from the previous night’s anchorage, but it is several hours by sea.

It is a deep anchorage and the anchor chain flies downward through the clear water until it is lost in the darkness below. To the north a massive waterfall drains icy Cascade Lake out and off of a sheer cliff directly into the bay with a roar. Spray billows off the falls and mingles with the raindrops that fall occasionally as we explore by dinghy. A trail supposedly leads from the small beach up to the top of the falls and beyond to the lake, but it appears that the hungry forest has swallowed it whole and we can’t find a single trace.

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