Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Kaying Kenai Fjords, Day 2

This is the second part of my series on our Kayaking trip in Kenai Fjords National Park last summer, with Kayak Adventures Worldwide. See Part 1 here.

On the second day of our trip, we spent the whole day on the water in the kayaks.We woke up and had a leisurely breakfast, then headed out into the lagoon to explore the glaciers. It's hard to get a sense of scale in our photos from this trip, because everything is just so massive in Alaska. The glaciers in the picture at the top of this post, however, are still several miles away from us.They're the same glaciers you see in the closer-up pictures below.

In front of Ogive Glacier
Josh and I paddled a tandem kayak, as do all guests on KAW trips, and I was perfectly happy with this. It's easier, for one, to have someone to share the paddling. Plus, tandem kayaks are very stable, which is important when you're literally paddling in ice water. Our guides talked to us about what to do in case we tipped, but the water was calm, and I was never worried about it.

Weather in the Fjords is wildly changeable, as it is in any marine environment like this. You can have perfect sunshine and blue skies, or you can have pouring rain and whipping winds. We got a little good, a little not-so-good on our trip, but we could not have asked for better weather on Day 2-- bluebird skies, and warm enough that I got away with just an ultra-light base layer for most of the day.  The outfitter provided pogies for our hands, which are neoprene mitts that velcro around the paddle to keep your hands warm, but we didn't need them much this day, and my thick fleece and rain layers stayed safely tucked inside a dry bag.

Over the course of the day, we got up close to the the multiple tidewater glaciers that feed into Northwestern Lagoon. A tidewater glacier is one that flows directly into the water (vs. being up on a mountaintop somewhere). What is really amazing about tidewater glaciers is watching them calve. Glaciers are in constant flux. When the pressure of gravity and melting gets to be too much, pieces at the foot of glaciers break off and, in the case of tidewater glaciers, come crashing down into the ocean. These pieces can be massive -- the size of houses -- so you need to keep your distance, so as not to be swamped by the resulting wave when a piece comes crashing down. The absolute closest you would want to get to one of these glaciers is about a quarter of a mile, and more often, you'll stay back a third or even a half a mile, depending on the height of the glacier and other factors. Our guides with KAW were very well-versed in safety issues, and kept us at a respectable distance. We felt small swells when large pieces of glacier came crashing down, but nothing that made me nervous at all.

Watching glaciers calve is up there among the coolest experiences of my life. I think I tend to feel like the ground we stand on is pretty stable and slow-changing, but seeing something like this, it really strikes you just how changeable our world is.I was also really fascinated to hear our guide, Dave, talk about where the glacier had come out to in the lagoon when he first started guiding 10+ years ago, compared to where it's at now. It's shocking how much the glaciers have retreated in that time, and it really brings the abstract idea of global warming home. (I felt the same thing, by the way, when we drove out to Exit Glacier in Seward after our kayaking trip. There, you drive along the road and pass signs marking where the glacier was 10 years ago, 30 years ago, 100 years ago, etc. It kind of blew my mind.)

We also had the cool experience of paddling through ice fields in the water. As the glaciers calve into the ocean, they break apart into both icebergs and smaller bits of slush. The water temperature is so cold that this ice doesn't melt right away. In the photo below, the ice we were paddling through is relatively dispersed , but we also paddled through much thicker patches of slush. You can see a bit of that thicker slush in the background of the iceberg picture below. As you move thorough the slush, it crackles and hisses like something alive. It's like nothing I've ever heard.

There were larger icebergs in the water, too. Looking at them reminded me a bit of looking for shapes in the clouds -- That one's shaped like a dragon! And there's a sea horse! It was a little disconcerting when the kayak bumped up against them, though. We weren't really going fast enough to do any damage, but it was hard to keep thoughts of the Titanic out of my head in those moments. Sadly, when we were going through the icebergs, there was some cloud cover above, so most of my pictures are a bit dark.

I didn't manage to get any pictures of them, but there were also tons of seals in the water around us. They'd occasionally pop up their heads to check us out, and we also paddled past large groups of them hauled out on ice floes. Our guides had us give these groups pretty wide berth. Not only is it law that you mustn't harass the wild life, but it was also molting season, I believe. Though the seals are built for icy water, when they're molting they're apparently more susceptible to it, so you don't want to startle them and make them dive into the water unnecessarily. 

Overall, we paddled several miles on Day 2, though it didn't feel like it. We wound our way through icebergs and sat for hours in front of three different calving glaciers. Josh practically had to be dragged kicking and screaming away from them at the end of the day. What an amazing day!

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