July 8, 2013

Alaska Cruise: Hubbard Glacier -- An Awesome Last Stop

At the Hubbard Glacier, the ship stopped but we stayed onboard  (fortunately since we stopped in the icy waters in front of the glacier). Most of us got out on deck, taking photos and watching in awe. Once again, we were unusually lucky on this cruise. The captain said that on other cruises this year, the closest he was able to maneuver the ship through the ice-filled waters was eight miles from the point where the glacier reaches the sea. We got within a half mile.

Hubbard Glacier in Brief
Hubbard is the world's longest glacier, flowing more than 90 miles from Canada's Yukon territory to Alaska's Yakutat Bay. It is famous for "surging," moving forward quickly. Most glaciers slide an inch or two a day. In 1986, Hubbard made headlines around the world by moving so quickly that it created a wall across the mouth of Russell Fjord, one of the bay inlets. The fjord then became a lake, trapping hundreds of migrating marine creatures. Scientists still haven't figured out why it happened . . . or why, a few months later, it receded to its original position, reopening the fjord and releasing an enormous amount of water -- a tidal wave in reverse.

The glacier made a similar, shorter surge in 2002. Nervous Yakutat Bay residents continue to lobby the government to build a channel to prevent the glacier from forming "Russell Lake" again.

Riptides and currents in the bay keep Hubbard in perpetual motion, calving into the ocean and producing lots of white thunder. (Calving is the breaking-away of large chunks of ice from the front of the glacier, sending new icebergs crashing into the bay with a thunderous roar.) Calving occurred five times while we were up close. I was thrilled just to watch the spectacle, and didn't shoot a video of the process. But someone else did:

Unfortunately our calvings weren't that spectacular.  What you saw was a YouTube video.

Glaciers in Alaska and Global Warming
Alaska has about 100,000 of these large sheets of ice. The vast majority occur in the southeastern part of the state, in areas with the most moisture. Like most of the world's glaciers, Alaska's -- including Hubbard -- are melting. While acknowledging that many people don't attribute the trend to human-induced global warming, our ship's excellent lecturer noted that Hubbard gets the same amount of snow on top that it always has -- about 400 inches. So the glacier's melting is apparently occurring from the bottom due to the higher-than-normal temperatures . . . which we were certainly experiencing, and enjoying.

My Photo Journal
After our stop at Sitka, the ship sailed through the Gulf of Alaska toward Hubbard Glacier. We spent the night on the open sea for the first time. The guidebooks warned that we might experience heavy seas on this part of our trip . . . with the accompanying risk of sea sickness. But we sailed through the night on absolutely calm water. Early in the morning, we headed into Yakutat Bay: (click on the photos for a bigger view)

The ship stops a half-mile from the Hubbard Glacier:

We gather on the deck -- cameras clicking away -- uttering comments like  "Wow!" and "Look at that!" and "Unbelievable!"

Here's the Russell Fjord inlet that the glacier sealed off in 1986 and again in 2002:

After over an hour close to the glacier . . . and several calvings, we head back out to sea.

We spent the rest of the day and the night sailing through the Gulf of Alaska. The next morning, we reached Seward, our debarkation port:

Although most of the 7-day Gulf cruises are advertised "Vancouver to Anchorage," ships don't actually sail to Anchorage. Seward (and Whittier, a port used by some ships) lie on the south side of the Kenai Peninsula. Anchorage is on the north end, and sailing there would add another day to the trip. Instead, we boarded buses for the scenic three-hour ride to Anchorage. Passengers like me who were flying home that day were driven directly to the Anchorage airport. 

Quite a few passengers went into town and began an excursion to Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska's most visited --environmentalists say over-visited -- wilderness area. If I were younger, I'd have signed up. My son spent a week there several years ago and raved about the scenic splendor and wildlife.

Anchorage tidbit: I was surprised to learn that Anchorage had been a remote, sleepy railroad town until World War II, when several military bases livened things up. But it didn't become a "real" city until the late 1950s, when oil was discovered on the Kenai Peninsula. Now, with 300,000 inhabitants, Anchorage accounts for 40% of the state's total population. The other 60 percent, however, are not urbanites and don't think of Anchorage as really part of Alaska. They say the best thing about Anchorage is that it's close to Alaska.

So reluctantly it's time to say:

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