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ALASKA: AN ICE SHOW LIKE NO OTHER IN A LAND OF FROZEN PEAKS

SHARE ALASKA: AN ICE SHOW LIKE NO OTHER IN A LAND OF FROZEN PEAKS

If you want to see glaciers - and we did - go to Alaska.

Our request for information from the Alaska Tourism Marketing Council brought an array of beautiful picture books, cruise company brochures and even a letter from the governor. We set up a glacier library, numbered the brochures, indexed the highlights, plotted maps and studied what we wanted to do.We decided to sail the Inside Passage and booked a room aboard the Star Odyssey, which left from Vancouver, B.C. Alaska state ferries make a similar trip but without the fancy food, entertainment and plush staterooms.

The ship offered more things to do than we could keep up with. But our minds were set on glaciers and to learn what was in store, all we had to do was listen. The ship's lecturer gave a running account of what we would see.

The first stop was Ketchikan, gateway city to Alaska. It was primarily a fishing town until gold was discovered in 1900. The gold played out but the fishing remains.

Among the attractions: Totem Bight State Park and Saxman Totem Park, both on the outskirts of town. Creek Street is the former red-light district where buildings are constructed on piles along the creek. Dolly's, the brothel of the town's best known madam, is now a museum.

It rains a lot in Ketchikan, but we had a beautiful day of sunshine.

Juneau, Alaska's capital, was the next stop by way of a narrow passage known as Tracy Arm. Juneau came to prominence in 1880 when Robert T. Harris and Joseph Juneau discovered gold nuggets the size of beans. The gold mines closed after World War II.

The city is in the heart of glacier country. Mendenhall Glacier is 10 miles outside of town. Take a short walk from the visitors center for a close-up look at its rugged face glistening with ice that is some 200 years old.

Twelve miles long and a half-mile wide, the glacier is called "the river of ice," fed by 1,500 square miles of ice and snow from the Juneau ice field. The glacier ends at Mendenhall Lake, a 200-foot-deep body of water that has filled in where the glacier has receded. The 100-foot wall of ice that is its terminus gives you a feeling for the strength and mass of snow and ice.

Mendenhall continues to inch away from the visitors center at the rate of 60 feet per year. When built, the visitors center was at the very base of the glacier.

Its proximity to Juneau probably makes it the world's most-visited glacier.

Glacier ice is formed from delicate snow flakes that are added upon, layer after layer, and then compacted and compressed into a material called "firn." With time it becomes glacier ice, which is often blue because water molecules absorb all colors except blue.

Air trapped in the ice is under great pressure, which may exceed 750 pounds per square inch. When the ice melts at sea level, the bubbles explode, or crackle, pop and sizzle. You may get the same effect when you drop an ice cube into a glass of water.

Glaciers form on mountainsides and the massive buildup of ice weighs a tremendous amount. The downward force of gravity gives the glacier mobility. More and more snow adds to the enormous weight and the glacier moves down the mountain. The leading face of the glacier melts at its lower altitude, or it may meet up with a body of water where towering chunks of ice split off and fall into the water with a roar and a splash. This process is called calving.

Glaciers advance or retreat depending on whether the leading edge is moving forward or backward. This balance depends on new snow and ice in relation to any discharging or melting ice. Glaciers are noisy as they move slowly down the mountain. They also surge, which is a quick, rather violent movement much like an earthquake.

We wanted a close-up view of a glacier, so late one afternoon we took a helicopter ride from Juneau to Taku Glacier. Sunny days in Juneau are rare, but we had good weather with perfect light for taking pictures. We wore earphones and the pilot spoke to us through a mike.

We were off and away up Gastineau Channel for a panoramic view of Juneau, which climbs up the hillside. The river runs along the valley floor. We could see our ship at the dock. We flew above the mountain valleys of Gold Fork and Carlson Creek, which are dotted with lakes and streams.

In just moments we were above spectacular Taku glacier. Thirty miles long, it is the largest glacier flowing from the Juneau ice field. It advances several hundred feet per year.

Alaska Geographic Quarterly reports that if it continues to move forward at this rate, it could close Taku Inlet within the next 30 or 40 years, creating a large, glacier dammed lake.

The helicopter whirled about, and our heads turned quickly to take in each new exciting view.

"This is Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier," the pilot explained. "It is an overflow from Taku Glacier that topped the valley wall in 1940 and continues to advance down the valley."

The only access to Juneau is by boat or airplane. Taku and Hole-in-the-Wall glaciers are the reason a highway hasn't been built to Alaska's capital.

Norris Glacier, adjacent to Taku on the south, is retreating. Perhaps this accounts for the dramatic crevasses that appear in Dead Branch, an arm that once fed Norris Glacier. We zipped on to Twin Glaciers where ice floes from two mountain valleys merge.

The trip was breathtaking, and the chopper would rise quickly over mountain peaks, slide smoothly only a few yards above the fairyland of ice, nearly brushing against the towering ice cliffs. We could see patterns of flow, distinguish coloration of sediment and identify, at close range, formations of buckling ice and giant structures. At times we hovered close to the biggest ice cubes we had ever seen.

We landed on Norris Glacier. Late afternoon shadows drew across the rolling surface marked with cracks and crevasses. Now the moon boots protected us from the cold of century-old ice. We examined the layers of rocks, boulders and dark sediment, called moraine, that had been picked up and carried by the glacier years before. Clear ice pools spotted the glacier's surface and white snow had drifted into the rolling ravines.

"Don't step on the snow," the pilot warned. "A crevass may be under it."

Did I mention that glaciers are dirty? They are, having scooped up soil, rocks, plants and everything in their way, leaving a smooth rock channel behind. After a glacier passes on its way, bacteria, then lichens and algae go to work to make an environment for simple plants to grow in. Soon fireweed gets a start and though it takes years, plant life returns to the rocky surface.

Plants and animals actually live on the glaciers. Tiny glacier worms hatch their eggs in subzero temperatures. Snow fleas, which are vegeterian, also live on the glaciers. We didn't see either worms or fleas.

In a way the glacier seemed like a cold, barren desert.

Soon we were aloft again. The pilot guided the craft along the mountain peaks and circled the cabins of the Juneau Ice Field Research Program camp on the wind-blown rock crest overlooking Lemon Creek and Ptarmigan glaciers. Here students from the University of Idaho study the mechanics of glacier formation and activity.

We spotted a moose and a couple of Dall sheep on the trip back to the landing pad.

The trip lasted about an hour. The memories will last a lifetime.

Our cruise continued to Skagway, famous as a departure point for gold seekers heading to Dawson Creek in the 1890s gold rush.

From Skagway we sailed down Lynn Canal, went through Glacier Bay into Disenchantment Bay and on to view magnificent Hubbard Glacier.

Hubbard is a gigantic river of ice at the head of Yakutat Bay, the largest valley glacier in North America. It is 76 miles long and begins in Canada.

We viewed many other glaciers as the cruise ship sailed along the fjords and bays. Prince William Sound was dotted with icebergs and surrounded with scenic mountain beauty. Seals lounged on the icebergs and dived into the cold water.

Columbia Glacier and 20 other tidewater glaciers calve into Prince William Sound. Our ship maneuvered between icebergs to within a quarter mile of Columbia Glacier. Chunks of ice 20 stories high splashed into the water with a resounding roar.

A blast from the ship's whistle was enough to upset the delicate balance of some ice towers, which barely clung to the mother glacier. They fell with a splash and a crashing sound that reached our ears seconds after. Moments later, a rolling wave reached the ship to verify that the ice had met the sea. These big chunks of ice become icebergs and drift away under the influence of wind and currents.

The ship sailed through College Fjord where calving glaciers named in 1899 for colleges Harvard, Yale, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Vassar and Wellesley can be spotted. Non-tidewater glaciers along the fjord include Barnard, Holyoke, Radcliffe, Amherst, Dartmouth, Lafayette, Baltimore and Eliot. One more, Crescent, was named for its shape.

We realized that we were seeing only the most accessible glaciers from a cruise ship. We learned that more glaciers are found in one large valley system in Alaska than all the other U.S. glaciers combined. The Juneau and Stikine ice fields in southeastern Alaska consist of more than 2,500 square miles of glacier covered terrain, and they spill over into British Columbia, Canada. Ice covers about 30,000 square miles of Alaska.

The Stikine ice fields of the Coast Mountain Range extend more than 100 miles. The Juneau Icefields, so accessible and so striking, are probably the most popular and most studied glaciers in the world.

The thickness of glaciers may reach 3,000 or 4,000 feet. The upper part, perhaps 150 feet deep, is brittle and cracks and breaks to make a very uneven surface.

The cruise ended at Seward, but we signed on for a tour on a very small ship at Portage Glacier. We enjoyed this glacier visit in a light rain. This ship sailed within a few feet of glaciers. The U.S. Forest Service visitors center is filled with information, and rangers lecture and answer questions. Foot trails are available for a close glacier experience.

Mt. McKinley, 20,320 feet in elevation, is the highest mountain in North America. We went on to Denali National Park for a look at Mt. McKinley and its glaciers. In addition we saw wildlife and the scenic beauty of the mountain.

There is a lot more to Alaska than glaciers, but for us, glaciers are king.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

For information

To request a packet of tourist information about Alaska's Inside Passage, call the Southeast Alaska Tourism Council at 1-800-423-0568.