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The Little Things You Don’t Want To Miss In Alaska

Chandana Ghosh

Light travels faster than sound.  This was no physics experiment, but a real life experience of calving glaciers, witnessed up close from the edge of water.
Photo Credits: Aialik Glacier:Kayak Adventures Worldwide
Photo Credits: Aialik Glacier: End of Trails
Another thunderous sound. Followed by ice splashing. No matter how fast we swiveled on the cold and icy water, we knew we had lost the moment. With a lot of practice, we trained ourselves to see the calving of the gigantic Aialik glacier. A body of ice broke off and came tumbling towards the sea, like a landslide of ice on water. We pushed away the floating ice which littered the sea face, as we moved in towards the glacier. This was not our first meeting with Aialik. The previous day we had watched her from our small boat, we were the envy of the cruise ships that stood at a distance, shutting off their engines to catch the sound of calving. But up close, the moment was magical; all our senses were filled with the sight and sound of calving, the chill of the glacier wafted towards us, the waves rippled in the wind throwing us off balance now and again, the ice lets cavorted around us. As we pulled up our paddles, balancing the kayak, breathing in a little bit of Alaska and allowing her to fill our lungs. Some call it the white thunder, others chasing blue ice as the massive ice wall avalanches into the oceanfront, it sets off Tsunami like waves which reached us in slow motion. We tightened our bow-legged muscles to steady the frame of the kayak and gripped our paddles tight, not wanting to lose them and helplessly hoped this one did not overturn us; a capsized kayak was the last thing we wanted in this icy waters. No! We did not want a Titanic experience, at least not today.
Photo Credits: Kenai Fjords National Park:Backpackers Magazine
Photo Credits: Kenai Fjords National Park:Backpackers Magazine
Steadying ourselves, we started paddling back from Aialik, the gigantic ice wall, more than a 300 feet tall, and easily a mile long, dominating the Aialik bay, which is adjacent to the Resurrection bay; and in middle of the Kenai Fjords National Park of Alaska. This is one of the many tidewater glaciers, but definitely if size were to matter, certainly one of the largest and still active, feeding from the Harding Icefield. The experience from a kayak is different and more intimate, than that from a cruise ship... and the memories... capture in many details of the sea life that surrounds. The sea gulls cluttering and chattering as you pass them, the sea otters family, and the protective parent, who mothers the toddlers in the rough sea; the lazy seal, which waddles across to plant herself on a lonely iceberg, soon to be followed by lover boy, who in his excitement topples the duo back into the icy waters. We were wise to keep away from the whales which are there in plentiful around Resurrection bay, and if you are lucky you can chase their tails, fins and sprays in a small boat, and only the voice of experience can tell you whether you had sighted a humpback, or a killer whale family… orcas… and if you are very lucky, the rare sighting of the large fin whale which moves stealthily like a submarine, and today considered an endangered species. Kayaking to Aialik is a day-long adventure and opted by few brave hearts or else the experienced hands. It is a 8 mile long journey, back and forth, with a break in the middle to munch on your packed sandwiches and stretch your crooked legs. It falls in the difficult category, and for someone who is neither experienced nor a brave-heart, one can only say it was a little fool hardy to opt for this adventure! My first experience in a kayak felt a little like a NASA astronaut, attired in many layers of clothing and rain gears, head gears; with matching king sized boots. It was not an easy experience fitting yourself into the small head sized hole of a kayak. Especially with the rain weighing heavy on you and the blue tarpaulin sealed sandwich pack, which unknowingly one had filled with more goodies than necessary, little realizing that too required to be “carried in the kayak.” By the time we stopped midway on our return trip, grace had long since been abandoned, and I allowed my fellow mates to pull off my weighty and water filled boots. Relief flooded … and it did not matter that I munched off the rain-soaked tissue along with the sandwich. It was at that moment I chose to ask Julie, who thankfully had volunteered to partner me in the kayak, that how was it that every time I rested my paddle, we appeared to move a tad bit faster. Expecting a scientific and erudite explanation, I was stumped by her candid reply. “When you are paddling, I need to put in much more effort to set straight the direction…” she said matter of factly. That really put an end to my intelligent questions. Kayaking is a skill, and not really learnt in a day, as I had underestimated. You need to get the rhythm right, and synchronize your paddling if there are two in a boat. Left in, push back and over to, right in push back and over to… we did a little better on technique as we rowed back flitting through the amazing green grotto amidst the blue waters which can pass only a kayak.
Photo Credits: Alaskan Rainforest: Vacationidea.com
Photo Credits: Alaskan Rainforest: My Little Adventure
Few know that Kenai Fjords is surrounded by the Alaskan Rainforest. It rains most of the time in summer with intermittent sunlight. The thick green woods add to the beauty of the glaciers, the retreating glaciers wear pretty colors of hillside vegetation. And this is where the snowline is at very low elevations and sometimes lower than the treeline… making it very different from other mountainous adventures in tropical climes, where with increasing altitude there is little or no vegetation. As the weary kayakers trudged up to the lodge, a frenzied shriek stopped us all in our tracks. From the bush next to us emerged a big black hairy bear, with beady eyes. He took a quick look at us, and decided that he had enough berries for the day, and made a wild dash to the wooded trees behind, disappearing in that instant.
Photo Credits: Pederson Lagoon: Terra Galleria
Photo Credits: Pederson Glacier: TripAdvisor
The Dryer room in the lodge was the equivalent to a sauna or steam in a spa − luxurious and delightful. Usually meant to dry wet clothes, we never passed a chance to dry out wet bones and warm our hearts and mind in that exclusive cabin space. Lodge dinner is always family style, five course fan-fare with garden salad, starters to gourmet prime ribs, savories and the berries were the very best in Alaska. At the end of dinner, the next day’s treks are shared, groups are formed and guides allocated. Trek to the Pederson Glacier was the signature trek and classified at a moderate level of difficulty. This seemed to be the right choice for a half day trek. In the land of the midnight sun, days begin early and nights linger late, making most of the 24 hour sunlight. The Pederson glacier trek commences early in the day with a 2 mile canoeing spree to cross the Pederson lagoon. Canoeing seemed like child’s play as compared to kayaking in rough seas; as I gallantly volunteered training tips to help out some of the newbies on the trip! We anchored our canoe on the other side, and were instructed to shed our “weights” before we began the climb. Water bottles were emptied, backpacks tied to trees, and food items were not meant to be carried in the first place − “no food to be left behind” Julie our guide's voice boomed “unless you want the bears to visit.” Some more chocolate pieces and trail mixes were emptied out of pockets, and were lapped up by all before we readied for the climb. There was no path − bushes, muddy tracks, sprigs, and sprays which caught your hiking gear as you trudged on… panting, gasping, losing a foot hold now and again… as the layers of clothing came off in the heat of the hike.. they weighed heavier on our shoulders and around our waistlines. The Pederson glacier was clearly visible from the lodge, and it was difficult to figure why this qualified as the signature trip. With contained expectations, we chanted “hey bear” and trudged along in a single file, with trekking sticks in hand. As the path twisted and turned, a shriek was heard from up in front. Bear?? Silence descended as we ascended to catch a glimpse of the excitement. No… it was the unexpected and sudden sighting of Pederson glacier, up close and spectacular. The wooded trees gave way to rolling meadow like land and a king size kettle pond, filled with ice formations, waiting to be read like a horoscope. You could spin a story around the dancing swans, or the three sisters standing arm in arm… or the royal throne which lay abandoned. The reflections in the kettle pond made it look all the more spectacular and it truly did qualify as the signature trip. Later in the day, back at lodge, plans were afoot for the next day’s trip. Not wanting to be left behind I eagerly raised my hand for the difficult trek of the morrow. I heard Julie’s voice singling me out − “that one's not for you. You may wish to do the easier one on lichens and berry picking!” Embarrassed and annoyed I quickly learnt – to be fighting fit, it was not age or the right BMI that qualifies you − but your stamina and strength. Julie needed only a gasp, a heave and a sigh to be able to assess your fitness level. At the end of the trip she certified each traveller. From amongst us were chosen the strong moose, the foodie bear, and even the social otter. I was acclaimed as the arctic tern… yes had travelled a long distance; amongst many new things, also discovered my inner strength… those muscles and tendons which had long since been forgotten. Photo Credits - Banner Left: You Tube; Banner Center: US News and World Report; Banner Right: Huffington Post