Going Places: Alaska's Frozen Jurassic Park

Going Places: Alaska's Frozen Jurassic Park

You couldn’t help feeling a certain reverence as you stepped out onto the ice … knowing that this surreal landscape had taken thousands of years to form. We clomped around in oversized glacier-boots, tasted pure meltwater, tried not to fall down spooky blue crevasses, and kept muttering: “FANTASTIC … FANTASTIC!”

By John Cooney

Staggering! There’s no other word for it. And silent! Utterly, awesomely silent. A shh-don’t-talk, other-worldly kind of silence that’s broken only by an occasional sound the Tlingit Indians call ‘white thunder’. A massive rolling, rumbling sound. Followed by a gunshot-like crack that tells you a glacier is ‘calving’ …

We’re in Alaska, North America’s Final Frontier, famous for whales and wildlife, teetering peaks and crunching ice. And there’s no point exaggerating, because everything we’ve seen so far on this rugged, rocky coast is pinch-me-please stunning!

Take Monday. While people at home were eating breakfast, we were cruising the Inside Passage, leaving a mile-long wake behind us on the glassy green surface. It was a chilly, sea-misty morning, with low cloud cloaking the forested shoreline. And, so far, we’d seen little to make you envious. 

But that was about to change … 

Tucked away at the end of a skinny fjord is Juneau: Alaska’s capital city. And it’s not just tourists who come calling. These island-studded waters are visited by bald eagles looking for lunch and humpback whales with their oversized babies! 

A jet-powered catamaran took us out to the whales’ feeding grounds, and, before you could say “spouting”, we were right amongst them – dozens of the giant majestic mammals – as they came to the surface to blow, nostrils gaping, then dived oh-so-gracefully for food,
tail-flukes waving wetly. 

It was magic. Pure magic. And so close we could count the barnacles on their tails and smell the fishy stink on their breath! 

Off in the distance a large adult suddenly performed a crashing 30-tonne leap into the air. And a bunch of them were spotted ‘bubble-net fishing’, working together to drive fish to the surface, then following through with an open-mouthed feeding-frenzy. 

I told you you’d be envious! 

Tuesday found us up the end of another beautiful fjord – in Skagway, one-time kick-off point for the hectic Klondike Gold Rush. It was in the late 1800s, and Skagway (crammed with saloons and dancehalls, brothels and banks) was overflowing with gold-panners, sloshing up every valley in search of the promised yellow metal. 

But today, a bitingly cold wind got us throwing on coats and scarves, and we began to imagine the frightful conditions that met those hopeful prospectors during the freeze-your-butt-off winters.

We grabbed a ride on the antique White Pass & Yukon narrow-gauge railway, and clattered off between silvery-purple mountains, across rickety bridges and through once-popular spots like Deadhorse Gulch. 

We even tried our hand at gold-panning – and came away with some lucky shiny specks!

But Tuesday wasn’t finished with us yet. We also got to ride a helicopter (in convoy with other helicopters) up-up-up above Alaska’s spectacular icefield – where we eyeballed jagged peaks, snowy valleys, cascading waterfalls and massive glaciers, before landing on one of them, the mighty Meade Glacier, for a guided walking tour.

You couldn’t help feeling a certain reverence as you stepped out onto the ice … knowing that this surreal landscape had taken thousands of years to form. We clomped around in oversized glacier-boots, tasted pure meltwater, tried not to fall down spooky blue crevasses, and kept muttering: “FANTASTIC … FANTASTIC!”

Today, Wednesday, we donned long undies, warm layers and woolly hats as we sailed slowly into what’s known famously as Glacier Bay. Only 200 years ago, these shorelines were themselves buried under an impossibly-thick icy slab. And, today, more glaciers meet their end in these chilly waters than anyplace else in the world.

Alaska’s ‘rivers-of-ice’ (like the one we walked on yesterday) began life, some 4000 years ago, as frozen snow – 10 times denser than the iceblocks in your fridge. When their packed-down weight got too much they began inching downhill, reshaping the landscape and gathering rubble on the way. And when their front-ends (often kilometres wide) finally reached the sea, they began breaking up …

It’s called ‘calving’. It happens with a thunderous roar, when a huge chunk of glacial ice splits off and crashes into the Bay – shooting torrents of water high in the air, and rocking your boat if you’re close! 

And when that submerged chunk of glacier pops back up to the surface – behold, an iceberg is born!

It happens every gob-stopping, eye-popping day in Alaska! You’ve gotta see it …