Most of us choose to live our lives on the grid. Somewhere between the nearest strip mall and the local farmer’s market we carve out a personal niche that is well padded with the particular creature comforts of organized society that we enjoy. Most people, even the most free-thinking, prefer modern life’s amenities. The rest go to Alaska. Attached to the Lower 48 in name alone, Alaska is a different state, and a different state of mind. This is the place you come to when you want to clear your head, or your life, for a little while.
Kayaking to an Alaskan is like driving to a citizen of the contiguous United States, it is well engrained in the historic legend and lifestyle of the people. Water is all around in Alaska, no more so than in Valdez. And that water comes in many forms; most notably, the frozen variety: glaciers. Glaciers are essentially frozen rivers moving through the landscape in very slow motion. As one might expect, Alaska is full of glaciers.
The Columbia Glacier is the second largest tidewater glacier in North America at 435 miles in length. Named by Captain Cook in 1890, it is approximately 30 miles from Valdez, Alaska. The glacier was first explored by Salvador Fidalgo’s cartography expedition at the behest of the Spanish court in 1790. This glacier is a bit of a phenomenon to geologists. Starting high in the Cugach Mountain range, the Columbia advances its frozen flow as much as 50 feet a day, or up to three miles a year. Seeing the Columbia is like seeing a long, frozen river winding ribbon-like through the mountains of the Cugach range. As the glacier empties into the Prince William Sound, it pushes a wave of rock and debris forward of its flow. This is the terminal moraine of the glacier, and it forms a crusty ring-like cork between the ocean and the glacier.
In a kayak it is possible to boat over the moraine depending on the tide. It is also possible to portage the kayaks across the moraine. That is the only way to actually reach the virtual city of ice-bergs that are calving off of the base of the glacier. Kayaking amidst the loud pings and bangs of ice floats breaking away from the mother glacier is made even more profound when you realize what those sounds are: thousands of pounds of ice cleaving off of the glacier. The bergs range in size from the ice cube variety, to the titanic-sinking office building size.
Approaching the glacier on the water is only possible by charter vessel. There are two ways to accomplish this. If you are familiar with the territory, you can hire a boat to take you out there. The port of Valdez has a variety of options if this is the route you want to take (please refer to the Fact File at the end of this article for names).
It might took about an hour to traverse the thirty or so miles from Valdez harbor to the glacier’s moraine. You will have to kayak about four miles from the drop off point, until you reach the moraine. The tide should be working in our favor and you should be in a position to paddle straight into the glacier pool inside the cap of the moraine. Once inside, it was a playground of calm blue water and a gallery of floating ice sculptures. The air will be crisp, the water should be clean, and you will be as close to the original state of nature that our planet can still offer.
You should stop off on the moraine, which is a living island of rocks and flora. After lunch you should start kayaking through the bergs, literally. One of the larger icebergs was a tunnel of ice, just large enough to paddle through. It’s important to remember that these are gigantic pieces of ice, and they are melting. The glacier itself is pushing forward, and ebbing back, and cleaves off ice bergs when they become too heavy to stay moored to the glacier. Paddling through the maze of floating ice sculptures definitely refines your ability to maneuver your kayak.
Playing hide and seek in the ice bergs is a strangely disorienting experience as the sun does not move through the sky here as it does in the Lower 48 and there is no way to gauge the passage of the day by the sun’s progress. And it’s easy to get lost in the bergs, but the mountains serve as compass points. Traveling with another kayak is imperative, as the bergs shift while you are amongst them and it is easy to get stuck, or lost in this floating gallery of ice.
The experience of paddling through an iceberg is astounding. The incredible virginity of the water and the landscape is truly awe inspiring in a way that we don’t often confront in our daily lives. The paddling is good, but physically tiring, and the day can get as beautiful as it gets on the water in Alaska. There are a lot of places to do that in Valdez.
Valdez is a port city. It is home to several major seafood processing plants, so the halibut and salmon are as fresh as you can get it anywhere in the world. You can watch the morning catch being butchered at one of the many fish cleaning stations on the pier. Ask anyone there where the best seafood in town is and they’ll point you to the Sea Moor Fish. Conveniently located next to Pangaea, they serve amazing food, but you’ll have to go around the corner to the Totem Inn for drinks as Sea Moor doesn’t have a liquor license. If you’re really into fresh fish, you can go on a fishing tour with one of several fishing charter companies, including the Lu-Lu Belle, and Fish Central.
When you’re ready to share your experiences with the rest of the world, stop at the Bad Ass Coffee Company, also on Harbor Drive (down a few doors from the Harbor’s Edge). They have free internet connections for customers. Getting online is surely worth the cost of a cup of coffee. There’s also an upstairs deck with an amazing view of the harbor, and the terminus of the Alaska Pipeline just across the way. If you are looking for some ice cream or really good tea, try the Inside Scoop on 321 East Egan Drive. You can get online, if you pay, at one of their computer terminals. For those of you riding the wireless wave, the Totem Inn just down the street at 144 East Eagan has a wireless restaurant. For the cost of a cup of coffee you can sit in the lodge-like restaurant surrounded by the heads and bodies of the owner’s hunting victims (all on four legs), and surf to your heart’s content. Ask for the waitress Ramey, she is the best source of inside info on Valdez, and she’ll let you know what is best on the menu. The Totem also has excellent breakfast. The reindeer sausage is worth a try, and the biscuits are out of this world. The service here is good, and the rooms are clean and come with microwaves and mini-fridges.
If your love of the water is not yet satiated, try a white water raft tour with Keystone Raft & Kayak Tours. This is on the class three Lowe River, and promises more colorful young guides and a lot of very icy water. If you want to stay dry, try a tour on one of the Stan Stephens fleet. They will take you as close to the Columbia Glacier as you can get in a yacht, as well at the Meares and Shoup Glaciers, and they do it with a wet bar. An evening cruise to one of the glaciers is a great experience; watching the moon rise in the dusk of a never setting sun is ephemeral to say the least.
Whether you are dropping off of the grid in search of peace and a place relatively unscathed by man, or looking for adventure in a part of the world that still retains its original state despite all of the efforts of mankind, Alaska is the place to go. And if its glaciers and halibut you’re after, Valdez should be your destination. The wilderness is wild, and the fish is fresh.
Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.