Northwestern Fjord

Thunder bursts out of the silence. The sky is bright blue. No clouds to be seen on this glorious July day. No storm has produced this thunder. This is the sound of ice.

High above us, part of a hanging glacier has determined it can hang no longer. Gravity is irresistible. Ice tumbles downslope, a falling mass that could easily be covered by a quarter held at arm’s length yet in reality is the size of perhaps a dozen school buses. Another crash as the plummeting fragment collides with the rock slope below, shattering into countless icy splinters that from this view seem to behave as liquid water. The flow caroms downhill, roaring into a shaded slot cut by the meltwater that has poured down from this glacier for who knows how long. The action is briefly hidden but never muted. Outcrops obscure the view, but the sound of the tumult echoes down to the water below. There’s another glimpse of the flow. Will it make it to the sea? No, it’s slowing, slowing, stopped. Quiet again. I turn back to the seracs and crevasses here at eye level.

Alaska8-2.jpg

Northwestern Fjord was carved by the glacier before us, the glacier that shares its name. Others contributed to the work, too. The Redstone, Ogive, Anchor, Sunlight, and Southwestern scoured from one side. The Northeastern and other nameless tongues of ice labored from the other. But when they all came together, the Northwestern was there to welcome them into the fold. Their lateral moraines became medial, their ice combined, and with a slow, unstoppable power these frozen rivers ran to the ocean.

Things have changed, though. Over recent centuries, these glaciers have pulled back, retreating upslope with increasing rapidity. From 1909 to 2004, the Northwestern fell back more than six miles. Its neighbors followed suit. No longer do they greet each other as ice. When their waters mix today, they do so in the sea that has filled the space they abandoned, saltwater substituted for frozen, compacted, age-old snow. The terminal moraine barred entry to the fjord for a time, but the 1964 earthquake opened a passage into its heart. Our boat cruised through that passage an hour ago.

Steep walls flank us on the left and right. Ice floats in the silty seawater below. Harbor seals haul out on some of the larger chunks, resting beneath the clear blue skies of early afternoon. Our weather luck continues. It is a perfect day to stand before this glacier.

Earlier, out by the Chiswell Islands, there was constant motion and sound. Black-legged kittiwakes and glaucous-winged gulls numbering in the thousands spiraled overhead. Puffins, both horned and tufted, puttered around the island shores while common murres descended from their ledges. Parakeet auklets mixed their whinnies with the guttural exclamations of the Steller sea lions in their rookeries, and humpback whales announced their presence with a burst of exhalation, a glimpse of a dorsal fin, a farewell wave of the fluke.

Here in the fjord, the only sounds are those of the glacier, the pops, groans, and cracks that reverberate around us. Silent spells are punctuated by terrific noises whose sources are hard to pinpoint given the acoustics of this setting. Was that another shelf giving way up high? Wait, maybe it was from ice calving into the water. Or was it a crack somewhere deep within, the sound of a glacier's inner workings? 

There's another roar, different from the others. It crescendos and continues, filling the quiet with its fury. The ice that fell before dammed the stream flowing from the same hanging glacier, but now the stream has breached the dam. Water gushes through the near-perpendicular slot canyon, racing to the sea below. As it nears its destination, it begins to calm. Freshwater streams into saltwater, the runoff returns to its normal flow rate, and the roar fades away.

These are the sights and sounds of Kenai Fjords National Park, and though we are not technically in it at the moment (the park's boundaries stop at the shoreline; no ocean included) we are close enough to gaze in appreciative awe at the world it preserves. Like Denali, Kenai Fjords is tough to access. The total distance of drivable road is two-thirds of a mile. A handful of trails have their heads at this road's end. The rest of the park? That's where we are now. No roads, no trails, no access other than water or air. Again I survey a landscape largely unmarred by the work of humans. There are boats in the water and the glaciers are receding, but the land itself shows no ill-effects of "improvement." Let it stay this way forever.

It's time to go. So soon? Don't you realize more ice is about to fall? More seals will swim by, late light will sweep across the granite, and this collection of wonders will continue to simply be. Maybe it's best that we are temporary inhabitants of this place. It doesn't need our presence to have value, only our respect. Let me just take one last look at the glacier. When I return, I want to remember what it looked like on this shining day.

Chaney

Alaska8-3.jpg

Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer