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Enjoying Alaska at a Glacial Pace

Yakutat lives on the edge, shaped by rivers of ice and grizzlies that roam through town

July 21, 2002|MICHAEL PARRISH

YAKUTAT, Alaska — As the Cessna six-seater droned comfortably along, we adjusted our headsets so we could hear Les Hartley, the pilot. "Look for the mountain goats," he urged. No goats came into view.

But what we did see was far more impressive. To the east, brilliant in sunlight, was snow-wrapped Mt. Fairweather. To the west was the sharp, 18,008-foot peak of Mt. St. Elias, dominating a spiky range of mountains. Below was such a labyrinth of rivers and lakes that many are unnamed.

Soon we were over Russell Fjord, a long green inlet lined with Sitka spruce. As we flew down the length of the fiord, the water turned milky with glacial flour, the fine rock dust that ice grinds from the stone below it. At the outlet of the fiord, stretched out in front of us, was the great, fractured ice tongue of the Hubbard, the largest tidewater glacier in North America.

Of the various kinds of glaciers, tidewaters are what many tourists think of when Alaskan ice comes to mind. They flow down mountain valleys and end in the sea, where they break off--or calve--great chunks of ice into the water. The Hubbard wends its way 76 miles through the St. Elias Range to spread out as a six-mile-wide ice cliff that eventually stands 300 feet above the water of Disenchantment Bay.

Most visitors come to Yakutat for the fishing and hunting. I came for the glaciers, partly because I'm writing a book about these still-mysterious ice rivers.

Alaska has thousands of glaciers, and Glacier Bay, more than 100 miles southeast of Yakutat, is the place most non-Alaskans connect with images of the distinctive light-blue ice. Yet some of the largest, most dramatically active and most thoroughly studied glaciers in the world ring this tiny town. This is why the annual meeting of the International Glaciological Society has come to Yakutat--and why I've come here too.

Unlike the tidy decks of the cruise ships navigating Glacier Bay, Yakutat also offers visitors a chance to experience an older, less developed Alaska. It is a village of 800, with a few dozen commercial buildings tucked among the trees. It has one taxi, one bank, a lot of wildlife and genial folk who haven't made their town into a tourist concession. Local people wave to one another, and they will to you too.

And so I was in a small plane flying over the glaciers with a bunch of glaciologists, the people who study these icy behemoths. Hubbard Glacier is causing a great hubbub around town this summer because it is within about 100 feet of closing off the mouth of Russell Fiord for the first time in 16 years. When it does this, tributary streams entering the fiord create a freshwater lake behind the ice dam. The opening is already so constricted that the fiord has risen by a couple of yards. In 1986, when complete closure last occurred, an international effort developed to rescue harbor seals and porpoises trapped in the new lake. But the ice barrier broke apart on its own six months after it formed, liberating the beasts.

For the moment, the Hubbard is only threatening. And on this June evening under the summer Alaskan sun, which will keep the land light until almost midnight, an impressive dozen of the world's best-known glaciers slid into view under our wings.

We were now crossing Disenchantment Bay, named in 1791 by Spanish explorer Alejandro Malaspina when he turned the corner from Yakutat Bay and saw the forbidding face of Hubbard Glacier instead of the fabled Northwest Passage. Valerie Glacier comes next, then Haenke, then Turner, which is streaked with dirt and a jumble of broken ice. Some of these glaciers carry so much dirt and rock on their surface--a meter or more of what glaciologists call moraine--that we often seem to be flying over expanses of bare earth. Only the glint of blue ice in crevasses and potholes reveals the glaciers beneath.

Finally there is the great, round Malaspina Glacier, a variety known as a piedmont glacier, which looks like a chunk of Antarctica and covers more surface than the state of Rhode Island.

After a couple of hours that pass in an instant, we leave the glaciers and head back to Yakutat, crossing over Monti Point, where world-class surfing draws its own class of visitors.

Yakutat is a predominantly Tlingit village. It's in the southern region of the state, in the temperate rain forest along the Gulf of Alaska, a different and far wetter world than Anchorage or Fairbanks. The average annual rainfall in Yakutat is 85 to 130 inches. Snow may fall nine months of the year. Spring temperatures are in the 40s and 50s; summer often reaches the high 60s.

Though glacier gazing is becoming more popular, the big draw for visitors is the fishing: sockeye, silver and king salmon; the world-famous steelhead, actually an oversized rainbow trout; and halibut that can weigh more than 250 pounds. When hung up on a dock for a photograph, a Yakutat halibut can easily be taller than the person who catches it.

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