The Big Chill by Rosario Albar
Published in the Manila Bulletin USA
July 17-24, 2003 issue.
Margerie Glacier
We're standing on the open deck of the cruise ship staring intently at Margerie Glacier, a few hundred feet in front of us.  With cameras ready, my fellow passengers and I are waiting to see the glacier calve and hopefully catch it on film.  By now we know what to watch out for.  After seeing a few, our ears have become attuned to the "sumdum", the Tlingit (klink-it) word for the booming sound when ice calves and crashes into the water below.  "Calve" is the word for ice breaking from the face of the glacier.

Only two hundred years ago, Glacier Bay as we know it now, did not exist.  Captain George Vancouver, the explorer, had observed in 1794 that ice measuring 4000 ft. thick and 20 miles wide covered the area and extended 100 miles to the St. Elias Mountain Range.  In 1879, the naturalist, John Muir noted that the ice had retreated some 48 miles.  Today, we can see how far the glacier has receded since then as we cruised all the way into Tarr Inlet, about as far north as we could travel and some 65 miles from the mouth of the Bay.

But not all glaciers are retreating.  Some like the Taku near Juneau, the capital of Alaska, are advancing.  This glacial ebb and flow can be explained by snowfall rate, topography and climate trends.  A flightseeing trip over the glacier offers a spectacular view of striations caused by glacial movement and deep crevasses that glint like aquamarine gems.  Glaciers absorb all colors of the spectrum except blue, which it reflects.

Glacial movement carved U-shaped valleys and steep-sided troughs.  Seawater flooded the valleys creating fjords.  The
Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan is a wonderland of lakes and waterways, forested islands, unique wildlife and waterfalls cascading down sheer granite walls rising to 3000 feet.  As our floatplane landed on Sundial Lake, I was transported to another world, to a special place of unspoiled beauty and serenity.  For a short while I was as far away from civilization as I could possibly be and grateful for the chance to embrace this moment.

After the big chill came the thaw when vegetation reclaimed the land.  The temperate rainforest is the culmination of this reclamation.  A hike up the Chilkoot Trail of the Klondike Gold Rush days takes us deep into the Tongass National Forest where spruce and hemlock trees reach up to the sky.  We started our trek in Dyea, near Skagway.  As we climed 700 ft. up the Chilkat Mountains, the trail became narrower and more difficult.  The terrain was rocky in parts and soft in others where humus as thick as 8-12 feet covered the ground.  Humus is an important element in plant development because it provides nutrients and retains water.  Large leaf rhubarb plants proliferate in this forest where red squirrels foraged for grub in the new summer growth.  But for our footsteps and the guide's voice as he pointed to edible berries here, yellow buttercups there, and an eagle's nest overhead, the forest was still.

We eventually reached the banks of the Taiya River which, in late afternoon, was flowing fast.  Before boarding the raft for our float trip downriver, we donned our lifevests and listened to safety instructions from our guide.  Out on the water, we were surrounded by snowcapped mountain peaks and got a glimpse of yet another glacier in the upper elevations.  Expansive vistas are commonplace in Southeast Alaska.

I've often pondered the word "pristine".  It seems an overused adjective.  But after traveling in "alyeska" (the Aelut word for great land), it is now crystal clear to me what pristine really means.

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Getting there:  Holland America has 7-day cruises from Vancouver to the Inside Passage.  There are port stops in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and scenic cruising in Glacier Bay.  Shore excursions are extra and may be arranged onboard or prior to departure.  For more information, log on to their website at

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