The Great White Philharmonic

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1996

The Great White Philharmonic

Amidst the thundering crescendos of calving ice, a beer-ad guy can find symphonic enightenment
By Tim Cahill

You know how guys in beer ads are always pictured doing stuff you wouldn't do--or shouldn't do--when you've been drinking beer? In the Beer Ad Universe guys continually engage in potentially dangerous activities like bungee jumping, or roofing their houses, or talking to women.

Recently I discovered that I am a beer-ad guy.

It was a print campaign, and apparently there were posters, along with a lot of those little cardboard tents they put on tables to encourage people to buy beer. The picture on the posters and on the cardboard tents was of me. I was a small speck of a guy in a kayak, surrounded by floating icebergs and dwarfed by an enormous tidewater glacier looming 200 feet above me.

I suspect the ad campaign was designed to suggest that this beer is as cool and refreshing as a couple million pounds of ice grinding down a mountainside.

The picture was taken in Glacier Bay National Park, about 60 miles northwest of Juneau, Alaska. A guidebook I read before my visit encouraged folks to book midsummer trips, but it was late September and snowing maniacally when I arrived at park headquarters, at Bartlett Cove, near the mouth of the bay. Here I would hop a boat for the glaciers at Muir Inlet, starting point for a 60-mile kayak trip back to Bartlett Cove--a journey that serves as a painless course on botany-in-action and is about as close as any of us will ever get to time-travel. Throw in calving tidewater glaciers, the northern lights, mile-wide beds of mussels, friendly harbor seals, killer whales, wolves, bears, and bald eagles perched on icebergs, all roaming a seascape ringed by mountains that rise from sea level to 15,000 feet, and you've pretty much got the premier North American sea-kayaking trip. Even better: In late September you can have the place completely to yourself.

The next day I rented a kayak. The concessionaire said there was only one other rented out: Some crazy guy paddling around all alone in the snow. That was my partner, photographer Paul Dix, the future beer-photo entrepreneur.

I was a day late, but Paul had said he'd meet me in Muir Inlet, near the "snout" of McBride Glacier. Despite the delay, I suspected he'd still be there, waiting, because Paul takes his commitments seriously. Also, I was bringing the food.

I lugged my kayak through ankle-deep snow down to the tour boat, which would drop me at a gravel bar south of McBride Glacier, a place, I learned later, that Paul had renamed Hungry Point. It was a two-and-a-half-hour trip, and of course it snowed. You really couldn't see anything. Then the wind picked up.

The boat dropped me off at the gravel bar. Here, predictably, the snow was being driven horizontally by the wind. Worse, it was falling as corn snow, which consists entirely of exceedingly hard little pellets, so the situation was rather like being sandblasted with crushed ice.

The few tourists on the deck of the boat regarded me with that somber homage our society pays to the visibly deranged, which is to say they were pretty much doubled over laughing. So the boat pulled away, and I was left alone on a gravel bank, unable to see more than 15 feet in any direction and feeling quite sorry for myself, when Paul Dix came paddling out of the ice storm and greeted me with a hearty "Where in hell's the food?"

We sat in the tent, and Paul filled me in on his adventures to date. There were Alaskan brown bears all over, which were like the grizzlies we were familiar with from Yellowstone, only bigger. Yesterday Paul had paddled into a sandy cove, looking for a place to camp. A bear had recently padded across the beach, and Paul was measuring his own foot (diminutive and pitiable) against one of the prints (colossal and appalling) when he noticed that the bear had left something else on the beach. What it had left wouldn't fit in a gallon pail and was still steaming. Paul decided to paddle on.

"Good thing you weren't carrying any food," I said.

"Yeah," Paul replied pointedly, "I sure was lucky."

In fact, we were lucky. The next day dawned clear. The sky was cobalt blue, there was not a breath of wind, and the sea was like glass, a mirror to the sky and the mountains on either end of the inlet, which was about a mile wide in that spot. We paddled over the reflections of snowcapped peaks on our way to Muir Glacier, as the sun shone and the temperature rose to a little over 70 degrees, which is about as warm as it ever gets in Glacier Bay.

And then, there in front of us, was the glacier, pouring off the mountain and into the sea. The enormous wall of ice, the terminus of the glacier, is called the snout, and this one looked to be about 200 feet high and maybe a mile across.

The whole of Glacier Bay is shaped a little like a horseshoe, open end toward the ocean, with the inland section surrounded by mountains. Snow falls in the upper elevations, never melts, is compressed by the next year's snow, and the next decade's, until it turns into heavy, dense ice that flows downhill, as all water must. The ice makes pretty good time, too, sweeping down to the sea at the rate of two to five feet per day.

The snout is subject to tides that rise and fall as much as 20 feet, eating away at the base of the glacier so that great slabs of it "calve" off the main body and crash into the ocean in an explosion of spray. The sound of the glacier calving can be heard for miles, and the mountain across the inlet from Muir Glacier is called White Thunder Ridge.

Paul and I camped on a gravel slope below White Thunder Ridge, and we might have gotten some sleep except for the damn northern lights, which arced across an ebony star field like phosphorescent green smoke interspersed with dozens of red lightning bolts running in ultraslow motion. All the while the sound of calving ice rumbled off the ridge above. It was like having the whole damn New York Philharmonic come over to play Beethoven for you at midnight: The mindless and ungrateful go to sleep so they can rise fully rested and spiritually impoverished.

For the next few days, Paul and I played chicken with the glacier. Kayakers are cautioned to stay at least half a mile from the snout, but distances were impossible to calculate. I'd get in there, way too close, and hear what sounded like the amplified cracking of automatic gunfire. Then a great 200-foot-high block of ice would separate from the glacier and fall, slowly it seemed, into the sea with a roar that echoed against the mountains for a full minute. And afterward, maybe five minutes later, a small ripple of a wave would roll past my kayak. So I figured I could maybe move in a little closer.

I avoided the icebergs, big as mansions, and made my way through a watery field of bergy bits, smaller slabs of ice that pretty much covered the surface of the sea. There was a strange sound all around, a crackling, like static electricity, and it was getting louder as I paddled toward the foot of the glacier before me. It took a while to understand that the bergy bits themselves were doing the crackling, in the manner of an ice cube dropped into a glass of water.

There were harbor seals basking in the sun on the larger slabs of ice, and some of them dropped into the water, disappeared for a time, and then surfaced near my kayak. They had heads like wet Labrador retrievers--that same friendly curiosity--and one came close enough for me to touch with my paddle, had I wanted to. He tilted his head in a quizzical manner, dove, and then surfaced again, on the other side of the kayak. I thought he wanted to play tag and paddled toward him, at which point my kayak was rocked by a sound so loud it could actually be felt.

I looked up to see a block of ice the size of a 20-story building falling in my direction. Time slowed, as it does in these situations, and I had the leisure to appreciate fully what an enormous horse's ass I was. Eventually, about a month later it seemed, the ice thundered into the sea far in front of my kayak. It threw up a wave that rolled toward me in a ten-foot-high crest, topped by pieces of ice ranging in size from fist to Ford. I paddled forward to take the wave at a run so that it wouldn't crest over me. My kayak rolled easily over the top and slipped down the back side. The last rumble of the calving was echoing off White Thunder Ridge, and I could hear the bergy bits snapping all around. Some insane person was beating a drum hysterically inside my chest.

Which, I think, is when Paul--who was quite a ways behind me--snapped the picture that someone thought might sell beer.

The weather held for a week, and we paddled back down the inlet toward Bartlett Cove, a trip that is a time-lapse lesson in plant succession. Two hundred years ago, Captain George Vancouver mapped what was then Glacier Bay: a five-mile inlet capped by a 300-foot-high wall of ice. Over the past two centuries, since the end of the Little Ice Age, that immense glacier has retreated almost 65 miles, and the land it exposes is all barren rock and sterile gravel.

But the planet is modest, and she quickly clothes herself with life. Even under White Thunder Ridge, on land that had been exposed perhaps a few decades earlier, we found "black crust," an algal nap that retains water and stabilizes silt so that eventually mosses grow. They in turn support hardy pioneers like fireweed and dryas. These plants are plentiful a few miles from the retreating glaciers. Farther down the inlet, alders spring out of thick beds of dryas. The alders drop nitrogen-rich leaves, building a soil that enables spruce to take hold and eventually shade out the alders. At Bartlett Cove, which was under 200 feet of ice 200 years ago, there is a hemlock and spruce rainforest.

Down inlet from the alder breaks we thought we saw a kayaker, far out ahead of us, his paddle dipping from side to side. This was the first human being we'd seen in a couple of weeks, and we called out to him. The kayaker failed to respond, probably, we decided later, because he turned out to be a bull moose. It was his antlers swaying from side to side as he swam that had looked like a kayak paddle.

Paul, had he known he was going to sell a photo to a Canadian beer company, might have taken a picture of that moose's head. Instead, he got a horse's ass. I never did see the poster, but you'd think those Canadian beer execs would send me a few cases of their fine product so I could go bungee jumping and talk to women. At least get my roof fixed.

Tim Cahill, Outside editor-at-large, toured the Central Asian steppes on horseback in "A Good Hair Week in Mongolia" (April).

See Also:
Access and Resources: Humbacks, Bergy Bits, and Thou

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