Posted on July 11, 2012 - by Nadia
July 4, 2012
Wrangell to Le Conte Bay
I could see the parade from a half-dozen miles away. In bright contrast to the silty, grey-green shallows of the Stikine Delta they appeared in a line, bobbing to their own rhythm. At first, I thought they were white power boats, sleek and low to the water. That was strange. I hadn’t seen a boat since leaving Wrangell; virtually everyone was in town for the festivities. Then it struck me. Icebergs! The white shapes were icebergs marching out of Le Conte Bay. It was true! The southernmost tidal glacier was a prodigious calfer of bergs! There was no stopping me now, I thought, and I started the sweeping seven-mile crossing to the bay.
Word had it that it was important to swing in a big arch around the delta. I would know my arch was wide enough when I encountered crab pots, as crabs don’t like brackish water and so would be dropped in the deeper waters off the edge of the silty, delta, shallow enough to ground a kayak. So I went wide, paddling on water smooth, green and cloudy as an old Coke bottle. The air was still and my eyes were glued on the iceberg parade that marched steadily out of the bay and pushed its way northwest up Frederick Sound.
Soon, festive crab pot markers colored the view, dozens of them, closely packed, like a curbside audience. The crab pots were near and the icebergs still fairly far off so I picked a pot marker and pulled purposefully toward it. As I passed the first pot, I noticed the pronounced V of a strong current streaming around it. All the crab pots showed the same, streaming V and I realized I was barely making ground toward the icebergs without losing ground to the shore! The surface of the water was glassy, but a strong current was moving me and the bergs northward. The sea, the icebergs, the crab pots and I were on a vast conveyor belt moving northward.
People who write about currents like to use the word “laminar,” as in laminate, to describe a current that is not choppy or turbulent. It always trips me up. Why not just say smooth? Well maybe, just maybe, this conveyor belt, this moveable smoothness is part of a laminar current. I needed to outpace the pedestrian mover of the sea or I would soon end up in the D Terminal of some landlocked airport. I set my sight on the next crab pot, and kept sharp watch on the one behind me, to make sure it wasn’t gaining on me. It had not occurred to me to ask what was powering this parade of bergs or I might not have been so surprised at the fight on my hands. But I hadn’t asked, and so I continue to learn navigation one object lesson at a time.
After trying a number of things – swinging into the delta, heading for an the lee of an island – I finally just picked an angle and headed for the near shore, losing some ground but gaining the eddy I knew would be there. Now I was on the other side of the berg parade and free to gawk. The air and water were much colder than they been across the sound and I paddled against the stream of bergs, heading into the bay they were leaving.
It was a noisy parade. I had been hearing crashing, but I thought it was the sound of icebergs dropping off the glacier, which was several bends in the bay away, but not terribly far as sound travels. Then, a fairly large iceberg near me dissolved in a sharp crack and a long hiss. It crumbled to bits like a snow cone in the rain. Now I realized most of the cracking and splashing was coming as chunks of icebergs dropped off, or as whole bergs rolled over.
I kept my distance, sneaking close for photos, then, slipping away. These were not Titanic sized, but they were certainly big enough to sink my boat. Most were the size of a cabin, or two or three really big SUVs clumped together. A couple were huge, the size of a three-bedroom house. With a garage. That’s the part above the water. Some had been stranded on shore by the receding tide, and it was clear how much more there was to them than met the eye.
Even away from the glacier, many of them retained their otherworldly blue. Some were as blue as the water in Bahamas, like a robin’s egg, others were paler, a baby shower when you know it’s a boy, and some were just white or clear. Seals, many of the quiet young, it seemed, swam among the bergs calling out to each other or their mothers in a marine world game of Marco Polo.
I had intended to camp at the mouth of the bay, but it was muddy and buggy there, so I pushed inside. It was approaching low tide and I needed a place that would accommodate the 24-foot tides that came with the full moon. I found a ledge about 80 yards from the water across a broad dry, cobblestone cove. Stranded ice bergs sat on the shore, melting too quickly to float on the next high tide but slowly enough to remind me how high the tide would come. I all but emptied the boat and hauled it on wet logs across the cobbles. The mossy ledge was at the end of a maze of game trails, but I saw only deer sign, no bear. There was a slot for the boat about four feet below the tent ledge, between two logs clad in green plush and jammed sharply up on rocks. I tied the boat in well and ate my usual one-pot dinner, pacing the shoreline both to see what bergs were coming next and to keep the bugs at bay. I might be able to watch icebergs forever.
I fell asleep to the booming of bergs calving from the glacier, and the sharp crack, splash and hiss of big bergs becoming smaller. A huge one broke and sent a wake that overlapped the kayak and echoes that chatted back and forth along the bay. Later, I woke to strange animal noises keening and crashing in the forest. My food was hung with care, but my heart pounded, unsure what could make such a mournful sound.
I awoke again in the depth of night when high tide had filled my broad bay to within a foot of the boat. The parade of icebergs had overflowed the main channel and the space below my tent had become a side stage of smaller bergs brightly lit by a full, Independence Day moon.
As I fell back asleep, I could hear the grand finale of the big Fourth of July celebration in Wrangell – the best in all of southeast Alaska, they say. But those Wrangellites might take for granted the show they have in their own back yard. Then again, what seemed muffled far off thuds might have been my heart beat .