Jigsaw Glaciers in Blue Fjords
TO 19th-century naturalist John Muir, southeast Alaska was a ``terrestrial manifestation of God,'' a vision that was as bright in his mind 35 years after his first visit as sunlight on a glacier's face. The grandeur of the country, particularly the glaciers, was Muir's proof that man could find spiritual communion in nature. I came close to Muir's experience, a century later, aboard a cozy, 50-foot motor vessel named Delphinus.Skip to next paragraph
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Alaska's wellspring is nature, nowhere more grandly experienced than amid the jigsaw corridor of waterways that form the Inside Passage, a narrow, 600-mile latticework of 1,000 islands, deep valleys, and stunning, electric-blue fjords backed by dusky forests and glistening glaciers curling down from spiraling snow-covered peaks. Threading the calm waterways of the Inside Passage, I savor an up-close look at everything that makes southeast Alaska so special.
Zipping south from Juneau to Petersburg on the morning jet, I soon locate the boat moored to a ramshackle pier, and, stepping aboard, greet my old friend Ronn Storro-Patterson, a professional guide, marine biologist, and owner of Delphinus. Eagerly, I help cast off the lines as we slip away from the harbor to slice through the chilly waters of Wrangell Passage.
Within minutes, I spot three killer whales - orcas - headed toward us, aligned like sleek aircraft. I stand at the bow, exhilarated, as the orcas cavort around us and snuggle up to us with smug self-assurance.
The water - as smooth as a looking glass - has turned milky with glacial silt. The air is as cold as winter. And the sky is veiled in translucent cloud, glowing brightly as if a chorus of angels is about to appear.
Soon, chunks of ice begin to appear in the frigid, forbidding water, growing ever larger as we approach the Le Conte Glacier. The icebergs are like floating fairy tale palaces, fanciful creations of a Walt Disney special, blue as the sky, and compellingly beautiful.
I set out in a rubber skiff to scoop up small chunks that pop and fizzle as air bubbles, compressed through the ages, are finally released. Glacial seltzer, it is called. Back aboard, our drinks are cooled by crackling ice 1,000 years old.
Cruising north, we poke into the placid, intriguing inlets where I go ashore at remote wilderness sites to hike amid the hauntingly beautiful rain forests and photograph the wildlife close up. At Stikine River estuary, I spot more bald eagles in a single hour than the keenest observer can see in a lifetime in the lower 48 states.
At Anan Creek waterfalls - a wild and silent place, so lonely it seems that no one has come here before me - I watch a family of black bears pinioning leaping salmon with their sharp claws. And in Misty Fjords National Monument I hear wolves howl at the shimmering stars.
On the third day, at Admiralty Island National Monument, a light drizzle is falling. I am wrapped up well against the wet chill. It is a misty, melancholy day, something I am now getting used to. Southeast Alaska receives so much rain - more than 180 inches a year in some parts - old sourdoughs joke that they don't tan. They rust!