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.

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!

From atop a glacial bluff, I look out across a lush grassy flat surrounded by great mansions of spruce trees, alder, and hemlock. Silvery ribbons of water spill down through the evergreens. It's a setting as dramatic as any Ansel Adams photograph. This tiny pebble spit is one of only three observatories in Alaska where people can readily watch brown bears - a larger version of the grizzly species - and one of the few places where man and grizzly bear willingly meet. Today, I know, I will finally meet a grizzly bear face to face.

I don't have to wait long.

A storm of swirling birds suddenly lifts off the meadow as a sow bear and cub lumber from the dark forest to feast on the salmon thrashing their way up Pack Creek. A slight halt in their gait as they spot me. Noses in the air now. Got my scent. They're heading right for me! I'm no fool. I raise, take aim, and shoot.... Great photo!

It's an elating encounter as the bears inquisitively stop to eye me at a distance of 30 feet, testing the air for the least smell of food. An obligatory shotgun is close at hand. Best defense if they come closer, however, is a prudent retreat. But the bears amble off after an interval decent enough to maintain their pride.

Such encounters provide a new perspective on life. Everything on my trip is more intimate.... Black and white Dall's porpoises zip in and out of Delphinus's bow waves as I cheer them on. Killer whales come up close while on the prowl for sea lion snacks. And horned puffins wearing starched white bibs under beaks trimmed with scarlet swoop right down to the water, skimming for fish just a few feet away.

On the fourth day I awaken to sparkling clear skies and a backdrop of ice-clad mountains so beautiful that, once beheld, all other scenery seems flat and insipid. The day holds the promise of a unique adventure. Cruising through Frederick Sound I find it, as the air takes on an expectant hush.

The vessel is surrounded by 40-ton whales. Four off the port bow, whooshing and wheezing as they settle in beside Delphinus. Six coming up quick from the rear. Five to starboard. Two o'clock. Fifty yards and closing. I get close up to the rail to watch the whales perform their ballet-like maneuvers and raise their giant tail flukes clear of the water, waving good-bye as they begin their deep dives.

EACH summer up to one-third of the entire Pacific humpback whale population gathers in these waters to spend their summers feeding on krill. Today, I count at least 50 in Frederick Sound.

``Listen carefully,'' Ronn tells me, ``and you may hear a hissing sound made by krill and herring bubbling to the surface. When it ceases, raise your camera. A few seconds later there'll be a thunderous roar as the whales soar to the surface with their cavernous maws agape.''

Such exuberant behavior is called ``bubblenet'' feeding, Ronn explains.

Farther south we cruise through the Behm Canal, gateway to Misty Fjords National Monument, a pinnacle of fjordland beauty. This 2 million-acre wilderness knows no hotels, roads, or other human intrusions. Its wolves, beaver, foxes, and bears alone roam the lush virgin rain forest veiled by gossamer mists and cloud-streamers that roam through the towering Yosemite-like fjords.

It is a place touched with true glory. A crowning close as I cruise south to Ketchikan and the end of my voyage.

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