Enjoying Alaska at a glacial pace

As the Cessna six-seater droned comfortably along, we adjusted our headsets so we could hear Les Hartley, the pilot. "Look for the mountain goats," he urged. No goats came into view.

But what we did see was far more impressive. To the east, brilliant in sunlight, was snow-wrapped Mt. Fairweather. To the west was the sharp, 18,008-foot peak of Mt. St. Elias, dominating a spiky range of mountains. Below was such a labyrinth of rivers and lakes that many are unnamed.

Soon we were over Russell Fjord, a long green inlet lined with Sitka spruce. As we flew down the length of the fiord, the water turned milky with glacial flour, the fine rock dust that ice grinds from the stone below it. At the outlet of the fiord, stretched out in front of us, was the great, fractured ice tongue of the Hubbard, the largest tidewater glacier in North America.

Of the various kinds of glaciers, tidewaters are what many tourists think of when Alaskan ice comes to mind. They flow down mountain valleys and end in the sea, where they break off--or calve--great chunks of ice into the water. The Hubbard wends its way 76 miles through the St. Elias Range to spread out as a six-mile-wide ice cliff that eventually stands 300 feet above the water of Disenchantment Bay.

Most visitors come to Yakutat for the fishing and hunting. I came for the glaciers, partly because I'm writing a book about these still-mysterious ice rivers.

Alaska has thousands of glaciers, and Glacier Bay, more than 100 miles southeast of Yakutat, is the place most non-Alaskans connect with images of the distinctive light-blue ice. Yet some of the largest, most dramatically active and most thoroughly studied glaciers in the world ring this tiny town. This is why the annual meeting of the International Glaciological Society has come to Yakutat--and why I've come here too.

Unlike the tidy decks of the cruise ships navigating Glacier Bay, Yakutat also offers visitors a chance to experience an older, less developed Alaska. It is a village of 800, with a few dozen commercial buildings tucked among the trees. It has one taxi, one bank, a lot of wildlife and genial folk who haven't made their town into a tourist concession. Local people wave to one another, and they will to you too.

And so I was in a small plane flying over the glaciers with a bunch of glaciologists, the people who study these icy behemoths. Hubbard Glacier is causing a great hubbub around town this summer because it is within about 100 feet of closing off the mouth of Russell Fiord for the first time in 16 years. When it does this, tributary streams entering the fiord create a freshwater lake behind the ice dam. The opening is already so constricted that the fiord has risen by a couple of yards. In 1986, when complete closure last occurred, an international effort developed to rescue harbor seals and porpoises trapped in the new lake. But the ice barrier broke apart on its own six months after it formed, liberating the beasts.

For the moment, the Hubbard is only threatening. And on this June evening under the summer Alaskan sun, which will keep the land light until almost midnight, an impressive dozen of the world's best-known glaciers slid into view under our wings.

We were now crossing Disenchantment Bay, named in 1791 by Spanish explorer Alejandro Malaspina when he turned the corner from Yakutat Bay and saw the forbidding face of Hubbard Glacier instead of the fabled Northwest Passage. Valerie Glacier comes next, then Haenke, then Turner, which is streaked with dirt and a jumble of broken ice. Some of these glaciers carry so much dirt and rock on their surface--a meter or more of what glaciologists call moraine--that we often seem to be flying over expanses of bare earth. Only the glint of blue ice in crevasses and potholes reveals the glaciers beneath.

Finally there is the great, round Malaspina Glacier, a variety known as a piedmont glacier, which looks like a chunk of Antarctica and covers more surface than the state of Rhode Island.

After a couple of hours that pass in an instant, we leave the glaciers and head back to Yakutat, crossing over Monti Point, where world-class surfing draws its own class of visitors.

Yakutat is a predominantly Tlingit village. It's in the southern region of the state, in the temperate rain forest along the Gulf of Alaska, a different and far wetter world than Anchorage or Fairbanks. The average annual rainfall in Yakutat is 85 to 130 inches. Snow may fall nine months of the year. Spring temperatures are in the 40s and 50s; summer often reaches the high 60s.

Though glacier gazing is becoming more popular, the big draw for visitors is the fishing: sockeye, silver and king salmon; the world-famous steelhead, actually an oversized rainbow trout; and halibut that can weigh more than 250 pounds. When hung up on a dock for a photograph, a Yakutat halibut can easily be taller than the person who catches it.

Others show up for hunting: bear, mountain goats, moose, geese and ducks. A few come for whale watching, or for hiking the Tongass National Forest, or for the relics, scattered around town, of Yakutat's role in World War II. One such artifact is the Yakutat airport runway, the second longest in Alaska because it was built to handle large military aircraft, to deter a Japanese invasion.

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The village is strung out, without a conventional center of town. Most buildings are outposts among the trees; it's a five-mile hike from the airport at one end to Leonard's Landing, a hotel compound at the other. Consider renting a car if you don't like walking and don't want to rely on the vans at your lodge, or on the town's single taxi. Cell phones don't work here, and many lodgings offer only a pay phone down the hall. Be sure to ask about Internet access if that's important. Monti Foods, a grocery store, has an ATM that usually works, but don't count on it. Alaska Pacific Bank is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., weekdays only. The Postal Service, U.S. Park Service and Forest Service have offices in town.

I stayed at an inn with a far better view, Leonard's Landing Lodge, on the other side of town. If I were traveling with a small party, I'd be tempted to find out whether rooms were available at one of the several bed-and-breakfasts around town, particularly the Blue Heron Inn. The Blue Heron is spotless and well run, and its dining room offers a knockout view of Mt. St. Elias and Mt. Logan.

I had a good time at Leonard's Landing, however, where the glaciology conferees bunked. It's on a promontory at the entrance to Yakutat's small-boat harbor. Walking around town was a delight, particularly along Max Italio Drive, next to the water. I saw blue heron, auks, kingfishers, woodpeckers and a moose. Other visitors saw a black wolf. Wild strawberries, elderberries, high-bush cranberries and blue lupines were everywhere. The summer ponds were full of lily pads, bald eagles were commonplace overhead, mosquitoes were frisky and bears could be seen hanging around town. Southeast Alaskans speak of "brown bears," which to the rest of us are known as grizzlies.

The week I was there, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game issued a notice: "Over the past few days, a female brown bear and her three yearling cubs have been seen numerous times along the road near the Sunrise apartments in Yakutat.... Adhere to basic bear safety etiquette." In fact, my first day in town, I and many of the scientists watched the mother grizzly and her cubs lolling around next to the main road. Everyone took pains to observe bear etiquette, which includes making noise, giving bears plenty of space and never running from a bear. And the bears hung around town in peace. They became an amiable common topic for the rest of the week: "Have you seen the bears today?"

If you're here during a holiday, you may see an exhibition of the St. Elias Dancers, a young troupe of Tlingits who perform traditional dances. I was lucky this time and saw the group present dances that were as much as 1,000 years old. The Tlingit believe in the "people of the glacier," David Ramos, a tribal leader, told the audience. Each glacier has a spirit, "and they're not nice when they come out of the glaciers," he said. To placate them, Ramos recommended not cooking food in front of the glacier--the glacier people are partial to human grub--and offering tobacco, hard candy and prayers.

Avoiding all affronts, later in the week I took a charter boat to see several of the glaciers. It's about a four-hour trip from Yakutat's small-boat harbor to the snout of Hubbard Glacier and back, with plenty of time along the way to admire porpoises, harbor seals and otters floating idly on their backs.

Early on a Saturday, John Alder, a former Coast Guard rescue crewman who grew up in Long Beach and Orange County, skippered a fast fishing boat of the Yakutat Charter Boat Co. across 17-mile-wide Yakutat Bay and into Disenchantment Bay. There he maneuvered into the middle of the water, amid chunks of floating ice calved from Hubbard, Valerie and Turner glaciers. Alder shut off the engine and turned up his CD player. I might have picked Beethoven, but he chose Enya, the Irish singer known for delivering New Age chants in Celtic and Latin. It turned out to be an oddly appropriate choice as we drifted peacefully in the unearthly splendor. "Usually you can hear the Turner Glacier growling, but it's quiet today," Alder noted.

Many of the floating ice hunks were the size of houses, though all were too small to be considered true icebergs. A confusion of superficial currents kept each chunk of ice waltzing by in a different direction, as at a stately but mad tea party. Each floating island was a unique creature--some striped with moraine, others clear, others snow white, others glacial blue.

One especially large blue hunk the size of a railroad car had melted on its underwater side to the point that it was unbalanced. Just a few yards away from our small boat, it suddenly turned upside-down in a majestic roll.

Alder leaned over the railing and pulled out a clear, bread-basket-size chunk--"for cocktails tonight," he suggested. Later, in a glass of water, the 200-year-old ice made occasional popping sounds as trapped air bubbles, formed long ago at a higher elevation, burst. It served well in a celebratory cocktail.

I was reminded of a Tlingit phrase, "Ee tu si xan," which tribal leader Ramos had translated with a grin as "We love you guys." I felt much the same about Yakutat, its low-key people and those mammoth glaciers.

Michael Parrish is a Los Angeles writer.