The ice beneath my feet was like frosted glass.
Just by standing still and breathing lightly I felt at risk of falling. And yet as long as I allowed myself to become part of the serenity and power of the glacier on which I stood, I was confident that I would maintain my equilibrium.
All my senses were intensified. My maternal sense was momentarily on high alert when I looked over my shoulder and saw Brett, my 27-year-old son and traveling companion, reaching the top of a wall of ice thrust up from the heart of the glacier. The ice picks on his boots and his other safety equipment allowed him to cling lightly to the shimmering icescape. The image of my son interacting with the glacier took my breath away. At the same time, I felt an instinctive mother’s bond with my child having the time of his life. And I too felt an extraordinary exhilaration.
We had set down lightly on the glacier after flying over it in a large bubble-like helicopter while surveying its unlimited mass. From the security of our capsule, we spotted bears, mountain goats, eagles, and eons-old fresh water streams that were flash-frozen in time, arrested in mid-flow between the mountains. We beheld a freeze frame of life near the beginning of time.
When we carefully stepped out of the helicopter, our guide strapped spikes onto my boots and handed me a ski pole for balance. I suddenly felt a sense of control and confidence; I would walk on the very surface of Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier. And Brett would go me one better and climb the glacier’s heights.
In that one brief flight, we had traveled back to the last ice age 10 million years ago, to a time when much of the planet was suspended in an endless polar night. This was an age when prehistoric humans had walked from one continent to another. And I began to walk in their footsteps.
My footsteps crunched on the ice but left no marks. As I made my way over the pristine surface, I crossed thin ridges and kept well away from deep crevasses in light to dark hues of blue. At one point — and to my surprise — I encountered a small waterfall. I took a handful of crystal clear glacial water and drank from time immemorial.
This was the ultimate experience of Alaska, the last frontier in America with its majestic mountains, glaciers, and pure air. It is an enormous state, as large as all of New England, with diverse climatic conditions, unique ecosystems, and astonishing extremes.
Brett and I had boarded Holland America’s Oosterdam in Seattle bound for Alaska. We have always enjoyed traveling together ever since our first trip when I took him as a young boy with me to Tahiti. In our travels, we discovered a wide spectrum of common interests, perceptions, and character traits; and a relationship that transcends the usual mother-son bond. We have always been and still are the best of friends.
The Oosterdam is a “vista” ship which means the staterooms are larger than those on other cruise lines and with more balconies. In addition there are more ingeniously designed public areas in which you can get away and be by yourself.
On board I felt like the proverbial queen-for-a-day walking down the red carpet stairway past the elegant artwork and antiques. And I dined like a queen in the three main restaurants, each a purveyor of culinary high art. Even my taste was altered. I have never been one for salmon, but then I tried the chef’s pistachio-encrusted filets.
Hyper-energetic Brett took advantage of everything on board, and from time to time I tagged along. We took in a martini class before heading to the gym. Brett worked with a personal trainer and I luxuriated in a hot stone massage in the Greenhouse Spa. We went to art auctions, comedy shows, and lectures on Alaskan wildlife. And then we went our own ways only to meet up again in some other on-board activity. And from time to time when I returned to our cabin, I would find Brett on our balcony reading a book. The mesmerizing splash of the sea is very conducive to reading.
During the day trips in various ports of call, we rushed here and there, anxious to experience as much as we could. Brett rode dirt roads on an all terrain vehicle through the mountains while I attended the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, a highly entertaining presentation of eight strapping young men who are champions in timber sports.
In Sitka, I visited the Alaska Raptor Center, a a full-service avian hospital that treats injured bald eagles and other birds of prey who have met with misfortune such as electrocution, gunshot wounds, collisions with cars, and starvation. After extensive rehabilitation the birds are taught to fly again in the Center’s state-of-the-art flight center.
The ship sailed Stephens Passage and stopped in Juneau. Then we were scheduled to pass Hubbard Glacier, but the sea became restless and huge 30-foot waves erupted spraying seawater as high as our balcony on one of the topmost decks. The colossal and fearsome waves thrilled us. However, I don’t think too many of the other passengers shared our enthusiasm; at dinner, we were one of only two couples.
And so Captain, Jeroen van Donselaar, wisely decided to change course and we headed into the quiet waters of Glacier Bay. The sudden transition to a total state of calm was like entering a separate reality. We floated quietly through chunky ice floes and eventually arrived at the glacier. Whales and curious seals formed a welcoming party.
Before long we were walking on one of the planet’s most impressive glaciers; a long-lasting river of ice formed on land and moving imperceptibly but irrevocably following the sloping terrain between V-shaped mountains. We stood on one of the largest reservoirs of fresh water on Earth. We felt beneath us ponderous and compressed time. We became one with the glacier. We experienced pure time, in Alaska.
If you go:
Alaskan Lumberjack Show
What is a Glacier?
In brief, it is one of the most remarkable, and perhaps least understood, natural phenomena on the planet.
To learn more about these “long-lasting rivers of ice,” we recommend the excellent article from Wikipedia.