Although Juneau is the Alaskan State Capital … it can’t be reached by road. If you want to go there, you must fly in or go by boat. But, there are roads, and some of them do lead to some pretty interesting places. Naturally, we went to watch whales, but after that, the coach took us up to see the Mendenhall Glacier. I suppose that’s an add-on, so that, in the unlikely event you don’t see any whales, the day isn’t completely wasted. It’s a spectacular sight, but maybe not something you’d go out of your way to see?
A short paved walk takes you to the best photographic viewpoint. It leads over the rounded glacier-worn rocks so reminiscent of my native Lake District … which was, of course, carved out by glacier action back in the Ice Ages. There’s a waterfall there, too, the Nugget Falls. I wonder if it was so named because they found gold in the area?
There’s a Visitor Centre, where rangers explain all about glaciers … one said ‘glay-seers’, and the other said ‘glass-ears’. I suppose it’s a ‘tomayto/tomahto kind of thing?
Some folk describe them as ‘a river of ice’, and, in essence, that’s just what they are. It starts with a snowfall, back in the Year Dot. If that snow doesn’t melt, there’s another snowfall next year, which just lies on top of it. Repeat this process for a few thousand years, and the snow is compressed into ice. Just the same as if you squeezed a snowball really tightly, you’ll finish up with an iceball. Slowly but surely, the ice heads off downhill until it reaches a level where it can melt; on the way, it carves out those great formations that mountain-goers and fjord enthusiasts love.
If it wasn’t for the action of glaciers, most of our mountains would just be boring, featureless hills.
Most glaciers are in retreat; at many of them, you’ll see photographs or pictures of how it used to look in bygone years. And, before anyone starts yelling ‘Global Warming’ … I’ll just say it’s a natural process that’s been going on since the last Ice Age, and will probably continue until the next one. If it wasn’t for that retreat, most of Northern Europe would still be under an ice sheet.
Back in 1988, I actually walked on a glacier. That was on a Joint Services expedition to Norway’s Jordal Glacier. Officially, it was a ‘course’, though, because the ‘Whitehall Neddies’ don’t like the idea of the troops having fun at the taxpayer’s expense. So, very little time was spent just walking and admiring the view. Most of the time, we received ‘instruction’, mainly on how to get out of a crevasse, and how to get other people out of a crevasse.
Really, we only learnt one thing, if we didn’t know it already:
‘Don’t fall into crevasses!’
Shortly after our visit to Mendenhall, we sailed into Glacier Bay, and I really ought to light a candle to whichever saint looks after photographers, because we had such a perfect day that it was almost impossible to take bad pictures.
At the mouth of the bay, a boat came out from the Visitor Centre, and some US National Park Rangers came to join us, bringing with them books, interpretative leaflets … and US National Park passports, which you could have stamped at every National Park you visited, for 2016 is their 100th Anniversary. I didn’t take a passport, for I didn’t have any plans to visit any more National Parks this year. But, I did take a sticker for my scrapbook. And, the Rangers were quite prepared to give presentations and answer questions.
When Captain George Vancouver visited in 1795, he could only get about five miles into the bay. But, by 1879, the ice had retreated and conservationist John Muir was able to sail another 40 miles. These days, you can travel 65 miles up the bay.
Now, I’m no scientist, but don’t these figures indicate that the retreat of the glacier … or nowadays, the glaciers (plural!) is actually slowing down?
Truly, this is an ‘At Sea’ day to end them all, not only for the superb scenery but also the chance (it didn’t happen!) of seeing orcas or whales. However, I fully accept that such creatures don’t appear to order.
We spent almost the whole day in the bay, sailing within yards of one of the Margerie Glacier, one of the biggest, where we remained for almost an hour. I’m told it’s ‘traditional’ for visitors to be photographed in the ship’s swimming pool, with a backdrop of glaciers and snow-capped mountains, but nobody seemed keen today. One tradition of our cruise line was observed, though, when crew members served out mugs of Dutch pea soup.
Surprisingly, ours was the only ship there. I’d have expected cruise ships to be milling around like flies around a jampot. But, the whole area is a National Park, as well as a World Heritage Site, so maybe the numbers are restricted in some way?