Any visit to Alaska is incomplete without a glacier tour. The short cruise offered by the “26 Glaciers Cruise” by Phillips Cruises & Tours, developed in 1987, suited my time as well as budget. Reserving a seat and making the payment by credit card online hardly took time. We were picked up in the morning from the pick-up point at Anchorage City Center by an experienced driver cum guide. It was an interesting drive towards Whittier, along the scenic highway that touches the Turnagain arm of the sea inlet. We spotted birds like bald eagles and seagulls, but the whales remained as elusive as ever. The highlight of the road trip was the passage through the 4-km long rail cum road tunnel—an engineering marvel—which cuts through the Maynard Mountain.
It was a murky weather with light drizzle. But that did not stop any activity that was going on the dock. We were welcomed on board by the cruise team and were given a slip of paper with details of the seating arrangement during the cruise. I noticed a couple seated at my table. The Indian doctor, settled in the US with his American wife welcomed me. “Sir, shall I get you coffee? It’s free,” the doctor offered. Lunch was served soon after. I got the vegetarian meal that I had ordered. The only problem was the light drizzle which left its mark as rain drops on the glass wall of the deck thus restricting view sometimes.
The custom-built M/V Klondike, our ship for the “26 Glacier Cruise”, glided off smoothly. Whittier is the western gateway to Prince William Sound, part of Gulf of Alaska, Pacific Ocean. The cruise would be on the Port Wells, College Fjord and Harriman Fjord, covering a total distance of 225 kms in about five hours. We had a woman Forest Guard officer on deck who spoke about the cruise. The captain introduced himself and promised an exciting cruise. “Watch out for any wildlife, sea or land.” His was a fund of knowledge, acquired after many trips. Just soon after we left the docks, we slowed down to observe a whale breaching. Despite stopping for a few minutes the whale proved to be elusive as it had swam nearer to the edge of the coast. Humpback whales are rare to be seen in the sea, whereas Orca/Killer whales and Minke whales could be spotted, with a bit of luck. Later during the cruise, we saw a few Steller Sea Lions and Sea Otters basking in the open.
It was exciting to watch the ship gliding smoothly through the narrow passage of sea at the Esther Passage. The scene changed rapidly from pine forests on mountain sides to snow, glaciers and occasional lovely waterfalls. It was wild nature at its best. We were soon approaching the glacier zone at the College Fjord. This fjord has an interesting history. It was in 1899 that Edward Harriman, one of the most powerful men with plenty of riches, undertook a vacation to Alaska as suggested by his doctor ‘to get some rest.’ Instead of going alone he brought with him a scientific team of arctic experts, botanists, biologists, zoologists, geographers, artists, photographers, ornithologists and writers—a complete comprehensive team with various experts who would rediscover that part of Alaska that was little known to the world, except the native Chugach Eskimos.
Excitement ran high as we entered the College Fjord. The adventurous among the passengers went on the open deck below, braving the cold and rain, to get a first hand picture of the scene of immense glaciers looming large so near. Glaciers on the north west were named after prominent women’s colleges such as Barnard, Smith and Wellesley, while those on the south west were named after men’s colleges such as Harvard, Yale and Williams. However, it may be noted that some of these colleges are now co-educational. There are three types of glaciers in this region: Alpine, Piedmont and Tidewater. We went close to three glaciers avoiding floating ice blocks. Some of the glaciers, such as Harvard, are huge, extending miles sideways and anchored deep beneath the water while towering high with huge blocks of ice or compacted snow. There was a spectacular show when loose ice rolled down the slope of a glacier with a thunderous noise spreading white mist. Floating ice blocks, white and blue coloured were found near the glacier zone. Our captain deftly manoeuvred the ship amidst these blocks to get close to the glaciers. All glaciers do not look alike but each has its own distinct shape and size. Some of the Alaskan glaciers in this region are actually growing, though ‘calving’ is a general phenomenon.
The ship after being close to some of the glaciers in the College Fjord now entered the Harriman Fjord where we went near a few glaciers like Barry and Cascade. One common feature was the huge size of some of these glaciers with compacted snow turned into ice, white and blue in colour. Ice blocks, although a fascinating sight, posed a hazard for ships. These cold regions are wild, remote and without human interference. During the cruise we saw a few birds like Bald Eagle, Black-legged Kittiwake and seagulls. On a mountainside, many hundreds of birds had made their nest and we got a noisy reception when we neared the rock. The mountains give shelter to wildlife such as black bear, mountain goat and moose, though we didn’t spot any during the cruise.
We neared our port of departure at Whittier, satisfied that we witnessed cold nature in all its glory untouched by any human interference. We had a glimpse of America’s largest intact marine ecosystem carved by 15 million years of glaciations. It was a brief but satisfying trip with a first-hand experience of glaciers, wildlife and pristine water of Prince Williams Sound. The captain and the cruise staff did a good job of being informative as well as helpful during the cruise. It was time to say ‘goodbye’ to my table friends and disembark orderly to get into our shuttle bus waiting at the parking lot to take us back to Anchorage.
Phillips Cruises could be booked on line from Anchorage that would include a paid shuttle bus service from Anchorage to Whittier, the departing point of the cruise. It is a day’s tour from Anchorage. Summer is the best time to take the glacier tour.