Cruising into College Fjord was like being the first explorers to travel through Alaska. Early on, the wind was whipping down the deck into our faces and low clouds covered everything around us, lending a mysterious, ominous feel to the trip, as if we could suddenly sail off the side of the Earth, as early explorers thought. Early on, we did a “running catch” of a small boat, which whipped up along side the cruise ship to drop off the harbor pilots that would guide us through the ice fields around the fjord. Here I thought the might stop the ship, but instead the tiny boat just plowed right up to a hatch at water level and settled in with engines buzzing to match speed and have the pilots jump aboard. An exciting process to witness.
Knowing I was going to a fjord was exciting to me, in a total geek out kind of way. I don’t think I had ever seen one in person before, but I’d been fascinated with them since Douglas Adams had introduced us to Slartibartfast, the Magrathean coastline designer in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. “Lovely, crinkly edges indeed! As the first edges of the fjord came into sight and the clouds began to lift, I could certainly see why Slartibartfast won an award for doing fjords. They’re certainly an art form.
It’s amazing to see the smaller glaciers on the way up College Fjord. They’re like tremendous ocean waves, frozen solid in the act of pouring down the mountain. A sculpture of water, frozen in the act of shaping the Earth. And yet not frozen, as you begin to see the heaps of fertile ground atop and in front of the glaciers. Rich land that will provide all kinds of new potential for life. These are the titanic beings of the planet, like Tolkein’s Ents, moving slowly, geologically consideringly, shaping the mountains just the right way.
And all around us is the sea of ice islands. And then you look closer, and there are tiny brown dots in the water. Through the camera lens, I can tell the dots are sea otters. Some dive beneath the water as our cruise ship passes, frightened by the giant monolith rolling through their home. Others paddle backwards slowly, watching warily, and when I get the close-up lens on them, I realize they are pairs — a momma sea otter with her baby gliding along on her chest, sleepily looking up at us as we rolled past. As our guide on the nature tour yesterday pointed out, mom is reluctant to dive under the water with their babies, as they have to then lick the water off them and untangle their fur, which is a long and tedious process. Once again, they prove to be the cutest animals I have ever seen.
Our naturalist, Michelle, tells us the story of how the glaciers were named. E.H. Harriman, a rich railway entrepeneur, was told he needed to take a chill pill and go on vacation. His idea of a vacation was to take eminent scientists, artists, and naturalists up to Alaska and explore. They collected all kinds of information, and named all the glaciers in the fjord for famous colleges. It’s an amazing story. I think if I were an Internet millionaire of the current age, that would be my kind of vacation. Take an adventure and bring along the best and the brightest. Kind of like Star Trek, boldy go!
I’m troubled to think the Exxon Valdez disaster happened not too far from here. How horrible to think of the whales and sea otters and sea birds and seals covered in oil. Dying unknowing what this muck was that did not normally flow in the seas. Brought here by us. Dumped there because we were negligent in our duties to protect our home above all things. They told us how the natives of the area erected a “shame” totem pole to Exxon. They deserve one for every single thing they damaged or destroyed. A crime against us all.
I zoom in on some of the ice islands near the glacier and I can see whole colonies of sea lions there, lazily sunning themselves. They’re giving the otters a run for their money in the cuteness pageant. Here and there, one even claims a small island for itself. They watch us curiously, locals eyeing gaping tourists. “Hey, it’s just a big piece of ice.”
The captain turns the ship giving each side 25 minutes of viewing time. I can’t figure out why, considering we’re all on deck and can just walk around. I guess there are people who can’t stir themselves from their cabin or chair at the buffet. Why the heck would you come to Alaska and not get up and look around? It’s awesome, gigantic, incredible. And it needs to be seen firsthand, with no glass in the way.
As the ships thrusters slowly rotate the ship, they stir up the water, and sea birds dive down into it, to be blown around on the surface, spinning like rubber duckies in a strong bathtub current. Our naturalist tells us it’s because the thrusters stir up yummy things from the bottom for them to eat. I’m not so sure. I don’t see them eating. I think maybe they like the warmer water, or just enjoy the spinning ride I see them repeat, flying up and spinning back.
The Harvard Glacier is massive. Sitting in front of us, dwarfing the ship. It’s a mile away and blocks an entire mountain valley. And it groans! Every so often there’s this deep, keening walla that echoes all over. The glacier speaking its slow Ent-language. Haroom! The native Alaskans call it “White Thunder”.
Whatever you think about global warming, about oil…isn’t the Earth, the wonders like this, worth the effort of turning out a light, or recycling, or driving a smaller car? Maybe you’re a big human. Maybe you tower over all of this inside. Not me. I know my place. Humility is lesson one. This world, creation, is so much more than just you and I.
If I seem a little momentous here, I plead, “Big place, big thoughts.” And the sea otters are too cute. I want them to be around a long, long time.