We are in glacier country now, for real, and today was a two-glacier day. Even more excitingly, it was a two calving glacier day, as we were lucky enough to see both of our target glaciers explosively shed office-building sized chunks of ice sufficient to keep you and all your friends in piña coladas for the rest of your life. (By the way, since we’ve been on the subject for a couple of days now, I highly recommend the documentary “Chasing Ice”, which is about glaciers and has some truly amazing and beautiful photography.)
The weather has been cloudy with some light misting rain all day, the mountaintops shrouded in fog. But the glaciers are down at the sea and our visibility is unimpeded. The Australis is working its way down the Beagle Channel into the ice fields, and as we approach the glaciers the sea around us is densely littered with floating chunks of ice ranging in size from “cantaloupe” to “minivan”. Many of the larger pieces have been sculpted by wind and water into gently curving baroque shapes, and some of them have football-sized chunks of rock embedded in them. We push slowly through them, and since our cabin is on the bottom deck we can hear frequent thumps as the larger pieces brush against the ship’s hull. The water is dark gray and the floes range in color from light gray to sky blue…glacier blue, I suppose, a striking and incongruously cheerful hue against the cold and light drizzle.
The Zodiacs have pretty tough hulls themselves, the inflatable rubber sides being thick enough to repel collisions with small objects. Even so, a scout crew always goes out first to ascertain the safety of the surroundings before we board our own boats. You can see one returning, below. Note that the boat has a rope mesh at the front. This serves two purposes, one being a hand grip for beaching and shoving off, the other being a wave-breaker-upper (for lack of a better term); waves that splash into the front as we motor forward get dissipated on the mesh, which thus minimizes the amount of water splashed into the boat.
“Is it safe?”
We had come in sight of our first destination, Pia Glacier, an hour or two earlier. It’s a massive thing whose scale is difficult to appreciate against the mountains that surround it. Here’s the approach to the glacier from abovedecks. You can also see all the ice “debris” in the water around us.
Approaching Pia Glacier (just right of center) on the Via Australis
To give you an idea of the scale, the mouth of the glacier is about 3/4 mile wide, and it is about 1000 ft high.
Storming the beaches at Pia Glacier
Today was not quite such an early day, and we set off in the boats at about 9 AM, motoring first directly alongside the Australis and then powering out into the open channel. The driver steers clear of the larger floes but we run straight over the little ones, feeling the bumps and thumps as they run across the bottom of the craft.
The beach landing is easy once we navigate the ice; the slope of the beach is gentle and the crew is waiting with a little aluminum gangplank that they hoist onto the bow of the Zodiac for us. We exit the craft one-by-one with striking efficiency and then walk up the sloping granite “beach” to an assembly point.
The granite is interesting in itself. Nearly black in color and striated with gray and white, it’s surprisingly skid-proof even when wet; we can walk on it very easily, even on a slope. There are patches covered with white, green, and occasional orange lichen, and there are large exceptionally flat areas maybe 20 ft on a side that are covered with scratches and striations all running parallel to one another — scars on the rock from the glacier’s ancient retreat.
(While contemplating this I notice Alice ambling slowly across the granite, peering straight down in evident concentration. She sees me observing her and explains, “I am researching kitchen countertops, ” stating it in such a strikingly matter-of-fact tone that it takes me a moment to realize that she is a total loonball. Kitchen countertops, of course! What else would we be doing at the foot of a thousand foot tall glacier, 600 miles from Antarctica?)
We walk along the granite beach to a point that is perhaps a quarter mile from the face of the glacier, so the view looks like this. (The perspective is very deceiving in this image: bear in mind that our cohort in the orange life vests at left are a quarter mile from the ice; the central formations in the middle of the face are 1000 ft high.)
Ice the height of a skyscraper
And there is sound, lots of it. Loud cracks and pops like gunfire, and the occasional small explosion as some unseen mass of ice breaks off and falls somewhere onto a jagged surface, also out of sight. A lot of the cacophony seems to emanate from the cavelike formation that you can see on the left side of the picture. Every now and then we can see and hear a piece fall from the roof of the arch into the water; the smallest of these is about the size of a car and it makes a deep and thunderous >>FOOM!!!<< as it crashes into the sea. These events seem to occur with increasing frequency even as we watch, making us wonder whether there will be a larger calving event later (answer: yes).
“I’d like to buy a vowel and 2 billion tons of ice, Pat.”
There’s a viewpoint at an elevation of a few hundred feet on the hillside, and so we set out along a hiking trail. The weather is holding: heavily overcast and cold but not too raw, with the barely-there drizzle kind of coming and going. The hiking trail is as steep as yesterday’s, but not as long; there are short muddy stretches but tree roots are a bigger impediment, and there are uneven hunks of granite interspersed with the roots and the mud, so we have to pick our way. There are a couple of particularly steep stretches with rope strung along the edge of the path, such as it is; we use the ropes to help haul ourselves up, and we reach the lookout in about 20 minutes. And so here is Alice at the lookout, doing her best Vanna White imitation to present the glacier to you.
Even as we watched from the lookout, the rate of explosive pops and crackles from the left part of the glacier seemed to be increasing. So we waited — I’d like to say patiently, but we were anything but — and were rewarded, as the entire ceiling of the arch came loose with the crackling sound of a dead tree being splintered by a lightning bolt. This was a slab of ice bigger than a football field, and it seemed to fall in slow motion. Perhaps 4 seconds in free fall, it hit the water like an earthquake, sending a tiny tsunami towards the Zodiac and washing dozens of boulder-sized floes up onto the beach. We all clapped and cheered. Alice had been on the ball and caught it on video; we’ll post it upon our return.
Not everyone in our party had made the hike to the lookout, so when we returned to the beach we regaled the unfortunates with what we had witnessed. We were still hopped up on adrenaline by the time the Zodiac came to ferry us back to the Australis, though we had passed the time productively by drinking hot chocolate and variously chewing and licking a hunk of glacier that had washed up onto the beach, and which I had picked up and brought back to the group for inspection. After all, how could you not want to taste a glacier? I can report that it tastes a great deal like a hunk of ice, quite cold and fresh with no chlorine or additives of any kind. It was kind of neat to both hold and behold, though: you could see strata in it from various formative snow depositions over the years, and it had a lot of suspended air bubbles. This particular chunk was not blue, however.
We dodged floating ice all the way back to the ship and enjoyed a buffet lunch (assorted Italian dishes today, quite good) in preparation for the afternoon excursion to our next glacier, called Garibaldi. Most of our group, including ourselves, elected not to go ashore for this one since we were told that the hike was quite arduous and the reward at the top (a waterfall) not altogether commensurate with the effort. This was a wise choice,mat least for us: while the shore party(only 7 people, including the father and daughter from our group) was doing the hike, the captain took the Australis further up the channel nearly up to the face of Garibaldi itself, an enormous ice wall much bluer than Pia though slightly smaller in size. It is about 1500 ft wide and 500 feet high. The channel was practically choked with ice, which we pushed slowly through for a spectacular view.
Garibaldi is bifurcated by a vertical moraine; it is essentially two glaciers merged together with a visible seam, a jagged brown channel that runs down the face. And while we were observed this, Garibaldi calved too! We had seen some large pieces falling off so in anticipation I was more or less at the ready with my camera set in burst mode (3.6 shots per second for three seconds at a time), and managed to capture a few thousand tons of ice as it hit the water with just a bit of a splash:
Kersplash! Garibaldi Glacier calves.
That’s the impact billowing at the waterline just to the right of center. You can also see how very blue Garibadi is, and how very clogged the channel is with small ice floes. And of course you can also see the moraine making a dark S-shaped channel through the glacier.
We spent most of the rest of the day congratulating ourselves on our glaciological luck. At 6 PM there was a knot-tying demonstration at the bar/observation deck, which was a lot more entertaining than it sounds. The lesson was given by the boatswain, a beefy guy with a shaved head who could probably have a second career as a nightclub bouncer. He was a hoot, at least in translation by another crew member since he himself spoke little English. And I am proud to say that for at least the next 24 hours until I forget how, I know how to tie a bowline knot as well as a “novelty” knot called a “devil’s staircase”. This is a sort of a trick whereby with a few economic motions you simultaneously create multiple knots at a time strung along the length of rope like beads on a string. As nearly as I can tell its practical application is for wowing guests at very dull parties. But I am confident that I will be able to amaze the kindergarten crowd at, say, our grandson’s fifth birthday in 2 1/2 years.