Monday, January 25, 2010

Gunshots and thunder

One of the most absolutely amazing things I have ever seen or heard was a huge chunk of ice.  Let me explain ...

Long long ago in a land far far away ... OK, back in 1998 on the east coast of the USA my buddy Jeff and I left for the trip of a lifetime (for us ... for others, perhaps the trip of a lifetime is a hike up Mt. Everest, or a ride into the stratosphere as some rich folk are now able to afford ... for me, this was cool enough).  We drove from Right Coast USA, across the top to Left Coast USA, and then up through downtown Canada, into Alaska USA, all the way to the top of Alaska USA, and then back home to Right Coast USA via lower Canada.  12,000 miles in 33 days.  It was a schlep.  I won't go into trip details, but it was awesome to say the least.  And I'll never do it again --- I hate driving.

But one of our many side trips involved a glacier cruise.  We were staying the night in ... I don't know, somewhere in southern-ish Alaska.  And we decide to do a somewhat touristy thing and take a glacier cruise.  As it turned out, it was fantastic (the wildlife and the glacier) and horrible (my stomach never has gotten along very well with boats).

We went out of a small town called Seward (here, which seems to be as good as any other Seward-related website).  We hopped aboard the small cruise ship and off we went.  Jeff and I had opted for a 6 hour tour ("... a 6 hour tour ..." in your best Gilligan's Island theme song voice).  The beginning of our journey was glassy-smooth, as we remained in a large bay for the first hour or two, cruising slowly out to the sea.  Along the way we saw some amazing stuff --- amazing for an east coast suburban boy.  The wildlife is stunning, and crazy.  The water is just slightly above freezing, and many of these birds and seals and other wild thingies are swimming along happily, ignoring the cold.  Yeesh!

Our ship's captain (not Captain Stubing) told us along the way that he would keep in touch with other similar ship's captains, and as any of them saw anything spectacular along the way they would radio each other to let them know so we could all converge on the spectacularness.  As it turned out someone called in with a humpback whale sighting, and so off we went into open water to watch.

I didn't tell you that earlier they had served salmon for lunch (breakfast??) and I had indulged.  I did already tell you that my stomach doesn't particularly like the bobbing up and down of boats.  So, combining this dislike, the earlier eating of some very delicious salmon and the open water into which we'd just arrived, I suddenly felt like heaving (see the second entry here).  From what I remember there was but a single rest room (vomitorium?) in that part of our boat, and some poor teenaged girl and I spent the next long while taking turns in that small room, heaving our guts out.  Nobody else on-board seemed to be affected, so lawsuits due to bad food were out of the question.  And of course my buddy Jeff was having a blast.  I vaguely remember seeing some large masses out in the water, but that's about it.  Most of my time I spent either running toward the vomitorium, or else in the vomitorium itself, politely taking turns with my new vomiting teenaged friend.

Eventually we made it back into another bay and more glassy-smooth water, at the north end of which resided our glacier.  Someday I'll remember the name of this specific glacier.  My stomach had calmed down so I was feeling slightly human again.  We got close enough to the glacier area that we could see it in the distance.  And as we approached the air got noticeably colder.  As we continued to get closer the water itself also got colder, as evidenced by the fact that it actually got somewhat slushy.  Saltwater has a lower freezing point than does fresh water, and so I can't imagine how cold this not-quite-frozen water was.  What was truly amazing was the vast number of puffins amd other arctic birds that were just flying and swimming and flopping around in this muck.  And they didn't care how cold it was!  Yeesh!!!  And what was even more amazing to me was something else we saw in the distance: two kayakers heading toward the glacier.  Did I mention how cold the water was?  I'm sure that these adventurers were dressed for warmth and dryness, but I kept thinking that just one single small hole in one of their kayaks would have meant sudden disaster.  I don't know how long their wet suits (dry suits?  I'm not an expert in such things) would have kept them safe in that below-frigid water, but we and perhaps one other tourist boat were the only rescuers I could see that would have been close enough to do anything before they turned into chunks of human-sized and -shaped ice.

But anyway ...

We approached the glacier.  When we got several hundred yards away --- or maybe it was several miles, as distances were completely impossible to judge out there --- the captain stopped the boat, shut down the engines and said to us all:
"Everyone please be as quiet as you can.  We will remain here for 20 minutes."
That was just unexpected and weird.  Sitting, engines off, floating around in front of a glacier for 20 minutes.  WHAT THE HELL?!?!?!

And then we quickly realized why: As we quietly watched the glacier, simply a huge chunk of very old ice, all we could hear were gunshots and thunder.  As the glacier moves into the water from land and warms up, gigantic pieces calve off the glacier, breaking into huge icebergs that fall into the water.  The sounds of this calving was what we were hearing.  And it sounded like gunshots and thunder.  It was incredible.  I have heard ice cubes crack in my drinks and this is similar, but on a huge scale.  In addition, I believe that some of this noise comes from air pockets that have been trapped for years/decades/centuries/millenia inside the ice and suddenly released.

For 20 minutes we stood there at the side of our boat, watching ice melt.  We were all stunned by how fantastic it was and by the simple fact that we were stunned by ice melting.  I have never seen nor heard anything like it since, and I probably won't ever again, unless I manage another glacier cruise.

The point to my story?  Several:
  1. If you tend to get seasick ... uh, be careful when you are out at sea.
  2. Go see a friggin' glacier!!!!!  For something so bland, they are truly one of the most awesome things out there.
  3. Drive a Prius!  If you don't, evidently your glacier-viewing window will shut well ahead of when it would otherwise!!
  4. Respect nature.  It really is awesome.
  5. I managed once again to take a lot of time telling a story which could have taken much less time.

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