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I knew it was coming. I just didn’t know what it would look like, how close we would be, or if it would trap us like the siege of St. Petersburg. It is hard to explain why I didn’t ask these kinds of questions before the twenty-three miles we’d gone that day, but it is easy to see why I couldn’t picture such things. Being in new places and seeing new things everyday and you just end up succumbing and rolling with the punches.
The magnitude of what we were in for could not be documented on a chart or a map, which was the extent of our resources. For whatever incredible inventions humans have created, numerically speaking, the earth in all its vastness and beauty easily outnumbers human technology. There are trillions of enormous and miniscule creatures, spectacular mountain ranges that reach so high they touch the limit of mortal tolerance. There are evolved and intricately worked canyons and caves, wide fields and forests that never seem like they change but in all actuality have never stopped moving or changing since the beginning of time. We as humans look mighty ignorant to believe that we are the most special things ever to enter this world, especially when we are more destructive to our symbiosis with the natural world than preservers of our relationship with it. But on this particular day when I was confronted with something I’d never seen before, not even on television or in a text book, there it was so enormous that from 2 miles away I felt like I could reach out and touch it.
Realistically, had I been close enough to scrape my frail human skin across its front side there is no doubt in my mind that I would not be around to tell the story today.
That morning started so early, I felt as though the night before never came. During the summer in Alaska, the sun never sets and thus the day never ends, and if the day never ends then the next day never actually begins. I constantly tangled with this very confusing theory and lasted long into the night writing in my journal, fishing while my two-week permit lasted, or basking in the beauty that was and is Alaska. It was Day 20 of my 30-day excursion to Prince William Sound in Southern Alaska.
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That morning on Hogg Pt. marked the start of a 23-mile kayaking journey up the Bainbridge Passage, past Point Countess, over Whale Bay, into Icy Bay and finally ending in Nassau Fjord. It was going to be such a long day and we had to get such an early start, that my tent-group and I stayed up late to prepare breakfast and pack our boats the night before so it could be avoided in the morning. We laid our heads down for no more than 2 hours before being summoned to begin a day that technically never began. But it was darker than most mornings.
We were in the boats and out of camp in an hour, which is pretty quick considering sixteen people needed to eat sixteen breakfasts, pack five tents, secure mounds of gear and food, get eleven boats in the water and sixteen people in the boats. By day 20, it was second nature and we were prepared for anything. The Bainbridge Passage was a calm seven miles and being strapped into a single rather than a tandem kayak, I was able to explore and wander in the much nimbler watercraft. I always liked the singles so much more. Not that I am not a team player, but honestly who can say that they enjoy being attached at the hip with someone for hours upon hours, literally. So I pushed my case, and whenever a single became available I put in my claim. The Bainbridge Passage is surrounded by green, lush hills and large mountains that just shoot straight out of the water and many waterfalls drain off the sides and splash eighty feet below. The sights were truly spectacular but we whizzed by them on our way to completing the longest day of our lives.
Passing over the mouth of Whale Bay, the fatigue started to set in. The snacks I had prepared were not replenishing my muscles and mind the way I had hoped. Maybe it was the lack of sleep or maybe it was that I had reached the eighteen-mile mark and five more miles just seemed too distant to overcome. Regardless of how I felt, the group pushed on and so did I, stopping only once for lunch. As we floated around the last land mass and into Icy Bay, I felt the slightest touch of coolness on my face. I shivered with trepidation and pressed on ever deeper to what looked like the mouth of doom. Three miles to go and in the distance I could see clear as day what the map depicted as Tiger Glacier. I thought to myself astonished and relieved that we had made it to our destination, “wow, what a sight.” But I was only fooling myself. Our destination was not Tiger Glacier, but rather Chenega Glacier even further into the well-named Icy Bay. We turned our boats away from Tiger Glacier and headed North into the auspicious Nassau Fjord. I could feel the burn in my shoulders and my limbs were beginning to drag from the stress. Every time we passed around another bend I wished so loud in my head for the next view to be of our campsite that I thought others could hear my pleas for relief. Finally as my concentration and happiness dwindled to a flicker, and the water below my boat became as cold as an ice-cube, the beach was in sight. On my left was a massive glacier that can probably be seen from space. On my right was the beach looking directly across the two-mile fjord toward Chenega Glacier. And in the middle of the two was a dead-end. There was only one way out and it was the way we had just come in. The fjord was spoon shaped with a wide head and a narrow entrance/exit, but no one was concerned with that. The water below our boats was so chilled my legs were becoming numb and had been for miles. No one else had said anything so neither did I and we just sucked it up, felt as miserable and overpowered as a human can feel and wished for land. And so we landed one boat at a time. But I could not stop shivering all night.
It is hard to remember or even care what time it was when we landed because I think we all had a supper and crawled into our sleeping bags with that cloud-covered light still lingering in the sky. When I emerged from a dreamless sleep the next morning, slowly and defiantly to join the rest of the group for morning chat, the sky was even darker than the night before. As we were talking and discussing the daily schedule, we were rudely interrupted about once every four minutes or so with a deafening sound of thunder. It was not the usual thunder following a lightning bolt, though I expected that to be on the way as well but rather it was Chenega Glacier roaring over and over again as its front side broke away piece by piece. For someone not there to witness such a display of power and life, I can only explain it like this: It is so large that even from two miles away I felt like I could pick up a rock and hit it. It is so large that if you paddled for an hour you would only be half way there. It is so large that from two miles away, the piece that falls off the front looks like a block of ice the size of a two-story house, when in all actuality that chunk of ice is as gigantic as a forty-story skyscraper. And this continued on every four minutes for four days.
I do not know why I didn’t really notice or pay any attention to the exploding thunder sounds the first night I was in Nassau Fjord. I think I was too tired, weary and beaten to let yet another of earth’s creations dominate me on that day and chose to pretend it wasn’t there. For the next three days after, I couldn’t have a conversation or sleep without being interrupted or awoken by the sound of crashing skyscrapers in water. We had planned on spending two nights at this very cold and noisy campsite and that may have been too much as it was, but when the forces and pulls of life revealed themselves it was apparent that we would be stuck in Nassau Fjord for a lot longer.
The days went on as usual, with research of Prince William Sound out of our limited library we’d brought with us, consisting of twenty or so very out-of–date books. We would also write, talk, play a few games to warm us up, talk with instructors one on one, get medical training in case of an emergency, or eat. But none of these activities could take our minds and our eyes off Chenega Glacier as we could watch a giant piece break off and land in the water, count to three seconds and finally hear the crash. The mountains surrounded the spoon-shaped fjord and turned the thunder into an ominous echo of power and malice. As the tide and the winds changed, so did our perspective of our unique campsite. Later in our first full day at Chenega Glacier a cloud entered the fjord that would not leave and could not because of the bottleneck the mountains had created. Unfortunately, the bottleneck not only hit from above but also from below and the tide brought to our side of the fjord and engulfed the entire exit a thousand icebergs of varying sizes and shapes. They may not sound threatening or look very threatening for that matter, but one ant or bee doesn’t sound that threatening compared to a swarm of an entire colony either. For whatever it is worth, an iceberg of any size if struck by a kayak can sink that kayak in a heartbeat. That to me is a frightening thought when I think back to the numbness of my legs with only the bottom of the boat separating my frail bones and skin from that ice water. A human if thrown in water at that temperature can live for about thirty seconds. That doesn’t leave much time for a rescue.
We were messing with forces completely in control of us. We were dependent on everything and yet nothing was dependent on us. Life went on as usual and we were at its mercy and locking up our only exit was nature’s tricky way of showing us all that. I looked up at the sky a lot while I was at that campsite because looking down so often spawned feelings of fear and despair with our situation. Looking up at the mostly cloudy Alaskan sky I could see the coast guard symbol of a cross on a red helicopter high above and could hear the gentle flapping of its blade as it zoomed over our heads to a rescue far away. I thought to myself there on that cold beach, “yet another frail human has seen the power of nature and been humbled by it. That crude flying contraption going to save that weak, hurting soul will be humbled as well” I thought, “and toil with forces such as rain, sleet, low visibility, wind-sheer, lightning and a plethora of other devastating enemies on its way to and from its destination. As the bottleneck began to thin enough for us to squeeze a kayak through we cleared the camp and prepared to leave. We snaked our way through the icebergs in a single file line, moving slow and fearful of any contact with the chunks. We had escaped the clutches of Nassau Fjord and as we left, hazy as ever, Chenega Glacier was still dropping skyscrapers in the water with a deafening thunder, warning us never to return.