The snow never melts, instead compressing into ice, which flows like rivers back down to salt water. The largest of these "tide-water" glaciers reaches salt water in a 5-mile wide, 300-foot high wall of ice. This is the Hubbard, North America's largest tide-water glacier, and it nearly blocks the mouth of the fjord. Numerous other, smaller glaciers "hang" in valleys.
The work of the glaciers which carved this continent is still underway here. In 1986 the Hubbard Glacier made national news by "surging" forward and actually sealing off the entrance of Russell Fjord, causing it to become a lake, and the water level to rise. After four months, the ice dam broke, the lake became a fjord again, and the terminus of the glacier temporarily receded. Glaciologists predict, however, that the glacier will advance again soon, making Russell Fjord a lake once more.
This area, on no route to anywhere, is truly remote, difficult and expensive to reach. Part of the Tongass National Forest's Russell Fjord Wilderness Area, it is rarely visited. No cruise ships ply these waters, and it is very unusual to see or hear any signs at all of humans. It is the quintessential Alaskan wilderness, offering stunning views of the St. Elias Mountains as a backdrop to our paddling in the calm waters of the fjord, itself a beautiful steep-walled valley bejeweled with waterfalls and flooded by a long finger of the sea.
We start this expedition in the town of Yakutat, located where the "panhandle" that is the Southern part of the state constricts to meet the "pan." The short sea plane flight from Yakutat is like a ride in a time machine. From ancient spruce and hemlock forest on the coast we fly to a place where evidence of recent glaciation surrounds us. The first few pioneer plants - dryas, fireweed, and a few willows - grow in scattered pockets on a landscape of barren rock and gravel, much of it having been under ice just 50 years ago. Old growth rain forest is nearly a thousand years away.
We begin our trip in a side-arm of the fjord. We explore along the rocky shore as we navigate bends in the inlet on the way to the (relatively) small glacier at its head, where we are likely to see a colony of harbor seals. Everywhere are classic signs of glaciation, and vegetation in various stages of succession, from barren gravel to alder and cotton wood forest.
In succeeding days we move to the mouth of the fjord and our encounter with the Hubbard Glacier itself. As we slowly approach we see it gradually grow in apparent size. When we are finally reach it, the mass of ice is overwhelming. Sun glistens off deep blue patches where ice has recently broken away. We are surrounded by ice bergs of all sizes. Porpoises and seals appear and disappear.
The sounds are amazing. Where we are used to conversation and machinery, there there is a deep stillness only accented by the perpetual bubbling of melting icebergs releasing ancient trapped air pockets. Shrill cries of gulls accompany a multitude of groans, clicks, cracks and pops coming from the ice itself as it slowly moves. And periodically there is a grand CRASH! which drowns out everything else as tons of ice break away from the terminus and fall into the water, renewing the supply of bergs and throwing up a huge splash.
The barren landscape, makes for interesting hiking. We walk along milky glacial outwash streams and up beside a glacier for a view of the area. If we are lucky, we will see some of the wolves, moose, mountain goats or brown bears that live here.
On our last day, the sea plane returns and conveys us back to the twentieth century, but we've been permanently changed; it will be difficult to view the landscapes of this continents without imagining the time when they looked like Russell Fjord.
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