Seeking Silence: Paddling Alaska's Dazzling Fjords

Matt Rode

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Updated 152d ago

It was the noise that finally got to me. The horns and sirens and garbage trucks—auditory detritus of a 21st century society. My summers are typically spent outdoors and out of the country, but a mountain bike accident less than a week after the solstice saw me grounded with a broken collarbone, stuck on a couch in the middle of the Midwest. Spinning on a trainer in front of the television. Slogging through one-armed swim workouts. Nursing my shoulder through day hikes while my mind cried out for backcountry mountain runs and swell strikes to Chile. Summer plans crushed like the distal tip of my left clavicle.

The fracture was still fresh when I received the invite, but there was no way I was turning the trip down. I needed to get away, to recharge the batteries in the quietly ordered chaos of nature. Doctor’s orders be damned—I was going paddling in the Last Frontier.

A guide to Alaska

I’d been to Alaska on a surf/SUP trip four years earlier, so I thought I knew what to expect. But from the start, it was clear that this trip would be different. First of all, we’d be paddling flat water, which completely changes the dynamic of an expedition. When waves are the focus, there is a tendency to become a bit myopic and allow the conditions to dictate the success or failure of a trip.

But when paddling simply for the sake of being on the water, things slow down and we tend to appreciate our surroundings more. Rather than becoming fixated on the lineup, our attention turns to everything else, and minute details that are often missed become the raison d’etre. Instead of a hindrance, floating ice becomes a playground. Rather than a distraction, eagles and otters are the highlight of the day. But when paddling simply for the sake of being on the water, things slow down and we tend to appreciate our surroundings more

The trip was also different because of where we were in Alaska. After 15 years of virtually non-stop travel, I have been to maybe half a dozen places that can begin to hold a candle to Prince William Sound. But that is only half of the story. An enormous backwater stuffed with fjords, glaciers, inlets, and isles, the sound is accessed through the small town of Whittier, which is noteworthy in its own right—although it wasn’t until I emerged from the 2.5-mile tunnel connecting Whittier with the rest of Alaska that I began to realise how unique it really was.

Whittier was established by the US Army during WWII as a port and petroleum delivery centre intended to service military bases to the north. As the only ice-free port in western Alaska, the base was of great strategic importance, and remained under the control of the military until 1960.

When it was incorporated as a township in 1969, the inhabitants figured they were better off utilising the remaining barracks than building new homes, so the population moved en masse into the Buckner Building, a sprawling concrete eyesore in an otherwise breathtaking setting.

And after the Buckner Building was condemned due to the presence of asbestos, the “City Under One Roof” simply moved a few hundred yards north to the Hodge Building, a 14-story family and bachelor barracks that was redubbed the Begich Towers. Today, a large majority of Whittier’s populace lives in “The Towers,” which also contains a church, a fudge factory, a hotel, a barbershop, and various other “city” amenities—and is connected to the town’s small school by an underground tunnel.

The visual effect of Begich Towers and the Buckner Building jutting up from the Whittier valley is reminiscent of what one might see somewhere in the former Soviet bloc. Towering mountains, glaciers, and waterfalls tumble with wild abandon down to the placid waters of Prince William Sound, creating a picturesque backdrop that is shattered by the Lego-like concrete construction of 20th century utilitarianism.

Surf guide: Alaska

From our rooms atop Begich Towers, we could look across Passage Canal to an almost endless succession of prehistoric ice, yet the 14 floors below us were filled with shadows, stories, and shady-looking fishing folk that were as unsettling as the view was spectacular. It felt like the kind of place you’d see in a bad horror flick, where you check in for a day and end up trapped for the rest of your life.

The night before we began our paddle, a shrill whistle and strange banging woke me up abruptly, like a ghostly baseball game being played in the empty hallways. It was well past midnight, but there was still light on the horizon, which disoriented me further and made it difficult to fall back asleep.

Then the entire suite was roused by the screaming of another of our party, who was trapped in the midst of a vivid night terror. Although he laughed it off after waking himself up with his screams, Kalvin later told me that he’d seen a head floating in the semi-darkness surrounding him. None of us were particularly superstitious, but there was no denying that the town of Whittier had us on edge. We seemed to have traded the noise of home for another kind of chaos in the Begitch Towers. It certainly wasn’t the peaceful retreat I’d come looking for.

The quiet started the next afternoon, as we disembarked from the Fera Mare, the water taxi that had transported us to the Harriman Fjord region of Prince William Sound.

Read more: Scoring Alaska

As the 30-foot homemade steel vessel motored back towards Whittier, silence descended upon our small group, broken only by the gentle lapping of wake against the pebble-strewn beach, and an occasional shriek from a bald eagle. We pointed our boards east, and as we worked our way along the 15-miles of densely wooded coastline between the beach and our campsite, the group was lulled into a contemplative daze, enjoying the unseasonably sunny weather and rhythmic cadence of paddle against water.

Although the portion of the sound we were exploring was originally populated by the Chugach tribe, US history has a tendency to neglect indigenous peoples in favour of Caucasian “discoverers”—in this case, explorer Edward Harriman and his crew, which included famed naturalist John Muir.

A little over a century ago, the glaciers of Harriman Fjord extended many miles farther than they do now, butting up against each other and offering only a small passage for old Eddy and his band of merry explorers to sail through.

When it was decided that the passage was too dangerous to risk their ship, Muir revolted, announcing that if no one else was game enough to go with him, he’d paddle a rowboat through the passage by himself. Not to be outdone, Harriman announced that they’d all be going after all, and gave the order—full steam ahead.

A few hours later, one of the grandest stretches of coastline in North America was “discovered”—largely due to a battle of egos between an affluent explorer and his stubborn naturalist. (Ironically, although John Muir was the driving force behind the US national parks system, and although Harriman Fjord arguably outshines wilderness staples such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, the region has not been designated as a national park—an oversight far more grievous than any folly Secretary William H. Seward might have committed so many years ago.)

As we paddled past Harriman Point, now completely clear of ice after 100-years of glacial receding, what remains of Cascade Glacier came into view. Alaska houses 80 temperate glaciers, and 77 of them are currently receding. But despite what many glaciologists consider to be the most accelerated melting of ice in the past 250,000 years, and the fact that the local guide we were paddling with said he’d watched these glaciers recede nearly a mile since 1981, they still remained enormously impressive.

And that was from a distance. The closer we got to them, the farther off we realized they actually were, and the bigger they began to loom above us. It wasn’t until we came around the corner and got our first glimpse of Coxe Glacier that we fully realised what we were in for

It wasn’t until we came around the corner and got our first glimpse of Coxe Glacier that we fully realised what we were in for. Our campsite was 300 meters from Coxe, and while we set up tents and began cooking dinner we could feel the earth shake as the glacier calved directly into the water, the reverberations of the impact booming across the fjord.

Soon Cascade and Barry Glaciers started chiming in as well, their natural percussion creating the background against which the rest of our trip would unfold. All told, Harriman Fjord houses 11 glaciers, five of which are tidewater glaciers, which means that they calve directly into the water. For the entire week that we were in Harriman, our days and nights enjoyed a constant barrage of rumbles and cracks, of earth tremors and massive geysers of splashing water and ice. It was like being in the middle of a heated naval battle, except that no one was shooting each other—it was just nature putting on a show.

The glaciers in Alaska shed upwards of 5 to 10 feet of ice faces every day, and a paddler can get as close to the display as his nerve and good sense allows. Paddling right up to the ice is a suicide wish, but by staying between 50 to 100 feet from the glaciers we were able to experience the elemental power of the ice while minimising our risk.

There was still the chance of a huge piece calving, which could theoretically shoot surface ice a few hundred feet and create a massive plunging wave, but with wetsuits on we figured we’d be able to survive if we got knocked off our boards. I had never thought of ice as being alive, but these glaciers seemed to be living monsters, with an energy that was eerily palpable

I had never thought of ice as being alive, but these glaciers seemed to be living monsters, with an energy that was eerily palpable. Over the years, I have been stuck on top of a 14,000-foot mountain in a lightning storm, camped next to the world’s second highest waterfall, and surfed 40-foot waves in northern Chile, but aside from love, I don’t know that I have experienced anything with as powerful as millennia-old ice.

We spent a couple of days in the Coxe/Barry/Cascade Glacier region before our friend Perry—who lives in Whittier during the summer season—suggested that we paddle deeper into the fjord. After three days in glacier country, we thought we’d just about seen it all, but the mischievous twinkle in Perry’s eye made me wonder if he didn’t have an ace up his sleeve.

As had been the case the whole week, the paddling conditions were perfect. The weather was still unseasonably dry, the wind was light, and everywhere we looked we saw waterfalls, high glaciers and wildlife. Prince William Sound is home to a huge variety of birds and sea creatures—everything from bald eagles and puffins to humpback whales, orca, seals, and sea otters—so our focus was more on the wildlife than it was on our destination as we paddled around the corner into Surprise Glacier. And what a surprise it was!

Compared to the three tidewater glaciers we’d seen the day before—what we had thought were the be all and end all of natural ice sculptures—Surprise was a behemoth. Flowing for miles out of the Chugach Mountains, the glacier’s face dropped 300 feet straight into the sound, with a portion of it carved into a natural amphitheater, allowing us to be surrounded on three sides by ice.

But equally impressive was the fjord the glacier flowed into. To our left, Cataract Glacier crept down towards us from above, its runoff forming a massive waterfall that fed our campsite. And to the right, Muir Mountain plummeted 8000 feet from its peak down into the sound, its dramatic walls dotted with glaciers, Dall’s sheep, and dozens of blinding cascades. If the area around Coxe Glacier was amazing, then this was downright spellbinding.

We spent the rest of our trip between Surprise and Harriman Glaciers, amazed at the fact that we were so completely alone. A tour boat would come into the fjord every afternoon and tool around for 15 or 20 minutes, but aside from that we didn’t see anyone else our entire trip. Over a bowl of hand-picked blueberries and the obligatory s’mores roast at our final campfire, I mentioned that I’d heard from a friend just before coming to Alaska, and that she’d told me she was on her way to Las Vegas to “lie by the pool” for a week. The fact that her trip would cost far more than ours—and that she’d never see or experience the things that we had wondered at over the past week—was both laughable and sobering at the same time.

The reality was that no one would ever again see the sights we had enjoyed. With so much ice melting and calving each day, the faces of the glaciers were changing on an hourly basis, so even the relatively few people who would venture into this fjord before the glaciers had completely receded from the water’s edge would have experiences that differed greatly from ours.

The next morning, while my misguided friend lounged thousands of miles away in a world far removed from ours—dipping her toes into chlorinated water and drinking Mai Tais to a soundtrack built of slot machines and cabaret shows—we paddled slowly out of Harriman Fjord, enjoying our last few hours of solitude and quiet.

Eagles soared above us as they had for thousands of years, unperturbed by our presence and unhurried in their movements. Otters swam lazily alongside us, peering at our boards with curious eyes, then diving for food in milky, silt-tinted water.

And above it all, water that had frozen thousands of years before humanity popped its noisy, destructive head up moved imperceptibly downward, carving out rock and rearranging geography that had existed since time immemorial.

As the glaciers receded in the distance, we turned our backs on the fjord and paddled towards Whittier, our doorway back to the hustle and bustle of modern life. Behind us, the sound of silence was broken only by the occasional thunder of falling ice.