I didn’t expect the color of Glacier Bay to be so vivid. It’s darker than Caribbean green, but just short of forest green. And I didn’t expect the ripples on the surface to be so distinct. What I’m looking at on my summer Alaska cruise is a spectacular study in texture, within a narrow range of bold color. As our ship glides noiselessly on the bay, it leaves a loose crisscross of ripples by its starboard side — then, a bit further out, the bay turns flat and glassy. It’s hard to express the sense of calm on the water. Then the emerald green shoreline rises up to meet the slate gray of exposed mountain, scored and sloping and formidably sharp. And finally, there’s a peaceful baby-blue sky cushioned by puffy clouds. On Glacier Bay, serenity meets the evidence of nature’s violent past, and then the mountains strain to touch the sky’s softness.
Two days ago, I embarked in Seward, and now I’m in the middle of one of the planet’s most famous waterworlds, with perfect weather for viewing it. Sea days are typically an opportunity to scout out the ship’s offerings, but we have several days at sea, and the ship’s National Park Ranger, over the loudspeaker, exhorts us to keep outdoors given the fine morning. It would be almost shameful to head inside: It’s 70 degrees, but actually feels even hotter and brighter, with the Alaska sun bouncing off the water and the glaciers.
The ship’s guests look at the snowy peaks and begin the day huddling in their down jackets, but one by one the coats are removed and left on deck. Hats come off. The complimentary pea soup the stewards are serving was likely meant for blustery days, yet it is still enjoyed by all. I haven’t had pea soup in years, and I go for seconds.
I move around all the ship’s decks to see Glacier Bay from every possible angle, and learn to love how the ship’s wooden railings frame the view. Several couples had the right idea and are lounging on the teak deck chairs — deck chairs were made for cruising Glacier Bay. The stern is where the action is — it’s the widest, most open deck on the ship. I climb up above it to take in the magnificent vista, and it occurs to me that the stern’s deck is like a glamorous moving stage set where the scenery is slowly shifting. The fact that the swimming pool is in the foreground, floating inside the various inlets and bays, is totally incongruous — and completely wonderful. That’s the magic of an Alaska cruise, that your sightline takes in a wholly unexpected — as well as gorgeous — composition.
The ranger makes several references to climate change, but is quick to point out that the glaciers we’re looking at don’t simply recede or move in one direction. Movement of these vast sheets of ice is unpredictable: While expanses of brown earth were covered by greenish fields of ice fairly recently; other spots are now white where there once was visible bedrock. The phrase “It’s complicated” applies. The vast areas of earth and glacier contrast with the adorable little blobs of ice that are bobbing on the surface of the bay, the color of which is now aqua. The chunks of ice bubble melt and change form, then slowly disappear. If the bay were a cocktail, these are the ice cubes.
The fact that the glacial landscape is always in transition is underscored when we arrive at the 350-foot-tall Margerie Glacier. Though the guidebooks still describe this awe-inspiring expanse of green as “stable,” at this point it’s moving enough to no longer warrant that designation. The ranger explains that it’s speeding downhill at an astonishing six feet a day. When on a cruise, most people think merely of the sense of sight, but on an Alaska cruise, sound is just as elemental. The ranger tells us to listen closely. No one on deck says a word. We are waiting for what he calls “white thunder” — the calving of the ice.
Margerie Glacier is about a mile wide in the spot that sits on the bay, so everyone is scanning from side to side, ears peeled. And then it happens: the rumble and distant crash into the placid water. At those moments, the icy waterworld is alive and active — and extraordinary. The Alaska cruise has found its thrilling purpose.
THAT MOMENT ON GLACIER BAY WHEN…
…our sister ship appears.
Glaciers are one of the top reasons that people take an Alaska cruise, and it’s certainly one of mine. And of all the glaciers we’ve been treated to, the 21-mile-long tidewater Margerie Glacier, situated dramatically at the northwestern end of Glacier Bay, is the standout. But I didn’t quite expect a queue to see it! But everything is very orderly, as the different watercraft in the bay await their turn in front of the glacier. At the moment, we’re on deck after a ship that looks a lot like ours: Eurodam. Watching our Holland America Line sister ship admire Margerie Glacier gives us a sense of what we must look like poised in front of one of the world’s most noted bodies of ice. Eurodam is 285 meters but it is dwarfed by the glacier. I can’t imagine a way of getting a better sense of scale. Or wonder.
If you’re looking to embark on an Alaska cruise in 2019 or 2020, hundreds of departures include Glacier Bay scenic cruising.