Tag Archives: Glaciers

Polar Ice

Ice in all its forms – whether briny frozen sea or sapphire blue compacted snow flakes from a glacier – is one of the highlights of the Arctic landscape.

IMG_9675

This incredibly dynamic crust is ever changing and ever satisfying to the eye thanks to its transient and shifting nature. Whether I’m watching the bow of the ship split salty pans of ice, or staring back at the path we have just cleared through the solid horizontal plane, I’m aware of the novelty of being in the less than one percent of humanity existing this far north, at this very point in time.

IMG_9706

The ice is timeless, and temporal at once. It is home to polar bears wandering each year for thousands of miles as if on a massive tread mill. Their very habitat and environment is in constant flux as the ice thins, piles up on top of itself, splits, drifts away, or anchors itself to the shore.

IMG_9742

If we are lucky, we stumble upon a bear in the ice and spend as much time as we can watching, learning, gob-smacked and in awe. There is nothing on earth like these bears; these lumbering lipovores single-mindedly in search of chubby seals upon which to feast.

IMG_9691

The glaciers exhibit a different side of the ice. Vertical faces of blue and white that are actively calving and exposing their cerulean hearts as they melt and recede back into alpine valleys worn smooth by their decent.

IMG_9745

Zodiac cruising amongst the newly birthed icebergs is a snapshot in time. These chunks of ice will melt and roll and will never look the same again.

IMG_9784

Timeless and temporal, like life itself.

 

Arctic Preparations

How do you get from Muck boots to cute party shoes in as few steps as possible?  As I’m packing for my next voyage consisting of nine weeks around the Arctic Circle in Svalbard, Greenland and Iceland, I reckon these six pairs of shoes, should do me for just about every occasion I’ll encounter. From hiking in the hills, to wrestling with Zodiacs in the surf, and from enjoying fine meals in the dining room, to working them off in the gym; I’m set to go.

How do you get from Muck Boots to party shoes?

How do you get from Muck Boots to party shoes?

So, as you slide your bare, tanned feet into those perfectly broken in flip-flops this summer, please think of me putting on my second pair of long underwear, my woolen socks and my insulated ‘Arctic Sport’ Muck boots.

Fully geared up in my foul-weather gear, I’ll be daily hoping to spot polar bears, walrus, beluga whales, narwhals, seals, orca, seabirds or whales of all varieties. My quarry will be found mostly in the sea ice surrounding parts of the Arctic Circle, or clinging to cliffs and coastal slopes along the land-sea interface. Here’s a little sampling of the summer’s game plan.

Photo by Pamela Le Noury

An Arctic Bearded Seal — Photo by Pamela Le Noury

And in the last few days of preparation, between family time, surf sessions, long runs and walks with the dog, I was researching one of the small Greenlandic towns I’ll be visiting in August and was surprised (in a sick, stomach-churning sort of way) to read that the average high temperature in August is just a hair above freezing.

Ah hell, bring it on. I’m prepared, ready to see some amazing wildlife, and my feet will be both warm and fashionable this summer…although…they will definitely never be both at the same time!

Alaska – North to the Future!

I usually write my travel posts when I’m still away on a journey, while my senses are overflowing with stimuli and my mind is oddly out of joint thanks to the distance – both physical and psychic – between my destination and the familiar territory of home.   But while I was away most recently, I kept chewing on the sum total of “ALASKA” and trying to decide how to boil down this epic landscape punctuated with glaciers and rough wilderness experience into a single bit of contemplative writing. It’s not an easy task.

Near Geographic Harbor

Our ship at anchor near Geographic Harbor on a spectacular day.

Holgate Glacier in the sunshine

Holgate Glacier in the sunshine

I could begin by describing some of the native people encountered at a small settlement named, Wales – the westernmost settlement on mainland Alaska with a population of less than 150 individuals.

The main landing beach for the community of Wales, Alaska.  Population ~145

The main landing beach for the community of Wales, Alaska. Population ~145

Thanks to a last minute change of plan, the ship found herself heading into Alaska with 80 guests and another 10-15 staff and crew wanting to come ashore. The day before our landing I used the satellite phone on the ship and literally called the general store to find out if there was anyone in the community who could help us arrange some kind of welcome and/or activities for the guests.

This hand-written sign was posted in the community store letting everyone know we were arriving the next day.

This hand-written sign was posted in the community store letting everyone know we were arriving the next day.

The people of Wales exhibited generosity and their accommodation of us was astounding. We didn’t arrive until close to 10 am, but the whole community was out on the beach waiting for us from 8:30 am onwards.

Local guides for our visitors to Wales, Alaska

Local guides waiting on the beach for our visit to Wales, Alaska

The local dance group rallied to give us a performance using traditional drums and a few items of clothing handed down from previous generations like reindeer boots and wolf skin gloves. It was a wonderful welcome to an isolated homestead on the fringes of Alaska’s great wilderness.

The leader of the Wales dance troupe shows me the reindeer skin boots he inherited from his dad (who is Vice-Mayor and Post Master for the community).

The leader of the Wales dance troupe shows me the reindeer skin boots he inherited from his dad (who is Vice-Mayor and Post Master for the community).

It also occurred to me to write about the bears. This summer of 2014, will always be the “Summer of the Bear” to me; whether in reference to the great Russian bear lifting it’s might head and growling after a long political hibernation, or in regards to the scores of bears we saw from Zodiacs (and landside) in Far Eastern Russia and Alaska.

Seeing a female with three new cubs is a treat.  They can have up to four in a litter, but it's way more common to see one or two at a time.

Seeing a female with three new cubs is a treat. They can have up to four in a litter, but it’s way more common to see one or two at a time.

A bear down near the water's edge scavenging on a falling tide.

A bear down near the water’s edge scavenging on a falling tide.

I hate to say it, but the bears I saw looked hungry – eating grass like grazing cows, tearing at pieces of kelp, mashing colonies of barnacles with their paws and lapping up the salty gruel right off the intertidal rocks, gnawing on whale vertebrae like a dog with a mighty bone. Locals say the salmon run was poor last summer and late this summer – not much to go on without real data, but I’d be interested know if it’s true.

This young bear was showing ribs and tearing at kelp -- not much of a menu item...

This young bear was showing ribs and tearing at kelp — not much of a menu item…

Bears exhibit such personalities and such a range of emotions that watching their wordless interactions, it is perfectly clear what dynamics they are encountering, exchanging, absorbing and reacting to amongst the individual animals. I enjoyed watching them in moments of careful concern between relatives, as well as in flashes of aggression and competition for food. The safety of a Zodiac bobbing just offshore is the perfect place to watch these ursid goliath brown bears.

IMG_8849

One grumpy old bear charges another younger one in a dispute over a carcass washed up on the beach in Geographic Harbor.

Finally, I wanted to paint a picture of the awe-inspiring landscapes of the volcanic Aleutian Islands, shrouded in fog and the indelible scent of thousands of breeding auklets creating a tangerine flavored haze around the islands. Yes, the air smelled like orange blossoms when enough of these birds were around – and I promise this is real!

An Auklet haze fills the air with the ribbons of black seabirds and the smell of tangerines in the air.

An Auklet haze fills the air with the ribbons of black seabirds and the smell of tangerines in the air.

Not to neglect the backdrops of places like St. Paul, St. Matthew and Hall Islands in the Pribilof Islands – these are mysterious, private places that share just a taste of their spectacular wildlife in the form of Northern Fur Seals, mosaics of brilliant wildflowers and bog plants, and thousands upon thousands of sea birds on steep, cliff coasts.

St. Matthew, Pribilof Islands

St. Matthew Island’s bird cliffs, Pribilof Islands

Hall Island, Pribilof Islands

Hall Island, Pribilof Islands

A highlight wildlife encounter for me was a split second when two of our Zodiacs drifted near a huge flock of frenzied gulls and kittiwakes feeding on a dense bait ball of pinky-finger sized minnows. I was listening to the splashing of birds and fish near the surface and the squawking of the kittiwakes announcing their presence with that piercing shriek of “Kitti-wake!” when the entire school of fish ever-so-slyly slipped under our boats to find life-sustaining shelter from the barrage of beaks above. It was brilliant to see all those tiny fish outsmart the seabirds, if only for a moment until our wakes left them behind and out in the open and vulnerable again.

A feeding frenzy of seabirds over a bait ball.

A feeding frenzy of seabirds over a bait ball.

There is so much more I could say about Alaska, but that will have to do for now. It’s more than a single state belonging to the United States of America, it’s a mind-set, a tapestry of mountains, rivers, plains, and home to some of the most outlandish riches in terms of wildlife that a person can imagine. Viva the 49th State of the Union.

Chiswell Islands, one of my favorite Zodiac cruises of the season.

Chiswell Islands, one of my favorite Zodiac cruises of the season.

Unga Village in the Aleutians -- the remains of a gold mining community overgrown with fireweed.

Unga Village in the Aleutians — the remains of a gold mining community overgrown with fireweed.

 

SubAntarctic Islands

Distance is relative.  Spending a day – or three – at sea to reach a remote island in the Southern Ocean has become my normal commute over the past month spent exploring the Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia.  These far-flung ancient rock formations jut up a few hundred meters from the shallow surrounding continental shelf, often perched right on an abyssal precipice.

A glacially carved Campbell Island in the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands.

A glacially carved Campbell Island in the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands.

A couple of the larger, higher islands like Auckland and Campbell Island were covered in glacial ice during the last ice age, and so are graced with gently sloping U-shaped valleys and rounded hilltops.  Nestled down in the fog, and in the moss and lichen-soft greens and muted golden browns of both these substantial islands, are paper-white nesting albatrosses like origami cranes perched in a sea salt-pruned bonsai landscape.  Friendly pipits hop and flit around your feet with insect laden beaks, and sweeping views peppered with blooming red rata flowers reward the committed hiker.

A pipit feeds its near-grown chick on Campbell Island.

A pipit feeds its near-grown chick on Campbell Island.

But, nothing compares to Macquarie Island.  It is the only place on the planet where the sea floor rises above sea level.  By some incongruous feat of tectonic geology, two oceanic plates collided and rose upwards together instead of subducting one below the other, as is the usual decorum of molten seabed rock.  Massive fields of pillow lava that once bubbled up from the red-hot Earth’s mantle under miles of water, lie like overlapping and inflated fish scales on terra firma.  But the beaches…the beaches are thick with busy penguins commuting back and forth from the dunes to the salty shores, or stand precariously balancing behemoth eggs on their webbed feet.

Regal king penguins are thick on the shores of Macquarie Island.

Regal king penguins are thick on the shores of Macquarie Island.

Mammoth, lazy elephant seals seem to melt into the sand on the beach thanks to the sheer weight of their hulking bodies.  Some are grumpy and irritated as they clearly suffer painfully through a catastrophic molting event and it’s wise to stay clear of them and the shreds of fur peeling slowly off of their hulking bodies.  Others are young and curious, and will shuffle up towards you while you kneel in the sand meters away, and then watch you intently with their moon-pie black eyes, trying to figure out if you are friend or foe, or simply a speed bump on their way back to the ocean.

A young elephant seal rests on the shores of Macquarie Island.

A young elephant seal rests on the shores of Macquarie Island.

In other places, penguins stand shoulder-to-shoulder in massive colonies struggling in the mud to find their chicks and feed them a hot, regurgitated seafood slaw.  The penguins rocking back and forth on their heels, or scurrying along the outskirts of the colony in a straight line, look a bit like the hippies at Woodstock on day three – dazed and confused, exhausted and hungry, covered in sticky, smelly brown mud, and hustling along to get to the next good thing.  The bedlam is mesmerizing, smelly, and astounding.

 

Surrounded by a royal penguin colony -- like Woodstock on day three...

Surrounded by a royal penguin colony — like Woodstock on day three…

Now the ship heads south to Antarctica and distance becomes even more relative.  We have been at sea for 5 days already, and will probably be out for a couple more until we reach the sea ice and then the continent at long last.  I saw my first real iceberg today and felt born again – christened by its shades of blue and gray – and by the spires of ice and the age and the size and the flurry of birds all around.  There are no words.  I will try to write again when we are closer to the great southern continent.

My first Antarctic iceberg, deep in the Southern Ocean.

My first Antarctic iceberg, deep in the Southern Ocean.