Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hubbard Glacier

I had several misconceptions about Alaska shattered by this trip. One was how big it is, in terms of land. I thought it was big, and it's not. It's mindblowingly BIG. It is so much bigger than you can possibly comprehend that I can't think of a way to explain how big it is.

Another misconception I had is this business with the glaciers. I actually kinda thought there were only a few glaciers in Alaska, and that they were shrinking at an alarming rate. In fact, I thought there was one glacier that was now a half-mile hike from where it used to be just a couple years ago. (I was right about that one glacier, Portage Glacier, which is south of Anchorage, and which is receding at a startling rate. However, to worry about there being NO glaciers left is a bit like saying that because some ski resort close to Manhattan hasn't had good snow for a while, no one in the U.S. goes skiing anymore.)

So, in fact, my misconception unpacks into two misconceptions. First, there are tens of thousands of glaciers in Alaska, half of all glaciers in the world, and 10,000 of the Alaskan ones have names. Hubbard has a native name from the Tlingit (pronounced klink-it) tribe that live off these waters. Some Tlingit elders came on board to talk to us about the glacier, and their livelihoods. They even sprinkled tobacco on the water to encourage the glacier to calve (which is what you call it when a chunk of the face of the glacier falls off into the water), but the glacier must have been wearing the patch, `cause the tobacco had no visible effect.

And, second, not all glaciers are receding. Hubbard is growing, and therein lies a real problem. There is an inlet on one side of the big glacier, so if the glacier advances so much that it cuts off the inlet, that area will flood completely, destroying existing villages. (We saw this on Tougher in Alaska, the wonderful History Channel TV program with Geo Beach.) Which reveals another truth about Alaska: Mother Nature gets the last word.

That's Hubbard. Distances are deceiving: The face is probably 300 - 400 feet tall.

This is a whole other glacier, off to the side.

I suspect the black flotsam on the left is just an iceberg, but we were of course watching for whales.

This is the approach of the tug that carried the Tlingits to our ship.

See those teensy black splodges near the shoreline? Well, I wanted to let you think they were whales, but if you click on the photo, you'll see rather clearly that they're fishing boats. Bummer. We did see whales, but I suspect we have no photographic proof of this. But here's a tip -- go back to the Denali photos and click on the ones with WILD, EXCITING BLOBS. I think you'll be able to tell which are the moose and which are caribou...

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