An Icy Education.
College Fjord, Alaska
Several major cruise lines take in College Fjord in Alaska –
which is a good thing, because the only practical way to get there is by sea.
Going overland would require a pretty lengthy trek, and there’s nowhere to land
a plane. So by sea it is. And even then – unless you’re a real adventurer – you
want to travel in a big, warm, luxurious cruise ship. College Fjord is often on
the itinerary of tours of Prince William Sound made by the large cruise
companies. Norwegian, in particular, often incorporates the Fjord into its
Alaska cruises. This is a good option during July and August, when the climate
is merely bitterly cold rather than absolutely freezing.
If you can put up with the icy winds that blow off the glaciers
and the Chugach mountains above them, it’s the trip of a lifetime. A voyage up
the fjord is a trip into a landscape unlike any other on earth. On every side
are fantastic sights: sheer cliffs of ice, towering mountains and dark,
The 18-mile inlet gets its name from the glaciers that cascade
into the sea along its length. Nineteenth-century American explorers were
mostly former students of east coast Ivy League institutions. Each glacier was
given the name of a college. The trip down the fjord culminates with the mighty
Harvard Glacier. It’s one of the few in southern Alaska that is actually
growing. Many others, melting under the pressure of global warming, are getting
smaller every year.
There are also smaller, if rather more lively, wonders of nature
to be seen in the fjord. It’s home to large colonies of seals. Nearer the
forested edges are otter populations. If you’re watchful and lucky you may see
pairs of orca (so-called ‘killer whales’), or maybe a white beluga whale. It’s
probably not a good idea to try joining them in the water, however. Even if a
killer whale decided to make breakfast out of you – which is unlikely, as they
prefer seals to humans – the water is so cold that anyone who tried going for a
swim would very shortly become a human popsicle. The grandeurs of this
particular ocean are best admired from a ship.
However, if you do want to get a little closer to nature you
could try sea kayaking. Many cruises offer this as an adventurous activity. If
you’re in reasonable physical shape you should give it a go. Expert instructors
are on hand to teach you what to do and to fish you out if you get into
trouble. Like all arctic kayakers you’ll be wrapped up in many layers of
clothing and a taped and sealed ‘dry suit’ so that if you fall in the icy water
won’t make contact with large areas of your skin in the moment or two it takes
for you to be put back in your boat.
Kayaking was invented in the arctic north many years ago by the
Inuit and other indigenous peoples. The sea kayaks you will use haven’t changed
much in design, except they’re made of modern plastic rather than seal hides
stretched over a frame. They are low-slung, stable boats with a sharp, raised
prow that is designed to cut through waves. Sitting in them, braced in position
with your knees, is surprisingly comfortable if you’ve taken the time to make
sure the internal seat and footrests are properly adjusted. Remember not to
embarrass yourself by referring to them as ‘canoes’!
When you take to the water – and if you’re a novice, that’ll
probably be in a two-person boat – you see everything from a different
perspective. At first even the most gentle swell can be a little unnerving, but
as soon as you learn that staying upright is easy you should have few problems.
You’ll get a chance to examine some ‘big ice’ close up, and maybe practise some
advanced paddling skills. There really is no other feeling quite like
propelling yourself across the glassy water on a calm day with the mighty
mountains and glaciers rearing above you.
Probably the most dramatic sights in the fjord are the ‘noses’
of the glaciers. Chances are your kayak instructor won’t want you to get too
close to parts of these. Glaciers are, quite literally, rivers of ice flowing
down from the mountains. When they hit the slightly warmer water of the ocean
they break up. Pieces of ice that range from the size of a golf ball to the
size of a house come crashing down the glacier. This is called ‘calving’, and
your kayaking group will be kept well out of the way of it.
The great thing about doing all this from the luxury of a cruise
ship is that after your day of splashing around in fjord you can return to the
highest levels of comfort and luxury, while still admiring the fantastic beauty
of the Alaskan wilderness from the window of your cabin or restaurant. The
perfect vacation, some would say.