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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, primeval forest.

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.

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