Towards the end of each trip I take, there comes an inevitable "taking stock" moment, an in-process assessment of how great the current trip has been and how I might best remember my experiences. Usually that moment includes a decision about how many blog posts each vacation is worth and a mental sequencing of those blog posts. After the last landing on our Alaska cruise, and knowing that I'd be for sure writing a post about my pending visit to Denali National Park, I decided Alaska would get three blog posts and that would be it. Not very many for a trip of over a week in length but it would be what it was. The very next day, we sailed (using that term loosely) past the Hubbard Glacier. Now there's a fourth (and last) Alaska post.
It feels weird to be writing what I'm about to write but in a way, I was sort of no stranger to glaciers by the time I reached Hubbard. In December of 2013, I spent the better part of an Icelandic winter day walking on one; the day before I laid eyes on Hubbard, I'd spent all too short a time gazing at the Mendenhall Glacier just north of Alaska's capital of Juneau. But what I saw from the boat on that Thursday early morning blew Iceland and Mendenhall away. By a lot.
I remember two things pretty vividly from my 2013 glacier walk. First, our guide describing the glaciers as entities in motion and not just solid blocks of ice sitting in one location. Second, the incredibly beautiful and otherworldly blue color of the ice. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, think the color of blue on the white walkers. It's a perfect match to the hues in a glacier. Visiting Hubbard reinforced what I remember from December 2013 so clearly.
Small icebergs dotting the sea on the approach to the Hubbard Glacier.
I awoke on Thursday morning, August 17 in my cruise ship bed with great anticipation. Finally there was something to see from the boat itself. If I thought my first ocean cruise experience taught me anything, it was that your vacation sort of gets put on hold once you get back on the ship. That day of sailing was about to be different, at least for a few hours. There's no way I could have had the same experience on land that I was about to see from the sea.
Stepping out onto the balcony of our room that morning was cold but not overly so. Not like I needed a heavy jacket or anything. But scattered about the sea were a few icebergs. Yes, icebergs! The water was so cold that chunks of ice were not melting in the water. I'm not talking Titanic sinkers or anything here but looking down at that milky green salt water I could imagine it was close to freezing. As we headed further and further north, we picked up more and more icebergs around us.
Perhaps a little background about glaciers is in order? These things are essentially giant slow-moving freshwater frozen rivers that flow downhill based on their own weight. Along the way they erode the surface of the land by picking up chunks of rocks and flowing those down to wherever the glacier happens to end. I could tell some of the icebergs around our boat had broken off from Hubbard because I could see pretty good sized chunks of rock embedded in some of them. Yep, I was on a boat watching rocks on top of ice floating by. Pretty wild!
The Hubbard Glacier is approximately 76 miles long from beginning to end. If that seems like a long way, it is but not so much really by glacier standards. Glaciers cover approximately 10% of the Earth's land and the world's largest glacier, Lambert Glacier in Antarctica, is 60 miles wide and 270 miles long. Having just poo-pooed the size of Hubbard, it still takes the ice in the glacier approximately 400 years to travel the full 76 miles. That meant that the ice we saw at the edge of the glacier had been added to the flow in the second decade of the 1600s.
Close up look at the face of Hubbard Glacier.
While I'm speculating about just how gorgeous the entire 76 miles of the Hubbard Glacier might be, the face of the glacier where the ice met the sea was spectacularly beautiful. Glaciers are blue for two reasons: (1) they lack air bubbles which generally causes ice to look white and (2) water molecules absorb colors of the spectrum other than blue much more efficiently that they absorb blue. This is the same reason why large bodies of water often appear to be a bluish color.
The variations of blue in the face of Hubbard are amazing and you can see the layers of ice that have formed on top of one another and the debris the glacier has carried with it throughout the four centuries it has flowed to the ocean. Look at the pure white snow on the mountains in the distance to understand just how blue the palest of pale blues are. It also has these incredible vertical cracks splitting the horizontal layers. The amount of pressure the ice must have been under to make those kinds of cracks must be immense.
When we finally got as close as we could get, we were staring at a wall of ice probably (and I'm guessing here because there was nothing really to give it any sort of scale) about 50 feet high. In some spots it was barely clinging on to itself where the horizontal strata clearly showed some signs that it looked to be collapsing into the ocean.
A portion of the glacier collapsing into the sea.
And indeed sitting and watching that's exactly what happened. In the hour or so we sat on the boat close to the glacier, piece after piece fell into the ocean to be reclaimed by the sea and let more of the ice behind get ready to do the same. If you had asked me what I expected the face of a glacier to look like, I would have thought it tapered into the land or sea at its end. The view of pieces breaking off a sheer wall was unexpected but likely way more impressive than an edge tapering to nothing and slowly drip-melting into the sea.
This sounds stupid but standing and watching, it was obvious the glacier was moving. Not so much by the fact that some of it was actually collapsing into the water but by the sounds you could hear. Glacier watching is very much an aural experience as well as a visual one. The sounds we were hearing were described as "white thunder": creaking, squeaking sounds caused by the ice compressing itself and moving and cracking under its own weight before releasing the pressure and moving again. Between these creaking sounds, every so often there were sounds that I imagine are just what an avalanche sounds like: slowly building rushing sounds like a lot of fine powder is descending from a great height.
Admittedly, watching a glacier is not too exciting and staying out on our balcony and later on deck for a time that lasted maybe two and a half hours total I didn't see a whole lot happen. But it's not like I will ever see this much again in the future. I don't have too many cold weather destinations on my list and I certainly don't have a lot of boat rides planned in those places that get that cold. Spending a small portion of one morning in my life watching this was worth it. And a total unexpected surprise for a time when I expected my vacation to go back on hold. Watching this wall of blue ice and hearing it move and tear and splinter against the backdrop of Alaska's mountains was a good morning.
The Hubbard Glacier from afar with the cold cold sea in front and the massive mountains behind.