Our boat was deep into Tracy Arm fjord when we began to slow and everyone rushed to one side. We advanced carefully toward a large iceberg, an astonishingly blue iceberg, sculptured into a smooth dome, like the stereotypical UFO. Only the day before I had learned about the blue glaciers of Alaska, visiting Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. But this iceberg was almost close enough to touch, and the deep cerulean and cobalt blues seemed impossible. It has to do with the crystalline structure of the glacier, formed not by ice but by compressed snow. So I also knew that the ice I was looking at was several thousand years old. Soon we passed another, and another, each sculpted differently.
These had broken off one of the two glaciers of the fjord. As we glided on the glassy water, the floating chunks of ice increased in number but were smaller. Soon, I noticed that many of the floes carried a mother harbor seal and her baby. Once i saw twins. One baby was suckling as we drifted by. As far as you could see, there were mothers and calves dotting the small icebergs and floes.
The ice got thicker as we approached South Sawyer. It was like a slurry, and few seals were visible now. The boat stopped and I realized how cold it was, and how silent. But that was only for a moment, for soon there were cracking sounds, and then a boom like thunder. The glacier. It was retreating, the term used when the great river of ice, that is always advancing slowly, breaks off at the front edge faster than the rate of advance. When the big chunks break off, it is called "calving". I am curious about the origin of this term, a birthing image, rather than a dying image, to describe the breaking down of glaciers.
So we waited in silence to witness this birthing.
We were farther away than I realized. What seemed like small bits made great thunderous sounds hitting the water. We could see an arch being formed, and we knew the support for it was failing, it was only a matter of time. Suddenly it started, and several huge chunks crashed into the sea with cracks and booms. A collective yell of triumph and excitement erupted. We could see an enormous wave rolling through the slurry towards us, but it had diminished by the time it reached us. The newborn ice sculpture would now set out on its journey, drifting slowly, become a resting place for eagles, perhaps seals.
Slowly our boat turned, moving alongside the face of the glacier, now so different than when we arrived. A stories-high blue cave had been created, and white birds flocked in the opening. We were well pleased by the experience, but it was time to move on. It's always time to move on, isn't it? Behind us, the glacier continued its transformation and the river moved... an inch?