Bright white and blue – that’s the typical image of a glacier, isn’t it? Milky glacial water, iridescent ice and a sky full of sunshine or perhaps the swirl of falling snow.
The Baird Glacier in southeast Alaska has a rather different chemistry. From a distance, it looks dirty, as though all the flutes and ridges have tumbled down a chimney and emerged with a dusting of soot. It also pulled off the usual optical illusion, refusing to change in size no matter how far our skiff travelled: an icy giant, forever immense, forever out of reach.
Even close up, the glacier had mind-melting tricks up its sleeves.
“This is the terminal moraine,” explained Kevin, our guide from InnerSea Discoveries, as we stepped and slipped onto dry land. “As a glacier melts away, it carries rocks, gravel and sand with it. These deposits form what is called the moraine.”
Incidentally, a structure far more exciting than it sounds.
Luminous spongy moss covered the first section, with boulders like polished eggs staring up at us from odd angles. Closer to the glacier, gold and silver flecks merged with the mud, capturing frozen veins of ice in lattices in between.
Kevin crouched down and rested his hand in one of the streams, causing metallic ribbons to flow away from his fingers. “I could sit and watch this all day,” he said.
I couldn’t, though. I was distracted by the stretches of magic mud. These sparkling expanses bounced and wobbled underfoot, reducing us to Lilliputian figures on a colossal plate of jelly. The suspension of earth and water held our weight for around three running jumps before the cracks, literally, appeared, and fluid rushed up, sinking our feet into the ground. Gleeful, childish fun!
Yet for all the geological wizardry, the glacier we came to visit looked as far away as ever. Our boots crunched on dirt and ice. A few people fell, a few more contorted themselves in the acrobatic arts of camera protection. Finally someone asked the question.
“Er…Are we going to get to walk on the glacier?”
Kevin lifted his eyes from the kaleidoscope of minerals and his face crinkled. “This is the glacier.”
We spun around, confused by the vision in the distance, disoriented by the muddy ice underfoot (and let’s face it, embarrassed by the answer.)
“Listen,” he said and we huddled around a hole in the ground. From just below the surface, the rumble of a subterranean river urged me to take a step forward and look down into the void. Pure brilliant white and wild-eyed blue twisted into each other as the glacier dissolved into a torrent beneath me.
Alaska, I thought. Pristine beauty beneath a rugged façade – and laced with danger, unless you know what you’re doing. I retraced my steps and allowed my mind to fill with a single thought.
Wear sturdy shoes and warm, wind-proof clothes. Make sure you are travelling with a guide you trust and who knows the area well. Glaciers can be dangerous, guys!
I visited the Baird Glacier as a guest of American Safari Cruises and InnerSea Discoveries, who run luxury and adventure tours through Alaska. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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