Braving Icy Bay in Southeast Alaska
Kayaking the Chilly Waters Around Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
The calving glaciers and congested ice sounded like cannon fire and gunshot blasts bellowing across Icy Bay in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park of southeast Alaska. A friend and I were well within earshot, tents pitched behind the first row of spruce, willow, and alder trees, and nestled in a patch of fragrant Nootka lupine that offered a reprieve from piercing winds whipping across the iceberg-choked bay.
We were enduring day three of relentless rains in America’s largest national park, waiting for an opportunity to kayak the four-fingered innards of Icy Bay along the world’s largest coastal range, the St. Elias Mountains. On the second-to-last day of our nine-day excursion, the rain eased to a few sprinkles, and we paddled 32 miles round-trip to the foot of the Tyndall Glacier, less than 20 miles separating it from the summit of Mount St. Elias, the second-tallest peak in the U.S. after Denali. Beyond the eastern shore of Icy Bay are the broad moraines of the terminus of the Malaspina Glacier, the largest in the nation.
That day started slowly, where harbor seals hauled out on Gatorade-blue ice and where migrating waterfowl awkwardly perched. Sheets of towering waterfalls cascaded on either side of the eerily beautiful Tan Fjord leading to the Tyndall Glacier. Plenty deep to kayak but thankfully too shallow for cruise ships, Icy Bay reeks with solitude amid low-hanging, dark clouds, dewy shorebirds, and ghost-like grizzlies.
After plowing through endless blocks of melting ice, the gnarled wall of the Tyndall Glacier stood before us. We slouched in our closed-deck kayaks and listened to calving ice inside the glacier until a hunk of ice the size of a Mack truck broke free 50 yards in front of us. It sent a glacier-fed swell our way. We immediately sat up, the wave almost capping before our bows, forcing floating ice to creak and crack, Icy Bay living up to its frigid name.
To find out more about kayaking Icy Bay, see expeditionsalaska.com.