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The Life and Death of a Glacier in Alaska
Whether you blame global warming or Mother Nature, watching a mammoth-size ice chunk take the plunge will give you chills.
The first surprise is that they're blue—startlingly blue. A glacier in Alaska doesn't look anything like an ice cube in your freezer. That's because the ice in tide-water glaciers is so densely packed that it absorbs all visible light except the short, blue spectrum. There is some white near the surface, where the ice traps air bubbles, and there are patches of brown throughout from dirt and rocks and debris. It's all a reminder of how, on its slow trek downhill, the mighty glacier's movement scrapes up everything that lies in its path, including the earth.
We all think we know what a glacier looks like—how many times have you watched Titanic? But seeing South Sawyer Glacier in person—in one of the last wild places on the planet—is nothing like you expect. At first, the glacier looks almost like a toy. As you head out on the Disney Wonder cruise ship, you pass sparkling blue bergs bobbing like ice cubes in a punch bowl. On a few of them, you spot seals and eagles sunning themselves lazily on their icy rafts. As you get closer, however, the mood changes. You're confronted with what looks like a massive blue river of ice pouring down the mountains. The individual pieces are indeed pretty—you can see why the slang for a diamond is "ice"—but they are also threatening, with their jagged peaks and sharp crevices.
Yet for all the visual drama, what's surprising about getting up close and personal with a glacier is how it hits the other senses. Listen carefully, and you'll hear low groaning and popping and maybe even a distant roar that sounds like thunder. That's the sound of an impossibly large force hauling its weight around the world. You can feel a glacier, too, even when you're not touching it. Even in the middle of the summer, you shiver in your hat and gloves, due not as much to the cold as to the chilling realization that you're witnessing a kind of raw, natural power that makes everything else feel insignificant.
At no time is that sense of helplessness greater than when a glacier calves. Calving (a term that has nothing to do with cows but is related to the word cave, as in cave in) happens when massive icebergs are set loose from the motherland. You see it first: a spray, like a frozen mist or fine sleet, shimmying through the air. Then comes the violent sound of a hotel-size piece of ice falling into the water. If you're close enough, the glacier says good-bye in ripples that rock your boat, as if you'd strayed too close to a waterfall. You don't realize until afterward that you were holding your breath. And then it really hits you: The glacier is dying. Whether that's the result of global warming or the natural ebb and flow of nature is a matter of debate. But there's no question that what you've been witnessing is a piece of earth fading away. Like Luca Brasi in The Godfather, a part of South Sawyer Glacier has just gone to sleep with the fishes.
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Make It Happen!
Several outfitters offer one-day cruises from Juneau to South Sawyer Glacier, 45 miles southeast, including Adventure Bound Alaska (adventureboundalaska.com, $150).
WHEN TO GO
It's sunny and pleasant in May, June, and September (July and August are rainy). Temperatures range from the 50s to 80s, though it's cooler near the ice.
WHAT TO PACK
Dress in layers, with a waterproof jacket on top. Bring sunscreen and sunglasses; the reflected rays can be blindingly bright.
Weeklong cruises from Seattle run May to August. Prices for the Disney Wonderstart at $1,167 per person (disneycruise.disney.go.com).