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There are hikes and then there are, well ... hikes. On a recent Alaska cruise with Un-Cruise Adventures, I got to scramble up the boulder field alongside a massive glacier, and I just knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
In late June, our 84-passenger Safari Endeavour sailed roundtrip from Juneau, Alaska, on the Discoverers’ Glacier Country itinerary. We visited a variety of sites, most of which were unreachable by the larger cruise ships, including Icy Strait, Glacier Bay National Park, Frederick Sound, Ford’s Terror and Baranof Island.
In Glacier Bay National Park, we entered Reid Inlet for a shore excursion to Reid Glacier, a now-terrestrial glacier that over the past decade has retreated approximately a half-mile back from its previous terminus in the water. Such is the rapidly changing nature of life up north.
It’s a Long Way to the TopOur merry band of about a dozen hikers — men and women in their teens up to their 70s — was dropped off on the eastern shore with our guide, Connor Adams. Under overcast skies, we walked along the somewhat flat rock-strewn beach, fording and jumping across small streams of snowmelt.
I was soon glad I had worn tall rubber boots instead of hiking boots. We saw recent bear tracks and then some relatively rare wolf tracks, both thankfully headed the other way. (A while later, I thought I had spotted a Bigfoot print, but kept that to myself as to not worry the others.)
The valley narrowed and pitched upward as we approached the glacier. Luckily, there was no arctic wind howling off the glacier, and as the sun made intermittent guest appearances, we started removing some of our extra layers. Whenever the light breeze died down, we were set upon by those legendary Alaskan mosquitoes — just about big enough to carry you off, I’d say.
The brush thickened as we climbed. Connor got dive-bombed by a ptarmigan (the Alaska state bird) at one point as we had apparently wandered too close to its nest. We quickly mumbled our apologies and moved on. The valley crease continued to narrow, forcing us closer to the glacier’s edge, and we were now bushwhacking in earnest across the hodge-podge rubble of boulders and rocks left by the retreating ice.
Glacier faces may be more photogenic, but it was at this “business edge” of the glacier where I felt up close and personal with the raw power and impressive mass of this living entity, and marveled at how it could carve and bulldoze its way in slow motion through solid rock.
Toward the end of our ascent, we reached a spot where we could actually step onto a low shelf of the glacier. Towering about a hundred feet above us and given the deep crevasses, embedded boulders and steep, jagged ice walls, the top remained a “you-can’t-get-there-from-here” destination. At a little stream there, Connor showed us how to apply fine glacial silt as a face cream for that outdoorsy (yet “tres chic”) look. Hilarity ensued, calling for another round of photos.
Un-Cruise Adventures’ Safari Endeavour anchored in Reid Inlet in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, during a recent Discoverers’ Glacier Country cruise. // © 2014 Dennis Sides
On one of the day’s optional excursions, small boats brought hikers to the beach below Reid Glacier, where they began their trek up a valley for an up-close and personal encounter with the glacier. // © 2014 Dennis Sides
The beautiful and surreal "icescape" of Reid Glacier. // © 2014 Dennis Sides
Ice in the glacier is likely hundreds of years old, and the blue color means that most of the air has been squeezed out by the weight of subsequent snowfalls. // © 2014 Dennis Sides
Along the 3-hour trek, hikers climbed over boulder fields and hopped across a number of fast flowing runoff streams. // © 2014 Dennis Sides
Rubble and silt resulting from the glacier’s slow recession are visible at the edges of the ice sheet. // © 2014 Dennis Sides
Underneath the glacier, a hollow space known as a “blue room” was large enough for hikers to venture inside. // © 2014 Dennis Sides
Hikers encountered a near-perfect cube of red rock on the trek, measuring about 10 feet on one side. // © 2014 Dennis Sides
The magnificent vista of Reid Inlet stretched out as hikers made their way down from the glacier. // © 2014 Dennis Sides
The Blue Room and the Red CubeAll too soon, we had to start our way back down, this time staying close to the glacier’s edge. We came to a large hollowed-out “room” of deep-blue ice big enough to stand up in, although those who ventured inside got soaked by the dripping water. Later, we passed a near-perfect cube of red rock, 10 feet in length on each side, and I wondered, “Gee, Mr. or Ms. Glacier, how did you ever do that?”
The streams alongside the glacier were running hard and fast (and deep), and uber-guide Connor carried some folks piggyback across the trickier fords. On the way down, we were treated to a spectacular panorama of Reid’s Bay framed by distant snow-capped peaks. As they say, it doesn’t get any better than this. Someone’s iPhone app told us we had hiked 3.5 miles in about 3 hours, with an elevation gain of 555 feet. And the “life experience” gain? Priceless.
Other Un-Cruise ActivitiesYou don’t have to be Grizzly Adams to enjoy the many activities available on an Un-Cruise Alaska cruise. They offer a wide range of soft to hard adventure options every day, suitable for a diversity of fitness levels. There are tide pool walks, kayaking, small boat excursions, paddle boarding, ranger talks, forest and meadow hikes, slide presentations and more. There’s even a “polar plunge” that was fun to watch.
As far as watching goes, there are unlimited opportunities for wildlife viewing right from the three decks, dining room, lounge and your own stateroom. Whales, otters, sea lions, orcas, bald eagles, seals, seabirds, mountain goats, moose and bears put on quite a show 24/7 (it stays light outside very late into the night), all set against the breathtaking beauty of an ever-changing landscape of snowcapped peaks, hanging glaciers, towering waterfalls and dense forests.
And don’t get me started raving about the food! That hike may have been thrilling, but yet another adventure awaited us back onboard: lunch.