Hubbard Glacier

You don't need to book shore excursions to see this magnificent tidewater glacier, because the Hubbard Glacier cruise is part of the MS Amsterdam itinerary as it cruises along the rugged coastline above Sitka and into the bay off Glacier Bay National Park. We found ourselves awed by the sight of the glacier and the sounds of calving right from the decks of the ship.

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The Hubbard Glacier is the longest tidewater glacier on the continent of North America, and it is huge. Its source is 76 miles from the ocean on Mt. Logan in the Yukon. We sailed along the cliff face of ice that towered more than 300 feet above us. Cruise ships are large, but we felt dwarfed in its shadow. We heard the sounds of cracking as huge slabs of iced calved and crashed into the icy waters, and the whole massive mass of ice groans and creaks. The native Tlingit people call this noise "white thunder," and we watched with our mouths open as slabs as large as skyscrapers fell into the sea. It felt like we were quite close, but the ship must keep it distance, because the ice extends another 3,000 feet below the water's surface. Additionally, the freshly calved icebergs sink, but can resurface with some rapidity.

But we are junkies for flights in small aircraft, so in addition to the Hubbard Glacier cruise we booked a flightseeing shore excursion when we got into Skagway. While we did not land on Hubbard Glacier in our helicopter, we did fly over it, as well as the high peaks above Chilkat Glacier, and over the icy waterfalls that border the Ferebee Glacier. We landed on the river of ice that is Meade Glacier where we were able to enjoy a guided walk in the ethereal blue ice world with trained naturalists. The entire excursion lasts close to two hours, and we had about 40 minutes actually on the ice. Blue is the predominant color, because the ice absorbs all colors but blue, which is reflected.

As we made our leisurely way along during the Hubbard Glacier cruise small icebergs floated by us in the bay, and we saw seabirds and sometimes seals resting on them. The seals often calve on these icebergs, because the bay is not frequented by the Orcas who prey on them. We enjoyed this marine life up close on one the MS Amsterdam wildlife tours.

Hubbard Glacier is set at the head of Yakutat Bay, which is actually in Disenchantment Bay. It is next to Turner Glacier, impressive itself, but much smaller than its neighbor. Most glaciers have been thinning and shrinking in the last 100 years or so, but Hubbard Glacier has been steadily getting thicker and advancing. If it continues at this same pace, it is expected that it will eventually dam the entrance to Russell Fjord. When that happens, the largest glacier dammed lake on the continent will be created. While the decrease in salinity will threaten the sea life in the new lake, this is a natural process, so it is a little bittersweet. In Alaska history, this damming happened for a brief time in 1986 during one particularly powerful surge. It happened again in 2002. In both case, the sheer weight of the water behind the glacial dam combined with seasonal rains forced an opening to the fjord again.

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