I drove 1800km (1100 miles) to go kayaking in Valdez, Alaska for one day. Let me tell you now, that is heck of a long way, especially if you’re driving alone. So to justify almost two thousand kilometres of driving (and whole lot of gas in our not-so-fuel-efficient-van), the kayaking had to be pretty great. Thanks to some well-timed sunshine, presence of some of the best scenery I have ever seen and the wonderful Pangaea Adventures, it turned out to be so unbelievably incredible that I may use every superlative in existence within this blog post. I apologise in advance.
My experience of Alaska previous to the Valdez road trip was a very wet and misty one. In Skagway it rained only half the time and consequently I saw around half the surrounding mountains during my visit. Haines was worse, with 72 hours of constant rain (and a forecast for seven days of more) before I called it quits and headed north back to Canada. I took a risk driving to Valdez, another Alaskan coastal town, and I was greeted by more downpours. I tried t remain hopeful. I woke up on Tuesday at 7am to an almost cloudless blue sky, something hardly seen in Alaska during August. It was going to be a good day; but I no idea exactly how awe-inspiring it would be.
The Columbia Glacier one day kayak tour is ten hours long, starting with a boat trip from Valdez harbour to Columbia Bay around 60km away. With a slight detour to see a waterfall and some seal lions perched on a buoy, we were welcomed to our launching site by a huge range of white tipped mountains. Kayaking with a view like that is incredible enough…but there was more. Soon, the glacier came within sight, and separating us was hundreds and thousands of startling blue icebergs. Despite the photos I’d seen of this trip, for some reason I hadn’t really absorbed that I would really, truly, be paddling around icebergs. I mean, I wasn’t sure I was ever to see them in my life, and now I was only metres away. Surreal. I had to pinch myself a few times.
Not only are icebergs ridiculously beautiful, they’re each also unique in size, shape and colour. And they change. I saw some turn over without warning, and others calve and separate following a sound similar to a gunshot. Both could be pretty disconcerting since it was hard to work out which iceberg was doing what. While stopping for lunch, a ‘berg that we had just paddled past to land suddenly calved and caused a small tidal wave.
This is an ever changing landscape; the Columbia Glacier itself recedes around 35m a day. Yep, 35m every day. Glaciers do naturally recede and grow over time, but there is no way that 35m can be a natural occurence. For Pangaea’s guides, the glacier is further away every time they come out. But there are new icebergs to spot and be amazed by every day. My group’s guide, Chloe, pointed out a particularly large one (maybe the size of two small houses!) that had appeared only a week ago, and was getting smaller by the day.
After lunch, we spent another sublime couple of hours floating alongside the icebergs, completely in awe of mother nature. Every couple of minutes someone in the group would exclaim how incredibly lucky we were to be here on such a beautiful day. Chloe told us that this was the best weather day in August so far, though even when it was rainy there was still lots to experience; icebergs approaching from heavy mist must be pretty eerie indeed.
Even if it had rained, we would still have been comfortable; Pangaea Adventures had outfitted everyone with waterproof gear including rainboots (to me, wellies) and a dry bag for cameras. To go on this tour, it is not necessary to have any kind of previous kayaking experience or equipment of your own (though layed clothing is preferable); it really is ideal for anyone. And what an extraordinary first time kayaking experience! The organisation and instruction was impeccable and the pay-off, as you can see, was astounding.
As we approached our boat pick up point, a group of three sea otters swam past; the icing on the cake. There is potential to see bears and whales on this trip too, but this time I honestly wasn’t too bothered about being unlucky! I came to see a glacier, and saw so much more. I will never forget those breathtaking views of the snow capped mountains, cascading glacier and maze of icebergs below. One of the best day tours ever.
Pangaea Adventures’ Columbia Glacier kayak day tour is $249. I was lucky enough to be a guest of Pangaea Adventures, but all views and opinions are my own, and I really did drive 1800km to go kayaking for one day!