The Icy Miracles of LeConte Glacier

03-19-2019

By Bobby DeMarinis, Expedition Guide

The skiff accelerates, dipping its plane in line with the sea and producing a wake that spreads behind us like smoke growing from a struck match. Rooster tails of water spray up with each bounce of the boat, water droplets sent soaring like countless grains of sand, kicked up by bare feet that run without a care down a long stretch of beach. The S.S. Legacy shrinks smaller and smaller and disappears out of view as we round the corner, barreling for the mouth of LeConte Bay.

An UnCruise skiff at the LeConte ice gardens near Petersburg, Alaska

The towering sheer cliffs that bind this fjord stretch up to the sky, reaching to feel the hot kiss of the blaring sun on this cloudless, bluebird Independence Day. Our gazes from the skiff are drawn higher to the mountain peaks of the Coastal Range that beckon like towering giants, tucked to their noses in snow. A powerful river of ice flows down from this distant wintery world and crashes into the sea just twelve miles up the fjord from where we ride. The glaciers’ looming presence is undeniable as we become engulfed by massive icebergs that the restless LeConte Glacier has spilt into the sea. 

The LeConte Glacier, just a short cruise from the small fishing village of Petersburg, is the southernmost active tidewater glacier in North America. The Tlingit people who first called the Stikine River basin home named the bay Xeitl Geeyí, which translates to “Thunder Bay.” The ominous rumblings and crashes that echo from the glacier and reverberate through the valley inspired stories of a powerful thunderbird that perched in the ice field above, rocking the soundscape with its feverishly flapping wings.  

Seagulls on a LeConte Bay iceberg

We near the behemoth slices of glacial ice and slow our pace, gliding and rolling over the water as our wake gently nudges us forward. The icebergs torn from the face of the glacier have traveled down the fjord and anchored themselves on the sea floor, where they wait to be carved by the forces of nature. The ice has been sculpted by the warm summer air and the tide rising and falling, lapping against the cold glass like ice.

In the shadow of these glacial works of art, we see shapes and objects as if we were lying in a meadow of tall grass, staring up to the sky and watching the clouds roll in and out of our field of view. One is a ravenous dragon of fairytales bursting from the sea, and another is an ancient pyramid of sand, weathered by the gusts of time. 

Natural ice sculpture in LeConte Bay, Alaska

It is humbling to be in the presence of such impermanent objects of natural beauty—a momentary insight into the creative capabilities of this lively landscape. These ice sculptures will be gone in a matter of days, like a mandala of sand, ritualistically created and destroyed as an ode to the ephemerality of life. When we next return to this place, the delicate sculptures we are now in awe of will have been replaced by a new garden of sculpted ice. We leave the bay, smiles turned to the cloudless sky, with the wholehearted appreciation that we have just been a part of a marvelous miracle of Mother Nature.

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