Gone Floatabout

Sailing, Photography, Wilderness

Prince William Sound: Columbia Glacier


Columbia icebergsSwinging to our anchor in calm and wooded Snug Corner Cove, we didn’t have much desire to move on the morning after our arrival (August 3).  Rain was still pelting the decks, though with less force than before, so we settled down to a day of chores: cleaning the boat, refilling our kerosene heater’s tank, transferring diesel from jerry jugs to main tank, and changing the engine oil.  By the time we’d finished all this in the early afternoon, however, the rain had ceased and the sky was brightening.  Why not head over to Columbia Glacier now? we thought.  We’d get there by dinner time with the strong easterly wind.

The wind was nothing compared to the day before (probably 25 knots as opposed to 35), but we started with a triple-reefed main, jib, and staysail.  We soon found it too much for comfortable steering downwind so cut it down to stay and jib.  Of course the wind lay down the moment we did this, but Celeste still bowled along at about 6 knots so we didn’t bother putting the main back up.

Sailing to Columbia Glacier

We sighted a few icebergs in Columbia Bay when we slipped into the channel between Glacier Island and the mainland, but we were headed to an anchorage protected from the bergs by an island and reef that are part of the glacier’s moraine.

PWS map

Snug Corner Cove is the first red dot upon coming in from the SE; Columbia Glacier is our most northerly point in the track. The dot on the mainland near it is our anchorage.

The rain started again as we turned on the engine to putter up to the cove we had in mind, bad luck since our chart wasn’t very detailed and we’d hoped for decent visibility.  The chart had a rock marked in the entrance and we didn’t trust that it was marked in quite the right place. . . .

Around 20:30, 4 hours after weighing anchor in Snug Corner Cove, I was on the bow peering through the—torrential doesn’t get at—rain and Seth was anxiously watching the depth sounder as we crept through the 50-yard-wide entrance to our cove.  It was high tide, which meant more water over the rock but also that we’d have a hard time if we struck.  I heard Seth flip the engine into neutral and I peered harder into the green water, frothed an impenetrable white by the rain.  I saw nothing, no rock, just rain.  But then we were through and into a gorgeous green cove, hemmed in by precipitous forests, a small island, and a submerged shoal beyond which we could see (once the rain cleared) stately blue icebergs floating past beneath the soaring Chugach Mountains and their glaciers.

Columbia Bay

View once the rain cleared!

There was room only for one boat to swing and we had all this beauty to ourselves.  Seth told me he’d seen a minimum of 15 feet on the depth sounder and had recorded our track on the chartplotter so that we could go out exactly the same way.  With our worries over, we settled down to spaghetti and homemade Swedish meatballs.

Jade Harbor

Our emerald haven

The next morning (August 5) the rain had stopped again, so we puttered out in order to see Columbia Glacier up close.  With the water now calm, we saw that we had gone right over the rock and only the high tide had made it okay!  The rock was in fact exactly where the chart said it wasn’t, so that by heeding the chart and keeping to the south side of the channel to avoid it, we’d gone right over the real boulder!

The rest of the navigation to Columbia Glacier was straightforward since the bay is deep all the way to the moraine, where it rises to 60 feet, and then drops off again and stays deep all the way to the glacier’s tidewater face.  The wind was too light (and from ahead) to make good progress sailing so we motored up the bay at about five knots, passing the occasional bergy bit and the large icebergs grounded on the 60-foot-deep moraine.

Approaching Columbia Glacier

Once past the moraine, the ice concentration increased, most of it deceptively underwater, so we slowed to 4 knots and I went up to the bow to keep a look-out and point to any growlers, as the smallest and least visible ones are called, in our way.  Under the drizzly sky and with the breeze off the glacier and icy water, I was cold even bundled up in two thermal layers, a wool turtleneck sweater, down vest, long underwear, wool socks, insulated seaboots, ski hat, mittens, and foul weather gear.  I would have put on my down ski jacket but didn’t want to get it wet in the drizzle, so instead I went aft to ask Seth for a mug of hot chocolate I could take back up to the bow.  That was better, and the cold was worth it anyway to see the towering mountains around us, the glaciers coursing down their sides and the bright blue terminal face of Columbia Glacier emerging from behind a spur of rock ahead.

Dodging growlers

Dodging growlers

We then approached a band of ice of probably 3/10ths concentration that took all my focus.  We dodged the ice well for the most part but couldn’t avoid grazing a few hard and abrasive growlers.  Fortunately the Kevlar and GRP that Platypus Marine had put on our hull over the winter didn’t feel the impact; in fact, there wasn’t even a scratch on our paint.  Once through this band of thicker ice, we were back in 2/10ths and 1/10ths bergy water, so we could go back to stealing glimpses of the huge, desolate, and rocky peaks surrounding us.

Columbia is one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world and thus experiences a lot of calving, creating the beautiful icebergs and treacherous growlers we were navigating.  It twists down 10,000 feet to the head of the bay and at one time came much further into the water.  Our Alaskan friends had been tentative about recommending it to us to visit, thinking it might not be very impressive after so much recession, but we were still blown away.  We live in the Alps, so we’re familiar with big mountains and the respect they deserve, but Alaska’s mountains couple altitude and deeply crevassed glaciers with high latitude cold.  The lower slopes of the Alps are habitable and people have built lovely little villages on them, but here rock and ice reach all the way down to the sea, emphasizing just how little this is a place for humans.Celeste at Columbia Glacier-2Seth and I stopped when we reached a band of ice of about 6/10ths concentration.  It still looked deceptively navigable on the surface but we knew the growlers and bergy bits were touching underwater. There was quite an abrupt change at that point between the heavy ice that continued up to the glacier’s face and the open bergy water we were in.  We spent a little time drifting (the breeze was pushing us away from the glacier) as we took in our impressive surroundings, including several beautiful icebergs near us.

Celeste with iceberg


Glacier ice with the rum!

Glacier ice with the rum!

Seth used our fishing net to procure a small growler to be chopped up and used in our drinks that evening: we’d be cooling our cocktails with ice over tens of thousands of years old!  Then it was time to head back down the bay, navigate that band of 3/10ths once more (thankfully without mishap) and head for an anchorage.

4 thoughts on “Prince William Sound: Columbia Glacier

  1. What a spectacular adventure! Your compelling story (of overcoming nature’s often brutal challenges to reap the exhilarating rewards) comes alive through your great writing.

  2. Wow! Incredible photos! Looks like a stunning spot! We didn’t get up that far on our visit to Alaska. Must be a good excuse to come back!

    • Thanks! We loved this part of Alaska, only wished the weather had cooperated during the rest of our time there to allow us to visit more of these amazing glaciers!