Reflections on a 26 Glacier Cruise

I didn’t book the 26 Glacier Cruise because I thought it would give me the opportunity to make the greatest photos of my life or even my summer. I certainly didn’t book because I thought the name was cool. Yes, I wanted to make some photographs in one of the worlds most incredible settings, but more than that, I wanted to have my family experience that place with me. The 26 Glacier Cruise, run by Phillips Cruises and Tours, is a five hour trip into the wonderland that is Prince William Sound. If you’re staying in Anchorage, the day begins with a drive along Turnagain Arm and a trip through the Whittier Tunnel. Well, there are options for taking the train or a bus, but part of the draw for this particular cruise is value, and those modes of transportation don’t tip the scales in the right direction. Actually, the area on the west side of the tunnel (around Portage Lake) is pretty breathtaking in its own right, and I definitely plan on spending some time around there next summer.

Hanging TogetherOnce through the tunnel and into Whittier, if it isn’t raining, you must have had the luxury of carefully picking the right day for this adventure. Average annual rainfall in the small town is nearly 200 inches! Fortunately, since my parents were graciously hosting us for over a week, I was able to choose a day where the weather was ranging from high overcast to sunny skies. Because of the tunnel’s traffic patterns (one way at a time), there’s plenty of time to explore just about all the roads in Whittier before heading to the dock. Boarding the ship, the Klondike Express, is made considerably less stressful by the assigned seating, and the five people in our party fit quite comfortably at a table with booth seating for six. It’s worth noting that if your group is smaller, you may find yourself sharing a table. Despite its large size and capacity, the Klondike Express does fill up. On the other hand, the aisles are wide, and the many viewing decks kept my experience relatively unhampered by my fellow passengers.

Cascade Glacier and VesselThough narration from the National Forrest Service Ranger begins almost the moment the ship is underway (and the first of the 26 glaciers is already in view), the occupation of the beginning of the trip is eating the provided lunch of fish and chips. I enjoy fancy food, but I also enjoy food that tastes good. Aboard the Klondike Express, the fare fits squarely into the latter category. Of course, it’s hard to mess up deep fried Alaskan cod or potato chips, but I was pretty pleased with the way the coleslaw complemented the rest of the meal, since I don’t always like coleslaw. If you’re wondering about dessert, that comes toward the end of the cruise in the form of a freshly baked cookie.

Coxe Glacier WedgeBy about the time you push back your plate, the grand vistas of College Fjord are beckoning most passengers to the outside viewing decks, but I suppose the large viewing windows do give some the option of remaining at the table without missing the scenery. Harvard Glacier, at the very back of College Fjord is massive in the distance, but that’s where it remains. The number of tidewater glaciers surrounding this fjord (along with other conditions I’m unclear on) leave the water choked with ice ranging in size from growlers and bergy bits to full blown icebergs. Travel further into College Fjord would be possible for a while, but it would also be tedious and time consuming, and there are much more accessible glaciers just around the corner.

Barry Glacier and CompanionsThe time it takes to travel between glacial attractions is well spent keeping your eye out for wildlife, mostly of the marine mammal variety. Despite the array of exciting animals that do frequent Prince William Sound, if you want to avoid disappointment, you’re going to want to keep in mind the name of this cruise. It doesn’t say anything about wildlife. Still, we were treated to a sighting of Dall Porpoise almost right off the bat, and the boat lingers at a small rocky island where spotting sea lions is a pretty safe bet. Harbor seals are synonymous with just about any tidewater glacier, but the animal highlight of the cruise was my first chance to see sea otters in the wild. They are fairly prolific in the sound, so even though we never got very close to them in our giant catamaran, the quantity of sea otters we saw was easily in the hundreds. With regards to what we didn’t see, I did allow myself a little disappointment at not spotting any orcas. They’re rare enough around Juneau that I get hopeful whenever I’m traveling in Alaska’s other coastal areas. The final attraction of the 26 Glacier Cruise is a nesting colony of black-legged kittiwakes, and while they may not be as exciting and colorful as the puffins you’re apt to find in the more wildlife rich (according to what I’ve heard) Kenai Fjords, it was very fun to photograph the impressively dense population on the cliffs jutting straight up out of the water.

Seals and Otters on IceClearly, one of the highlights for anyone who doesn’t live two miles from a glacier (like my family does) is getting to approach the towering faces of tidewater glaciers. The Barry Glacier and Surprise Glacier both cut dramatic and imposing figures, but I found Surprise Glacier to have the more unique and interesting patterns and colors within its ice. The captain turns off the main engines in these spectacular locations, and the resulting freedom to hear the sounds of the nature around you adds a good deal to the overall experience. While I was busy on and outside deck, my daughter, wife and parents were treated to a small but significant calving from the face of one of the glaciers. My impression was that the activity I witnessed on a cruise in Tracy Arm was more abundant and dramatic than what usually happens in Harriman Fjord, but I was grateful that my family got to experience the event.

Ice FortressFor a comfortable day-trip from Anchorage with no expectation of escaping the “crowds”, I would call the 26 Glacier Cruise a huge success. For a photographer traveling alone, I would guess that the Klondike Express, with its size and schedule restrictions, wouldn’t be the most satisfying way to enjoy the landscape and wildlife of Prince William Sound. The more of your family and close friends you would be traveling with, the more attractive and rewarding this option would be. For me, it was practically perfect. My daughter was one of about a half-dozen youngsters who took part in a Chugach National Forest Junior Ranger program. It culminated with an induction ceremony and the kids collectively carrying a sea otter pelt around so passengers could experience the densest fur of any animal. It was critical to my enjoyment of the cruise that everyone from my parents to my five-year-old daughter enjoy it too, and they did!