Clunks from chunks of ice, the submerged parts that we could not see, delivered an unnerving soundtrack as our metal boat danced among a thousand icebergs on a zigzag path toward the great LeConte Glacier.
For nearly an hour out of the Alaska port of Petersburg, we had been traveling at a pretty good clip, seven of us in a 28-foot speedboat with a closed cabin to ward off the chill that open waters dispense, even in July. When our captain, Scott Roberge of Tongass Kayak Adventures (TongassKayak.com), turned towards the mountains into LeConte Bay, masses of icebergs seemed to block our way.
Clunk, banged a ‘berg beneath us on the right side. We swerved. Clunketty, clunk we heard from bottom left.
We held onto our seats as Roberge maneuvered 12 miles through the packs and patches of floating blue ice, some containing families of dark seals, toward the glacier that soon we could see in the distance, growing taller as we motored closer. The water was 51 degrees at the bay’s opening, 37 degrees as we approached the glacier, where Roberge edged as close as he dared.
We sat in awe of the power of the glacier as it calved wedges of ice crashing and splashing into the water, sending out a series of waves. LeConte is known for icebergs that calve under the water, then shoot to the surface in a manner that could be unfavorable for a small boat.
The ride back to the waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage was full of noisy clunks against the hull. Roberge would slow, turn, then gun the engines to slip through a sliver of seawater, with icebergs on either side and under us.
“Never fear,” he said. “The Titanic was riveted together. This boat was welded.”
That’s a taste of Alaska humor, which flows naturally from adventure guides who spend their summer days among icebergs and bears – and travelers, including cruise passengers, who are accustomed to neither.
Southeastern Alaska is awash in such natural splendors. My wife and I spotted nearly a dozen wild black and brown bears at isolated Anan Wildlife Observatory a day earlier, before our ride on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry (AlaskaFerry.com) from Wrangell to Petersburg through narrows that don’t even show on smaller maps.
Anan, like the LeConte Glacier, is a favorite of tour companies in Petersburg and Wrangell. Wrangle’s Alaska Charters and Adventures (Alaskaupclose.com) offers a five-hour boat and hiking tour to Anan. Like other small Alaska companies, its tours tend to sell out in summer. Anan, managed by the US Forest Service, has strict restrictions. Only 60 people are allowed each day on its hiking trail and observation decks.
It takes about an hour to boat to Anan, and then you hike about a half-mile to gated, wooden decks that hang out over Anan Creek, only 10 to 40 feet above rushing waters where bears slip in and out of the woods for a meal of the salmon that spawn upstream.
Our first sightings were several black bears about 50 feet away, on the far side of the stream. They poked through openings in large boulders as they sought a ledge, a nook, or streamside perch where they used their paws to grab a fish passing by.
I watched a mother black bear and cub approach from the woods higher up the stream bank. She attempted half a dozen times to coax her cub to climb a tree for safety so she could concentrate on fishing, but the recalcitrant cub kept sliding away from the tree, and eventually the mother gave up as they retreated back into the woods.
While two brown bear teenagers kept their distance farther downstream, two black bears suddenly appeared on our side of the creek at the edges of our deck. They didn’t bother to look at the humans as they sauntered by on worn paths to the rocks below. I was concerned that travelers on the deck, some snapping pictures with their backs to one of the bears, would be harmed because they were so close to animals in the wild. But one bear nonchalantly slid into the creek to swim to the other side, and the other eventually moved on, too.
“What? We aren’t as tasty as the salmon?” I asked our guide, Bob Lippert.
“No question they know we are here,” he responded. Lippert was armed with a rifle and pepper spray, just in case.
He pointed out that Anan Creek has the earliest pink salmon run of the season, which draws predators such as black and brown bears, bald eagles and harbor seals to fish in proximity to each other. It's a rare occurrence in the wild. The various wildlife, he added, have little regard for the people watching them, and most are willing to fish within a few feet of the observation deck.
Humans and bears also manage to co-exist at Anan on the hiking trail from the boat to the streamside decks. The path that has been used by bears for thousands of years was altered by the U.S. Forest Service after President Ronald Reagan walked it in 1992. He fell on a rock during the hike, prompting construction of a boardwalk, which bears initially skirted though soon preferred.
That is the reason why guides warn travelers that they should be alert on the narrow boardwalk, without hand rails, and to pay full attention where they step. Your guide will be busy on the lookout for bears who seem to think this is their boardwalk; proof is in the form of occasional droppings of bear scat.
Don’t be surprised if your guide herds you off the Anan trail for a few minutes while a bear passes by. Only in Alaska.
If you go
Book your Alaska cruises, shore excursions, and tours for summer as early as possible, as many small group adventures sell out even before the summer cruise season starts.
Both LeConte Glacier and the bears at Anan Wildlife Observatory can be reached from cruise ports at Wrangell and Petersburg. We booked the 4-hour LeConte tour in Petersburg at Tongass Kayak Adventures (TongassKayak.com). Price, $200 per person, limited to six people on a 28-foot boat with a heated cabin. We booked the 7-8 hour Anan tour in Wrangle with Alaska Charters and Adventures (Alaskaupclose.com). Price, $338 per person late June to early September. Viking Travel in Petersburg, Alaska, also can handle accommodations and excursions at their website, AlaskaFerry.com or call 800-327-2571.