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Alaska 2003
  • Places: Washington State, British Columbia, Alaska
  • Time: May - August 2002
  • Vessel: "Teacup", Nordic Tug 37
  • Level of adventure: high to ridiculous
Copyright © 2003, P. Lutus. All rights reserved.

When you travel by boat in Alaska, you must be aware of ice and accommodate it. It pops up in the least likely places, and sometimes your intended route is blocked by ice and you must change your plans. The ice is also sometimes very pretty.

One day in June I departed Valdez, intending to head west toward Wrangell by way of the shortest route, but I found that route blocked by ice from Columbia Glacier. I ended up having to swing well out into the Valdez approach traffic area to avoid all the ice and finally turned west once again. In a delicious irony, that very evening I read a detailed account of the Exxon oil spill in an Alaska history book, and it turns out that Captain Hazelwood made the exact same diverting turn, at the same place, for the same reason — ice from Columbia Glacier. The difference was he left the bridge after clearing the ice but before returning to his original course, and his next in command didn't have a clear picture of how far to the east of the shipping channel they were. Instead of steering aggressively back onto the appointed route, the helmsman commenced a slower turn, which only served to align the vessel with Bligh Reef and history.

One of the less well understood threats posed by ice is that it is almost never as simple as steering around the icebergs. As one example, on a long passage through an icy area, a sudden wind might come up and push all the icebergs together into a dense pack, along with your boat (and possibly crush it). These are the sorts of peculiar things you don't think about until they happen.

The most annoying ice, and the most risky for one's boat, are not the huge icebergs but the small, clear pieces of ice that are barely visible until you are nearly on top of them and only if you are looking very carefully. Typically I move very slowly through icy areas, hoping the slow speed will prevent the ice from descending below the boat into the area of the propeller, where it could do serious damage. This strategy usually works, and eventually I return to ice-free areas and I can resume normal cruising speed.

That's when the problem typically comes up. After I have gone back to cruising speed, and sometimes miles from the nearest easily visible ice, the boat will run over an orphan bit of clear ice, which will descend directly to the keel area and the fast-spinning prop. A surprisingly small bit of ice can take a surprisingly large piece out of your prop (picture below).

Ice Pictures

Clear, blue ice, Tracy Arm, southeast Alaska.

Larger view of the same iceberg.

Glacial scoring*1 in channel bedrock, Tracy Arm.

Fissure in glacier.

A mixture of ice densities.

Patterned ice.

I enter an ice-filled passage as my mascot*2 looks on in alarm.

Prop ice damage.

*1 Glacial scoring. Glaciers pick up rocks and debris and carry them along as they migrate to the sea. This debris scores the channels through which the glacier moves.

*2 My mascot. Name: "Turbulent Eddy." I assure you, with enough ice and enough wind, even stuffed animals experience alarm.


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