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Close encounter with a GLACIER. One-on-one with The Great White Slope

GLACIERS are the icing on this state. Some 100,000 of them make a cool, white top hat that covers about 5 percent of Alaska's northern territory. Seeing these sculptors of valleys and levelers of mountains can be quite a moving experience; sometimes even humbling, and sometimes a bit disappointing.

Portage Glacier, in Chugach National Forest, is popular for glacier-gazing, due to its proximity to Anchorage. It's only an hour's drive from the downtown Pizza Hut. But it can also leave you somewhat cold, so to speak. Portage, like many of Alaska's glaciers, is retreating. Although it's moving forward about 15 inches a day, it is melting and breaking off faster than its forward movement. That's the problem with viewing Portage.

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Years ago you could snuggle up to it. Now a lake created by the melting ice keeps you from getting closer than three miles away. But Lake Portage does provide a panoramic view of this prehistoric river of ice, filled with small icebergs that bob like mini-marshmallows in a cup of hot chocolate.

If you really want to get close to a bit-o'-berg, the visitors center has an auditorium where a piece of Portage is hauled in to drip away while you watch. Still, it's only a chunk. I've lugged more ice to a beach party.

What I wanted on this clear, white spring day was to come one-to-one with the Great White Slope. A close encounter with a touchable, climbable river of ice. I left Portage to continue my glacier search.

Next stop: Seward, two hours' drive down the road.

Here, at Kenai Fjords National Park, was a chance to really get a grip on a glacier. Exit Glacier is icy, but very approachable. ``We're not sure just how it got the name,'' said one of the uniformed park rangers. ``It's just always been called Exit.''

On this sparkling early June day the snow had melted down to a few feet of snow-cone slush. But if we were willing to plow through it, we could actually walk right up and rub noses with Exit's blue face.

The intense Tidy-Bowl blue is the result of centuries of snow so thick and heavily compacted as to change its molecular structure. This results in the low-energy (red) portion of sunlight being absorbed and the blue color being reflected. Even small icebergs broken from the glacier keep this intense hue.

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Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a gargantuan glacier was rather humbling, even chilling; but there was more to come.

Next day, a sail from Resurrection Bay in Seward took a boatload of tourists through the waters of Kenai Fjords National Park. Here was a chance to face the beauty and enormous power of a glacier on the move.

The day was a gift. Bright sunlight, an ink-blue sky, and huge billows of cumulous clouds were the backdrop as our 75-foot cruiser moved within 300 yards of Holgate Glacier. For a while, all was stillness and peace as we paralleled the glacier's edge, soaking in the sublime beauty and stillness of the day.

Then a crack, loud as nearby lightning, snapped through the silence followed by another, and another. We watched and cheered as a great chunk broke from the face of Holgate and crashed 200 feet into the still fjord. Flocks of seagulls dived into the turbulent waters, pulling shrimp and krill from the churning, icy brine. Minutes later, another crashed as we focused our cameras at the glacier's broad cliffs.

This explosive behavior is known as ``calving,'' a process by which glaciers ``give birth'' to icebergs. Not enormous, city-block-size icebergs. Those are mostly in Antarctica and Greenland.

``Never turn your back on a glacier,'' said our captain. ``That's just when it will calve again.''

Aye, aye, Captain.

For 40 minutes we cruised parallel to the two-mile-wide glacier as it calved, cracked, and crashed before us. As each iceberg came loose, it revealed a deeper, beryl-blue surface of the glacier. Some icebergs that had broken off earlier in the month now served as gently rocking nurseries for mother harbor seals each with a newly born pup.

We had come close - bullet-whistling-by-your-ear close - to this monstrous hunk of ice. But it wasn't close enough. The best adventure awaited us down in Juneau.

Mendenhall Glacier sprawls and oozes not far from the center of Alaska's capital city. This 3,000-year-old, 12-mile-long Ice Age remnant is equipped with a staffed visitor's center that perches like an eagle's aerie on a hill overlooking the glacier.

We could even drive up to it.

But wait. There's a better way.

At a nearby heliport, two other adventurers and I pulled off our sneakers, slipped on ``moon shoes,'' and boarded a waiting helicopter. Slowly we lifted off, hovered a moment, banked to the left, and whipped off toward the 2-mile blue-white lip of Mendenhall.

From here we could see how the forests were advancing on the retreating glacier. Smaller alder lined up like chess pawns, with larger, more sturdy spruce trees behind.

``We'll see how far we can go up into the ice field,'' said our pilot as we moved up the center of the Great White Way. ``That's it. There's a whiteout ahead,'' he said, as a fierce wind drew a blanket of cotton-thick fog around us.

We turned, dipped down, and gently landed on the ice. Carefully we stepped out onto the slippery-when-wet surface.

``Welcome aboard,'' shouted Mary, a our cheery young guide, as she emerged from a white tent.

It was 42 degrees F. on the glacier and the wind snapped like a whip, but Mary was dressed for it. ``Six layers of clothes,'' she said. ``You need it when you spend eight hours a day out here.'' Mary and co-guide Rob, happy as a pair of penguins, gave us a tour around the berg.

Crevasses, some up to 40 feet deep, filled with blue water, had opened up in the ice. No real threat, as long as we didn't get too close. The ice under our feet was estimated to be 200 to 300 feet deep, and centuries old. Rob explained the cracking, popping, and groaning sounds associated with calving.

``It's caused by air trapped at 750 pounds per square inch,'' he said. When that lets go, you hear it!

Dead leaves floated a foot or two under the ice. The dark leaves had absorbed heat from the sun, causing them to sink in their own pools of water.

Glaciers aren't all snow and ice. Great swaths are dark with soil and stones, as these great movers dig and grind over mountains and valleys, depositing their spoils and laying the landscape as they retreat. Mendenhall is backing up 40 to 50 feet a year.

Glaciers may be fun to visit, but only an ice worm would want to live here. Yes, they actually do exist. These tiny, black, inch-long ice worms borrow into the cozy cube, coming out at night to feed on algae - the only other life-form here. When daylight comes, they slink like vampires back to their burrows to hide from the killing sun.

Walking across the vastness of a glacier brings you close to the power of these ancient giants as they move like great, cold slugs in and out of mountain passages.

One man wanted to get closer still.

``Sir. Wait,'' shouted Mary, chasing a renegade elderly man armed with a video camera. He was going off alone to shoot a waterfall pouring off the mountainside splashing onto the glacier.

``We do get some strange folks up here,'' Mary said as she escorted us back to the helicopter. ``Just last week a woman jumped off the helicopter and stripped right down to her bikini bathing suit so her husband could take her picture. They had it all planned. We get all kinds.''

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