The blue icebergs bobbed and floated seductively, dangerous but enticing, clues that somewhere upstream lay a glacier. But in Southeast Alaska, navigating a field of icebergs field is dangerous is any season, all the more so in November, with its short days and chilly temperatures.
But back in 1879, naturalist John Muir, being Muir, would not be dissuaded. This was a man completing a canoe voyage of several hundred miles, in November, in Alaska. After several weeks of exploring southeast Alaska, Muir was heading back to Fort Wrangell with Captain Toyatte, his Stickeen Indian guide, and several others. As their party passed between a headland and the opening of Wrangell Narrows, the river of icebergs and floes floating out of the mountains intrigued Muir. He wanted to follow the trail, to see the legendary Thunder Glacier for himself.
Captain Toyatte, knowing the hazards well, issued a strong protest. The icebergs might upset the canoe, tossing them and all their gear into the water. At worst, they would drown in the icy water; at best, they might make their way to a wilderness shore with no gear, food, matches, or way of transport.
But Muir, being Muir, kept pushing. “Oh, never fear, Toyatte,” he said. “You know we are always lucky–the weather is good. I only want to see the Thunder Glacier for a few minutes, and should the bergs be packed dangerously close, I promise to turn back and wait until next summer.”
Reluctantly, Toyatte paddled into icebergs. The glacier, Muir said, was “one of the most imposing of the first-class glaciers I had as yet seen…..a fine triumphant close for our season’s ice work.”
Because of the dense pack of bergs, Muir observed the glacier at a distance of two miles. We were lucky, and were able to come with a half-mile (or maybe even a bit closer)
As for John Muir, visiting LeConte Glacier, for us, was both an afterthought and a triumphant close to our stay in Wrangell, Alaska. The bears at AnAn Bear Observatory had drawn us here, and we also planned to cruise up the Stikine River. Why not visit the glacier while we were there?
Like Toyatte, I felt some trepidation, revolving around my credit card bill. But when I would get to Wrangell again? We signed on.
I am so glad that we did. LeConte Glacier, named in 1887 for Muir’s close friend, Joseph LeConte, a geologist at the University of California in Berkeley, was every bit as imposing as Muir described it. (The glacier was named by Navy Commander Charles. M. Thomas who conducted the first official surveys several years after Muir’s visit).
Although the glacier is a regular destination for small boats from Petersburg and Wrangell, LeConte is tucked away in a lesser-visited region of Southeast Alaska. Thus, visitors can enjoy its splendors in relative solitude — we saw only one other boat (briefly) on the day we visited — and its huge population of seals, more than 2,000 of which live in the fjord.
For the non-glaciologist, glaciers are almost impossible to comprehend: LeConte stretches back 21 miles into the mountains and in places is a mile deep. Although LeConte, the most southern tidewater glacier in southeast Alaska, has retreated 2.5 miles since 1887, it has both receded and moved forward in the past 30 years, and scientists regard it as stable (that is, it may recede one year but will move forward in another).
The tidewater is why the Tlingit Indians gave it the name, Hutli, which Muir translates as “Big Thunder.” According to Muir, the derived from a mythical bird that produced sounds of thunder when it flapped its wings. And LeConte Glacier makes big thunder, sometimes many times a day, when house-sized chunks of ice calve from its face and drop into the fjord, as in this video:
The glacier was magnificent, awe-inspiring and beautiful. The seals were a very thick layer of icing on an already rich cake. Amidst all the seals, my Seal was in heaven.
Our daylong trip to LeConte also included a stop in the fishing village of Petersburg. I’d been here once before on a dark 2 a.m. ferry stop, so I enjoyed strolling around in daylight.
Reading John Muir is not for the faint of heart, as his 19th century prose is dense and wandering. Even so, I’ll dare to conclude with his 1879 conclusion on Alaska:
To the lover of pure wildness Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. No excursion that I know of may be made into any other American wilderness where so marvelous an abundance of noble, newborn scenery is so charmingly brought to view as on the trip through the Alexander Archipelago to Fort Wrangell and Sitka. Gazing from the deck of the steamer, one is borne smoothly over calm blue waters, through the midst of countless forest-clad islands… nearly all the whole long way is on inland waters that are about as waveless as rivers and lakes. So numerous are the islands that they seem to have been sown broadcast; long tapering vistas between the largest of them open in every direction.
Although I probably could use fewer words, I couldn’t have said it better myself.
(John Muir’s book, Travels in Alaska, is available in multiple formats at Gutenburg.org, and also readily available in print).
Wrangell and Petersburg Resources
Visitor info for Petersburg can be found at the Chamber of Commerce.
For more details on LeConte Glacier, see Pat Roppel’s 2013 article, Southeast history: LeConte Glacier, in Capital City Weekly (a Juneau newspaper).
From Wrangell, we visited LeConte Glacier in a jet boat with Brenda Schwartz Yeager of Alaska Charters and Adventures. There are several similar outfitters in Wrangell and Petersburg.
In Wrangell, the lumber industry ruled for many years, but today, fishing and tourism keep the town going. Large cruise ships can’t visit Wrangell (a plus, in my opinion) although several smaller adventure-type cruises visited where we were in town.
We stayed in a roomy suite at the Wandering Channel Bed & Breakfast. The Stikine Inn is a full-service hotel, with a good restaurant. The Wrangell town website lists all lodging establishments. You don’t need a car in Wrangell unless you want to explore more of the roads and trails of the Wrangell Island. A daily Alaska Airlines flight provides service from Seattle or Juneau.