We went deep into the ice flows, at the Columbia Glacier on the Lu-Lu Belle, in mid-August during our exploration of Alaska. It was full of surprises, including wildlife, but sadly no polar bears were seen. That perhaps would have been the only way to make our trip to the glacier better. We didn’t expect to see Polar Bears. Polar Bears are only found on and near the edge of the pack ice (floating sea ice) in the Arctic Ocean. Seeing one at the Columbia Glacier would be unprecedented.
Much more common would be if we saw killer whales. These whales are in the area, but we didn’t see any. They would have been near there to feed on the abundant harbor seals and sea lions.
Lu-Lu Belle is a tour boat designed by Captain Fred Rodolf. Lu-Lu Belle’s summer home is Valdez Alaska. Each summer for the last 50 years Captain Fred has toured Prince William Sound and The College Fjords. Captain Fred is the number one known expert on the College Fjords and the Columbia Glacier.
Prince William Sound and College Fjords
Prince William Sound is a semi-protected bay on the south edge of Alaska. It is bounded by the Kenai Peninsula on the west side and the Chugach National Forest to the north. Three large islands protect the bay from the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean is not calm (anyone who crossed it knows that it was poorly named). On the north end of the sound is the College Fjords. Each of these narrow channels was carved by glaciers advancing and receding over eons of time.
At the end of each of these fjords lies a glacier. The glaciers flow from the icecap at the top of the Chugach Mountains. I described the ice cap in my story about how we crossed the Glenn Highway and saw the Matanuska Glacier. The Matanuska Glacier and the Columbia Glacier both flow from this ice cap. If you missed the story here is a link. Going up to the Matanuska Glacier
After following the Glenn Highway, we found our destination in Valdez. I really liked Valdez it was my favorite city in Alaska. I also think that Valdez is the most important city in Alaska. If you missed that story here is a link. Valdez is the most important city in Alaska
The Columbia Glacier
The Columbia Glacier is one of the largest and fastest-moving glaciers in the world. It was the largest glacier that was found during the Harriman Alaska Expedition in 1899 and was named after Columbia University. The other glaciers in the College Fjords were also named after different colleges. The Columbia Glacier moves downhill at a very fast rate of more than one foot per day. Since 1986, it has also retreated at a very fast rate. Watch the NASA animation of the Columbia Glacier retreat to get a feel for how fast the glacier is retreating. Here is a link (same link at the bottom). NASA Columbia Glacier
The Columbia Glacier moves downhill at a very fast pace because of the abundant snow falling on the Chugach ice fields at the top of the glacier. The rapid downhill movement is also one of the reasons that the glacier is retreating rapidly. Because the glacier is a tidewater glacier (a tidewater glacier is one that terminates in the ocean), it flows downhill into the ocean. Someday, perhaps soon, the termination will be on land. I found predictions that this was going to happen a few years ago.
As it flows into the ocean, it not only melts at the terminus, but calves large icebergs into the ocean. The deeper the water, the larger the icebergs and the faster it retreats. Since we only see the very top of an iceberg (the other 90% being below the water), the icebergs we see are related to the depth of the water at the junction. Glaciers that flow downhill rapidly into deep water tend to have larger icebergs.
Deeper water at the face of the glacier exposes the glacier to much more melting action than would happen in shallower water. During the last forty years, the water depth at the terminus of the Columbia Glacier has been as deep as 700 feet. This depth caused the glacier to retreat rapidly and calve huge icebergs.
When glaciers calve, they do so both by ice falling off the terminus into the seawater from above the water, and also the ice breaks off from the glacier from below the water’s surface. Because ice floats it then rockets upward after breaking away from the glacier’s face. This article does a great job describing the calving action of a tidewater glacier. Here is a link (same link at the bottom). Tidewater Glaciers
Icebergs are caused as tidewater glaciers are warmed and ice chunks break off and then float near the glacier face. Starting in Antarctica and Greenland, these icebergs can be huge and float well away from land.
One of my biggest surprises was our arrival at the ice flow near the face of the Columbia Glacier. From our location, at the edge of the ice flow, there were miles of ice between us and the face of the glacier. The glacier was obviously huge and it was really far away.
Only twelve years ago the Columbia Glacier was the combined terminus of nine major and minor glaciers. Ten years ago it separated as it retreated from the West Columbia Glacier (photo above). NASA imagery shows that the ice field calved from the glacier into the ocean. To appreciate this you really need to follow that link to the NASA website. Here is that same link. NASA Columbia Glacier
Our trip deep into the ice flow
Upon our arrival, the terminus of the glacier was miles away and miles across. First, we paused at the edge of the ice flow and then gradually Captain Fred pushed his way into the ice flow. Quickly there was ice all around us. As we pushed further and further into the ice flow we started seeing harbor seals lying on some of the icebergs.
While we ventured into the ice flows, I started having memories of reading about Shackleton’s exploration of the Antarctic Ocean. The book “Endurance” describes Shackleton’s story. Shackelton’s story is also the subject of about a dozen other books. The short story is that his boat became locked in ice near Antarctica and due to a series of miracles all created by Shackleton, he and the crew survived the ordeal. If the Shackleton story is new to you here is a link to a description of the book. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
Instead, of exploring the Antarctic Ocean we were exploring the glacier-carved fjords and the Columbia Glacier north of Prince William Sound with Captain Fred on the Lu-Lu Belle. The icebergs at first were far away and well separated. Gradually the icebergs were smaller and while not creating a solid sheet there was much more ice than water. As we pushed further and further into the ice, my memories about the Shackleton story came into my head, and I started thinking about being locked in an ice flow. This was an adventure.
In the world’s oceans, most of the shallow water less than 100 fathoms (100 fathoms = 600 feet) is charted carefully. The only sailors that are concerned with water deeper than 100 fathoms deep live on submarines. When water depth is less than 100 feet deep, water depth becomes a huge deal. As a glacier retreats it doesn’t leave markers about water depth. Waters at the terminus of a glacier can be several hundred feet deep or they may be very shallow. Glaciers, as they move, have a bulldozer effect on the bottom as well as a conveyor belt effect in the middle depositing rocks along with their movement.
Tidal effect on water depth
The tides have a large effect on water depth. First, there is the current that is caused by the movement of the tides that will move your ship with the movement of the water. Secondly and just as important, there is an issue with the depth of the water that changes with the tides. As the tides go out the depth gets shallower. Being near the face of a glacier is like being at the back of a bay. You don’t really feel the current but rather you notice the water depth change.
Tidal movement in areas in Alaska can be huge. A normal tidal movement will add (or subtract) up to twenty feet of water. Large tidal movements are called king tides. A king tide can add or subtract fifty or even a hundred feet of water and it all depends on your location. Tidal movement is the reason that docks at a port float on the water.
About our trip on the Lu-Lu Belle
As I mentioned in my previous post, I really liked Valdez Alaska, and one of the reasons I liked Valdez was our cruise on the Lu-Lu Belle. I mention this at this time because of all the people on Earth the one person who knows the most about the water near the Columbia Glacier is Captain Fred. He designed the Lu-Lu Belle and has been taking the boat to the face of the Columbia Glacier for nearly 50 years. He started with the Lu-Lu Belle in 1979. In terms of operating a boat in the uncharted waters near the Columbia Glacier, Captain Fred is the number one authority. No one on earth has more experience or knowledge on the subject.
Running out of water
Two weeks after our trip on the Lu-Lu Belle, knowledge and experience met its limit and Captain Fred spent the night on the Lu-Lu Belle alone. Lu-Lu Belle was sitting on (wet) land near the face of the Columbia Glacier. From what I know about Captain Fred, he probably spent lots of time talking to himself that night.
The Coast Guard landed a helicopter(s) picked up the crew and 18 passengers and took them back to Valdez. The next morning at high tide, the boat rose off the bottom and Captain Fred took the boat back to Valdez without his passengers. That was it for the 2023 season, the Lu-Lu Belle needs to be inspected before the 2024 season. I am willing to bet that Captain Fred inspected every inch of the bottom of his boat while it was sitting on the bottom.
You might say that Captain Fred made a controlled landing on the bottom. He didn’t crash and the Lu-Lu Belle didn’t sink. I am certain that he was watching the depth finder and then felt the ship shudder as it first touched. Since he knew his location better than anyone else he also must have known he was in trouble far before the rest of the crew and more obviously the passengers.
After it was obvious that they were not going anywhere he sent out a Mayday call and the Coast Guard came to help. For the next few hours, there was no danger of sinking. Rather than sinking you might say that it already sank. Or maybe you would describe it as the water went away. The danger was not associated with sitting on the bottom but rather with how the ship floated the next morning on the rising tide. If the seas and wind were calm floating would be easy. Any of a hundred things could go wrong. Not only that, based on his location there wasn’t any help that could be obtained.
Since I was a helicopter rescue pilot in the Navy I had to admire how easy this helicopter rescue must have been. The helicopter landed on the same part of the exposed bottom next to the Lu-Lu Belle and they then picked up the passengers. While the Coast Guard makes plenty of harrowing rescues in Alaska this one was as easy as it gets.
Someday I will know more about the facts of that fateful trip. I hope that the Lu-Lu Belle and Captain Fred will be operating in 2024 and I wouldn’t hesitate to go on the trip.
Photo credit of the Lu-Lu Bell sitting on the bottom of Prince William Sound at the face of the Columbia Glacier was taken from an official news release made by the United States Coast Guard and to my knowledge they are public property owned by the citizens of the United States. As for the other photos, More than half were taken by my wife Tami.
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