Childs Glacier: When Ice Falls

The face of Childs Glacier forms a bank on the Copper River near Cordova, Alaska. This is the same Copper River famed for its runs of wild salmon.

Two days prior, we’d launched our C-Dory in Valdez and made the 90-mile run across a section of Prince William Sound to Cordova – a fishing village accessible only by air or water. The livelihood of many of Cordova’s 2,000 or so inhabitants is connected to the massive runs of salmon that ascend the nearby Copper River. A running event, the Alaska Salmon Runs Marathon and Half-Marathon road races, had lured us to this idyllic village. We hadn’t even known about Childs Glacier when we first put together our travel plans.

Just 400 yards across the river is a picnic area offering excellent views of the glacier.

As often happens at running events, it wasn’t long after we’d finished the half-marathon that we fell into conversation with another couple. They were planning on renting a car and driving out to see the glacier the following day. When they asked if we’d be interested in splitting the rental car and joining them, we didn’t hesitate. This would be our first opportunity to get close to a glacier.

We figured we’d drive out, snap a few photos, have lunch at the picnic area, and drive back. If we were lucky, we might see a moose or a bear along the way. This was before we understood the dynamic nature of sea-level glaciers. We were completely unprepared for what we would experience.

A shower of ice sloughs off the glacier’s face.

The width of the chalky-brown Copper River was all that separated the picnic area from this very active mass of slowly moving ice. Think of the cracking and popping sounds a couple of fresh ice cubes make in a glass of whisky. Now imagine those sounds magnified to amplitudes ranging from rifle fire to dynamite charges as ice almost continuously breaks away from the glacier’s face. We were mesmerized. The half-hour we’d planned on staying turned into an hour, then into two, and then into three.

We were witnessing yet another Alaskan phenomenon so large and full of energy that it is all but impossible to adequately capture on film or with words – an event you have to experience to comprehend, and we were here, experiencing it. Although neither Barbra nor I gave voice to the thought, it was probably on this day, watching and listening to this glacier, that the idea of moving up here began to root itself in us.

We sensed that something BIG was about to happen.

Suddenly, a massive section of ice below a seam we had been watching seemed to sag. A fraction of a second later a prolonged groaning, cracking explosion unlike any we’d heard before reached our ears as the face of the glacier fell away, collapsing into the water with a force that sent a small tidal wave curling toward us. The four of us looked at each other, eyes wide, jaws dropped, and quickly gathered our gear and scurried for higher ground. Seconds later, the wave hit the shore, inundating the area where we’d been standing only moments earlier. It was thrilling.

This large iceberg in Prince William Sound is the result of a glacier calving event in one of the sound’s fjords. Kittiwakes and gulls have claimed it as a roosting place.