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College Fjord – Alaska, USA

College Fjord glacier with reflection
Source by Baba1948 on Flickr – Under Creative Commons license

Glaciers to the right, glaciers to the left, glaciers in front; 16 magnificent glaciers carve their way down the Chugach Mountains of College Fjord, a sea of white snow, matted here and there by green vegetation. The glaciers flow down over the hills and towards the water, making it look like frozen waterfalls. Face one of these glaciers and, even though the already low temperatures, a wave of cold air will greet you from the solid ice walls.

College Fjord glaciers flowing down
Source by Scott McMurren on Flickr – Under Creative Commons license

History

The fjord, a narrow inlet guarded by cliffs on both sides, was discovered in 1898 by an expedition looking for a way to reach the goldfields of the Klondike without going through the Yukon, and by 1899, millionaire tycoon Edwards Henry Harriman sailed on an expedition, aiming to chart and name many Alaskan glaciers.

College Fjord runs for 30 km, and the glaciers in it are named after American Ivy League colleges, such as Harvard Glacier, Barnard Glacier or Wellesley Glacier, the first being the largest and furthest point of the fjord, and one of those still advancing towards the waters of the Gulf of Alaska. There are others still coming down the steep-sided valleys towards the sea, but they melt faster than they move, looking like they are retreating. But even though some have retreaded, other glaciers have continued their movement cycles, almost totally untouched by man. These glaciers remain as pristine as they were in the 90s.

Source by Kimberly Vardeman of Flickr – Under Creative Commons license

The most convenient, easy and recommended way to get to College Fjord is by cruise, which generally takes you to the south-east of Prince William Sound, at the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska; but for those who love a bit of adventure, there are chances to kayak close to the glaciers. If you get there by sunrise, you’ll be greeted by a magnificent sky filled with orange and purple clouds, flowing over the Chugach Mountains and blanketing the waters of the fjord.

At the top of the mountain, the ice appears like a clean white, changing to shades of turquoise and blue at the hard ice face. The glaciers are also dotted with rocks and earth, picked up by the snow as it flows down the cliffs. They move in geological time, and a clear line shows the meeting point of forest, rock and snaking ice.

The actual size of the glaciers and the fjord is hard to pinpoint; from a ship, the walls of ice might seem about as high as a house, but they could actually be 10 times as high. The compression of scale can distort the structure of the glaciers as well; from afar you’ll make out small abysses and furrows, but as soon as you get closer, there are visible great cracks, abrupt spikes, and deep abysses, caused by the pressure of millions of tonnes of ice, digging out rock on either side.

Source by a sun on Flickr – Under Creative Commons license

As the icy walls reach the sea, they dive into the water, shattering in large chunks that float across the fjord; this is known as “calving”. Some of these chunks of ice can be as big as a house, and the sound they make once they fall into the water is extraordinary. At sunrise and sunset, the chunks of ice catch the sunlight and reflect it, making it seem like the sea is filled with shiny shards of glass.

Source by NOAA Photo Library on Flickr – Under Creative Commons license

Although the environment seems inhabitable, there is a shocking amount of wildlife on this fjord. You may see sea otters and seals swimming in the icy waters, but if you get lucky, large and shiny orcas might accompany you beside your cruise, or even bright white beluga whales.

How to get there

Given its far-off location, it’s almost impossible to get to College Fjord by other means than a cruise ship. Cruises lines like Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises make a seven-night one-way journey from either Seattle or Vancouver to Seward, 3 hours from Anchorage. Besides, there are round trips from Seattle or Vancouver, and one-way cruises heading south from Seward. The best time to go and have a pleasant time is between June and August, as the winters in College Fjord are long and intense.

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