Photo Credit: LeConte glacier calving near Petersburg, Barbara Greninger

Kayaking in Glacial Areas

The glaciers of Alaska and the ice discharged from them demand your respect and attention. Don’t go near the ice if you’re not confident you can pull off a self-rescue or assisted rescue. Here are nine essential tips:

  1. Minimum safety distance from a glacier in the best of conditions is 500 yards.
  2. When glaciers calve, surge waves as big as 10 feet high may result. You are safest in deep water, with your bow facing into the wave. Capsizes and wet rescues are a common result of getting too close to calving glaciers
  3. Ice can complicate getting your boat in the proper position, and bigger chunks of ice can roll and capsize boats. The heavier the volume of ice in the water, the farther away you want to stay from the glacier.
  4. In an enclosed inlet, when glaciers calve the surge wave is typically a curling, breaking wave along the rocky walls of shore. This is a wave you want nothing to do with. People tend to paddle shorelines in these inlets to beat the wind blowing off the glacier. Don’t do this! In deep water the wave is typically rolling and easier to ride-out.
  5. At high tide ice gets pushed to glacier faces. At low tide it spreads out and away from face.
  6. Any wind blowing into a glacier face should be considered and responded to very quickly. Don’t let it get to the point where you can’t respond to it and get pushed into the glacier.
  7. Typical sea breezes are breezes that come from water onto land because land is warmer. Here, we have the opposite effect; the land is colder than the water and the wind comes from the land. Beware: big winds can sweep down off the glacier faces into the water.
  8. Glacier out of sight can’t be glacier out of mind. Having lunch on the beach? Keep your gear tied up and safe from surprise calving waves, as well as from large boat wake that often drenches gear and lunch, and can carry away a kayak not property tied up.
  9. If you paddle up to a piece of ice in a feathercraft it will in fact slice the boat open. A sharp piece of ice will cut a feathercraft open in a heartbeat.


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