Monday, January 10, 2011

Chapter 21: Ice Fall in Blackstone Bay

This accident is quite a bit different from most of the stories in the book, "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble". While George Gronseth chooses to focus on issues like the number of paddlers in a group and the lack of a VHF radio in the "Lessons Learned" section, I think there is an obvious lesson that was missed. Eugene Weschenfelder (who eventually died) and Susan Putt should never have been paddling in the spot where the accident occurred.

Having visited Alaska several times, I know how beautiful the glaciers can be. While it is possible to paddle right up to the base of many tidewater glaciers, the recommendations that I have always heard suggest that you should never go closer than a quarter mile to the face of a tidewater glacier. Ice falling from above is an obvious hazard (the hazard that killed Eugene) and a less obvious hazard is that of ice chunks breaking off from below the water and suddenly surfacing at the foot of the glacier. Even being on shore near calving glaciers has its risks as the falling or surfacing ice can create huge waves that break on the nearby shore. When camping near glaciers, you need to set your tents, kayaks, and equipment well back from the shoreline or you may find your tent inundated by water and your kayaks washed out into the bay.

A careful reading of the description of the incident indicates that Susan and Eugene were probably next to a rock cliff that was in close proximity to the actual face of the glacier. They may have thought they were safe because they were not directly in the line of calving ice. However, they failed to take into account the smaller pieces of ice that can and did fall from the top of the rock cliffs as the glacier was melting and moving.

Any accident becomes much more serious when help is going to be hours, if not days, away. Since glaciers are mostly located in remote, wilderness locations, kayakers should be taking extra precautions to avoid putting themselves in unnecessarily risky situations.

For anyone not familiar with calving glaciers, I have included some video that shows the beauty of this natural phenomenon. However, I think it's easy to see the potential danger for kayakers that might be paddling within a quarter mile of that ice face. Sometimes it is difficult to appreciate the scale of these glaciers since there is nothing in the picture for comparison, but many tidewater glaciers are hundreds to thousands of feet high above the water and even more thousands of feet of ice extend below the surface of the water.

I apologize for the fact that the video below is a commercial to get you to buy a DVD, but the footage of the calving glaciers along with the ice emerging from below was the best I could find on YouTube.


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