Jade Harbor

Prince William Sound, Alaska  (published January 2015)

While crossing the Gulf of Alaska, I’d eagerly anticipated nosing up to Columbia Glacier at the head of Prince William Sound. Although I’ve crossed several glaciers on skis, I had never seen a tidewater glacier and the idea of blue bergs floating in a desolate fjord sounded like just the sort of adventure I’d wanted when I persuaded my husband Seth to sail north on our cutter Celeste. It wasn’t until we were within a few miles of Columbia Bay that I gave a thought to where we’d drop the hook.

Columbia Bay is huge, deep and filled with ice. An island at its mouth, together with a shoal extending between its northern end and the mainland, make a separate body of water called Heather Bay. It is also too deep and exposed to make a good anchorage, but two tiny coves on its eastern shore looked like they might work. The southerly one, Emerald Cove, was a dent in the hills with no hazards at its entrance. This also made it slightly more exposed, and the weather was unsettled, so Seth and I aimed for Jade Harbor. It had more shelter, biting deeper into the mainland and protected by an islet at its entrance. That entrance was the only problem. It was narrow, marred by a submerged boulder, and made nerve-wracking by our vague chart.

Seth and I have used terrible charts before but usually in waters where you can see the coral 80 feet down. Here we had no such luxury. And of course the heavens opened in an impressive deluge just as we approached the entrance. I stood on the bow in a futile effort to spot the boulder and Seth watched the depth sounder as he steered. He kept to the southern side of the entrance because the boulder was marked a little north of center, closer to the islet, on the chart. It was all we had to go on. Well, that and high tide. Even so, Seth called out in a strained voice to ask if I’d seen anything when the depths went abruptly from 30 feet to 15 and then 12. No, all I’d seen was rain pounding the green water white.

Celeste approaches Columbia Glacier
Celeste approaches Columbia Glacier

Then we were inside Jade Harbor, an almost eerily quiet hideaway. There was room for only one boat to swing, and we were alone. As the rain eased, I took in the marshy island guarding us to the west and the thickly forested hills climbing into the mist in the south and east. To the north lay the shoal that kept Heather Bay free of ice. Beyond it marched a steady procession of sapphire icebergs, twisted into strange and lovely shapes. The Chugach Mountains rose above everything, soaring to eight, ten, twelve thousand feet. No wonder these coves bore their bejeweled names.


Author: Ellen Massey Leonard