Getting up close and personal to a glacier is an unforgettable experience, writes Brett Atkinson.

More than 600 years ago, the jagged ice that today makes the front of Alaska's Dawes Glacier fell as soft snow many kilometres up the icefall's swirling leviathan mass. And after six centuries inching and compacting down the glacier, the crashing of massive slabs of ice into frigid waters is now slowly revealed as a three-step process.

Bobbing in an inflatable Zodiac 400m away, the closest any vessel is allowed to venture, the first stage is seeing shards of ice calve off the massive glacier. Viewed at this distance through an icy Alaskan mist, the calving almost plays out in slow motion. The ice appears to crumble benignly, but in reality, bus-sized chunks have just tumbled into the water.

A few seconds later the sound dubbed "white thunder" by Alaska's indigenous people takes over. Elemental creaking from deep within the ice segues to a telltale cracking sound and in an impetuous rush, an icy mini-Manhattan finally yields. It's then time to wait for the swell and boatswain Bernadette Castner raises the rare but not unknown possibility of a "shooter" underneath our craft. Spears of ice driven underwater in the fall can suddenly surge out of the ocean. At our distance we're fairly safe, but when the wave does hit it pushes strongly against the bow.

A juvenile harbour seal accidentally surfaces near the boat, but skulks away looking suitably embarrassed, and the Safari Endeavour's promise of getting up close and personal with Alaskan wilderness and wildlife has been spectacularly fulfilled on just day two of a week-long expedition.

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The differences between the Safari Endeavour and other larger ships cruising Alaskan waters are revealed the day prior in the quaint state capital of Juneau.

Big liners queue along the town's waterfront, disgorging up to 3000 passengers to Juneau's bustle of souvenir shops and day excursions. At a quieter dock at the far end of town, the Endeavour is being readied for a very different experience for around 80 passengers. Sea kayaks and paddleboards are stored on deck, and there'll be no stops at crowded ports or pioneer-themed pubs - just a week of adventure and exploration in Alaskan isolation.

Departing in the evening via the Gastineau Channel, it's soon obvious that Juneau's man-made footprint is easily trumped by the wilderness we're about to enter. The town can only be reached by sea or air, and any pretence at civilisation is soon replaced by a brave smattering of fishing boats, their lights bobbing randomly in a late evening indigo dusk.

Cruisers have the chance to get up close and personal with an iceberg. Photo / Supplied
Cruisers have the chance to get up close and personal with an iceberg. Photo / Supplied

The following morning the irresistible rhythm of life on board soon kicks in. Hearty breakfasts set up passengers for days as relaxed or active as they want.

Expedition leader Matt Symanowicz - the Man with a Plan - has several plans every morning and afternoon. These often involve buzzing about in Zodiacs spotting wildlife, or piloting sea kayaks through opal waters made silky with glacial moraine, with trips to the boat for lunch between activities.

A nightly cocktail hour provides the opportunity to meet guests and crew over Oregon wines or Alaskan craft beer, before dinner of local salmon, crab or scallops. When the boat's pastry chef is given a standing ovation just two days into the cruise, I soon recognise the importance of signing up for slightly more strenuous activities to offset the calorific input.

If Alaskan seafood is the culinary highlight, other local species steal the show in the entertainment stakes. In Security Bay's compact inlet, accessible on the more nimble Endeavour, a gutsy seagull escapes into sitka spruce trees to evade harassment by a much larger bald eagle.

Almost simultaneously a raft of sea otters cruises past the Zodiac: hundreds of male otters gathered together for protection from the occasional visiting pod of orcas. Zodiac skipper Joe Bruzda reckons they're "hanging at a sports bar", but I'm yet to see any All Blacks or Warriors fans floating on their backs preening themselves.

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When we do spot orcas, their visit comes just hours after a spectacular 8am breakfast interruption by humpback whales.

The orcas ride the boat's bow wave in mid-morning sunlight, surfing from port to starboard in a row of dorsal fins. Later in the day the Endeavour's ability to access more remote destinations is again tested at Red Bluff Bay on Baranof Island. A scattering of islets conceals the narrow entrance to the bay. It's the first time the recently refurbished craft has entered the cove, and even the more experienced and laconic crew members are on deck to witness the moment.

"Can we pick pine cones as we go through?" somebody queries.

It's a worthwhile question as the boat squeezes past a forested island to reveal an expansive cove trimmed with quicksilver waterfalls fuelled by summer snowmelt. After the best kayaking of the trip - zipping above sparkling shoals of salmon - Zodiacs are dispatched to explore for larger four-legged locals. A brown bear is sighted swimming through late afternoon shadows, and after lumbering on to a coastal meadow, it patrols the bank for a few minutes before crashing through the grassy undergrowth and out of sight. "It's built like a Volkswagen," a fellow passenger opines, and with the bear's stocky hunched profile and rolling gait I'm not going to argue.

Kayak opportunities abound on the cruise. Photo / Supplied
Kayak opportunities abound on the cruise. Photo / Supplied

En route to Glacier Bay National Park the following day, Marble Island showcases another huge mammal.

A bolshie bull sea lion is surrounded by wannabe contenders, but a halo of respect and personal safety keeps challengers at bay. For now. Stout little tufted puffins with peroxide comb-overs fly just above the water, and the default Alaskan weather setting of "cloud failure" - read "overcast or raining" - continues to be postponed for another blue sky day.

The next day we're approaching the northern reaches of Glacier Bay National Park. The park gets more than 500,000 visitors a year, but only about 5000 are ever able to hike or kayak around the park's rugged coastline. Fortunately I'm on a boat where negotiating a sea kayak to remote beaches or hiking to rugged glacier lookouts is an option.

Our final destination at the northern terminus of the bay is the 2km-wide face of Margerie Glacier. Other multiple glaciers fed by the massive Brady Icefield punctuate the bay's western edge, and alpine peaks approaching 2000m frame both sides of the narrow inlet. Scores of small icebergs - some improbably occupied by solitary bald eagles - dot the Endeavour's path to the ice-clad border between Canada and the United States.

In intense Alaskan sunlight, the turquoise sheen of Margerie Glacier looks more benign than the misty profile of Dawes Glacier a few days earlier. But northeast across narrow Tarr Inlet the massive Grand Pacific Glacier comes on as Margerie's evil twin. Smudged with charcoal-coloured rocks and glacial moraine, it currently crosses the border for 40km into British Columbia. By 1925, the glacier had actually retreated north across the border into Canada, but it's since advanced back into the United States.

In a new century, there's no telling where the foreboding ice now at the glacier's face first fell as soft winter snow.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to Seattle via Vancouver or San Francisco. From Seattle and Anchorage, Alaska Air has regular flights to Juneau.

Details: Un-Cruise Adventures Discoverers' Glacier Country Cruise runs from May to September. World Journeys is an Un-Cruise Adventures representative in New Zealand.

The writer travelled to Alaska with the assistance of World Journeys, Un-Cruise Adventures and the State of Alaska Tourism Office.