Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Best of the Guest Comment Cards

            Like many places, the Iceberg Lodge solicits comments from our guests concerning how they enjoyed their stay, and whether they have any suggestions for how we can improve in the future.   Generally, these cards are filled with lots of thank yous to the staff, and recollections of fond memories of their stay.   Very occasionally, we get some interesting suggestions, often from guests who take exception to some of our safety regulations.   Here are a few of the more memorable ones.  

  • We would've liked was a little more independence. For example, checking out a kayak and exploring on our own.    Even if you make people do an extra safety briefing before checking out equipment, it would be worth it.

            Even the staff that work here go through several training sessions in the kayaks before they are EVER allowed to take a kayak out by themselves.   The main reason for this is the water temperature - it's pretty cold.   You might have figured that out because of all the glaciers and snow and icebergs.   So, unless you happened to pack your own orange survival suit like the Coast Guard wear, if you capsize your boat, hypothermia is pretty much a guarantee.   Do you want a safety briefing for that?   Here goes.    

"Here’s your kayak.   Don’t flip it over.   If you do flip it over, make sure you’re really close to shore, since you’ll only have about ten minutes before your muscles get so cold that they stop working and you can’t swim.  As long as you are wearing your life jacket, you won’t actually drown.   Instead, you’ll slowly succumb to hypothermia over the next 30-60 minutes.   If you DO get to shore, be prepared to yell and wave your arms a lot.   Not only will this increase your chances of someone hearing you and coming to your rescue, but it will also help to keep the bears from bothering you in the meantime."

  • … have the guides sit with the guests at dinner when they are not working.

When guides aren’t working, I generally refrain from trying to tell them what to do.   Just like your boss probably doesn’t call you up at home to tell you where you ought to eat dinner.   We could ask the staff to interact with guests during their time off, but then we’d have to call it work. 

  • …I would appreciate more honesty in your advertising.   Your brochures all show close up pictures of bears, whales, seals, and glaciers, but national park rules prohibit getting closer than 1/4 mile to glaciers or seals, or 300 yards from bears.   So, unless I come with a 500-600 mm lens, most visitors cannot get those pictures…

            You’re absolutely right.   Every year, the National Park Service tries to explain the rules and regulations governing proper viewing distances between people and wildlife, but the bears and whales almost never attend these meetings.   
            Seriously, though, it is the goal of all land management agencies and all reputable guide services to manage encounters with wildlife in a way that is (a) safe for the humans and (b) not disruptive to the wildlife.   What distance this translates into varies pretty considerably – most parks and guided outfits have their own best practices.    And FYI, 300 yards is, as best I know, the recommended safe viewing distance for grizzly bears in Denali – it is usually possible to safely view black bears in the Iceberg Lodge's operating area at a much closer range.   Since it's three days into the government shutdown as I'm writing this, it's a bad time to try and look up specifics.
            However, let's assume that you're right, and that the regulations of the park you're visiting prohibit approaching within 300 yards of a bear.   Even if we go out with the firm intention of abiding by this rule, the bears have no problem getting closer – sometimes MUCH closer – to us.    I’ve had guests take amazing full-screen action shots of bears by patiently scoping the animals with their tripods from a few hundred yards away.   I’ve also had guests take amazing full-screen action shots of bears without even using the zoom feature on their point and shoot (generally while simultaneously yelling hey bear and frantically backing away).    

What kind of encounter you get (if you are lucky enough to get an encounter at all) is mostly a matter of luck, and timing.   Time is really the key element here.    The more time you spend out looking for wildlife, the better your chances of finding it.   The more trips you sign up for, the more before-breakfast-walks you drag yourself out of bed for, the longer you spend scanning the shores of the lagoon with your binoculars, the better your chances of being there for the once-in-a-lifetime moment when Mom Bear brings Junior down to the lagoon for his first fishing lesson.    And the better your chances of getting the moment on film.   

 Generally, the best way to get great photos during a visit to Alaska is to bring a lot of patience.   (A decent SLR and a tripod wouldn’t go amiss, either.)   The people who leave the lodge most dissatisfied with their photo opportunities are the ones who brought too much camera gear, and not enough patience.   Finally, just in case you're wondering, all of the pictures on our website were taken on site, and many of the wildlife shots used a lot less zoom than you might think.  

  • …Expand your trip options to include hiking up to the face of the glacier and walking on the glacier.

            As you might have noticed, none of our glacier trips actually go right up to the face of the glacier.   This is because we feel that the need to bring all of our clients back to the lodge alive supersedes the need to take pictures of you straddling a crevasse or licking an iceberg.   (Though admittedly those would look really cool on Facebook.)   No matter how much they might look like it – glaciers are not actually big blue rocks.   They are made of ice.   They are not easy to walk on.   They’re slippery.    They have crevasses.   They melt, and bits fall off.   Sometimes the bits are beach-ball sized.   Sometimes the bits are the size of an office building.   

Tidewater glaciers, like the ones we have near the Iceberg Lodge, are even more unstable than other types of glaciers because the water undercuts the glacier's face.    Walking on top of something that is that unstable (even if it doesn’t look it) requires a huge amount of specialized expertise and climbing gear.   There are a number of companies in Alaska that offer commercial glacier trekking or ice climbing –Exit Glacier Guides and MICA Guides are two that I can recommend – but I know of no commercial companies, either in Alaska or out of it, that offer guided trekking on tidewater glaciers.   There is probably a reason for that.

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