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updated 7/26/2010 12:41:39 PM ET 2010-07-26T16:41:39

We're standing in a field of rocks in a dense fog, surrounded by icebergs stranded at low tide. This is the terminal moraine of Alaska's Columbia Glacier — the rocky debris that was left when the glacier retreated — and it looks like the moon, all gray and black and icy and bleak. Wearing oversize rubber boots, I steady myself on the small, slick rocks as my traveling companions in brightly colored rain gear start to offload our kayaks from the small water taxi that dropped us here.

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The four of us were about to embark on a five-day adventure, paddling 57 miles in nearly constant rain through Columbia Bay and Prince William Sound to the Port of Valdez. The trip, organized by Valdez-based Anadyr Adventures, took us to sheltered bays, short sections of choppy water and the bigger swells of the Valdez Arm, then out rapids formed by the retreating tide through narrow inlets.

We feasted on meals cooked by our guide, Josh McDonald, and we camped one night near the face of a groaning glacier. We saw orcas, sea lions, otters and seals, and we spotted bald eagles, perched high on Sitka spruce and jagged cliffs, looking for prey. The land was vast, wild and remote, and every day, around every corner, ever more extraordinary sights awaited us.

None of us had sea-kayaked before, so our first hours with McDonald were spent discussing water safety, efficient paddling and getting in and out of the boats without capsizing. We also learned how to pack and seal five days of gear into tiny high-tech "dry bags," and how to attach a spray skirt, a water-repellent cover that keeps the kayak cockpit and the paddler dry.

We started our trip where the tip of the Columbia Glacier was located 30 years ago. Today the glacier is 10 miles from that point, having retreated off the moraine into deep water. Columbia is the second-largest tidewater glacier in Alaska at nearly 400 square miles, McDonald said, but it's also one of the fastest-moving glaciers in the world, flowing at the rate of 60 to 80 feet per day.

As we launched our kayaks, growlers — small icebergs — tipped and rolled in the bay. McDonald cautioned us to keep a safe distance from them; only 10 percent of their mass is visible above the water. It was 48 degrees and raining, and their blue ice was sculpted smooth by the water into whimsical shapes and sizes — birds, ships. We were like dumbfounded kids, happily splashing around the bergs and through the strong currents with our spastic day-one paddling, trying to comprehend the awesome spectacle around us.

We had the proper gear to stay mostly dry, covered head to toe in rubber and Gore-Tex, though we did get cold feet — literally — the nearer we were to glacial streams. McDonald had his own kayak while we four paired up in bigger kayaks, spending the first day trying to paddle in each other's rhythm. Tough going, but we managed it eventually. We all happily admitted early on that we loved break time, when we floated in a little pod in the wide open sea and McDonald pulled out gorp, chocolate, banana bread and other snacks from the dry bag at his feet for us to munch on.

On our very first day, we finished a break adjacent to Heather Island, admiring its old-growth forest, which survived because it sits south of Columbia Glacier's farthest reach. I was still struggling to match my partner's paddling rhythm and steer with the little foot pedals in my bulky rubber boots when we heard the huge blow and splash of a whale surfacing.

"Orca!" McDonald yelled. Three whales were breaching and diving about 60 yards from our boats. Then McDonald yelled, "They're coming right at us!" He was clearly excited by the prospect, as was my boat mate Donna Lawlor, and our fellow paddlers Kym Littleton and Karen To, who sat transfixed watching the huge backs and fins go in and out of the water straight toward us. I started getting nervous, feeling like a very small pea before a very great giant. Then just as quickly as they'd surfaced, the orcas veered off and headed north toward the glacier.

On that first day and every day after, we saw seals, otters, sea lions and countless eagles. We saw cliffs where hundreds of purple and yellow starfish hung off the seaweed and rocks at low tide. There were waterfalls that looked 20 stories high, and glacial moraines that stretched for miles. Some days the water looked milky green and almost emerald-like; other days it was an icy gray. This far north in the summer, the sunset took place around 11 p.m., but it never got dark.

After paddling 16 miles the second day, we spent two days in Sawmill Bay, cruising its flat waters and exploring Stellar Creek where bear feed on spawning salmon. We didn't see any bears, but signs of them were everywhere: paw prints and crude paths through long green marsh grass crushed by their weight, and large areas completely flattened where they'd taken fish to eat. At night, we packed our food and belongings into bear-proof containers, so that they wouldn't be lured to our campsites by the smell.

The fourth day we headed to Shoup Bay, through the rough seas of the Valdez Arm and Narrows, crossing into a large calm body of water, and then up a narrow inlet only accessible at high tide. Once there, we were greeted by the cacophony of 20,000 nesting black-legged gulls called kittiwakes. Beyond that was the huge blue face of Shoup Glacier, which stretches miles to the interior. It was incredible, and we camped a half-mile from its face, listening to the glacier groan and creak all night.

Unless you're an experienced kayaker and know how to read maps and tide charts, a guide on a trip like this is a must. McDonald not only cooked us spectacular meals and set up a shared screen mess tent nightly; he also guided us expertly around the sound. He knew which bays were best for camping, what time we had to enter and leave based on the tides, and when we would experience choppy water in the ocean, based on the prevailing winds. Another outfitter based in Valdez, Pangaea Adventures, offers similar trips.

The type of trip we took caters to the novice, but experience camping out is helpful. Anadyr supplies the food and basic equipment, but you pack and transport it and set up and break down your campsite. Along with route planning, the guides cook and clean up after every meal. McDonald cooked a variety of fresh food — shrimp, broccoli and mushrooms with rigatoni, or salmon with asparagus and couscous. There was even French press coffee for breakfast. Not your typical freeze-dried backpacker swill, for sure.

After five days we paddled into the port of Valdez, surrounded by fishing boats and mountains. We were tired, but completely dazzled by the spectacle of all we had seen. It was our first trip to Alaska, but we feel certain we'll be back.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Amazing Alaska

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  1. Mendenhall Glacier

    Located in Mendenhall Valley, the Mendenhall Glacier is a massive glacial system that stretches 120 miles. It is approximately 12 miles long, and 1.5 miles in width at the face. It is located 12 miles from downtown Juneau. (Danny Lehman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Bald beauty

    A bald eagle dives for dinner in one of the many remote lakes within the Tongass National Forest. With almost 17 million acres, the Tongass is the nation's largest national forest covering most of Southeast Alaska, surrounding the famous Inside Passage. (Ron Sanford / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Scenic adventure

    Experience the panorama of Juneau and the Inside Passage from 1,800 feet above the city on the Mount Roberts Tramway, one of the most visited attractions in Southeast Alaska. (Stuart Westmorland / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Bright nights

    A cruise ship floats on Auke Bay near Juneau, Alaska. The summer sky is still bright at 11:00 p.m. (Bob Rowan / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Flying high

    Take a scenic flight over the 1,500 square mile Juneau Icecap. Flight-seeing tours are the only way to see the glaciers and fields that make up the fifth-largest ice field in the Western Hemisphere. (Lee Cohen / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Awe inspiring

    A humpback whale shows its fluke during a dive while a fishing boat cruises by. Humpbacks may be seen at any time of year in Alaska, but during spring, the animals migrate back to Alaska where food is abundant. Whales seen in Alaska during the summer months are from Hawaii. (Buddy Mays / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska

    Less than 2,000 visitors last year, but almost 500,000 caribou each spring and fall. In other words, the only crowds you’ll experience at Kobuk will likely have antlers and four legs apiece. In fact, this roadless expanse, just north of the Arctic Circle, is so remote that the U.S. Geologic Survey still hasn’t named some of its river drainages. But for those who are prepared for a true wilderness experience, rafting the Kobuk River, hiking the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes or climbing among the Baird and Waring ranges that ring the park can be the adventure of a lifetime. (Tom Walker / AccentAlaska.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cool city

    A winter view of the Anchorage skyline with the Chugach Range in the background. The Chugach Range forms a 300-mile crescent outside the town of Valdez, Alaska, east of Anchorage. (Robert Olsen / ACVB) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Majestic mountain

    Denali, North America's tallest mountain at 20,320 feet, is visible from Anchorage even though it's 140 miles to the north. (John Brecher) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Reindeer games

    Mel Leskinen, left, talks as Albert Whitehead walks his pet reindeer Star along 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, Feb. 2, 2005. Half of the nation's population thinks most of Alaska is covered in ice and snow year-round. One out of every eight believe that the 49th state is either a separate country, a U.S. territory, a commonwealth or just aren't sure. Thanks to a poll commissioned by Gov. Frank Murkowski, Alaskans know a bit better the misperceptions Americans have of their neighbors to the north. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Lighten up, moose

    A bull moose with Christmas lights tangled in its antlers rests in a field in Anchorage, Alaska, on Dec. 25, 2005. The lights, which did not seem to bother the moose, could pull off as the he wonders through Anchorage neighborhoods. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Wow, that's a snowman!

    A young boy poses in front of a 16-foot tall snowman in a residential neighborhood of Anchorage, Dec. 24, 2005. Thousands of people trekked to the house to see the creation. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A refreshing ride

    A windsurfer rides the wind as he jumps across waves in the Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage, Alaska on May 18, 2006. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Iditarod

    Mitch Seavey mushes past a patch of open water on the Yukon River after leaving Ruby, Alaska on Friday, March 12, 2010 during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Bob Hallinen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Glacial beauty

    An iceberg from the Portage Glacier is locked in the frozen Portage Lake south of Anchorage, Alaska in this Jan. 6, 2004 photo. The glacier, which is a major Alaska tourist destination near Anchorage's southern edge, has retreated so far it no longer can be seen from a multimillion-dollar visitors center built in 1986. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Artistic awe

    Alaska's favorable climate makes ice carving a popular activity and spectacle for visitors. (Anchorage CVB) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Flight of freedom

    Tom Melius, with the Fish and Wildlife Service, left, Lisa Pajot, second left, and Gary Bullock, second from right, with the Bird and Treatment and Learning Center, and Pat Lampi, with the Alaska Zoo release a bald eagle in Anchorage Alaska Sept. 25, 2006. The eagle was cared for by the Bird and Treatment and Learning Center after it lost its tail feathers and was released after the feathers grew back. (John Gomes / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Snow-plowed

    Two snowmobiles collide, knocking one rider off, as they race around the track during the Fur Rendezvous Sno-X races in Anchorage, Feb. 26, 2005. The 17-day winter festival includes the World Championship Sled Dog races, dog weight pull, snow sculptures and other events to break up the long Alaska winter. (Al Grillo / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
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