The Calves of Copper River

Freshwater waves, daredevil thrill-seeking, and surreal glacial surges in Alaska.

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In TSJ 26.6, writer Kimball Taylor revisits a strange and dangerous journey with Garrett McNamara, Kealii Mamala, and filmmaker Ryan Casey to Alaska’s Copper River. The trip, which took place in 2007, hinged around an attempt to hunt down a freshwater wave created by the shockwaves of a calving glacier.

“Imagine a city skyline rising vertically from a body of water,” Taylor writes. “Its waterfront stretches in a half-moon arc a mile wide and thirty stories high. It is an ice city on a conveyor belt to its destruction. Sometimes city blocks, sometimes several of them, meet their catastrophic end at once. When this happens, somewhere below, a rare and ghostly wave is formed.”

“Up close, these 8- to 12-footers were twice as deadly as any giant. They broke in waist-deep, 37-degree water along a portion of the glacier that was most volatile and susceptible to calves. On impact, chunks the size of cars and refrigerators launched across the river.”

Unfortunately for the crew, the logistics of operating in the impact zone, below tons of falling ice, proved to be nearly impossible. As a result, most of the best waves they witnessed went un-ridden. Still, Casey managed to produce a feature length documentary, The Glacier Project, detailing the expedition. And, as Taylor outlines in our print feature, the experience left an indelible mark on everyone present.

Check out the clip above, excised from Casey’s footage, to watch these eerie surges in motion—and McNamara and Mamala’s attempts to surf in the fall-zone of a crumbling glacier. And to read more about the trip, and how it continues to resonate for McNamara ten years later, pick up a copy of the mag.

Edit by Tyge Landa / Footage courtesy of Ryan Casey and The Glacier Project.