Glacier Bay National Park
When Captain George Vancouver sailed the ice-choked waters of Icy Strait in 1794, Glacier Bay as we now know it did not exist. Instead a single, massive wall of ice, thousands of feet thick, rested in the vicinity of present day Bartlett Cove. When the famed naturalist, John Muir, visited the area in 1879, the ice had made a twenty-mile retreat from where it stood at the time of Vancouver’s visit. Today the bay extends 65 miles, contains eight tidewater glaciers, and provides pristine habitat for a wide array of wildlife.
We arrived at the park entrance, in Gustavus, AK, very early in the morning where we picked up Ranger John and Nellie. Ranger John provided brief lectures during our time at the park. He spoke about the natural history and wildlife in the park and was always available for questions and discussion. Nellie, a Hoonah Tlingit Heritage Guide told local stories and provided information regarding the area’s original native inhabitants, including their special connection to the land that provided sustenance for their people for thousands of years.
We saw and learned so much at Glacier Bay and throughout our trip. Eagles seemed omnipresent. They are more abundant in Alaska than any other state in the United States. Their population here is estimated at 30,000 birds.
I love birds and no trip to Alaska would be complete without seeing puffins. Such beautiful birds!
Other birds spotted during the trip included harlequin ducks, arctic terns, Barrow’s goldeneye, common loons, pacific loons, pigeon guillemots, backlegged kittiwakes, oyster catchers, and a plethora of gulls.
Critters spotted here included sea otters, mountain goats, harbor seals, Steller sea lions and wolves. One of our fellow passengers, thinking he was videoing mountain goats, looked a little closer and realized he had captured a glacier bear. The glacier bear is a subspecies of American black bear with silver-blue or gray/white hair and endemic to SE Alaska. Ranger John reported he hadn’t seen one in more than three years. They are among the most rare bears in the world, with little concrete information known about them or their numbers. This particular bear appeared as white as a mountain goat with a darker colored face.
The mountain goats…. once we spotted one they seemed to be everywhere.
Stellar sea lions use terrestrial sites, called haulouts, for resting, reproduction, molting and other activities. One male has a harem of females and you can quickly pick out the male by his enormous size. The sounds of the haulout is similar to a low roar or distant dirt bike.
One of the crew members spotted a timber wolf cruising the shoreline for something to eat. While we initially thought it a lone wolf, it later traveled further inland to its partner and two pups. One of the pups appeared to be white. While they were visible with binoculars, I couldn’t capture the family with my camera.
For many, Glacier Bay’s crown jewel is the stunning Margerie Glacier. This 21 mile long glacier is over a mile wide at the face and has become world renowned for its calving displays. Adjacent to Margerie is the Grand Pacific Glacier. Because the Grand Pacific is carrying much more sediment, it looks a bit like a giant, dirty snow bank.
During our morning discussions, Ranger John noted that while land well south of here is being lost to glacier melt, this area is experiencing land rise. Thousands of feet of ice that are miles wide and deep dissipate and the weight on the earth below lessens. This causes land to rise. Small islands are growing bigger and new ones are popping up. The landscape here truly changes daily.
We were moving early on our second day at the park, with an 8:30 a.m. “push off” on the DIB. We were able to disembark the DIB and explore Lamplugh Glacier up close and personal. It was an opportunity to touch and feel the varied material carried by the glacier. Ranger John came along to share his expertise.
We concluded our time at this spot with a polar plunge for all willing crew and passengers. Despite the 38 degree water temperature, three crew members and four female passengers (all from “down under”) took the challenge and survived.
We sailed to Bartlett Cove late in the afternoon and, after dinner, went for a nature walk with Ranger John.