Change — Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in southeast Alaska has been described as a park undergoing change; rapid and profound change at that. While taking a break during a recent kayaking trip in a remote section of the park, I looked out on the fjord landscape and tried to imagine the spot where I was sitting on the water covered by hundreds of feet of glacial ice. Now the tidewater glacier that I photographed is far in the distance, having retreated almost three and a half miles. An the process of calving icebergs the size of school buses continued as I watched one of floating by to eventually melt in the ocean.
As recent as 250 years ago there was no Glacier Bay. Instead, today’s bay and inlets were completely covered with a massive glacier thousands of feet thick and approximately 100 miles long.
Changes in the parks glaciers affect the entire ecosystem of the park. From under the sea to the physical land itself, islands within Glacier Bay are rising at a rate of one inch a year due to the release of the weight of the glaciers that once covered them. The effect is called “glacier rebound” and is a source of navigational problems for kayakers like myself who now find ocean passages between islands shown on government topographical maps are no longer passable. Talk about dynamic change!
Glacier Bay National Park is known for its spectacular glaciers, ice fields, and the tall coastal mountains of the Fairweather Range. The park is also an important wilderness area both in and out of the water. Glacier Bay is home to humpback whales which feed in the park’s protected waters during the summer, both black and grizzly bears, moose, wolves, sea otters, harbor seals, steller sea lions and numerous species of sea birds. The park, known for its large, contiguous, intact ecosystems, is a United Nations biosphere reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Most people see only a portion of Glacier Bay National Park from the deck of a cruise ship. I however, wanted to explore it’s inner, more remote areas closer and more intimately from a sea kayak. On this trip, I enlisted my wife Carol to accompany me. When it comes to the unpredictable sea in an area known for foul weather, there is safety in numbers. We saw few humans for much of the trip.
Our only safety net was a portable VHF marine radio, whose reception and transmission with others was mostly limited to only the rare passing boat or kayaker. The immense coastal mountains of the park precluded reaching the coast guard in distant Juneau or even, the park’s headquarters. On the few times we could receive the barely audible static-ridden weather report from the main park ranger station, the forecast focused on how high the seas would be, instead of the chance of precipitation — a telling sign. Luckily, for us, the normally rainy park was bathed in glorious sunshine with reasonable wind for much of the time.
Our journey lasted for 14 days consisting of wilderness kayaking and camping divided into two general areas of the park, the Beardslee Islands and the Muir Inlet (also known as the East Arm). By the time the trip was over, we will have logged over 114 miles of kayaking (we logged 25 miles on our longest day).
Preparing for a trip like this is never a simple matter, nor is getting to Glacier Bay. Logistics include mailing food, supplies and equipment, loading the GPS with possible camping spots, sources of water, etc. and planning the trip around ocean tides. Attention to tides is critical in this area of the world where they can vary by as much as 25 feet in six hours. The tides control when and where you can travel.
Getting to Glacier Bay is no small feat and probably accounts for the reason most people see the park from a cruise ship. The park and the nearby tiny town of Gustavus are off the road grid. On a previous trip to Glacier Bay we flew to the park from Juneau. This time we decided to try the newly scheduled twice weekly ferry from Juneau aboard the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry, the M/V LeConte. The four and a half hour trip from Juneau was spectacular in terms of scenery with the added bonus of the ferry’s captain stopping for several minutes to watch a group of humpback whales bubble-net feeding near the ship. Finally, after three days of traveling since we left St. Louis, Missouri, we had arrived at the park.
After filling our mandatory bear resistant food containers, we loaded our rented kayaks with the food and gear we sent by the U. S. Postal Service. Next we went about obtaining our mandatory backcountry safety and regulation training from the park’s rangers; we were now ready. We had to wait until early evening to set off on our paddle because we needed a high tide to clear the passage from Bartlett Cove (Park Headquarters) into the Beardslee Islands. During our stay in the Beardslee’s we camped on Kidney Island and Young Island. After what we called our “shakedown trip” in the Beardslee Islands we headed out to Muir Inlet by way of the daily tour boat, Baranof Wind, which dropped us and our kayaks off at Sebree Island at the mouth of the Muir Inlet. From there we would eventually visit deep into the Adams Inlet (a side inlet of Muir Inlet), and locations in the Muir Inlet such as Maquinna Cove, Klotz Hills, The Nunatak (a glaciated knob), McBride Glacier, Riggs Glacier, White Thunder Ridge, Wolf Point, Hunter Cove, Wachusett Inlet and Tlingit Point. During our few hours on the Baranof Wind we were treated to near perfect weather to view the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers of the Tarr Inlet.
Since the majority of our traveling was on the water, instead of hiking on land, most of our wildlife sightings were related to the sea. We saw countless humpback whales in the Beardslee Islands, harbor seals, sea otters, steller sea lions, harbor porpoises, a few orcas and a wide variety of birds including puffins, bald eagles, black-legged kittiwakes, black oystercatchers, and gulls. On one the beaches in the Adams Inlet where we camped we saw wolf, moose, and grizzly bear prints in the mud of the low tide. This isn’t all that unusual when you consider that the beaches make for easy travel for these animals.
The humpback whales were easily our favorite, with their constant haunting conversation amongst themselves, tail and flipper slapping, and diving. While we didn’t have the type of encounter we had on a previous trip to Glacier Bay where a humpback whale surfaced right in front of Carol’s kayak where she and the whale looked into each other’s eyes, we easily saw many whales from our kayaks, and from our campsites, particularly from Young Island in the Beardslee Islands. (Special note: Anyone visiting the west end of Young Island must use extreme caution as that end of the island faces the Sitakaday Narrows, an area of Glacier Bay known for dangerous rip tides and currents.)
Another wildlife favorite, which we saw constantly during the entire trip, was harbor seals. They would continually “spy” on us only to duck under the water should we look their way. I think it became a game for both the seals and for us to see if we could spot each other.
Everyone asks me about bears on my Alaska trips. This trip wasn’t an exception. One of our few human encounters on the trip was with park rangers on patrol to warn us about an incident near the McBride Glacier where kayakers did not properly secure the lid to their bear resistant food container. A grizzly bear was spotted making off with the opened container and its contents, making that general area not a particularly smart area to camp. As mentioned earlier, beaches are a highway for bears and other animals for the ease of travel they afford. Plus Glacier Bay National Park is very close to Admiralty Island which has the highest density of grizzly bears in the world. These facts, and my sense of the nature of bear incidents in the park from talks with Glacier Bay’s park rangers at headquarters prior to leaving (a bear caused damage to a tent and kayak at Adams Inlet), told me we needed to set our bear awareness up a notch. We went out our way to eat and store our food a great distance from where we camped, sometimes even eating meals at a different location while on the way to where we would eventually camp for the night. We also made sure not to camp near streams which also serve as a wilderness highway and a prime source of salmon which the bears love to eat. While not having a nearby source of water at our campsites, it did afford some comfort that we would be less likely to be awakened by a bear in the middle of the night.
So back to the question, did we encounter bears? Well, sort of, at least one close enough for me. Carol and I were on the beach at Hunter Cove watching the sun set on distant Mount Wright and the other mountains above the Adams Inlet. It was past our bedtime (though only in terms of time on the clock – remember it seems like it stays light forever during the summer in Alaska). Carol decided to head back to the tent while I photographed the beauty of the moment. Being engrossed in what I was doing for quite some time I had not noticed that a large grizzly had joined me on the beach (probably only 25 yards away). I noticed the bear when I went to grab a graduated filter out of my backpack. Luckily, the bear seemed uninterested in me and was more interested in possible sources of food in the tide pools caused by the low tide. I didn’t want the bear to get any ideas about me being a food source, so I quickly, carefully and quietly gathered up my equipment and headed down the beach to our tent without incident. It’s priceless experiences like these that make you realize what true wilderness is about.
My only real disappointment of the trip was that I had planned to do quite a bit of wildlife shooting from the kayak using my 600 mm lens. The actual use of the lens from the kayak wasn’t the problem but rather how I had planned to transport the lens. Unlike previous trips where I secured my telephoto lens in the kayak hatch, making it very difficult to access while on the water, I had devised a plan where I would keep the lens in between my legs in a specially made dry bag. Access to the lens worked ok, but the size of the lens and just having the lens between my legs threw off my leg positioning in the kayak just enough to hurt my leg muscles. It wasn’t long before the lens went into the secured hatch area of the kayak.
Having to store the lens didn’t affect the success of the trip though. We saw some incredible sights. Instead of describing what we saw, I’ll let the photographs speak for themselves. Glacier Bay is simply a beautiful place. Where else can you watch the sun set from your wilderness camp and sip on a glass of wine cooled with ancient ice that you chipped off an iceberg?
More importantly, and interesting, where can you witness geological change firsthand — change that is normally measured in millennia?
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