“All…day it rained. The mountains were smothered in dull-colored mist and fog, the great glacier looming through the gloomy gray fog fringes with wonderful effect. It is bad weather for exploring, but delightful nevertheless, making all the strange, mysterious region yet stranger and more mysterious.“
JOHN MUIR AT THE FACE OF MUIR GLACIER,
JULY 27, 1890
Being prepared to deal with rainy weather in southeast Alaska is critical to an enjoyable and safe trip. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is no exception. If anything, it is essential.
A trip last August was a good example of this importance. Eight straight days of consistent rain in Glacier Bay’s backcountry might have dampened the spirits for some, but for Carol and me, and our friends Billy and Shari, who joined us later, the seemingly constant rain didn’t bother us in the least.
Despite all the marketing by outdoor clothing companies to make you think that your three-layer, super-high-tech, breathable rain gear will keep you dry, I can tell you confidently that it will not keep you dry when it rains for such an extended length of time as we experienced. For that reason, we ditched our expensive, breathable waterproof rain gear for old-fashioned, low-tech rubber jackets and bibs. We stayed warm and completely dry.
Our adventure started with the exploration of the Beardslee Islands of the park, an area of the national park where we have made numerous trips (above photo). Fog and rain, with a few hours of welcomed partly cloudy skies with low winds, made the paddling easy. For our first night, we traveled to a very small unnamed island, probably about 1.5 acres in size. We unofficially named it Birthday Island as Carol, and I would be celebrating my birthday there.
Campers in the Glacier Bay National Park backcountry are encouraged to cook and eat in the intertidal zone at least 100 yards from their tent and food storage area. In addition, food and other scented items should be stored in a bear-resistant food container (BRFC). The method ensures that incoming tides will erase all traces of your food preparation and dining. Carol found us a perfect table to prepare and eat dinner. Rain during dinner didn’t dampen our spirits due to our staying dry in our rubber-coated rain gear, though I’m sure the birthday celebratory glass of wine didn’t hurt either.
Challenge – find an abandoned fox farm
Those who know me know that I LOVE maps and backcountry navigation challenges. It’s an excuse to satisfy my desire to explore. This love was long before the advent of GPS. An altimeter and compass were my tools of choice back in the technology stone age. Those navigation instruments served me well for many years, but I must say GPS has made it easier.
Part of any trip’s homework is to find a navigation challenge. The challenge for this trip was to see if we could find the remains of an abandoned fox farm from the early 1900s on one of the dozens of islands in the Beardslee Island group. While this sounds simple enough, it still meant studying written accounts of the approximate location, consulting both modern and historical maps, checking satellite images for clues, and consulting tide tables to make sure we knew when it was best to land on the island.
We passed 4-5 islands on the way. It is important to keep tabs on each one you paddle past, as they all look the same. Eventually, we made it to the island where we believed the farm once was, but we knew that was only the beginning of our exploration.
The forest edges of the Beardslee Islands appear to be impenetrable with bushes and shrubs, but once you get past them, the island’s forests open up to a moss-carpeted and lichen-rich landscape.
After a brief exploration of the forest, we finally found the first of two buildings of the long-abandoned fox farm.
This abandoned building sits in the rainforest at the site of a historic fox farm on an unnamed island in the Beardslee Islands in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Several significantly weather-damaged small buildings are all that remain of the operation. Fox farming in Southeast Alaska began in the early 1900s with the introduction of Russian arctic foxes, which were prized for their snow-white fur. The Great Depression caused most of the fox farms to cease operations. The National Park Service reminds visitors not to take or move historical objects and that weather-damaged structures like those found at this site should not be entered due to the likelihood of imminent collapse.
While it would have been nice to spend more time, we needed to head back to the island that we used as our base.
It was time to move on to our next destination in the Beardslee Island group. While it may seem odd to be packing the kayaks so far from the water, we were timing the packing so we would be done by the time of the rapidly encroaching tide would be lapping at the kayaks when it was time to head off to the next island. We welcomed the few hours of patches of blue sky during the paddle.
A few hours later, we arrived at another unnamed island that we named “The Boneyard.” We named it that for the numerous sea otter skeletons that we found there.
Despite our ominous unofficial naming of the island, we were treated to a beautiful dinner sunset over Eider and Strawberry Islands.
Heading up bay – The East Arm
After resupplying with food back at Bartlett Cove, the park’s headquarters, we boarded a water taxi/sightseeing boat that would drop us off 46 miles further up the main portion of Glacier Bay. For this portion of the trip, we were joined by our friends Billy and Shari.
Our plan was to explore the East Arm (aka Muir Inlet) of Glacier Bay. We picked the East Arm for its solitude and lack of cruise ship traffic. Despite the seemingly never-ending rain, it proved to be a good choice.
Rain and fog didn’t hamper our wildlife viewing on the way to our dropoff location. We saw whales, sea otters, sea lions, and numerous sea birds like puffins and cormorants.
Eventually, we reached our dropoff point, where the water taxi carefully lowered our boats onto the beach. We had thought through how we would pack the kayaks prior to being dropped off, so packing them was fairly quick. After several hours of easy paddling with the incoming tide going in our direction of travel, we reached a place that I thought would be a great spot to camp. It turned out to be a most excellent spot, with nice views and interesting hiking in the forests behind our campsite.
Carol kayaks past a small iceberg floating in the Muir Inlet of Glacier Bay National Park. This piece of glacial ice is technically not an iceberg due to its small size. The size category for an iceberg is huge, with the height of the ice must be greater than 16 feet above sea level, a thickness of 98-164 feet, with a coverage area greater than 5,382 square feet. Next size down is bergy bits (height less than 16 feet above sea level but greater than three feet), then growlers (less than three feet above sea level – the size of a truck or grand piano), and then brash ice. The piece of ice is from the retreating McBride Glacier. Recent research determined that there is 11% less glacial ice in Glacier Bay than in the 1950s. Still, even with the earth’s rapidly changing climate, Glacier Bay is home to a few stable glaciers due to heavy snowfall in the nearby Fairweather Mountains.
Billy snagged a small piece of the floating ice for his nightly bourbon cocktail. It was a great idea, but by the time we got to our new camp, it had melted. Damn it!
It’s not unusual to have a visit by bears. I prepared for it by carrying bear spray as we have yet to have a trip to Glacier Bay, where we didn’t make reasonably close contact with a bear and a few times a little too close. While I won’t jump into the debate on the merits of bear spray vs. a gun, just know that bear spray has been proven to be more effective and safer than a gun. Storing food properly, using common sense in picking camping spots, and behaving properly in a bear’s presence is equally important, if not more important. On this trip, we had a grizzly pass by our camping spot on the beach. He appeared to be eating the barnacles exposed by the low tide. I can’t imagine they were particularly tasty, but since salmon wasn’t running then, beggars can’t be choosers. He made his way down the beach, returning past our tent a few hours later. I suspect he probably does that route every day.
One of the highlights of our evenings was the reading of a Robert Service poem by Billy. His deep, perfect-for-radio voice was ideal for his post-dinner readings. My favorite is “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Listening to Service’s poetry in the environment he describes brings a special extra dimension to his literary works.
“South… gale-force winds…(indiscernible)…small craft warnings…”
Each evening throughout the trip, you would find me on the tallest spot near the beach with my arm stuck high into the air, holding and rotating the small VHF radio used to get the twice-daily weather forecast broadcast from park headquarters for this part of Alaska. The broadcast is always scratchy, broken, and not unusual to be unreachable. On our last night in the backcountry, the broadcast was breaking up badly, with the only words discernable being gale-force winds and small craft warnings. This was troublesome news for us as the next morning, we had to paddle several miles to our water taxi pickup point. Equally troubling was that our tents were on a south-facing beach on the open/main part of the bay, meaning that we would bear the brunt of any storm. My fears were confirmed by texting a satellite message to Leah with Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks, our sea kayak rental provider. Luckily, the winds didn’t come during the night hours, and even more luckily, they weren’t near as bad as we made our way to our pickup point.
Did I say that it rained on this trip? Thank god for rubber!
What a difference a day makes
Wouldn’t you know it, when we awoke in civilization, we were greeted by brilliant sunshine, as seen in the photo below of boats anchored in Bartlett Cove, the park’s headquarters. It was like we had arrived in a completely different place. We had a few hours to kill before catching the ferry to Juneau, so we explored the trails and interpretive exhibits near the park lodge and campground. It was a good way to slowly integrate ourselves back into the modern world after having spent time in the wilderness.
- PHOTO GALLERY: Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve
- PHOTO GALLERY: Lamplugh Glacier landslide
- BLOG: Glacier Bay National Park – Witnessing change
- BLOG: Massive landslide pours onto Lamplugh Glacier
- BLOG: Glacier Bay images published in Alaska Geographic book
- VIDEO PANORAMA: Glacier Bay’s enormity is hard to fathom