Glacier Bay National Park – the last stop on our spring 2014 trip.
Sadly we approached the end of our eighteen days in our RV and had to pack up our belongings, arranging things in appropriate bags for the final leg of our adventure. After driving 4,168 miles, we turned our Minnie Winnie in to Great Alaskan Holidays in Anchorage. From this point on, it would be planes and boats.
We flew from Anchorage to Juneau, where we boarded a Wings of Alaska Cessna caravan for the flight in to Gustavus. The folks at Wings of Alaska were more than accommodating and stored our checked bags for us while we were at Glacier Bay Lodge. I love the way Alaskans seem to be able to figure out a way to make things work even if the request is a little odd.
The scenery at Glacier Bay was wonderful. The Lodge itself was laid out with many separate buildings connected by walkways blending in to the rainforest. However, it felt like they weren’t quite ready for the season yet at the lodge and perhaps were lacking in management. We had some difficulties with both the restaurant and housekeeping services. They were very pleasant but they just didn’t quite have it together.
Glacier Bay Lodge
When we arrived at Glacier Bay, it was raining but that is to be expected as it is in a rainforest. We visited the ranger station, and walked along the trail to the campground. At the campground wheelbarrows were available for camper’s use. As the parking was a ways from the campsites, this looked to be a real help. We also hiked the loop trail which wound through the rainforest and muskeg ecosystem at the mouth of the bay.
In the late afternoon, several Tlingit women did a cultural presentation at the lodge. The Huna Tlingit have lived in this coastal rainforest for centuries. The bay itself was a landscape and home for countless generations before the great glacier advanced from the north and forced them to move, probably in the late 1600’s. The Huna Tlingit established a new village, Hoonah, on Chichagof Island across Icy Strait from the mouth of the bay, but Glacier Bay remains their ancestral and spiritual homeland.
The great glacier completely filled the bay for perhaps a half century until roughly 1750 and then began to retreat. On the HMS Discovery under command of Captain George Vancouver, Lt. Joseph Whidbey charted the coastline in 1794 and at that time the bay didn’t exist as it was only an slight indentation in the coastline. By 1879, when John Muir and five other men paddled in, they found a bay half-revealed and Muir named it Bay of Great Glaciers. In Muir’s time, how and why glaciers advance and retreat was just beginning to be understood.
Most glaciers in Alaska and throughout the world today are in a state of retreat. However, some in Glacier Bay receive new snow at high elevations in the Fairweather Range and remain healthy and several even show signs of advancing. Studying a map of Glacier Bay with the termini of glaciers recorded in various years presents an interesting picture. Some have advanced, some have retreated.
Our second day there, we took a Glacier Bay boat tour. We boarded the boat at Bartlett Cove. Naturalist ranger, Brad Mason, was our onboard guide and was very knowledgeable and friendly. We had an amazing day! We were so fortunate that the sun came out and we could see the beautiful surrounding mountains, glaciers and much wildlife.
At South Marble Island, we saw – and heard! – Stellar sea lions. All jumbled up together on the rocks and the shore, they look so terribly awkward but manage to move around readily.
Stellar Sea Lions
At Gloomy Knob mountain goats posed beautifully for pictures. How they can scramble up rock faces the way they do is pretty amazing.
We viewed both Casement Glacier and Rendu Glacier as we moved northward further into the bay. At the head of the Tarr Inlet, the Grand Pacific Glacier presides with Margerie Glacier, to the west, hidden until you are well toward the end of the inlet. There are restrictions imposed on the number of vessels which can enter the bay any given day and how close they can approach the glaciers.
Margerie Glacier is one of the most beautiful and oft-photographed glaciers of all. Margerie Glacier is roughly a mile wide and 250 feet high. As we idled viewing Margerie, we could marvel in the shapes and colors exhibited in the glacier. We were treated to “calving”, large chunks of ice breaking off the glacier and plunging into the water of the bay, and heard the “white thunder” as the ice cracked and shifted.
A harbor seal was lazily floating along on a bergy bit (small iceberg that rises 1 to 4 meters out of the water) between the boat and the glacier.
Lamplugh Glacier exhibited shining slivers and chunks of blue ice. The blue is a result of dense glacial ice which absorbs all wavelengths of the visible light spectrum except blue. Glacial ice is much more highly compacted than ice we make in a freezer and as a result, melts more slowly.
In early June, Johns Hopkins Glacier still had an incredible amount of ice in the water in front of it – icebergs and bergy bits. The two mountains behind Johns Hopkins are called Orville and Wilbur, supposedly in reference to the Wright brothers.
Mt. Cooper to the left of Johns Hopkins was the last feature named in the park and was named for William S. Cooper. Cooper, a botanist, arrived in Glacier Bay in 1916 to study plant succession: how land changed and how after an event such as a glacier or volcano, the land could be resilient. The entire bay has proven to be a living laboratory. Virtually all the vegetation has returned in the past 300 years following the glacial retreat making this park one of the premier sites on the planet to study plant re-colonization. The process of succession isn’t limited to the land but also enlivens the sea and the shore. Cooper was an early advocate for protection of this region as a national park.
Glacier Bay became a national monument in 1925, a national park and biosphere reserve in 1980, and part of a binational World Heritage Site in 1992.The reverence shown Glacier Bay by everyone who lives and works there is impressive and well-deserved.
One more great adventure trip in Alaska drew to its conclusion.
For more information on Glacier Bay National Park: