7-22 Glacier Bay

There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to describe Glacier Bay. 🙂 We spent just over a week there, and had a fantastic time! The experiences cluster into two big areas: wildlife and scenery.
As we approached Glacier Bay, we had more and more wildlife sightings, especially whales. The morning before we arrived, we spotted a moose cow and two calves. We didn’t immediately recognize them for moose, but later read about moose in the area and realized what we’d seen. Cool! As we approached the park, we had an ever-increasing “show” of whales, although they were mostly at a distance so we didn’t really get any photos worth sharing. We were excited to spend much of that day sailing (and fishing – we caught several more salmon and now have some stashed in the freezer for later). As you enter the park, they read you a list of rules about boating in “Whale Waters”, and require you to visit the ranger station for a boater orientation. There was one other boat sitting in with us at the 5:00 session, a luxury yacht owned by a guy who was hosting seven of his friends, but four of the six crew were attending the session. The paperwork over, we headed back out to motor another 20 miles north to find a place to stay the night. Like much of our Alaska experience, this place is so big that we were constantly being surprised at the scale ot things; how long it would take to get somewhere or find that a nook we were nervous about fitting into was huge. It took about 3 hours to get from the ranger station to the first suitable anchorage. Half of that was in Whale Waters, and my were the whales out in force! Follow this link **** to see a video that Kathy took of our “three-ring circus” experience. This was an exceptional experience! Most of the time when you see a whale, by the time you get the camera out or even snap the shutter most of what you saw is over. You can sometimes predict that a given animal will come back up for another breath, until he shows his tail heading down to the deep, but the timing is uncertain enough that getting a nice photo is tough. We all tried, and got a few nice shots, but nothing that really conveys the grace and majesty of seeing these magnificent animals moving fluidly through the water. It will have to suffice to say that we were all excited and awestruck by the time we stopped for the night.
During the orientation session, the ranger told a story about a whale carcass that had washed up on a beach last summer and provided a long-lasting feast for black bears, grizzly bears and wolves. Several scientists studied their feeding behaviors and the interactions among them and between them and human observers. Late in the year the carcass washed away, but oddly it reappeared this summer. There’s not nearly as much of it left this year as last, but we thought it would be interesting to see nonetheless. On our second day in the park, we passed by the location she’d mentioned but couldn’t find it. However, we did spot a wolf walking along the edge of the shore, which was quite exciting. As we were coming back out of the park at the end of our week, we passed by the same area and were able to identify the spot – when we saw a number of (large!) rib bones and vertebra. No carnivores this time for us, though.
We did spot a pair of grizzly bears on the beach one evening while we were anchored in front of Reid Glacier, and we watched them on and off for more than an hour. We decided that one was an adolescent cub still with his mother. We wondered where they spent the night, because the terrain was very steep and it just wasn’t clear where they could tuck away comfortably. The next morning when we went for a hike nearby we were all a bit more nervous than usual. Even though we knew the possibility of a bear encounter could happen anywhere, actually seeing one in the area makes you think it’s more likely the next time. We did however spot a paw-print in some sand that was probably from the night before. We had two other sightings of black bears, one of which Dan & Kathy watched from kayaks for 30 minutes or more.
There are also lots of otters, which gave us a giggle – they float so easily on the water’s surface, with their round happy faces! Their feet also poke up, and Aria thought it looked like they had their legs crossed. Sometimes they are working food in their hands, but often they’re just chilling out enjoying the day. Once we saw a mother with her cub sitting on her belly. Cute! We also saw quite a few seals and sea lions, but mostly they just pop their head out of the water, take a peek and then go back down again. The porpoises do much the same, although they typically come up a few times before moving on to other territory. We got to where we could recognize the sound of a porpoise coming up for a breath, if we were moving around on the deck while at anchor, and we could call the others out for a look. A couple of times we spotted a porpoise moving underwater right near the boat – whoosh, like a torpedo! Lastly, there were so many birds around, and of so many varieties, that we were overwhelmed. Unfortunately, although we grew to recognize a number of the types, we don’t know most of their names. We did see bald eagles, and loons, and puffins (one or two). We became familiar with a pigeon guillemot that would take off in flight, bumping the water with the first dozen or so wingbeats – or were they dragging their feet? There was another little bird that was very comfortable underwater, and would dive down out of sight whenever our boat would get too close. They travel in small schools, and you could watch them go pop-pop-pop like bubbles as they disappeared.
In addition to the wildlife, we were amazed by the scenery, especially the glaciers. There are majestic, whitecapped mountains all around, most covered in blankets of tall trees below the snow fields. There are cottonwoods in addition to all of the evergreens, so fall must be quite pretty (but short). The days were very long; sunset began around 9:30 and the sky was still quite light at midnight. By 4am it was full on morning, so our rhythms got a little out of whack! We got lucky with the weather; although it was chilly by more southern standards, it was generally clear and mild.
There are about a dozen glaciers in the park that come right down to the water, which they call tidewater glaciers. There are easily that many more that don’t, some of which can be seen from the water. We visited 4 or 5 of them, and took our kayaks up to hike near the mouth of one that we’d heard was stable. It had a more sloped face, so the calving is not so dramatic (or dangerous to us tiny little humans). This one was where we’d seen the grizzlies, though, so we were still feeling wary! The glaciers are all a jumble of alarmingly blue and white facets, often with waterfalls pouring from them. Some of them had caves and some spires that were fun to try to look through. The Lamplugh glacier had a huge cave at the bottom, which we could yell into and hear our echo come back (although at half a mile, it wasn’t a loud echo). We didn’t see any calving during our glacier visits, but we know it happens all the time. We saw lots of floating ice, similar to our experience in Tracy Arm, and Aria enjoyed scooping some of the small chunks up for later use in a drink. There’s something whimsical about drinking water that hasn’t been in circulation for centuries. We still have a shoebox-sized piece in our freezer, which we’ll probably enjoy when we’re in the tropics. 🙂
The water around the glaciers, be it in Tracy Arm or Glacier Bay is amazing. As we got closer to the glaciers the water turned bright turquoise (Kathy’s word) or aquamarine (Dan’s word) and often became milky from the glacial silt that washed down. Imagine drifting through pistachio-colored milk.
Glacier Bay is truly a gift of nature that was fortunately set aside as a national treasure. The National Park Service works hard to balance the needs of many constituents, and they’ve generated a (long) list of regulations for visitors to comply with, from limited permits to speed limits in whale waters to areas with quiet hours to non-motorized areas. We had heard that these rules were burdensome and invasive and that they made the park just about not worth the trouble. They only allow 25 recreational boats in on any given day, and while a few reservations can be obtained months in advance, most must be requested 48 hours before entry. Since they aren’t in cell-phone territory, this causes some logistics challenges. However, the park staff are very friendly and made things as easy as possible within those parameters. Before getting through to them from Juneau, we actually considered not visiting the park but “making do” with many of the other spectacular places nearby. While these other places are certainly also beautiful, we were enthralled by Glacier Bay. We did not find the rules to be at all burdensome, although keeping track of which rules applied to which locations was sometimes a little tricky as the boundaries are always in flux. We actually extended our visit by two days, by radioing the ranger station just before our permit expired, because we just weren’t ready to say goodbye to the whales. Our last night there was in another of those magical spots. We had numerous otters and porpoises come to visit us and several whales spouted nearby that evening. It’s with somewhat heavy hearts that we turn our boat around and head south, to close this chapter of our travels and begin the next.

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