#52 Glacier Bay

Writing about Glacier Bay isn't easy. There is no single superlative that adequately describes it. No matter how prepared you think you are ... you're not. The place evokes emotions that can only be known by physically being there. We arrived early on a Thursday morning, same as any other day. But like Alaska itself, Glacier Bay is so big and so wild it's impossible not to be a little overwhelmed. All the photos below may be enlarged by clicking on them. I made a short, 2 minute video. The link is at the end of this post, but here's the story...

Sitakaday Narrows, Willoughby Island ahead


Visiting in one's own boat isn't without a couple of hurdles. The incredible distance to get there aside, entering the park is by permit only. The total number of private boats allowed in the bay is limited to 25. Only two cruise ships are permitted to be in the park on a given day so you might see one of them. We were only able to secure a two day advance permit with hope that there may be cancellations allowing us to extend our stay. We had two strokes of good luck. First, we were able to get an extension. Second, we hit the weather jackpot! It was beautiful.

Before crossing the line of demarcation, we radioed the ranger station to get permission to enter. We were instructed to go directly to Bartlett Cove just inside the park entrance where we received an "orientation" mostly involving the extensive park rules. We noted many of the permitted boats for the day were anchored right in Bartlett Cove and had no intention of making the long trip into the back country.

Glacier Bay ranger station

The Fairweather range about 40 miles distant as seen from the ranger's station. That's where we're headed!


Geologists believe the basin existed through a minimum of four ice ages. The last one of those is called the "Little Ice Age" which ended about 1750. About that same time the first recorded exploration of the area was beginning. At the time, it didn't look like a bay at all. It looked like a mountain of ice. In 1794, Joseph Whidbey, master of the 'Discovery' during George Vancouver's expedition reported that the "coastline was blocked by a wall of ice two miles wide and 3,900 feet thick. It stretched as far back as the eye could see."

The ice field described in 1794 melted rapidly as the region warmed. By 1890 the entire basin was replaced by 700,000 square miles of clear, blue water much of which is over 1,000 feet deep. As the ice receded, the tundra surrounding the water was completely barren, scarred from centuries of glacial grinding.

Rising high above the water is the Fairweather range of mountains, the highest of which is Mount Fairweather. Despite the name, it's famous for very bad weather. At 15,325 feet in elevation it is one of the highest coastal mountains in the world. Snowfall is estimated at 1,000 inches annually, building layer upon layer, year after year. The weight of the snowfall compresses to exceptionally dense ice formations. Once a formation begins to move by it's own weight, it officially becomes a glacier. Should a glacier reach the sea, it is termed a "tidewater" glacier. There are about 50 named glaciers in Glacier Bay flowing out of the mountains, a few of which do reach the water.

Mount Fairweather from some distance away. This has the appearance of being taken from an airplane.

Mt. Fairweather, 15,325'. Mt. Quincy Adams, 13,556' slightly left.

Plants and Animals

What I find most interesting isn't so much about glaciers and ice, but how mother earth is replacing it with a vast biosphere of forest, plant and animal life. The glacial scarring is clearly visible on the mountain walls, but in most areas it's all been covered over. Hundreds of species of moss and lichen grow on the rock which support plants, flowers, grasses and trees of every description. The pine and deciduous forests began to grow during the big melt 200 years ago, so the oldest forests are that old, huge and thick. Each year new species of plants and animals are repatriating new areas of the region and a more virgin, pristine biosphere would be hard to imagine.

Glacial scarring several thousand feet up, evidence the entire valley was filled with ice.

Repatriation of vegetation over the tundra.

Diverse vegetation supports the wildlife.

The sea otter. Common in Alaska but only recently populated Glacier Bay.

The Tufted Puffin. About the size of a pigeon but weigh twice as much. Historically hunted for food with the skins made into parkas, feather side in.

A Black Oystercatcher. They don't swim, but eat things along the shoreline at low tide.

Margerie Glacier

Margerie Glacier is 21 miles long. It's a tidewater glacier originating on the south slope of Mount Root in the Fairweather range. It terminates at the head of Tarr Inlet just perpendicular to the Grand Pacific Glacier which does not quite reach the water, but itself is nearly two miles wide.

Debbie and I chose Margerie Glacier to visit. It's a day's journey to get to and from with no opportunity for overnight anchorage in between. We wanted to see a few other things along the way. For instance, Johns Hopkins Glacier isn't far off Tarr Inlet. This glacier is advancing rather than receding, but is currently calving off so much ice the path to it is literally blocked off. I didn't want to risk damage to Eliana and we were plowing enough ice chunks as it was.

Approaching Margerie, my first impression was that it was rather small. But as we drew closer, the perspective of true scale became apparent. The exposed end of the ice is over a mile wide and 350' tall! For comparison, the statue of liberty is 307' tall. We got no closer than 1/4 mile from the actual ice face because there were pieces about to come off that would dwarf a small office building. Even at 1/4 mile, we felt very close.

An interesting observation was that both the ice and the water around it were blue. The reason has something to do with the way it refracts light, but honestly I can't explain it. We noticed as we got closer and closer to the glacier, the water got bluer and bluer.

For miles, Tarr Inlet looked like this, a good sign of a glacier ahead.

The American Bald Eagle can live for up to 40 years in the wild.

Approaching Margerie Glacier to the left, Grand Pacific Glacier dead ahead. This is where I had the mistaken impression it was small.

Getting closer we realize it's HUGE.

It's over a mile long and 350' thick.

The ice itself is very blue and the sounds of crushing and breaking ice was incredible.

While at rest in front of Margerie Glacier. This position 59N - 137W became the highest latitude and longitude Eliana has ever been and probably will be for some time. This calls for a toast!


I mentioned there were few other boats in the bay due to limited number of permits. You can imagine our surprise when as we passed an anchorage, tucked back in there were Neil and Margery Hokonson on their Nordhavn 68 'Windflight'. As you know, I love coincidences. Eliana and Windflight were built nearly simultaneously at the Ta Shing factory in Taiwan. We decided to photograph them together as they've probably not been this close since before they were born!

Sister ships side by side in Glacier Bay, AK.

That's all for this post. As always we love and appreciate our dear readers. Please go directly to our website at the link below in to leave a comment or question. I normally don't respond to comments, however they are an important and permanent part of today's post. I do try to answer questions the best I can.

I promised a 2 minute video of Glacier Bay. Click Here to see it.

Rick Heiniger

N7617 Eliana

Lying: Redbluff Bay, Baranof Island, AK

Total Nautical Miles: 6,504

"Track Eliana" will return when we get back to civilization!


David Fairhurst 1/11/2016
I've been looking for information on Glacier Bay, my partner has told me all about this magnificent place and it looks just as incredible as she has described. Your pictures of the glacier look amazing! My partner Sally was telling me that she went out on a small tender (similar to these) and nearly got flipped when a whale appeared. I really need to get over and see Glacier Bay for myself, sounds like my kind of place...
Dean Grulke 2/14/2012
I finally had a chance to read some of my "existing" emails. Your trip of Glacier Bay was one of them. I would just like to take this opportunity to thank you both for all of the info you have shared with us over the years.
JC 8/7/2011
Hello Eliana, Noticed you have added 2 kayaks on the deck. What kind and are you enjoying them? Thinking of adding some but deck space is premium. Also, do you carry another tender stored onboard? I like a small 8-10ft inflatable just in case (as you know that crane isn't always as reliable as you hope). Enjoying the Alaska documentary immensely, bow turns your direction each time I read a post. Hi JC, We added two Hobie tandem kayaks. We love them because they have paddles AND peddles. With peddles we can go long distances with less fatigue and still have hands free for photography, etc. We do not carry another tender. We would use the tandem kayak for that purpose. While we do use the davit to put the kayak out, it isn't necessary. I think the kayak weighs about 70 lbs. Small tender vs. tandem kayak? Well, the question with small inflatable tender is you need motor to go any distance or get out of strong surf. But motors are a hassle for a lot of reasons and are theft target. So we chose to go with kayak with peddles. One other point. The kayak can easily be slid onto our swim step at water level. So for short moves anchorage to anchorage, just slip it on, then off again no hassle.
Kathy Clark 7/31/2011
Great photos! What kind of camera are you using? We are in the midst of maintenance work now - can't wait to get back on the water! Hi Kathy, I interchange two bodies and two lenses, a Canon 7D and a 5D combined with either a wide angle or telephoto lens. The 5 has a full size sensor for great panorama shots, but the 7 can do either video or stills at the flip of a switch. The equipment is great. The weak spot is the photographer! All the best to you guys. Rick
Vic Lafrank 7/31/2011
Rockin' good job, y'all. It kills me that we won't hear from you again until you return to "civilization." IMO, life gets no more worthwhile than where you are right now, so why bother returning to anything else? Cool seeing the other Nordie up there. Stay safe, and keep on living the dream for the rest of us.
Mike Youngblood 7/30/2011
SUBJECT: Glacier Bay I’m so glad you had good weather and what looks like a memorable experience in Glacier Bay! It’s hard to compress that experience into a series of photos and a short video, isn’t it? Mike
Bob 7/30/2011
The Video did open and it was delightful. I had to install Quicktime, which is fine. That is also the first time I have ever heard the purr of a Nordhavn underway.
John & Sue Winner 7/30/2011
There are a lot of people out here that are following your e-mails. Thank you so much for your pictures and National Geographic type commentary! OMG we wish we could be there! We only have a 37' trawler and live in Fla. so probably not possible. Please keep the e-mails coming. We envy you guys!!!
Bob Rubel 7/30/2011
Thank you so much for the wonderful post, the glaciers are absolutely amazing. I have been following VOE the "Voyage of Egret" for over 5 years and it's a pleasure to add you to my reading list. It's wonderful that I can travel the world from my computer screen.
Happy Sailing...Nice Blog. Couldn't open the 2min. video?