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 Arrival
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!Geography
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!Windflight
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.
Lying: Redbluff Bay, Baranof Island, AK
Total Nautical Miles: 6,504
"Track Eliana" will return when we get back to civilization!