Glacier Bay’s Glaciers

After sharing some of our favorite wildlife in Glacier Bay National Park, today’s post is all about the ice.20160718 3763 gbnp decorative ice rGBNP glaciers west armThis map from the Park Service shows all the glaciers in the park that reach water – blue dots indicate salt water and green dots indicate fresh water lakes.  The area circled in red is the west arm of the park that we explored this trip.  There are hundreds of glaciers in the park that no longer reach water, called hanging glaciers like the Hoonah pictured here.20160721 002 hoonah glacier r

The first major glaciers we visited were the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers – at the top of the red circle above.  Note that the Grand Pacific glacier is now just across the border into Canada.20160718 3779 gbnp marjorie face and jim rThe Margerie is the obvious glacier on the left, and the low dark gray area to the right is the grit-covered Grand Pacific.  About 250 years ago, during the Little Ice Age, the Grand Pacific covered both the east and west arms of the park, all the way down to Icy Strait.20160719 0001 gbnp margerie face close rThere’s something mesmerizing about the ice.  Spires (called seracs) reach to the sky, chunks calve and fall into the water (or break off underwater and shoot to the surface), and the sound of cracking and rumbling remind us that the glacier is really a river of ice that’s constantly flowing down the mountains.  As the mass of ice flows it picks up rocks, grinding and scouring the mountains underneath… embedding streaks of grit in the ice.20160719 0006 gbnp hopkins stripe face rIce with air trapped in it looks white, but ice under pressure turns clear or even blue – an almost fake-looking turquoise color.  The blue ice is so compressed that it absorbs all the colors of the spectrum except blue, which it reflects.20160720 0034 gbnp lamplugh close vert rWe think the most dramatic glacier in the bay is the Johns Hopkins glacier, and we were lucky that the inlet to it was pretty clear of ice so we were able to get fairly close.  The grand view of it is what I love best though – with the rugged mountains behind.20160721 004 hopkins approach rIt’s difficult to grasp the scale of these glaciers, as well as their age and their power.  Standing before them, feeling the cold wind whipping down from the peaks where they begin, hearing their cracking and watching ice calve into the water only hints at what these glaciers are all about.

Sometimes we can get to the side of a glacier and touch it or even climb on it, and that’s the case with the Reid Glacier.20160720 016 reid rushing water and ice rWe can anchor in the basin that was formed by the Reid when it was larger, and take the dinghy to the shoreline near the face.  This rushing river is melt water coming from underneath the glacier.20160720 026 reid glacier edge 2 rBy hiking along the water’s edge we can reach the side of the glacier and get a better view of the alien landscapes on top.  20160720 036 reid top r

Looking back towards the entrance to Reid Inlet you can really see how the glacier scoured the landscape, though some wildflowers and willow are beginning to establish themselves, paving the way for an eventual forest.20160720 010 gbnp reid jim rWe had a little uh-oh moment when we hiked back to the dinghy.  Normally Jim is ridiculous about setting the dinghy anchor so high up on shore that it would take a Biblical flood to cover it.  This time he mis-judged a bit…20160720 051 reid oops rWe had a good laugh about it, and the good news is that the tide was starting to fall so we wouldn’t have more than about an hour to wait… but it was also getting late in the day and we hadn’t had lunch yet!  We suspected the anchor line was caught on a rock, but the opaque water made it impossible to guess where it was.  There was another boat anchored near us, and it turns out that we have mutual boating friends.  We spotted them out in their dinghy so we waved them over and they pulled up the anchor for us.  Small world!  But the little plover who had escorted us along the beach was not impressed.20160720 053 plover r

Wildlife of Glacier Bay

If you’ve followed the Blog for awhile you’ll know that Glacier Bay National Park is one of our favorite places.  The whole place is huge – about the size of Connecticut, but the most visited section consists of a long bay branching into two arms, each over 50 nautical miles long.  You can only see the bay by boat or by air, and the Park limits the number of boats during the summer season to preserve the feeling of remoteness and solitude of this grand place.20160717 3613 gbnp mountain view 2 rThe park has many moods depending on the weather – shy and mysterious when it’s overcast and misty, or bright and brash when the sky is clear and you can see 15,325′ tall Mount Fairweather and the other distant mountains on the ocean coast.  Regardless of the weather, we love the park for its density and variety of wildlife.  We can see the same animals in other parts of southeast Alaska, but not as many of nearly everything in one place.20160713 3423 pavlov bear 2 rThe park has brown bears (such as this sub-adult in the photo above) as well as black bears.  We’ve even spotted a glacier bear – a rare gray-blue morph of the black bear.  We’ve watched a brown bear sow teaching her cub to swim and we’ve watched a sow nursing her cubs.  As this was our first visit to the park this year, we had to stop at the ranger station for a mandatory boater briefing.  It’s always a treat to go ashore and stretch our legs, so we took a walk between the beach and the forest, not far from the park campground.  We were talking and making noise when I spotted a sub-adult black bear just 30′ away, watching us from behind the trees.20160716 3393 gbnp forest trail black bear rUsually a bear will avoid humans which is why it’s important to make human noises when you’re in bear country (and the majority of southeast Alaska is bear country).  We were a little bothered by this bear – he should have been more afraid.  We stood close together to appear larger, and we firmly told him to go away.  He finally did, flattening his ears, huffing, and running deeper into the woods.  We warned a few tourists that we saw on the forest trail, urging them to clap and say “Hey Bear!” as they walked, but most did not.  Unfortunately stupidity on the part of humans usually results in a bad outcome for a bear.20160716 3407 gbnp pond reflections rWhales were around, but not as plentiful as we’ve seen during other visits.  We also heard reports of orca sightings on the radio, but always somewhere far from our location.  Heading up to South Marble Island, we were guaranteed to see masses of Steller’s sea lions, puffins, pelagic cormorants, and nesting gulls and kittiwakes.20160717 3455 gbnp sea lions fussing rSea lion haul-outs are great places to watch and listen.  Many of the sea lions are trying to nap, but it doesn’t take much to get someone ticked off at someone else, and then the barks and groans rise to a din while the kerfuffle is sorted out.  Things will settle down to softer groans for a few moments until it starts up somewhere else.  There was a big bull we nicknamed Jabba The Hut since he looked just like the Star Wars character, but I love the young ones best – zipping around in little groups, cavorting and frolicking and generally showing off.20160717 3512 gbnp sea lion gang rThe puffins are some of my favorite birds, and we mostly see the tufted puffins here.  They’re like blond surfers, shaking their heads to show off their golden tresses.20160717 3567 gbnp puffin flying r20160717 3523 gbnp puffin with fish 2 rThe puffins live at sea for most of the year, returning to make their nest in burrows on the side of the hills just for the summer.20160717 3537 gbnp puffins nesting 1 rPigeon guillemots, murres, murrelets, pelagic cormorants, gulls, kittiwakes, and the occasional horned puffin join ravens and eagles to make up the typical bird variety in the park.

Pigeon guillemots

Pigeon guillemots

Sea otters are adorable, despite the fact that fishermen hate them because they can eat up all the crabs and clams in an area in short order.  They’re much bigger than you would think, about 5′ long, and I love how they hug their pups to their chests.20160727 0052 sea otter and pup r20160717 3599 gbnp sea otter 4 rMountain goats are another favorite of ours, and there’s a particularly good spot to look for them called Gloomy Knob.  The wool from their coats is used by Native Alaskans to weave Chilkat blankets, and as a knitter I’d love to get my hands on some of their wool to play with.  This year we stopped at the Knob on a hot sunny day, and some of the goats we spotted were hiding in the shade or in small caves to keep cool.20160718 3718 mountain goat 3 rIt’s amazing to watch them negotiate the steep rocks with their specialized feet and powerful muscles.20160718 3730 gbnp mountain goat steep 2 rMany people come to Glacier Bay to see the glaciers, but we love it best for the wildlife.  I promise the next posting will be about the ice – each glacier has its own personality, and we had good accessibility to them this season.