Wrapping up Glacier Bay

In the last post I mentioned that there were two more glaciers to show you. But really, there are three. We can anchor in a little inlet created by the Reid Glacier – there’s something special about being able to study the glacier day after day, in all different weather conditions and as the light changes throughout the day. We’ve hiked up and touched this glacier a number of times, even climbing on its edge. It has become an old friend, and our hearts break as we watch it shrink.

Getting near the glacier is a bit “sporty” – the putty-colored water is made opaque by the silt (“glacial flour”) created by the glacier inexorably grinding rocks on rocks under tremendous pressure. We take the dinghy as close as we dare, then beach it based on what the tide is doing. Our 100′ anchor line may not be long enough for a 2 hour hike on shore when the tide is rising – the water can cover the anchor and we would have a VERY long wait for the water to fall again… on a beach where bears look for clams. And where the weather can change quickly bringing chilling winds down the glacier from the mountains. The black oystercatchers nest among the cobbles above the tide line – this one made a racket at us until we were safely away from its nesting area.

Other small shorebirds also nest in the rocks and sparse beach grasses – we’ve seen plovers and sandpipers, arctic terns and gulls. If the tide is low, we can slip and slide over the silty mud and walk around to the side of the glacier, next to the roaring melt stream. If the tide is high we have to hike up and over a rocky promontory to get there. But the effort is worth the result! Here’s another experiment with black and white photos – a view of the side of Reid glacier, rising clouds from the surrounding mountains, and the raging melt water rushing by.

The glacier looks dirty, and it is. Glaciers are movers of rocks and dirt, down from the mountains. Rocks that we’re walking on started somewhere way up there. And before that… well, it would be nice to have a geologist handy because I have a LOT of questions!

But I promised you more glaciers… and so I’ll introduce the Grand Pacific and the Margerie. The Grand Pacific is the grandmother of the glaciers in this part of the park – it’s the big one that gathered up all the other ones and filled the entire bay during the Little Ice Age in the 1750s. Now, it doesn’t look very glacier-y, until you study it more closely with binoculars. The ice is smooth, thin, and utterly covered by grit and dirt.

Most people get all excited by the splashy, sparkly Margerie glacier, but the Grand Pacific – now retreated into Canada – is still an impressive river of ice. Here (below) is the Margerie – if you’ve ever taken a cruise ship that went into Glacier Bay, this is the one everyone has photos of.

The brash ice was very light on this visit, so we were able to get farther north than ever before, giving us this nice view looking up the glacier. I don’t know why glaciers twist and turn as they do, but it’s a beautiful sight. We approached the face more closely, studying the details – the spires called seracs, the cracks showing intense blue inside, seams and lines and boulders trapped within.

We can’t stay up-bay forever, so we reluctantly turned south to cruise through this magnificent land and seascape.

Back at the park headquarters complex we noticed changes in the plants – paintbrush was now blooming…

…and salmonberries lost their blooms and started to form fruit.

We found a porcupine hanging around a little culvert, and one of the rangers told us that they like to sleep in there in the winter.

Every visit to Glacier Bay is different. We hear new native stories or learn new details of familiar ones. We see new things we never noticed before on a totem pole. Plants are in different stages of growth. Animals run across our path – it could be a grouse, a porcupine, a bear, or ?? The glaciers change more slowly, but noticeably from year to year. The clouds hide the tall coastal mountains, but sometimes they lift to let us see 15,000′ Mount Fairweather and its massive neighbors.

We’re heading back into remote areas with no Internet signal for a while, but that means we have more time to explore and photograph. It’s all good.

More Glacier Bay

Ice, wildlife, native culture and history – that’s what Glacier Bay is all about. If you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time you’ve read a number of my explanations about the history of the Huna Tlingit people in the bay. This post will focus more on the glaciers and some wildlife, but the Tlingit presence in the bay is just as significant as the other elements.

Riggs Glacier

We explored up the less-visited East Arm of the bay (Muir Inlet), named for John Muir even though it was covered by ice when he visited. It’s more subtle than the splashy-flashy West Arm, but the views are sublime. Sadly the glaciers in this arm are no longer tidewater glaciers – that is, they no longer reach salt water. The McBride, the Riggs, and the Muir are still visible but they are shrinking, as are all the other glaciers in the park.

Muir Glacier

As we were nearing the McBride Glacier we spotted something odd in the water – it was a moose swimming across the arm! We slowed down to let the moose pass by, but it didn’t seem to like that idea so we picked up speed and it finished crossing behind our boat.

We poked around the inlets, admiring the huge alluvial fans and the steep mountain sides. We spotted a few mountain goats but they were very high up on the cliffs. As we headed back towards our anchorage we spotted some sea otters…

…singly, and in huge rafts of over 50 animals.

Sea otter raft

Once again we spotted some whales feeding along the shoreline so we watched and waited for them to move off.

The next day we headed to our usual spots to look for wildlife – for bears and mountain goats, primarily. The goats had young kids, but they were all very high on the cliff face making it difficult to get any decent photographs. When we arrived in our anchorage we spotted a brown bear looking for dinner while we were cooking ours. He worked along the shoreline for well over an hour digging for clams, eating barnacles and turning over rocks.

We were shocked to see how much the Reid Glacier changed, compounding last year’s surprise when we saw how much it had retreated. We see the impacts of climate change nearly every day in Alaska, easily seen as our beautiful glaciers shrink.

We cruised up to visit four other major glaciers in the West Arm – the Lamplugh with its gorgeous blue coloring…

…and the Johns Hopkins – from a distance since the seals are giving birth to their pups right now.

The mountains around it make it look very dramatic, and I think the glacier is even more striking in black and white. The dark lines are bits of rock ground up by the glacier as it moves down the mountains.

There are two more glaciers to visit, but there’s more to tell about them than I have time for this evening. Stay tuned.

Glacier Bay – Birds, Sea Lions and Whales

Glacier Bay never disappoints, though it can be different every trip so we never know what to expect. We headed to our favorite puffin spot, expecting to see lots of tufted puffins…

…but we were happily surprised by a little gang of four horned puffins too!

There was also a small flock of common murres nearby, though I almost missed them in my excitement to photograph the puffins.

Gulls and pelagic cormorants were hanging out, nesting on the cliff face…

…but the tufted puffins dominated the scene.

Meanwhile the Steller sea lions were moaning and groaning nearby, hauled out on the rocks.

With big male beachmasters weighing in around 2000 lbs.

The youngsters ran around in big packs, splashing lightning-fast mercury with fins and whiskers.

Whales were plentiful in the lower part of the bay, and we had to wait for a mother and calf humpback to finish feeding before we could head into our anchorage for the evening.

It was a fantastic show! We kept our distance to keep from disturbing the whales, and they rewarded us with 30 minutes of blowing and diving tails.

Just in case we hadn’t had enough wildlife for one day, a black bear wandered out of the woods and spent a long time working along the beach, munching on barnacles, mussels and clams. He must have been in a fight or two – his right ear was laying flat against his head, and he had a chunk of nose missing.

A scrappy black bear

We even got to see some nice sunset light (after 10pm) to close out our first day up in the bay. It’s hard to imagine that things can get better, but they usually do.

Hoonah to Glacier Bay

We always stop in Hoonah on our way to the Bay – we have made several friends there, and it’s a Tlingit town with a great vibe. We love to check up on the eagle tree – sure enough, there was an eagle sitting on that huge nest up there. It’s much too early to hope for eaglets, but we should hope for eaglet sightings in another month.

We happened to be in town on Memorial Day, and saw a sign about water taxi rides out to the island cemetery. The island anchors part of the harbor breakwater, and I once photographed a lone eagle sitting at the foot of a fresh grave. It was a moving sight, since the Tlingit people are divided into two moities: ravens and eagles. Well, on Memorial Day the cemetery had two different kinds of visitors – a pair of brown bears that spent quite a while out there.

We visited with our talented carver friends, and watched another friend work on her canoe paddle design. It will have her clan and house symbols on it, personalized even more with hints of her beloved dogs. A canoe paddle is very important – if you approach another village with peaceful intentions your raised paddle lets them know who you are, and as you dip your paddle into the water it tells the sea creatures who you are.

While we talked about paddles a raven sat close by, giving us a chance to study his iridescent feathers more closely. The “trickster” is a beautiful bird.

We had great weather to walk around town, and it was fun to watch the local kids splashing in the water… never mind that it’s about 50 degrees.

With promises to return to Hoonah in a few weeks we headed into Glacier Bay National Park, spotting a humpback tail-slapping as a welcome. You can feel the “whump” of the tail’s impact in your chest!

As always, there will be lots of other tales (tails!) to tell about this visit to the bay, but first we spent some time at the headquarters area, walking the forest trail and visiting the newly erected Healing Pole…

…which tells the story of how the Huna Tlingit people used to harvest many foods in the bay…

…and how the Grand Pacific glacier made a rapid advance in the 1750s, filling the entire bay and forcing the Huna Tlingit people out.

The story continues up the pole to show how the US Government and the Park Service took over the bay and made rules excluding the Huna people from their ancestral lands and preventing them from gathering their traditional foods. “Rough seas” eventually settled down and the pole shows the agreement between the Park Service and the Huna Tlingit which resulted in the partnership to create the Tribal House and to work together to restore their traditions. The story continues to evolve, but it seems to be headed in a very positive direction. Although most people think of Glacier Bay for the ice and plentiful wildlife, we value the cultural element equally.

And oh… the lupine! It was blooming all over the place – great swaths of that lovely blue-purple color. The bees were sure happy!

Beach strawberries were in bloom… it’s too early for fruit.

And to cap off our first day, I heard a rustling in the brush and we stood still to see a grouse come strolling out across our path.

Not a bad way to start off an adventure in the bay!