A Visit to Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay is a special place – we think of it as “one stop shopping” for glaciers, wildlife, and native culture.  The bay is big and it takes every bit of a week to just hit the highlights.  The National Park Service limits the number of boats to 25 private boats, two or three smaller ships (like Un-cruise or National Geographic), and two cruise ships.  Private boats can get a permit for up to a week at a time, but the small ships only spend a couple of days and the cruise ships are just in the bay for 8 hours.  Park and native interpretive rangers board the ships to make sure the passenger’s experience in the park is something special.  The sheer size and scale of the bay makes it easy to dilute the boat traffic so we often feel like we have this massive place all to ourselves.

The entrance to Glacier Bay is near the tiny town of Gustavus, which was once the meltwater delta from the Grand Pacific glacier when it consumed the entire bay in the 1750s.  Now the flat delta plays host to beautiful fields of lupine……and other wildflowers such as columbine.Sonja, the same docent as last year, was working at the Tribal House and we just love the way she shares her culture and stories from the heart.After a day exploring around the park headquarters we headed up bay, greeted by small rafts of sea otters.We always make our first stop at South Marble Island to check out the Steller sea lion colony and the adorable puffins.  There weren’t as many puffins around as we’ve seen in previous years – we’re hoping to get more information about that from one of the park biologists.  Tufted puffins always remind me of blonde California surfers, with their long golden locks.Nesting kittiwakes, pigeon guillemots,

and pelagic cormorants were plentiful, and the bright sunny weather really showed the iridescent color of the cormorants, which normally look plain black.The next day we checked out our usual spots to look for wildlife, and found a sub-adult brown bear digging for clams along the tide-line.  We were able to drift and watch him for about 15 minutes, until our arms got tired of holding up the binoculars!  From there we checked out the delta in Tidal Inlet looking for bears or wolves, but the regional drought left little water in the normally busy streams.  Around the corner Gloomy Knob didn’t disappoint as we found two clusters of mountain goats to watch.I was concerned that we wouldn’t see many goats because of the hotter-than-usual sunny weather, and a number of them were lounging under small alders and willow thickets.  This one dug a shallow hole to lay in,and these goats climbed down below the high tide line to lick the salt off the mussels and nibble some salty marine plants in between.  We’ve never seen this behavior before – we had to ask the rangers about it later on.Following our usual route up the western arm of the bay, we went behind Russell Island to look for wildlife on the delta, and found a pair of humpbacks feeding where the opaque silty glacial meltwater meets the blue seawater.The clear sunny weather gave us the best views of the distant Fairweather mountain range we’ve ever had.  Mount Fairweather (elev. 15,345′) stood out even though it was more than 50 miles from us.I have a lot more photos to share from Glacier Bay… so stay tuned.

The Waterfall Coast

We cruised around the bottom of Admiralty Island, heading for the east side of Baranof Island – also known as the “waterfall coast”.We anchored in a favorite spot – Takatz Bay, which has several waterfalls and a roaring stream back around the corner.  It’s a grand place.  We had it mostly to ourselves, though a charter boat came in to anchor the last evening.  It’s such a pretty old classic (built in 1921) that we thought it didn’t spoil the view too much.

Kayak exploration was rewarded with wildflowers, especially some pretty chocolate lilies……and a curious little mink!We moved up to a different anchorage just a few miles farther north – an intimate little cove next to the big Kasnyku waterfall.From there we found a large group of humpbacks (about 18) on our way into Freshwater Bay on Chichagof Island……and we got to watch them bubble net feeding several times.With hearts still pounding from the great whale sighting, we headed into Pavlov Harbor and spotted a brown bear sow and two very small cubs on the beach right near where we planned to anchor.  Yowza!The minute we got the anchor set, I jumped in the kayak to get a closer look at those little 1st year cubs.They were just adorable – little fluffs of fur, munching on grass like their mom.  I kept a good distance and the sow ignored me.  I eventually backed away and headed up the creek to look for other bears, and watched the sow and her cubs vanish into the woods.As I ventured farther up the creek I spotted a pair of sub-adult brown bears – likely siblings around 4 years old who are still finding their way in the world.The bears are still eating grass, waiting for berries to ripen and the salmon to head upstream.  Grass isn’t their favorite, but it will have to do for another couple of weeks.

I stalked an eagle sitting in a nearby tree, and it took off just as I brought the big lens up – majestic.We always enjoy our time in this pretty spot, listening to the waterfall and watching the wildlife.  I even saw a mink scamper across the little beach on the left – where the little bear family had just been.

Ford’s Terror

There are a number of fjords in southeast Alaska, and a well-known pair are the Tracy and Endicott Arms, about 50 miles north of Petersburg. 

Cruise ships often go up one or the other arm to visit a glacier, depending on the ice conditions.  The glaciers at the heads of these arms can shed a lot of ice so sometimes the arms are impassable.  The entrance to each arm is a pinch and shallow bar that is the terminal moraine of the Sawyer or Dawes Glaciers.  The icebergs grounded here may look small in the photo, but they are as big as a house.

We haven’t been up to the Dawes Glacier in a few years so we headed up Endicott Arm.  As we approached the head we started to pick our way through the brash ice, but we eventually chickened out – it was too dense and we don’t want to risk damaging a prop or a stabilizer fin.  This cruise ship was more daring, but it has a steel hull that can tolerate a lot more than we can.The reward for turning around early was spotting some seals with young pups hauled out on the ice.  We take care to keep a good distance from them since the pups aren’t insulated well enough to handle the cold water yet, but they will slide into the water if they feel threatened.Note that the sleeping gray pup below still has a bit of umbilical cord attached – that’s a pretty new pup!Part way up Endicott Arm is a little side fjord called Ford’s Terror.  I’ve written about our forays into Ford’s Terror before – it’s magnificent, and this time was even better because we had the place all to ourselves for three perfect days.

To get into Ford’s you must time your arrival at the entrance for “high slack” (slack current after high tide).  Even 30 minutes before slack the water in the narrow, blind corner entrance channel can have standing waves and whirlpools.  When the water goes quiet it’s safe to enter.  First you line up with this waterfall at your back……and make your approach in between the two rock reefs on either side of the channel.  Watch for glacier ice that can sometimes occupy the channel.  Be sure to call a “SECURITAY” message over the radio, and blow the horn to alert any outbound traffic since you can’t see around the corner – there’s no room to pass in the channel!  Once you’re through, the rock walls soar straight up and you start to see (and hear!) a great variety of waterfalls.  Our anchorage is like a gigantic bowl and we are a mote floating in it.  The views are sublime.We enjoyed watching black bears clamming and eating grass along the shoreline, a seal kept spying on us, and there were plenty of birds to watch.

Harlequin Duck (female)

Spotted Sandpiper (“teeter tail”)

Kingfisher

It’s fun to return to places year after year, noting changes that occurred over the winter.  This year we found a couple of spots with “blowdowns” – trees snapped off or blown over.  We couldn’t see any signs of landslide nearby, so we think it might have been caused by a very localized microburst of wind.  Whatever it was, I’m glad we weren’t around when it happened!  Imagine the force that can snap a Sitka spruce or hemlock off in the middle.

In and Around Juneau

We enjoyed other things in Juneau besides dancing and drumming, and we took time to make some repairs on the boat.  A bolt on the hard-to-see side of the starboard engine loosened enough that the oil cooler sagged, allowing one of the fittings to chafe.  We were watching it closely, and shut that engine down when it started to fail.  As we’ve said many times before – “cruising” means fixing the boat in exotic and/or beautiful places.  You really get a know a town while running around getting hydraulic lines made up or looking for obscure bronze parts!

Of course, most people’s view of Juneau is this……and it’s a shame that many people don’t venture far enough from the cruise ship docks.  Mr. Raven agrees with me that they’re missing all the good stuff.As I’ve written several times before, the Alaska State Museum is fabulous – including the huge nature tree in the lobby and the painted screen in the Archives up on the third floor.  Another hidden treasure is the tiny Russian Orthodox church on the hill behind the capitol.It’s still an active parish, and the gentleman who works there will describe a typical Sunday service and explain some of their traditions.We finished our repairs and cast off the lines to get back to cruising, passing the Alaska Marine Highway ferry Kennicott as we headed out.  The island and land-locked communities of southeast and southcentral Alaska depend on these ferries to get around – which is why the ferry is part of the state’s highway system.We spotted the lighthouse at Point Retreat, and it always reminds us of a boating friend who lived there when he was a young boy.As we cruised we had a few more encounters with orcas… we’ve seen more of them than humpbacks so far this summer.As soon as we anchored I jumped in the kayak to look for wildlife, as usual.  I found a huge flock of surf scoters – too many to count!They’re funny looking birds, with an orange and white beak and a rectangular white patch on the back of their head. Harlequin ducks were also around in good numbers – pretty birds……and I like to stalk the wading birds like this yellowlegs.