I Only Have Ice for You, Dear

We love Glacier Bay National Park for the wildlife diversity, but of course we also love it for the variety of glaciers! There are about a bazillion (give or take) glaciers in the park, though many are now “hanging glaciers” that no longer reach the sea. Glacier ice was once snow that fell in the mountains about 200 years ago, compressing into ice that slowly grinds away the surrounding mountains and flows slowly (at a “glacial pace”, naturally) down, bulldozing boulders, rocks and flour-fine silt as it goes. Calving from above and below the water, glacier faces cast off bits of ice, large and small, fanciful, blocky, textured, or glassy smooth.

“Bergy bits” may be crystal clear, white, blue, or they look like floating rocks – encrusted with dirt and grit. Providing a respite for seals, sea otters or birds, the ice is an important part of the ecosystem here.

The “mother” glacier of Glacier Bay is the Grand Pacific, seen below covered in glacial till – rocks, grit and rubble left behind as she has thinned and retreated across the border into Canada. Looking towards the north you can see her snaking down the mountains, still grinding rock and transporting bits of the mountain to the sea.

Adjacent to the Grand Pacific is the showy Margerie Glacier – probably the most photographed of all the glaciers in the park.

The brash ice wasn’t too thick this trip so we were able to get fairly close to Margerie’s face, admiring the unreal blues in the cracks between the icy spires (called seracs). We’ve visited these glaciers over a dozen times over 7 years, but each time is a little different – depending on the weather, time of the day, amount of brash ice to contend with, and of course the impacts wrought by Climate Change.

The brash was too dense to get anywhere close to the Johns Hopkins glacier so we spent more time admiring the nearby Lamplugh, where we had explored ashore earlier in the day. The afternoon light was much less harsh, and despite the glacier’s considerable retreat in the last couple of years, certain characteristics remain – dark lateral moraines on the right side, and many shades of turquoise blue.

The best anchorage for exploring the northern end of the park’s west arm is just inside the terminal moraine of the Reid glacier. A moraine is the rubble and silt pushed along by a glacier, and the terminal moraine is the farthest point the glacier reached, bulldozing its rocky debris. As the glacier retreated, the moraine remains, forming a protected cove.

As we turned into the anchorage, our eyes teared up seeing how much the Reid had changed since last summer, and especially since we first met her.

We jumped in the kayaks for a hike ashore, and to try and reach the far right side of the ice as we’ve done on just about every other visit.

Alas, the edge has retreated to the far side of the roaring melt stream, with just a small dirt-covered remnant of ice clinging to the rocks.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s ice and what’s rock, but most of what you see in the photo above is ice, except for rock at the water’s edge on the right.

Hiking over the moraine is hard work! The rubble and rock piles can be quite high, and the silt flats – damp from the tide – are like walking on slippery snot. You can’t even see the tiny dot that is ADVENTURES in the distance.

The park is a living laboratory to see the plant succession after a glacier has retreated and left behind a scoured landscape. Life is tenacious though, and we’ve learned to pay attention and notice the little surprises.

Farther from the glacier’s face, willows and alder are growing, wildflowers bloom in the earlier summer, and this beautiful cottony grass abounds near the terminal moraine.

Our time in the park was cut short by weather – several days of thick fog which made sightseeing up the east arm rather pointless, and a front coming through that we needed to hide from. The fall pattern was starting to assert itself, and that’s a sign that we should begin to head for home. Despite setting records for rainfall in every month this summer, it was a wonderful cruising season. Quiet and relaxing, because we can’t work on the usual outside boat projects in the rain!

A Glacier Bay Six-Pack

Drinking lots of beer in Glacier Bay National Park? No… this “six-pack” refers to the pack of wolves we spotted near Tidal Inlet in the park. Six black wolves, lounging on the beach. YOWZA! Wolves are so elusive – we’ve only seen them a couple of times in over six years up here, so it’s a huge deal to find a pack! Unfortunately they were very wary, and although we tried to angle the boat so it didn’t look like we were heading towards them, they bolted into the woods when we were still 3/4 mile away. No photos – too far away. But still… WOLVES. Awesome. Glacier Bay never disappoints.

We finally got a little break from the summer’s record-setting rain, enjoying three pretty days when we were up in the bay. Of course, the ranger station was mostly closed – we could talk to a ranger through a small plexiglass window, the Tribal House was locked up and the lodge was closed. We still strolled the Forest Trail and were happy to see the ponds nice and full after a couple of years of drought, and it was so nice to have it all to ourselves.

The bay was very quiet – there were very few boats, and we rarely saw any of them during a week in the park. The sea lions were fun as always – napping, lounging, rambunctious and noisy, and the setting just can’t be beat.

It was clear enough to see Mount Fairweather in the distance, over 60 miles away on the outer coast.

This late in the season we were happy to see a few tufted puffins still hanging around. By now most of them have headed back out to sea after nesting in burrows in the cliffs.

Gloomy Knob didn’t disappoint with mountain goats – we spotted just a couple, but that’s a treat that we don’t often see elsewhere. Gloomy Knob is a cliff that we can get very close to with the boat – the water is over 100′ deep when the anchor is almost scraping the rocks – so that allows us to get closer to goats scrambling on the heights…

…and looking around us we spotted pelagic cormorants, black-legged kittiwakes, and horned puffins – another happy surprise!

We see the impacts of Climate Change here in Alaska in many ways, and changes to the glaciers are one of the most dramatic reminders of how serious a problem this is. The Lamplugh Glacier is one example – we cruised the boat to within a 1/4 mile (minimum safe distance) of its face six years ago, and this year, the face has retreated so far back that there’s a wide dry silt flat exposed. We had to go ashore to explore and see all the grounded bergy bits. With no safe place to anchor, we took turns kayaking ashore.

Those chunks of ice were massive.

We spent time exploring several of the glaciers in the upper bay, and I’ll post more about them next.