Glacier Bay - An Icy Blue Gem of a National Park

Published: Tuesday, August 18, 2009, by the Daily Local News- "Serving Chester County"- (Click for original link)

Tuesday actually marks my 30th wedding anniversary with my wonderful wife, Patti, (happy anniversary Kiddo), we celebrated this lifetime landmark earlier this summer with a long anticipated vacation to Alaska with fishing excursions for halibut and salmon at the top of our to-do list.

Brown Bear
A brown bear searches for food on the shores of Glacier Bay in Alaska.
(Photo credit: Patti Tatum)

But we also wanted to fit in at least a little sightseeing and wildlife watching while in the land of the midnight sun. With a limited vacation window of opportunity of just under a week, time was of the essence, and the Alaskan destination we would select was critical.

After years of research, we finally settled on Gustavus, a village of approximately 300 year-round residents located about 60 miles west of the state capital of Juneau in the southeast panhandle of the state.

Accessible only by air or sea, Gustavus is situated on the coast of Icy Strait, an inland waterway sheltered by assorted mountain ranges that serve to screen out most of the stormy weather and rough seas typical of many other more exposed ports on the Gulf of Alaska.

But from our perspective, another major selling point for booking our trip with Suzie Daniels' Ripple Cove Charters in Gustavus was the little town's reputation as the southern gateway to Glacier Bay National Park.

So on the morning of July 9, the second full day of our Alaska adventure, Daniels dropped us off at park headquarters at the Glacier Bay Lodge at Bartlett Cove where we boarded a tour boat to begin the day-long, 140 mile round-trip trek to the Margerie Glacier in Tarr Inlet at the park's northern reaches.

The vast majority of visitors to Glacier Bay explore the park by boat. In fact, whenever we mention our trip to Alaska, the first question people ask us is "What cruise line did you take?" Of course, although we ourselves eschewed the cruise line route, cruise ships remain the most popular vehicles for visits to our 49th state in general and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in particular.

On our Glacier Bay voyage we observed two huge cruise ships in the bay, the maximum daily number allowed by the National Park Service. While the Glacier Bay experience is dramatically majestic by any venue, smaller vessels like our 78-foot tour boat, the Fairweather II, provide a somewhat more intimate introduction to the treasures of Glacier Bay than a hulking cruise ship, permitting us to get up close and personal not only with the glaciers but with the myriad wildlife as well.

Our guide on this trip was aptly named Park Ranger Sierra Willough, who, his microphone in hand, charted our course through the wildlife-rich waters of Glacier Bay, faithfully documenting wildlife sightings on his map. As we wended our way north to the glacier fields, we passed numerous islands that served as wildlife sanctuaries. This area represents an enthralling paradise for amateur ornithologists and fans of marine mammals.

We observed birds such as kittiwake gulls, muirs, tufted puffins, and, of course, the ubiquitous bald eagles. Marine mammals included quite a few sea otters, a handful of harbor seals, an island rookery overflowing with stellar sea lions, and one or two humpback whales.

My favorite wildlife moment occurred a little farther up the bay when we spotted a huge brown bear combing the bay's shore. At low tide, hungry brown bears (essentially a species of grizzly bears) report to the coastline where they overturn bulky rocks in their search for little marine creatures and other seafood exposed when the tide is out. The strength of the animal was impressive as he (or she?) effortlessly swatted huge boulders aside and slurped up mouthfuls of the tasty morsels hidden beneath.

Of course the centerpiece of any Glacier Bay tour is the glaciers themselves. While we observed a number of glaciers and icefields, the two most spectacular on our foray were the Johns Hopkins Glacier and the Margerie Glacier. When we reached the face of the Margerie Glacier, the farthermost point of our round trip, we joined the cruise ships and a few other smaller crafts in observing and photographing this mile-wide glacier. The Margerie also stretches to 21 miles in length with a height of 250 feet above the waterline (and another 50 to 100 feet below).

We loitered there in the shadow of the glacier watching and listening to huge splinters of ice break off the glacier's blue face and crash into the sea, sending waves of roiling water across a surface already littered with chunks of ice. The constant breaking off of these splinters of ice - a phenomenon known as "calving" - produces a sound reminiscent of sporadic small arms fire with intermittent cannon blasts mixed in for good measure. We spent almost an hour enjoying the glacial show while the crew of the Fairweather II set up a cash bar at the stern, encouraging patrons to imbibe a few spirits and toast the awesomely icy power of nature unfolding before our very eyes.

While the Margerie Glacier is categorized as "stable" and the Johns Hopkins Glacier is actually advancing or thickening, the half dozen other named glaciers in the park are all receding or thinning - a testimony to the effects of climate change and global warming.

In fact, 250 years ago there was no bay here. In 1750 the glacier actually jutted out into Icy Strait and fields of ice covered the present day location of the park's visitor center. By 1880 the glacier had retreated 45 miles north, gouging out Glacier Bay in the process - all before the burning of fossil fuels became a factor. Today the glaciers are found some 65 miles north of their 1750 position as the melting/retreating continues to accelerate.

Those who want to explore Glacier Bay National Park are not confined to tour boats or cruise ships. Hiking, biking, camping, and kayaking opportunities also abound. In fact, in the course of our round trip, we dropped off and picked up three of four groups of kayakers at certain pre-designated points. On the return trip to Bartlett Cove we observed more wildlife and were favored with a melodically hypnotic flute solo courtesy of the affable Ranger Willough, topping off what had been an often surrealistic if not sometimes mystical journey through the icy jewel that is Glacier Bay National Park.

- Story credit: Tom Tatum, Outdoors columnist. You can E-mail him at sports@dailylocal.com


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