Monday, June 9, 2008

Glacier Bay National Park

There are no roads into Glacier Bay National Park, access is by boat or plane only. While many people who visit arrive on large cruise ships and never step foot on the land around the glaciers, there are many who arrive in their own boats or even plan kayak trips up the fjord created by the retreating glaciers. It is an incredibly pristine area that is home to some amazing wildlife.

I entered the Bay on a 120 foot yacht with 18 fellow passengers run by American Safari. We had our own naturalist on board the vessel but we stopped in Bartlett Cove and picked up our own private ranger who acted as our guide. We spent two days cruising the fjords, kayaking, skiffing and hiking and watching the huge cruise boats motor up to a safe vantage point to the glaciers and then turn and motor back out of the park. I felt sorry for the people trapped behind the glass windows on those boats. They didn't get to see the pile of 6 river otters that tumbled out of a cave in front of our skiff, they didn't get to watch the green-wing teal cavorting at the edge of Lamplugh Glacier as we hiked past and I know that the baby mountain goats were just specs in their binoculars if they knew they were there at all. Standing on shore near a 250 foot wall of ice, listening to the glacier groan and crack, smelling the clean fresh air coming off the ice and the cool breeze on my face was incredible. I've already decided that I need to go back next year with a kayak and spend some time camping. Now I just need to find some people who aren't afraid of a few brown bears to go with me... paddling against the wind by yourself can be hard.

In 1794 Glacier Bay wasn't a bay at all. It was an enormous glacier up to 4,000 feet thick, 20 miles wide and extending over 100 miles into the St Elias mountain range. By 1879 when John Muir visited, that glacier had retreated more than 30 miles. By 1916, the Grand Pacific Glacier had retreated more than 60 miles to the head of Tarr Inlet. As a glacier moves forward it pushes a protective layer of rock and debris in front of it. Once the glacier reached the ocean that layer was washed away and the glacier was doomed to retreat. There are currently 11 tidewater glaciers (glaciers that flow into the ocean) that break off or "calve" into the ocean or fresh water lakes at sea level. The show is spectacular. The broken bergs provide great haul out spots for harbor seals, eagles and arctic terns.

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