In July I was blessed to take a cruise to Alaska. Why Alaska? It is so incredibly beautiful. I had gone on a cruise there almost ten years ago and had fallen in love with the water/mountain/wildlife. I have always felt very at home in the Puget Sound area, and the Inland Passage is a continuation of that wonderful part of nature. Last time we had seen Tracy Arm Fjord and the glaciers there. On this trip we wanted to see Glacier Bay. Why a cruise? Ship is the only way to get into Glacier Bay. According to National Park Service Rangers, they are also a more ecological way to get a large number of people to see and then talk about Alaska and what they observed there. Think of the carbon footprint of two thousand or more cars driving to Alaska versus that of one ship that has to observe many rules designed to protect the land and wildlife.
I was inspired, educated and re-created during this cruise. Of all the wonderful things I observed I want to share two with you. In this blog I’m going to tell you some of what I learned and saw in Glacier Bay, a United Nations biosphere reserve.
For the first seven million years of Mother Earth’s history, ice sheets the size of todays’s continents advanced and retreated many times during the Great Ice Age. Climate changed about ten thousand years ago and glaciers began to retreat allowing land masses to increase. Going to Glacier Bay, Alaska is a journey from modern civilization to the ice age. Very few humans have ever lived in the area, although plant and animal beings abound. In the 1600s when what is now the Bay was a fertile, grassy valley, this was the homeland for some members of the Tlingit Nation. Glacier Bay began to be carved out beginning around 1750 in the “Little Ice Age” by the glaciers that now surround it. As the river of ice one hundred miles long and thousands of feet deep began to advance, the Tlingits described it as having the speed of a running dog. The original Tlingit village was destroyed although the Nation considers the Bay their spiritual homeland. As the ice met the water, it melted and created the beginning of the Bay.
The first person of European descent to explore and write about Glacier Bay was Captain George Vancouver. He saw a five mile inlet in 1794 and described it as a “sheet of ice as far as the eye could distinguish.” When naturalist John Muir visited the area eighty-five years later the ice had retreated back forty more miles, enough to begin exposing a majestic wilderness. Muir’s poetic descriptions of Glacier Bay inspired people to visit it by ship, as people do today. Muir changed the popular perception of Alaska from a place of overwhelming cold to one of great beauty. Giving a great example of what a person can accomplish, we owe the preservation of Glacier Bay to two men: Muir and William S. Cooper, a plant ecologist from Minnesota who came to Glacier Bay in 1916. He kept returning to observe the wonders of nature he saw there. Because of his writing, speaking and general tenacity Glacier Bay became a National Monument in 1925.
In 1980 the Monument became the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, which is part of a twenty-five million acre World Heritage site. This makes it one of the world’s largest natural protected areas. Glacier Bay is over three million acres of forest, inlet and shores with mountain peaks over fifteen thousand feet, some still covered with glaciers. Today you must travel sixty-five miles up the Bay to view the seven remaining tidewater glaciers. We were fortunate to stand in the presence of the Margerie Glacier which is about a mile wide and has an ice face that rises two hundred fifty feet above the water line and a base that goes one hundred feet below sea level. This is still a living, thriving glacier. Its magnificent blue ice has the jewel-like quality of blue topaz. Next to it is the Grand Pacific Glacier which is deteriorating quickly. Further south we saw the Lamplugh Glacier, where the largest rock slide ever recorded happened there in June of this year covering a lot of the glacial face with dirt and rock. The ice of the glacier is barely visible. Seeing these glaciers so close to each other gave a sobering view of what the future may hold.
Glaciers can move over five feet a day. As they approach the Bay pieces of the glacier break off. This is called calving and can occur a few times an hour in tidewater glaciers. The sound of the glacier calving is like a gentle explosion. We were privileged to hear this and watched as ripples from the calving spread slowly throughout the water.
The warming temperatures in Alaska have caused thinning, stagnating or retreating of ninety-five percent of the states more than one hundred thousand glaciers, including some in Glacier Bay. A few are still healthy and advancing because of the snowfall on the mountains that feed them. Glacier Bay is one thousand feet deep in many areas, and gets about seventy inches of rain each year. Because of its depth, and the weather there, the bay doesn’t freeze. The National Park Service only allows two large vessels to visit each day in the June through August tourist season. Kayaks can travel there with the Park’s permission. The cold discourages people from going outside of the summer.
The Park Service is fastidious about closing or restricting areas of Glacier Bay to protect wildlife. Aside from whales, dolphins, seals and other sea creatures there are also mountain goats, bears, and moose around the Bay. However, because of the distance ships must keep from the land and islands of the Bay, you can only see them as dots on the landscape. The Rangers told us to look for what would appear to be hamsters ambling along the shore and know they were bears. I really wished I had brought binoculars or a good telephoto lens, but was happy just to know the bears were thriving.
We did not see many whales in Glacier Bay (although some people did), but we had had such an incredible whale watch in Juneau a few days before that we felt very satisfied with our viewing of these wonderful marine relations. That whale watch will be the subject of my next blog.
Glacier Photo by Bill Eichenlaub, Courtesy National Park Service
Additional photo by T.S. Wind