Alaska: Gorgeous, Secluded Glacier Bay

We woke up at 6:45 this morning for the Glacier Bay boat tour.  It was another completely overcast day with heavy fog and light drizzle when we woke up, so we dressed in warm layers, packed our rain gear and headed down to the dock.

We left Bartlet Cove at 7:30, hot chocolate in hand, to start our 65 mile tour up the bay – ending at Margerie and Grand Pacific glaciers and then returning to Bartlet Cove.  There were only 10 people, including us, on the boat, so it was really nice – no overcrowding inside nor outside on the deck.  We could sit wherever we wanted and could take great pictures and videos with no one in the way.

For the first part of the tour, we couldn’t see much of anything around us other than thick walls of fog and a few feet of water on either side of the boat.  All the fog and poor visibility was pretty disappointing since they were telling us that this is typically a good area to see whales – which was also the reason we were trudging along at an excruciatingly slow pace.

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Our first stop, after pushing through a little of the fog, was South Marble Island – basically two rocks in the middle of the bay; the first fairly small and covered with sea lions; the second a tall, wide rock jutting out of the water, covered in sea birds.  We borrowed a set of binoculars and were able to see several puffins nesting up on top of the rocks and playing in the water.  With their bright colors, they were really easy to identify.  We also watched for several minutes as one ginormous “king of the hill” sea lion chased and grunted at the others, bullying them around their small rock.  It was so peaceful and amazing to stand on the deck of the boat and hear complete and utter silence, interrupted only by the screeching of birds and grunting of sea lions.  (We learned today that Alaskan sea lions make a grunting noise that kind of sounds like a pig, unlike the Californian sea lions that bark.)

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We hung out at South Marble Island for around 20 minutes just watching everything and enjoying the atmosphere.  I took several photos and a few video clips trying to capture how all of these animals act here in this natural, protected, unpolluted, beautiful, perfect environment.  It really was an awesome experience.

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We continued north along the east side of the bay and into Tidal Inlet.  On the way around and back out of the inlet, we saw two brown bears – our first bear sighting!  One just stood on top of a rock down on the shore while we took pictures, and the other seemed to have noticed us – though the boat was pretty far out with the engines off – and headed quickly toward the tree line.  The looked so small on the shore, but when I took a look in the binoculars, they were HUGE.  We stayed and watched until they both disappeared up the hill and back into the trees.  (Taking these pictures, I really wished I’d sprung for a DSLR camera instead of this small point-and-shoot when we were picking out a new camera for the trip.)

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The next stop was Margerie and Grand Pacific glaciers.  As we approached, we floated through a big ice field with small, scattered icebergs.  Every once in a while a seal would pop up out of the water and disappear again.  As we got closer to the glaciers, the bergs began to get larger and much more concentrated.  We began to see some that were so large that seals were lying out on them relaxing and enjoying the free ride.

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A crew member pulled in a piece of ice for us to take a look at.  It was really cool to see the layers in the ice – from clean, white, pure ice down to a dirty, black, silty layer at the bottom.  We forged ahead slowly, taking care not to smash into any large pieces of ice.

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As amazing as the ice field was, nothing could have prepared us for the stunning sight as the gargantuan wall of ice appeared out of the fog and mist.  It was SO awesome!  Margerie was the first and most obvious to appear – a huge ice fact towering above the  water, mostly white with a brilliant light blue shining through in patches where the shrouded sun made its presence known, dimly reflecting its masked rays off the blue surfaces of the ice.  Margerie is a “healthy” glacier, growing at a rate of ~10 feet per day, but calving at approximately the same rate.  It’s considered healthy not because of growth, but because it is moving forward – evidence that snow and ice are still present at its source.

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Great Pacific is right next to Margerie, but doesn’t look like a glacier.  It is made up of very dirty, silty ice, so it looks more like a normal mountain.  Great Pacific also sits up on the beach out of reach of the salt water, which typically helps glaciers move forward and calve, so it is stationary.  It is considered a “receding” glacier, and has receded 65 miles – from Bartlet Cove to where it sits today – in the past 250 years.  (Global warming, anyone?)  It was crazy to see the changes in ice movement that have occurred, as well as the differences between the two glaciers.

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We sat about a half mile out from the face of Margerie for about 30-40 minutes watching the birds and seals play and watching the glacier calve.  The calving was the most amazing part of the whole experience.  A loud cracking sound would split the silence just in time for a piece of ice to crash into the water with a thunderous, reverberating roar.  The sound would echo for several seconds after the crash, as the wave of the impact slowly rippled outward toward our boat.  We saw Margerie calve 6-7 times.  Some were small, stone-sized pieces that lightly tumbled off the edges of the glacier on the way down, and a couple were large sheets of ice that broke off and slid down the face before shattering into hundreds of smaller pieces and smashing into the water below.  Between the calving, it was back to silent seclusion.

As we stood there in the silence, it started to lightly snow on us.  In August!  It was the perfect touch to such an amazing experience.  The silence, the scenery and the light tapping of the tiny snow flakes hitting my shoulders made me feel as if we were suspended in time, inside a beautiful snow globe.

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We left Margerie and Grand Pacific and headed back down the bay.  The next stop was Lamplaugh Glacier – another beautiful, healthy glacier with a freshwater stream flowing out of its wall.  The water was gushing – not just trickling or pouring – out of the glacier and into the bay.  The glacier appears so blue and clean, but the water gushing out was a murky brown, full of silt.  (It’s freshwater, just not necessarily clean water.)  We stood and watched as Lamplaugh calved three times – one of which was a HUUUUUUUGE sheet of ice that crashed to the ground (not the water) creating a thunder several times louder than any we heard from Margerie.  The explosive thundering echoed off into the distance and we were left again with only the sound of the freshwater stream dumping into the bay.

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The striations on Lamplaugh were really thick and dark, really showing the age and progression of the glacier.

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The rest of the trip back to Bartlet Cove was fairly uneventful.  We saw some bald eagles perched in trees on the shore and some otters playing in the wake behind our boat, but none close enough to photograph or even see without binoculars.  We tried to find some mountain goats, but it was so foggy that it was difficult to see that high into the mountains.  No moose, no wolves and no more bears either.  (Boo.)

We stopped along a gravelly, mossy beach to pick up a few kayakers that had been out in the bay for a couple of days.  It looked like a lot of fun and made me wish we’d budgeted some more time here to do the same.  One of the couples we picked up had quit their jobs, driven from Estes Park, CO, to Seattle and then kayaked from Seattle to Glacier Bay.  Today was something like day 120 of their trip.  They’re headed home completely exhausted with no jobs waiting for them and no idea how they’ll pay for this trip.  Totally absurd!  And makes our five day backpacking in Denali look like a joke.  Yet, strangely, I have to admit I feel envious of them. I would love to feel like I could have that freedom and be able to just pick up and leave and not worry about what would happen when I came home.  When life is over, it’s these moments that I’ll look back on and not all the days I spent at my lab bench or at my desk analyzing data.  I can’t stop thinking about how I wish Sallie Mae didn’t own me so that I could take off and do the same.

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As we continued along, the fog slowly began to lift, resulting in a stark separation of the fog into thick, heavy pockets that laid over the mountains like blankets.  The blankets shifted and drifted, changing every second and sloooowly sneaking away.

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About 30 minutes before the end of the trip, the fog receded, the clouds began to lift and the sun eventually poked through.  After the fog cleared out, we got some amazing views of the bay and the surrounding mountains.  It was freezing out on the deck with the wind whipping right through my jacket and billowing it up like a frigid balloon as we sped across the water, but it was worth it for the views!

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Overall, the day was pretty gloomy.  It didn’t rain too hard, but it was overcast and foggy making it difficult to see much of anything until we were essentially right on top of it.  That was pretty disappointing since I’ve seen pictures of this place on a clear day and I know we were surrounded by amazing mountain views we couldn’t see.  It was really cold, too.  Even all bundled up (three long sleeve layers, a light fleece, a rain coat, jeans, rain pants, wool socks, hikers and winter hat), with the wind blowing and a bit of the rain as the boat was moving, it was pretty brutal!  We had the reprieve of going inside, but honestly didn’t want to miss any party of the experience by sitting inside.

The thing that struck me the most about the whole trip was the silence and seclusion.  Glacier Bay limits the number of boats allowed up into the bay each day, which really helps with the conservation of the area, and controlling the noise pollution.  As we approached the glaciers and shut our engines down, all I could hear was the water splashing against the side of our boat, the occasional crack and thunder of calving and pure silence.  There are no sounds of business – the white noise that I’ve become so accustomed to in civilization – to detract from the spectacular surroundings.  It made me want to pick up and move to the middle of nowhere and never go back.

We debated for a while over whether we should do Glacier Bay since we’ll be going to Kenai Fjords later in the trip.  I think after today, even with the less-than-ideal weather, I think we’re both very happy we chose to do it.  Kenai Fjords has a lot to live up to, to impress us after this.

We finally got back to the lodge around 3:30 and went in to relax and unwind.  We grabbed a few beers from the restaurant and played cards for a while, watching through the enormous picture windows as the sun set over the mountains and water in the distance.  By the time sunset came around, the sky was still considerably cloudy, but there was a beautiful dark blue-ish purple cloud cover as the sun disappeared.  As we were sitting there enjoying the sunset, I was amazed at all the people sitting on the couches, faces buried in their laptops, surfing the internet.  It’s frickin’ Alaska, people!  Unplug it, get outside and enjoy the view!

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We had dinner at the lodge again.  Chicken quesadillas for me and meatloaf for K.  Both were surprisingly good.  And not fish.  (Hooray!)  After dinner, we moved back to the couches in front of the fireplace.  I wrote in my journal and K played solitaire for a while before falling asleep next to me.  I think it’s time to head to the room for sleep.  It’s only 9:45, but today was an early and long day.  We’re hoping for good weather tomorrow so we can make it back to Juneau.  And hopefully we’ll have a clear sky to view the mountains on the way back.

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