Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, with its soaring mountains, deep fjords and abundant wildlife is without a doubt the most scenic and popular wilderness destination in Southeast Alaska. A journey on its vast waterways could well be described as traveling up a massive mountain range while still remaining at sea level, starting in a forested valley and ending far above tree line in a land of glaciers and snow capped peaks. Traveling by Sea Kayak is but one of many ways to visit Glacier Bay, but one that offers the adventuresome few an intimate experience exploring a rugged and dynamic land that has, until just recently, emerged from the Ice Age.
When first visiting in 1879 the naturalist and writer John Muir relied on the knowledge and skill of Tlingit Indian guides from the village of Hoonah, traveling with them by canoe into the farthest reaches of the bay. He was greatly intrigued with the fledgling science of glaciology and came to Alaska to observe glaciers in action. Due in part to his powerfully descriptive writings Glacier Bay became a popular tourist attraction and was eventually proclaimed a National Monument in 1925.
Today modern explorers can rely on the guidance of park staff and commercial operators to assist them in reaching their goals. Park staff provided an orientation to all of us who planned to camp in the park and afterward with my back country permit in hand I set out to spend the next two weeks exploring the coast line of Glacier Bay’s West Arm. In this photo my blue kayak sits on the dock waiting to be taken aboard the M/V Baranof Wind to be dropped off up bay to begin my journey.
Of course Glacier bay is world renowned for is abundance of Marine Mammals, the park’s residence includes Orcas, Humpback Whales, Dall and Harbor porpoise, Sea Lions, Harbor Seals and Sea Otters. Here on this small Island a raft of Sea Lions was taking a siesta on a warm afternoon under Mount Fairweather.
The Glacier Bay region's extreme topography is a result of the area's position astride the active collision zone between the North American and Pacific plates. One of the most dramatic of these mountain ranges formed by this process is the Fairweather Range, which makes up the western portion of the park. With several peaks over 10,000 feet, and the tallest Mount Fairweather at 15,325 feet, the Fairweather Range is one of the highest coastal mountain range in the world.
At the far end of Tarr Inlet the Margerie Glacier grinds down from the slopes of Mount Fairweather to crash into the sea. Visitors from around the globe come in every type of vessel, from cruise ships to kayaks, to watch the mighty glacier calving into the deep fjord.
The face of the glacier can be over sixteen stories tall and when it lets loose it can sound loud as a thunder storm. After plunging into the depths and sending plumes of water skyward the mighty bergs rush to the surface to tumble and roll scattering everything in its path. Rule number one, don’t get too close!
The Lamplugh Glacier creeps along under Mount Cooper and peeks out at the bay from around the corner.
Kayaking in the upper West Arm of Glacier Bay, or any of Alaska’s glacial fjords for that matter, comes with a number of unique challenges and dangers. Strong winds called williwaws can blast down from mountain heights turning the once calm sea into a raging tempest in a matter of minutes. Arctic temperatures on land, and seas filled with iceburgs, greatly enhance the dangers from hypothermia; any mistake in this environment can quickly become fatal. Due to the steep sides of the fjords there are fewer places to pull out to take a rest or make camp. Fog can form quickly and whiteouts are common so having a GPS to navigate can come in extremely handy. Also to travel on foot any distance from shore one should have good general mountaineering skills and be comfortable with traveling on snow and ice.
In contrast the lower portions of the West Arm are green and serene in comparison, and in all honesty I spent the majority of the two weeks camping here in Hugh Miller Inlet watching whales and other wildlife. The Inlet is closed to motorized vessels so I had the place pretty much to myself.
I made camp on a small island in the center of a large bay with the idea of staying awhile. From here I explored the surrounding bays and islands by day and returned to the same camp in the evening, avoiding all the time I would have wasted setting up multiple camps. Besides I reasoned it would be unlikely that a bear would swim all the way across the bay to such a tiny island…or so I thought.
My little island had a number of local inhabitants who at first eyed me with some suspicion. A nesting pair of eagles claimed the penthouse, crows nested in the apartments below and on the ground floor kittiwakes and oystercatchers tended their rocky nests. The oystercatchers who were my closest neighbors at first pulled out all the stops to give me the bums rush. They squawked loudly, assaulted me from the air, and faked broken wings, but once they understood that I meant them no harm they returned to tending their two eggs and thereafter would greet me with a polite chirp. Being there all alone I really enjoyed their company.
The bays and inlets of surrounding area are a kayaker’s paradise, Humpback whales fed on Krill and Hearing and came so close I had to quickly maneuver to stay out of their way. Harbor Proposes and Seals lounged in the placid lagoons as I paddled by. Another small island, one bay over, had a colony of nesting Turns that dove like fighter jets into the sea for tiny fish. For a relatively small area it seems to have a lot of life both above and below the waves, or maybe without the distraction of others I was just paying more attention.
On my last night on the island, while making dinner, I had an unexpected visitor. Focused on cooking and swatting at the recently emerging No-see-ums I hadn’t noticed the arrival of a cinnamon colored Brown Bear no more than twenty feet away munching on beach grass.
Well this was a bit awkward; I turned off the stove and covered the pot. What to do? It seemed aware of my presence, sure enough. I secured my food bag back up in the tree and picked up my dinner to walk farther out into the intertidal and sat on a large rock to nervously finish my meal.
Thankfully the bear paid me no mind and eventually wandered off into the forest. It was then that I noticed the absolute silence, not even the normally rowdy crows were making any noise.
"To the lover of pure wildness Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world." -John Muir