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The Great Alaskan Vacation
By Simon Baker

To our right was the Grand Pacific Glacier, covered with pieces of rock and other ground-up earth debris it has acquired while passing through the upper valley.  Patches of white ice were visible from underneath its brown and black cover.  To the left of it was Margerie Glacier, appearing clean and bright in spite of the overcast sky. Patches of blue ice were visible on its mostly white front where it met the waters of the bay. It looked like the perfect textbook example of how a glacier should appear.

GOING WITH THE FLOW

The ship’s engines were very quiet as it slowly maneuvered closer.  People on deck spoke softly and listened for the occasional rifle shot noise as pieces of the glacier’s front broke off and floated away. Glaciers reaching the sea “calve” in this fashion.  What had been a piece of the glacier’s front one minute was now a free-floating iceberg, which would eventually melt.

The park ranger who had joined the ship some 65 miles back south explained that the ice face we were looking at was about 200 feet above sea level.  The bottom of the glacier was about 400 feet below the water surface.  Occasionally a calved iceberg from the submerged portion bobbed, and splashed to the surface.  With calving going on continuously, getting too close to the glacier could be dangerous, especially for small boats.  We noticed that the National Park excursion boat, visiting this part of the bay, kept a respectful distance from the glacier’s front.

We were observing two valley glaciers that had started out as accumulated snow pack in the nearby Saint Elias Mountains of the Fairweather Range. In situations where the summers are not warm enough to melt the previous winter’s snow, the depth and weight increases year after year and the snow at the bottom eventually becomes ice. Under high pressure the ice behaves like cold molasses and begins to flow in response to gravity.  Depending on a number of factors, the speed of the flow varies among glaciers. Some in Glacier Bay National Park have been measured flowing as fast as seven feet a day, while others may flow a few inches in the same period.  All such mountain valley glaciers do not necessarily reach the sea. On dry land the melting ice provides water to form lakes or streams.

RETREATING ICE

Here we were sailing where solid ice existed 200 years ago.  When English explorer Captain George Vancouver discovered Glacier Bay in 1794, what he mapped as the bay was actually an indentation in the ice front some 65 miles to the south. In the past 200 years the great mass of flowing ice which filled the bay has melted forming this great fjord. Studies in 1879 by the famous naturalist, John Muir, indicated that the ice had by then retreated 48 miles up the bay. Today the Grand Pacific Glacier, at the head of the bay, is some 65 miles away from the mouth mapped by Captain Vancouver.  The twelve tidewater glaciers of the national park have been studied and measured for more than 100 years.  The rapid rate of melting here seems to be unique in the world, but it is not uniform because some glaciers in the park are advancing.

WILDLIFE UP CLOSE

Glacier Bay is an arm of the Gulf of Alaska and is a fjord that is deep enough for sea going ships like ours to sail throughout. It also provides feeding grounds for three species of whales: minke, humpback and orcas. These creatures swim in from the open sea in pursuit of food and may be seen from the deck of a cruise ship if the watcher is patient and lucky.  The generally uncommon minke may be identified by its small dorsal fin, while the orca (or killer whale as it’s also known) has a large triangular dorsal fin, which may reach six feet in height.

Humpbacks are more acrobatic than the other two species and people are thrilled to watch them leap out of the water and dive back in with their huge tails momentarily visible above the surface before disappearing below.  The whales share Glacier Bay with numerous other observable creatures like porpoises, sea lions, sea otters, and seals.  Beneath the surface are salmon and halibut which park visitors may catch.  Visitors may also observe a number of land animals including brown and black bear, moose, wolves, mountain goats, bald eagles and more than 200 other species of birds.

VISITING GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK

Unlike national parks in the lower 48 states, you cannot drive to Glacier Bay National Park. Like several other national parks in Alaska, it can only be reached by sea or air.  We were there for one day as part of our Alaska cruise, which is probably the most comfortable and effortless way to visit the park.  Many cruise lines leaving from Vancouver, British Columbia include the park on their itineraries.  Visitors wishing to stay longer may come in their private boats.  This is possible mainly for residents of the west coast of Canada and the U.S.  Most other visitors must first get to Juneau, Haines, or Skagway where there is air service available to reach the park.

Located just outside the park, the settlement of Gustavus has an airport that is only 30 minutes flying time from Juneau.  Gustavus has lodging, groceries, restaurants and other services available, and is just a few miles by bus or taxi from the park headquarters at Bartlett Cove.  The Glacier Bay Lodge at Bartlett Cove offers a restaurant, lodging, excursion boats to the glaciers, charter boats, kayak rentals, and fuel sales. In the lodge there is a visitor’s center with exhibits, publications for sale and an auditorium where daily films and talks by park naturalists are provided. For hikers, there are three miles of maintained trails and backpacking is possible elsewhere in the park.  A campground also exists and is free for up to 14 days without reservations. For lovers of the outdoors there is much to see and do at Glacier Bay National Park. It provides an experience unlike any other!

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