The day in Glacier Bay National Park
Just after midnight on the 4th of July, the National Geographic Sea Lion made her way into the entrance of Glacier Bay National Park. Our permit for this world renowned park was exactly 24 hours in length and to maximize our time in the park the officers of the Sea Lion enter over the park boundary as soon as possible…making arrival at Bartlett Cove at approximately 5:00am giving plenty of time for pick-up of our National Park ranger and our Huna Tlingit Interpreter, plus a little extra water for our day inside Glacier National Park. After an early breakfast, introductions by both our guests, National Park Ranger Janene Driscoll, and Huna Totem Interpreter Berth Franulovich were made.
Meanwhile our ship continued making her way up bay with a short pause in our 65-mile journey to see sea otters who have developed a very large colony around the Boulder Islands. It is estimated that more than 2,000 sea otters call these small, flat rocks their home. The islands have very healthy kelp beds and as we made our very slow approach due to an extremely low tide, we could see many small brown heads raise in righteous indignation, as otters will, wondering who and what was cruising near their low islands so early in the morning! After a quiet and slow pass by, we resumed our journey, heading for the first scheduled stop of the day at South Marble Island.
In 1925 Glacier Bay became a national monument. Fifty-five years later, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that created Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. This park continues to be a homeland, a natural lab, a wilderness, a national park, a United Nations biosphere reserve, and a world heritage site. Just 250 years ago, Glacier Bay was all glacier and no bay. A massive river of ice, roughly 100 miles long and thousands of feet deep, occupied the entire bay. Today, we would make the 65 mile journey from Bartlett Cove up the western arm of Glacier Bay to the meeting place of three glaciers: Margerie, Ferris, and the Grand Pacific. Due to the recent full moon, the tides were enormous and the tidal flow very strong; we would be bucking a huge out-going or ebb tide in the early morning and would be gaging our timing accordingly throughout the day. Once past the Boulder Islands and our visit to see the many faces of sea otters we continued up bay heading for a well-known Steller sea lion haul out and bird colony. As the National Geographic Sea Lion began her approach we could smell and hear the world of the Steller or northern sea lion. Roars and the smell of long cohabitation filled the air…circling over the sea lion haul out were Black-legged kittiwakes and Glaucous-winged gulls, an occasional Tufted puffin and even higher up crows, ravens, and bald eagles. This tiny rock was alive with temporary residents, all making an earnest and quick living in the long days of a short Alaskan summer. Moving along the face of South Marble we cruised slowly, giving time for good observation of all the early morning’s activities. After nearly an hour we continued our cruise heading for Gloomy Knob a distinctive geologic feature of Glacier Bay and the home country of mountain goats. On approach to Gloomy Knob the first two goats were spotted about halfway up a slightly green slope…cruising slowly around the Knob, we found a large gathering of very relaxed goats of many ages…nannies and kids, enjoying an early morning nap! As we passed the northern end of Gloomy Knob radio chatter began from bow to bridge and back…quite an amazing observation had been made and the first announcement was made…bears on the beach; there was a mother brown bear and three cubs! Due to the extreme low tide, many animals take advantage of easy access to the storehouse of food that can be harvested at low tide. The mother bear was turning over quite large rocks, scraping mussels from every surface and occasionally looking back at her three offspring who trundled along behind her. The three cubs were this year’s new bears and adorably cute was an understatement! For the next hour we spent glued to our binoculars watching the antics of three brown bear cubs under the watchful gaze of a very protective mother. Cameras were also poised and clicking away as the mother bear would look up then back to her offspring! It was definitely the high point of the day!
A great deal of distance still needed to be covered before arrival at the head of Tarr Inlet and the faces of three glaciers. The National Geographic Sea Lion stayed on course up bay, while staff and guests remained on the bow keeping watch and enjoying a land rebounding from the press of thousands of pounds of ice. Traveling through a botany time tunnel in reverse, the forests diminished to small scruffy shrubs, smaller plants yet; until we were faced with rocks, ice and a slightly removed trim line where plant communities were just beginning to take hold on what appeared to be quite a barren landscape. The waters at the face of Margerie and Grand Pacific Glacier were fairly choked with ice. The officers of the National Geographic Sea Lion did their best to move forward through the bergie bits and brash ice, but the going was slow…small pieces of ice continued to fall from the face of Margerie Glacier while we pushed slightly closer towards the glacier face. The wind died, the temperature rose slightly and it was quite comfortable staying on the bow and enjoying the rough, mountainous, and wild terrain all around us. All too soon it was time to return down bay to Bartlett Cove. The tide had switched again and slowly began to pick up speed as 21 feet of water was now emptying back out of Tarr Inlet and Glacier Bay! The Sea Lion needed to travel 65 miles back down bay and as the afternoon and early evening progressed she continued to pick up speed! Our younger passengers enjoyed several special activities on the upper deck while other guests relaxed and watched tall coastal mountains spill into the sea; inlets with tidal glaciers dotting their paths, occasional whales, many birds all part of the untamed world and rich bounty of Glacier Bay National Park. The Sea Lion reached speeds of 15 knots making her way towards Barltlett Cove near the southern entrance to the park, arriving much earlier than expected allowing for time to explore the walking paths and the lodge park headquarters of Bartlett Cove.
On the walking path near the Bartlett Cove Lodge are two clan carvings in Sitka Spruce trees. These are a reminder of the four ancestral clans to the Huna people who lived and occupied the Glacier Bay area. The natural, cultural, and spiritual history is retained in the oral history of the descendants of those Huna Tlingit, who continue to tell those same stories today. These oral histories describe villages and campsites destroyed by encroaching glaciers and the migration of those same clans who left the land that is now Glacier National Park and have returned, a reminder of the continuum of culture and a new friendship that is being forged between Glacier Park and the Huna Tlingit.