Glacier Bay, Alaska

Jun 25, 2019 - National Geographic Quest

We spent the entire day in Glacier Bay National Park, which at 3.3 million acres, is one of the largest parks in the U.S. Together with Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska and Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia, the entire protected region forms a continuous 25-million acre World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve. National Geographic Quest entered Glacier Bay early in the morning, before breakfast, and picked up Ranger Christina Martinez and Cultural Interpreter Patricia Alexander, a member of the Tlingit Tribe, at Bartlett Cove. They accompanied us during the day as we explored Glacier Bay and explained both the natural history, human history, and Tlingit culture of the park, helped us spot some of the amazing wildlife, and answered all the questions we could come up with.

It is hard to believe that until the 1600s, there was no bay here at all, but rather a broad, fertile valley inhabited by Huna Tlingit (pronounced “Kling-kit” or “Sling-kit”) Indians. They had lived here for thousands of years, enjoying a life of plenty near a meltwater river that flowed from a huge glacier situated far up the valley. During the Little Ice Age of the 17th and 18th centuries, however, the glacier surged. This spectacular glacial movement bulldozed a tremendous amount of sediments and rock material ahead of it and ground out the bay as we know it today. When George Vancouver reached the area in 1794, the entire bay was filled with glacial ice and there was a huge ice face blocking the entrance. He encountered a vertical wall of ice that was 20 miles wide and 4,000 feet thick. Near the end of the 18th century, the glacier began retreating. In 1879, John Muir came here and found the ice face had retreated 48 miles up into the bay since the time of Vancouver’s visit. The ice front has continued retreating northward ever since, and is now more than 65 miles from the mouth of the bay. As a result, instead of the former single massive glacier with smaller ice tributaries, there are now a dozen tidewater glaciers and more than 30 alpine glaciers to be found here. We could see clear evidence of this glacial retreat by observing progressively younger forests and newly exposed ice-smoothed granitic and sedimentary bedrock as we traveled northward. This bay has provided scientists with a perfect laboratory in which to study the process of succession of both plant life and animal life in Southeast Alaska.

We enjoyed spectacular weather with bright blue skies, a few wispy clouds, very little wind, and surprisingly warm temperatures. In fact, it was necessary to warn guests to guard against sunburn. After breakfast, our ranger, Christina, talked about the sea birds to be seen here just before we reached South Marble Island. This is a small isolated island, which makes for a perfect protected site for breeding seabirds. Pelagic cormorants, glaucous-winged gulls, black-legged kittiwakes, pigeon guillemots, common murres, and both tufted and horned puffins were all seen at the island. In addition, we could see, hear, and smell several small colonies of huge northern (Steller) sea lions. The sea lions stopped breeding here long ago, but a single pup was born here just last week…and we saw it. This was cause for celebration, because this is the first recorded sea lion birth in Glacier Bay in several decades. All the while, humpback whales were blowing and diving off in the distance, but whales are strictly protected here and we were not allowed to approach them. Around mid-morning, Patricia told us about Tlingit life and described how her people have inhabited Glacier Bay area for 10,000 years, apart from being forced out of the bay during heavy glacial activity during the Little Ice Age of the 17th and 18th centuries.

As we continued deeper into the park, we enjoyed text book examples of everything to do with a course in glaciology…glaciers, fjords, meltwater streams, moraines, outwash plains, U-shaped valleys, cirques, hanging valleys, glacial flour (which gives the water a milky green hue), glacial scars, plant succession, and more. It was incredible, especially to those of us interested in geology. We soon entered Tidal Inlet and sailed right up to the head of the fjord. The scenery, both geological and vegetal, was very photogenic, but the bears stole the show. At least six bears were spotted. The best sighting was a big brown bear that was busy on the shoreline turning over rocks and searching for crabs, barnacles, mussels, etc. Another brown bear was sighted high up the mountainous backdrop and we watched it wander out onto a small snowbank and then plop down on the snow in an obvious attempt to cool off. It seemed strange that as we were all amazed by how wonderful the weather was today, at least some of the wildlife seemed to be finding it uncomfortable. In addition, a single black bear was sighted halfway up the slope between the two aforementioned brown bears. It was nice to see a large flock of harlequin ducks paddling about just offshore. This species is certainly one of the most colorful and attractive ducks in North America.

Right around the corner from Tidal Inlet is Gloomy Knob, part of the Alexandrian Formation that was formed from the compression of sea floor sedimentary rocks. This huge outcrop is composed of Silurian limestone (making it between 440 and 395 years in age). A few mountain goats were spotted resting on the vertical face of the knob, including a mother and her kid, and a lone male. Our route then took us past the confluence of Rendu and Queen Inlets as our vessel continued up to the northern-most region of the bay, where in the Tarr Inlet, we found ourselves just a couple miles or so from the Canadian border. This was a great place to hang out for a while as we enjoyed the perfect weather and observed both the debris-covered, dark, static Grand Pacific Glacier and the more pristine, very active Marjorie Glacier. There was lots of ice floating around and washed up on the shore, and we were eventually rewarded with some calving and little ice avalanches.

Our southward return route took us past a few more glaciers, including the Lamplugh and Reid glaciers, and we continued searching for wildlife and enjoying the superb scenery. In the early evening, we berthed at the park headquarters in Bartlett Cove. This gave us a chance to take advantage of the late sunset and go ashore after dinner to walk on a beautiful trail through the moss-covered forest and stroll along the shoreline. Remembering that Bartlett Cove was freed of its ice cover only a couple centuries ago, we could appreciate how the impressive plant life and isostatic rebound has reclaimed the land. Most everyone saw the very impressive humpback whale skeleton near the Glacier Bay Lodge and some of us visited the Tlingit Ceremonial Center a short distance away. Inside the lodge we enjoyed the excellent museum displays on the second floor before returning to the ship and departing spectacular Glacier Bay just after sunset at 10:30 p.m.!

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About the Author

Tom Ritchie


Tom is a zoologist and naturalist who has worked in the field of expedition cruising almost since its inception by Lars Lindblad.  Growing up near the Everglades allowed him to spend his youth exploring the swamps, marshes, forests, and reef systems of South Florida, a perfect training ground for his life with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic.

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