Glacier Bay National Park & Reserve, which covers an area of 3.3 million acres, was created in 1980. It is renowned for its glaciers – there are over 1,000 within the park – and a number extend all the way to the sea. The longest and widest of the Glacier Bay tidewater glaciers is Grand Pacific, with a length of 35 miles and a width of 2 miles. Among the deepest is John Hopkins, with 250 feet above and 200 feet below the waterline.
We were fortunate to be able to visit and view 5 of these tidewater glaciers – Grand Pacific, Johns Hopkins, Margerie, Lamplugh and Reid. Sometimes we could only reach within a few miles because of the amount of floating ice they create, however they are so large that one still feels their size and grandeur. In other cases, we were able to get as close as we dared – about a quarter mile – while still maintaining a safety zone in the event they calved an iceberg and created a large wave. At Reid Glacier, which is only touched by the sea at high tide, it was possible to use the dinghy to go ashore and get very close to the glacier’s face, and peer into the many fissures and ice caves that are present there.
From the mouth of Glacier Bay, where it meets Icy Strait, it’s approximately 60 miles in a northwesterly direction to the tip of the West Arm inlets, the apex of our Alaska cruise. Although this is not a long distance the change in topography is very noticeable. Beginning with forested lowlands and islands in the south, the end of Glacier Bay is defined by narrow fiords surrounded by high peaks. Few trees can be found here, and the temperature is significantly cooler. Although this is partly a consequence of the higher latitude, most of the cooling effects come from the surrounding mountains, glaciers and iceberg-chilled waters. In the evenings and especially the mornings, we were so very thankful for our generator and space heater!
For us, the other key attraction of this cruise is the potential for wildlife viewing. Although we did not see everything on our list – mountain goat and grizzly bear viewing remain elusive – we were blessed with numerous sightings of many other creatures. Humpback whales frequent these waters in the summer, and a particular highlight was our encounters with them while cruising and dinghy exploring.
Many, many pictures were taken. Here is a just a small sample……
Our first stop after Tracey Arm was Juneau, the capital of Alaska; another popular destination for cruise ships, it is bigger and more commercialized than Ketchikan, but still retains a large number of interesting heritage buildings.
A view of the moutains to the east of Juneau from our anchorage at Swanson Harbour, which is located at the juncture of Lynn Canal and Icy Strait.
We stopped at Gustavus, the last small community before entering the park; greeting us at the dock was a very large and friendly(?) sea lion, who hung around to take the scraps tossed overboard as sportfishermen cleaned their catches of salmon & halibut; the fishing in this area was amazing, with salmon jumping all over the place.
Entrance to the park is strictly controlled, with only 25 boats allowed in the park on any given day; you are required to arrive on your allotted entry day or lose your entry priveleges, so we anchored near Gustavus in a fairly exposed area where it was very hard to set the anchor – clearly it was a marginal set, and here’s why; lucky for us it was flat-calm overnight and we had no issues with dragging the anchor.
After the mandatory orientation at park headquarters and an overnight stay at Bartlett Cove, we headed northwest for the West Arm of Glacier Bay; while looking for mountain goats at Gloomy Knob we were lucky to encounter three active Humpback whales who put on quite a show for us; this included a breach by each whale, one after the other (this caught us completely off guard, so we weren’t quick enough to get pictures).
Reid Glacier from our anchorage in Reid Inlet, our base of operations while we explored Tarr and Johns Hopkins Inlets.
Reid Glacier from it’s moraine beach.
An ice cave at the bottom of the glacier; because the ice is densely packed it projects an intense blue colour.
Grand Pacific Glacier from a distance, winding its way to the sea; it is the longest and widest tidal glacier in the park.
Margerie Glacier, where we could only get within a mile due to the ever moving pack ice……
……even despite our attempt to sneak in using the path created by a passing cruise ship; the pack ice closed in very quickly and we had to retreat.
The captain going for the consolation prize – 200 year old ice cubes for his margaritas.
They last way longer than the ice cubes from the freezer!
Approaching Johns Hopkins Inlet; the challenges of cool and sometimes damp conditions have been offset by the blessings of flat-calm cruising conditions, which we’ve enjoyed for much of our trip.
The vistas in Johns Hopkins Inlet were spectacular…..
Johns Hopkins Inlet is reputed to be difficult to access much of the time; we were pleased that we were able to get within 3 miles of the face of the glacier.
Up close and personal with the Lamplugh glacier.
Sea otters were wiped out by the fur trade in Alaska during previous centuries; since reintroduction to Glacier Bay in the mid-1970’s, there are now more than 1,500 within the park; we saw them happily floating along on their backs everywhere, often with a youngster in tow; this fellow was happily munching his lunch when we passed by.
At long last we had a (black) bear sighting, a mom with three cubs foraging on the beach; this was in North Sandy Cove, where we spent our last two nights in the park.
Getting closer to sunset; one of the benefits of crusing at higher latitudes in the summer is the length of the day, where it has generally been light enough for us to see from about 4 in the morning until 11 at night.
We found ourselves very close to this behemoth when he surfaced unexpectedly very close to shore; this encounter gave us a serious ‘oh sh**’ moment, but thankfully our dinghy was safely anchored behind outlying rocks.
Our anchorage at North Sandy Cove; we had sunshine in the anchorage, but the clouds and showers were lurking close by in the nearby mountains and valleys behind us; this was often typical of the weather conditions we experienced.
Our next post will include a return visit to Tracy Arm with our daughter Vanessa, plus an excursion up Lynn Canal to Skagway for a trip on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad.