Glacier Bay Islands: a Naturalist’s Journey

December 5, 2006

Day One: Flying above the white cloud layer at 1,500 feet and seeing only the raw, rocky peaks of Alaska’s snowcapped mountains, our guide asks us to imagine the Ice Age, to think of the clouds as an endless snowfield 1,500 feet deep, filling the chasms between these huge mountain peaks. This, he says, over the droning of the four-seater seaplane, was what most of Glacier Bay looked like only 200 years ago.

We are traveling back in time. And when the plane descends through the mist above Muir Inlet, the east branch of Glacier Bay, the deep spruce forests – like the ones surrounding the small dock from which we’d departed – have vanished. The barren rock slopes are cut through by cold narrow streams, and great blue rivers of solid ice run into an opalescent aquamarine bay. There is nothing else, just “a solitude of ice and snow and newborn rocks, dim, dreary, mysterious,” as explorer John Muir put it in 1879.

Our kayaks are arrayed along the gravel beach. Three planes will drop off the 12 of us and our gear, then pick up the weary-looking group that has just made the 60-mile, week-long trip up the inlet. Our trip will take us back down the bay.


As we wait for the other planes to land, I climb the rocks above the beach, searching for signs of life – any signs of life. But the place looks as if it has been strip-mined. Picture a gravel pit, with mounds of rocks of every size and description bulldozed into random piles. It is a landscape scraped clean, a skeleton that will take a hundred years to flesh out.

Across the narrow inlet the hard-chinned cliffside, a thousand feet high, is just as bare. Streams of snowmelt run down its face. This is the end of Glacier Bay – or the beginning, depending upon how you conceive of time. The shapers of all this unconstructed mass stand at the head of the bay: glaciers that rise 150 feet above the tide line and then sprawl northward – jagged, crevassed, blue ice highways that have ground through the mountains from vast unseen ice fields.

When the planes leave and the sounds of their engines fade into the clouds, there is an awesome silence. Everyone makes note of it, stopping amid the packing of the kayaks to listen. The sound of the water streaming down the distant cliff face and pouring over and through the mounds of gravel hardly makes a dent in this silence.


And then we hear the creaking of the glacier immediately above us, shifting uncomfortably in its bed. Thunder echoes as great chunks of blue ice calve off the glacier’s face and plunge into the bay. If nothing else, the scenery is alive.

When British explorer George Vancouver sailed into the Southeast Alaska archipelago in 1794, this bay did not yet exist. Glaciers covered it all as far south as Bartlett Cove, a small inlet near Icy Strait, named for the amounts of ice that floated through.

When John Muir explored the area nearly a hundred years later, the ice had retreated enough to allow him to canoe to Tlingit Point, the limestone headland that separates the two arms of Glacier Bay. Today’s Muir Inlet was then “Muir Glacier.”


Now, another hundred years later, there’s never ice in Icy Strait, and Muir Glacier has retreated another 25 miles, leaving this deep fjord behind. The retreat of the glaciers continues. Our guide, Steve Griffin, says he has seen bare rock appear where he recalls glacier only a few years before.

For scientists, the retreat of the ice in Glacier Bay is the end of an ice age, seen as if in time-lapse photography. Here, millennia of glacial movement have been compressed into centuries. It was thousands of years of snowfall, more than a hundred feet a year, that created the vast ice fields. The pressure of the deepening snow compacted the bottom layers into hard, round ice crystals, compressed like sedimentary rock. (It’s the density of the glacier ice that gives it its blue tint, a blue that is sometimes so intense that it makes the ice appear to have a gelatinous core.)

Eventually the glacial ice began to slide downslope. Where there were trees, it crushed them. Soil and rock were pushed along by the glacier’s advancing snout, carving out u-shaped valleys and scraping deep scars into the hardest rock as it moved.


Glaciers came and went across this landscape – and the landscapes of all northern climes – for the last five million years. The ice sheets that covered Southeast Alaska were the same as the ice sheets that covered much of North America as far south as Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Most of this ice began retreating some 14,000 years ago and has never returned.

This was the case in Glacier Bay as well – until some 4,000 years ago, when what’s known as the Little Ice Age began. Then the glaciers, as legends of the Tlingit (the native people of Southeast Alaska) record it, once again advanced to cover Glacier Bay. Only the highest of the mountain peaks would have been visible, for the ice in Glacier Bay was some 4,000 feet thick.

In Tlingit legend, a young girl called on the glaciers to come and cover the valley. The ice came, and her grandmother was crushed by the glaciers. But their forward movement stopped, and the crystal reflections at the base of the ice are said to be the old woman’s children.

The glaciers now creaking above us had already begun receding when the first Europeans came to Glacier Bay. With less snow falling in the upper reaches of the ice fields, where the glaciers form, they are no longer being pressed forward. Instead, they are retreating. And leaving these bare-boned barrens behind.

We set off from a stony beach, paddling among ice floes adrift in the cold milky blue water, colored by the crystals of suspended glacial sediments.

Day Two: A journal seems to be the most appropriate way to write about Alaska. The distances are so huge, the scenery so vast, that much time is spent traveling in welcome silence.

The 600-mile-long panhandle of Southeast Alaska is made up of a thousand islands with 10,000 miles of shoreline. Only 70,000 people live here, half of them in the capital, Juneau. (If Manhattan had the same population density as Southeast Alaska, about 37 people would live on the whole island.) Glacier Bay National Park itself is 3.2 million acres, the size of Connecticut.

The only way into Glacier Bay, and into most of the Inside Passage, as the waters among these islands are known, is by plane or boat. But time and distance are deceptive. Daylight can last for 20 hours. And even the busiest itinerary leaves long stretches pleasantly unaccounted for. A change in tide, a shift in the wind, the appearance of a new peak as the clouds lift, all become remarkable.

Yesterday afternoon we had to run a gauntlet of drifting ice chunks in order to camp in the little inlet of McBride Glacier. Our yellow geodesic tents were easy to pitch, but the anchoring ropes had to be tied to rocks since the ground was too hard to pierce with tent pegs.

The glacier makes a dramatic backdrop, swirling down from the horizon and coming to a sudden end in an ice cliff more than 150 feet high. All through the night the glacier thundered, and by morning the passage into the inlet was nearly sealed shut by ice floes.

Kayaking among these chunks can be dangerous. While the largest are some six feet above the waterline, they may be many times larger beneath, weighted down by ice-encased rock. Should they roll as a kayak passes, the resulting wave could pull the small craft under.

With rain beginning, we decide to remain in camp this day and hope that the outgoing tide will pull the larger floes into the bay, leaving us a passage out.

On a climb up along the slopes above the glacier, a group of us walk amid the rubble of granite and pink, green, and black shale. We come across tree stumps sheared off and mangled by the last advance of the glaciers, driftwood 2,000 years old. Along these lower, rockier expanses, so recently exposed, there are signs of a new world in the making.

In this scarred environment something as simple as a seep of water – not yet even a spring – becomes a dramatic discovery. In the midst of the gray barrens, it has created a miniature meadow of deep green moss and lichens.

As I kneel to get a closer look, my footstep sends a vole scurrying out from hiding. It is the first animal I’ve seen on land here.

We climb higher, to rock that’s been exposed longer, and see clumps of pink blossoming fireweed and yellow dryas and then find ourselves struggling to walk through deepening thickets of green alder with its clumps of tiny seed cones.

We know what this landscape will look like a hundred years from now: The crowded alder thickets will create a layer of soil beneath them, their roots and falling leaves enriching the glacial gravel and rock rubble. Poplar will take root, then spruce. The alder will be shaded out, and the forest, its growth spurred by nearly 75 inches of rain each year, will become mossy and darkly canopied. The spruce, finally, will give way to hemlock. This is nascent northern rain forest.

Here, as Muir wrote, “one easily learns that the world, though made, is yet being made.”

the rain lasts all day and threatens to turn to sleet. Seal pups play among the ice floes, then lie up on top of them to sleep. A couple of pigeon guillemots – diving ducks with clownish red feet – work the water from the edge of the shore. We eat in full rain gear beneath a yellow tarpaulin.

At night a cold wind comes off the glacier, and we sleep in pile-lined clothes and caps. We have been warned that the weather in Alaska can be nasty, but when I awaken at 2 a.m. to the bone-cracking sounds of the glacier, I can see that the weather has cleared and the sky is full of stars.

Day Three: Call this escape from McBride. The morning is bright, but one look at the inlet and we all have just one thing on our minds: getting out. The tide has failed to clear out the ice. In fact, the inlet is even more packed than it was the day before.

Though the tides in Glacier Bay can be as great as 25 feet, they are low right now. Our options are clear:

Either we carry the kayaks and gear over the spit of land that forms the inlet, or we try to paddle through it. The first is a safe bet, but portaging kayaks, gear, and food (we are carrying our supply with us) could take a good part of the day. The other alternative is to risk working our way through the close maze of ice floes. Steve decides that we’ll paddle.

Kayaks packed, we push off. Keeping in single file, with Steve’s kayak in the lead, we begin winding through the ice. The passage is barely a half-mile long, but we have to scrape along, pushing aside the ice floes with our paddles as the narrow bows of the kayaks nose through. We stay as close together as possible, to keep the ice from closing in behind. In the midst of the drifting ice, the wide world of the fjord seems to vanish.

At one worrisome moment we are closed in by ice. The floes ahead are too heavy to push out of the way. Steve reconsiders his route and turns into another channel. The ice moves. We’re free.

Steve, who spends much of the year as a guide in the Arctic, assures me he has often been through worse jams, and he had no doubt we’d make it out. For the rest of us, however, there is no underestimating our great relief as we reach the open water of the bay.

now the late july weather turns warmer, and we shed the heavy rubber rain gear to paddle in shirtsleeves. At the first beach stop, some of us undress and, after a steadying breath, dive into the icy water for a one-minute bath. This becomes the general bathing procedure. There is something especially refreshing about standing naked on the shore with a view of snowcapped peaks and glaciers.

During the next couple of days, this view remains as unvarying as a theatrical backdrop. What is always changing is the light, which so alters the aspects of these monumental heights and distances that I imagine a photographer might stay at a single spot and photograph it for days on end without repeating the scene.

Trees begin to fill out the landscape. The shorelines show more weedy wrack, more shells among the rocks: blue mussels and barnacles, bleached shells of clams and sea urchins. Streams appear where the rock has been worn enough to allow water to flow in narrow, gravelly beds. The first bald eagle of the trip perches regally on a cliffside.

We camp just north of Muir Point, and the sunset lingers for a couple of hours. Dusk finally comes with the keening of hundreds of seabirds. This brooding light, too, lingers. Then some orange-billed oystercatchers sweep in to the beach, cackling away while picking among the shoreline wrack even as their silhouettes blend with the creeping darkness.

Day Four: Again the day is bright, a thing worth remarking in Southeast Alaska, where more than a third of all days in the year are overcast, rainy, or snowing. So as we kayak through Muir Inlet and past Tlingit Point into the wide main body of Glacier Bay, the bright openness is astonishing.

To the west rise the Fairweathers, a range of snow-covered peaks from 8,000 to 15,000 feet high. They gleam white in this bright sun and dwarf even the open landscape of Glacier Bay.

The water is no longer tinted by glacial silt. It is clear, seawater blue, and more and more filled with life. Long ropes of rubbery seaweed known as bullwhip kelp drift by. Seabirds sit and rock in the light chop kicked up by the wind.

Salmon leap out of nowhere in silvery flashes. The harbor seals that have accompanied us the whole way now appear in larger pods, poking their dark heads out of the water, observing us with dark, doglike eyes. To the west a spray of water, as a gleaming humpback whale breaches. And another. And then again. We are a mile away, but the sound is like cannon fire.

For a time we forget the hard paddling that has left most of us with blistered hands. We head out against the wind toward the rocky Marble Islands. Rookery and refuge, this is the avian heart of Glacier Bay. Suddenly there are birds everywhere – in the air, on the water, on every inch of rock. Steve calls them out as he sees them: tufted puffins with parrotlike bills; delicate marbled murrelets; rare Kittlitz’s murrelets. Guillemots, common gulls, and glaucous-winged gulls hug the narrow rock ledges. Red-necked phalaropes and pelagic cormorants, ubiquitous oystercatchers and pigeon guillemots, soaring bald eagles.

As we round South Marble Island, the crescendo of birdcalls is very nearly drowned out by the trumpeting of Steller’s sea lions, perhaps a hundred of them lazing on rounded beds of rock, groaning and snorting. Big bulls, bullying each other for space, rock on their heavy tails in blubbery confrontations that usually end with one falling back heavily into the water not 20 yards from where we drift. The loser simply swims ashore, mounts the rocks, and begins the battle again. The sounds and the smell are overwhelming.

It is another long wearying run against the wind and tide to the small island where we camp. While the island itself is thickly forested, the shoreline is covered by rocks of every color and composition, etched with glacial cuts, as if a geological scrap-book had been torn and scattered. We have reached the hundred-year mark: Everything south of here has been out from under ice for at least a century. Even the waters reflect the green and forested mountains of a more mature and familiar world.

Day Five: After coming from the north, from the bare rock glacial climes, paddling into the protected waters of the lusher Beardslee Islands is a welcome change.

Instead of measuring oneself against vast distances and elevations, there are trees – tall trees to be sure – to offer a more comfortable scale. Take away the monumental backdrop of the Fairweathers (which the clouds soon do), and the Beardslees look like islands in the northern Great Lakes. Why not? The Great Lakes are glacial lakes, and the land surrounding them has all been contoured by ice.

When U.S. Navy Cmdr. Lester Anthony Beardslee sailed into Southeast Alaska in 1880 (naming Glacier Bay), the forests on these islands had just begun growing. Now the Sitka spruce have matured, and the forests are filled with wildlife.

We are ready for new sights. We have now seen so many bald eagles that they no longer elicit the same wonder, the scurrying for cameras. These forests seem to hold the possibilities of new mysteries – elusive moose and deer, wolves and foxes, and grizzly bears. For the entire trip we’ve carried all our food in hard black plastic cylinders – not to keep the food dry, but to keep it from attracting bears. Guides here carry canisters of pepper spray as a last-resort defense. But we haven’t seen a single bear.

When we finally reach our campsite, everyone seems ready to relax. Instead of exploring, we take to the narrow sand beach like regular tourists on holiday – reading, writing, sunbathing. A couple of us try fishing for the salmon that keep leaping from the water, nearly throwing themselves onto the shore. We have no luck at all.

And then, as dusk begins its mystifyingly slow fall to the chatter of gulls and the croaking of ravens, I see the bears. A mother and two cubs foraging in the distance among the ryegrass, with no interest in us whatsoever.

Day Six: The forest has its own deep silence. It is mainly because of the moss, of course – a foot or more deep, and covering everything in the forest. It carpets the ground, hangs from the trees, forms a coat over fallen deadwood. Footfalls make no sounds. Voices do not travel.

We see moose tracks in the moss and signs of wolves. The terrain is uneven, and I know that if the coat of moss were pulled away, beneath it would lie a hard glacial skeleton. But this land emerged 150 years ago. The spruce stand a hundred feet high and form a dense canopy, which light penetrates only in angular shafts. There’s little underbrush, but lots of ripe blueberries.

Hiking alone and picking berries in the damp dense air, I suddenly hear a swish of tree limbs nearby. I picture a bear. But I hear nothing for another minute. Slowly I turn and find myself staring into the black face of a fairly porcine porcupine, clinging to the trunk of a spruce. I breathe. It climbs up into the canopy and vanishes.

One last paddle, just to explore the island shorelines. On the beach, big as life, a moose stands half-in, half-out of the woods. Like the bears, like the porcupine, like the sea lions, like the seabirds, like the eagles, like the glaciers themselves, the moose is there leading its life undisturbed.

The separation of the two worlds – animal and human – has not always been so clear. To the natives of the Northwest, animals could take human form and humans could metamorphose into animals. The Tlingit tell of a woman who, while picking blueberries, is kidnapped and forced to live as the wife of a bear. The Skagit believed that salmon lived as humans in a land beyond the ocean, that they left their villages in canoes, fell from the canoes, and turned into salmon in the water to make their way upstream to spawn.

This closing day is overcast. The mountains are gone. As we paddle in toward Bartlett Cove, the channels narrow. The Beardslees are rising islands; that is, ever since the weight of the glacial ice lifted, the land has been rebounding, in some places by more than an inch a year.

The change is evident when we try to pass through what the chart shows as a channel. At low tide it’s high and dry, and we have to wait for the tide to come in before we can paddle the kayaks through. These new land bridges allow wildlife to pass from one island to the next and give seabirds new roosts. We come across a large flock of Bonaparte’s gulls brooding chicks on an uplifted gravel spit.

These narrow tidal guts seem to be funneling us out of the wide open world behind. When we reach the dock from which we departed, all hints of the Ice Age landscape vanish. There are seaplanes and motor launches. Trucks rumble along the narrow road by Glacier Bay Lodge, where tourists wander the marked woodland trails.

A week ago the town of Gustavus had seemed to be the very end of the road. Now it seems all too much like civilization.


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