Alaska Cruise Report: Glacier Bay National Park

From the National Geographic Sea Lion in Alaska, Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Heading north into the park this morning was a moment of truth after yesterday’s sunny grandeur. Sharp winds off icy glaciers, snow nearly to tidewater, and a few sprinkles reminded us that yes; it is indeed spring in this coastal rainforest. During our stop at South Marble Island, tufted puffins, black-legged kittiwakes and glaucous-winged gulls have gathered in large numbers and are noisily setting up housekeeping. Just a few short weeks ago, the island was bare and only the growling of Steller sea lions could be heard.

We kept a sharp lookout for coastal brown bears, and the rewards came quickly- our first sighting at Tidal Inlet was a huge old bear ambling down the beach on the lookout for something to eat. A smaller bear darted out, scented the big guy and ran away and up the hill at full speed. More bear sightings followed, eight in all. What wonderful amazing good luck!

In Russell Cut, a mom and two yearling cubs were feeding in the intertidal and our final bears were – well, one was – standing on a whale! The carcass of a humpback whale washed up on shore has been providing blubber for at least two of Glacier Bay’s brown bears. I counted thirteen eagles on shore and in nearby cottonwood trees, as well as a number of ravens and gulls. This early season feeding opportunity is quite a stroke of luck for these animals as the main nutrient for the bears is the yearly run of salmon and that event is still two months away.

Rounding the corner near a large gray lump of dolomite scraped smooth by glaciers, we peered through our binoculars in hopes of seeing a low down goat. Most of the year, mountain goats are small whitish dots grazing high in the alpine meadows. But in the spring, deep snow and the birth of young ones brings them closer to our level. There were at least a dozen goats scattered across the rock face. Some were climbing the absurdly steep slopes. And our low down nanny goat appeared- visible beneath a newly-leafed out cottonwood and with a less-than-week-old kid. 

Looking at the mile wide, two hundred foot high expanse of Margerie Glacier’s face gives us little indication that it is spring. Other than a coating of snow that adds contrast to the black rock moraines and blue ice, there is little to tell us that the season has turned. Margerie Glacier relies on snowfall high above us in the Fairweather range and the ice we are observing fell as snow over two hundred years ago! The sharp cries and fairy flight of arctic terns is a sure indication however, as is the nearby nesting colony of black-legged kittiwakes.

Hearing the sharp crack of breaking ice and watching several impressive calving events were a wonderful conclusion to our sixty-five mile journey up the bay. At dawn we left the familiar coastal rainforest, following the retreat of the glacier and the uncovering of the land over the last two hundred and fifty years. Ranger David Scholar narrated the story with grace and wit, and as we dock at Bartlett Cove this evening, we bid him and this fabulous national park, thanks and fare thee well.


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