From the National Geographic Sea Lion in Alaska, June 1, 2010
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. This incredible place is both a World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve. It is interesting to note that this great bay was totally blocked by glacial ice when George Vancouver reached the area in 1794. He encountered a vertical wall of ice that was 20 miles wide and 4,000 feet thick. In 1879, John Muir came here and found the ice 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 granite bedrock as we traveled northward. This bay has provided scientists with a spectacular laboratory in which to study the process of succession of both plant life and animal life in Southeast Alaska.
The National Geographic Sea Lion entered Glacier Bay early in the morning, before breakfast, and picked up Ranger Sarah Betcher at Bartlett Cove. She accompanied us during the day and explained the history of the park, helped us spot some of the amazing wildlife, and answered all the questions we could come up with.
Our first point of interest was the South Marble Islands, an important breeding site where we observed many of the park’s sea bird species, including tufted puffins, black-legged kittiwakes, glaucous-winged gulls, black oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots, common murres, and Brandt’s cormorants. In addition, we could see, hear, and smell several small colonies of huge northern (Steller’s) sea lions. Apparently, the sea lions no longer breed here and now only use the site as a haul out.
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, glacial scars, plant succession, and more. It was incredible, especially to those of us particularly interested in geology.
Along the way, we entered Tidal Inlet where we could see the recent scar on the mountainside caused by a massive landslide. The surrounding forest here is mostly pioneering cottonwood trees, interspersed with Sitka spruce. A few miles northward we cruised past Gloomy Knob and got great views of several mountain goats, including a nanny with her kid. Our route then took us past the confluence of Rendu and Queen inlets to a coastal area where we came in close to shore to watch a mother brown bear with her two well-grown cubs feeding in the exposed tidal zone, turning over stones, munching barnacles, and probably crunching a few mussels. A large male bear appeared on the scene and when the mother bear detected him, she gathered her cubs and they all ran off into the brush above the beach.
We eventually reached the northern-most region of the bay, in the Tarr Inlet, and found ourselves just a couple miles or so from the Canadian border. Our vessel hung out here for a while to allow us to enjoy the perfect weather and observe both the debris-covered, static Grand Pacific Glacier and the more pristine, very active Marjorie Glacier. There was lots of ice floating in front of the Marjorie Glacier and just as we settled in, a big calving event took place.
As we were leaving the glacier region, two brown bears were sighted near the shoreline and we got excellent views of what we believed was a sibling pair of three-year olds going about their business. 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. And, we made a short stop to look at a humpback whale carcass that washed ashore a month or so ago. It has proven to be a real windfall for the local carnivores and scavengers, because bears, wolves, eagles, ravens, etc., have been feasting on it almost continuously. There were perhaps a dozen satiated bald eagles sitting at or near the carcass when we visited it, but unfortunately no mammalian scavengers were seen.
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 forest and stroll along the shoreline. Bartlett Cove was freed of its ice cover only a couple centuries ago, so we could appreciate how the impressive plant life and isostatic rebound has reclaimed the land. Some of us visited the nearby Glacier Bay Lodge and enjoyed the excellent museum displays on the second floor.
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