Alaska Cruise Report: Glacier Bay National Park

From the National Geographic Sea Lion in Alaska June 10, 2010

During the last 12,000 years when the Wisconsin Ice Age ended and the sprawling ice sheets, that covered much of North America as far south as the upper Midwest of the United States, shrank back to vestiges of their former frozen glory, the Earth has been relatively warm and climatologically stable. The Little Ice Age (a geologically recent glacial advance), which reached its maximum extent in the mid-1700s, was the last application of Mother Nature’s mighty icy chisel to these climes. Her masterwork in SE Alaska was Glacier Bay National Park.

Before virtually any of us had arisen from our slumber, the National Geographic Sea Lion had pulled alongside in Bartlett Cove at the Park’s entrance, embarked a seasoned and knowledgeable ranger for the day, and pulled off into Sitakaday Narrows, the throat-like corridor that leads into the belly of Glacier Bay. The sky was overcast, but the gray ceiling was relatively high, revealing calm waters, forest-covered hills, and the lower flanks of the Park’s ice-covered ramparts rising to the north. The air was still and cool. Visibility was good. Humpback whales, by now a familiar denizen of these parts, cruised slowly through the liquid gray. Here and there, harbor porpoises broke the surface in fleetingly quick, shallow arches. Seabirds and waterfowl flew arrow-straight lines near eye level. And occasionally an ever-weary and eyeful sea otter gazed at our vessel in passing, its nervous stare never straying from our ship until a safe distance passed.

In quick time, before breakfast was announced, the call came across the ship’s PA, “Ladies and gentlemen we have two bears off to starboard. Please be as quiet as possible during our approach.” Soon we were in the grip of our first solid bear sightings of the voyage. Two black bears, perhaps a hundred meters apart, perused the high tide rack searching for food, raking their paws across the thick tread of seaweed and scum left to desiccate on the cobbled shore. Any interest in our presence appeared nominal, as neither lifted its head in our direction or gave us even the slightest attention; they were in the throes of fulfilling one of the basest of urges.

All of us consumed breakfast in short fashion, as soon we were abreast of South Marble Island. This rocky islet, comprised of steep, hard metamorphic stone, is seasonal home to Northern (Steller’s) sea lions and a number of nesting sea bird species. Blacklegged kittiwakes squawked loudly en masse from their precariously perched nests or as they whirled in profusion overhead. Tufted puffins flew hard wing-beating paths around our ship or alighted on the water. Common murres and pelagic cormorants clung to the cliffs, while from the island’s greatest heights, glaucous-winged gulls surveyed all below, wary of the circling crows and ravens that threatened all eggs of those who let their guard down.

The afternoon passed leisurely. The skies partially cleared. Winds and sea state remained calm. Visibility was excellent. The ice-covered heights of the Fairweather range to the west revealed themselves in translucent glory through thinning clouds. At the bay’s terminus, we observed Marjorie Glacier, hoping for a precarious piece of its icy face to crash into the sea with thunderous report. Glacier watching is akin to watching grass grow or paint dry. The rewards for our patience on this day were a few small seracs plummeting downward. Thus, some growlers were born.

As we steamed southward, thick clouds and moisture moved in and enveloped the bay’s southern reaches. We headed towards the teeth of a quickening gloom. Before reaching the inclement wall, we steered to starboard towards Lamplugh Glacier at the mouth of Johns Hopkins Inlet. Our ship had hardly aligned with the glacier face when we spotted a large brown bear on the inlet’s north side. The glacier would have to wait.

The brown beast was an impressively large and strikingly colored male. He walked with a measured stride down the beach, reached its boulder-plugged end, scratched his back upon the great rocks, and then placed his front paws upon the edge of the soaring cliff face. What would he do next? Where would he go from here? We stood awed for the next twenty minutes as the powerful bear – deftly, purposefully – climbed the cliff, a feat that would have been impressive even if he were a mountain goat. At intervals, he would pause and gauge his next move. Every step and shift of bulk carried with it the anxiety of viewing a high-wire act. Would he slip or even fall? Would he turn back? He continued ever farther up slope, testing the scree with his paws before committing to a move. It looked impossible, but for the fact that it was occurring before our eyes. Every now and then, he would stop to graze on some foliage. This bear was experienced. Using the purchase of small fissures, cracks, and hand-sized ledges, he ascended halfway up the steep face as we watched. His attention never wavered. He paid us no mind. We left him, bold and golden, confidently clinging to the angled wall.

Glacier Bay National Park is one of the crown jewels in the United States National Park System. Visitors, mostly carried through its rich scenery by ships the size of towns, are transported to its trenchant corners in cocooned comfort. The park is young. Geologically, it is an infant, its great central glacier having retreated in the time since we have been a republic. This realm is one of rapid change and dynamic forces, and the story of this park is probably best viewed and understood through the lens of history.

Tlingit Indians tell the tale of their ancestors having left this region hundreds of years ago after the great glacier surged forward at the speed of ‘a running dog.’ It was punishment exacted after one of their own broke a sacred taboo. Displacement of their homes and change to their way of life was almost immediate. Their lifestyle was dramatically altered in a flash. Today, most of the park’s glaciers are in hasty retreat, perhaps a consequence of anthropogenic activities. The tale is salient – we ignore such signs at our peril, for change is coming. It has happened before, written in ancient history augmented and supported by modern science. The Tlingits of yore were mobile and lived simply. Modern society is not and does not. How will we adjust? Can we scale the incline before us, like the bear, moving with a grace and pace that belies our bulk? Can we adjust quickly along the way? We shall see. If the angels of our better nature can collectively rise to the challenge – we can be the bear.


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