Alaska Cruise Report: Glacier Bay National Park

From the National Geographic Sea Lion in Alaska, June 29, 2010

Today was devoted to exploring one of the largest national parks in the United States…Glacier Bay National Park. This is a dynamic region, insofar as glaciation is concerned, because the presence or absence of glaciers has varied considerably over a relatively short period of time. It is hard to believe that until the late 17th century, there was no bay here at all, but rather a broad, fertile valley inhabited by Huna Tlingit (pronounced Kling-kit) Indians. They lived here for thousands of years, enjoying a life of plenty near a meltwater river that flowed from a huge glacier situated far up the valley. During the Little Ice Age of the 17th and 18th centuries, however, the glacier surged. It is now known as the Grand Pacific Glacier, and along with numerous tributary glaciers, it quickly pushed its way down the valley and covered the entire region with ice, thus forcing the Indians to evacuate their village. This spectacular glacial movement bulldozed a tremendous amount of sediments and rock material ahead of it and ground out the bay as we know it today. When Europeans first arrived at the scene about two centuries ago, the entire bay was filled with glacial ice and there was a huge ice face blocking the entrance. Near the end of the 18th century, the glacier began a fast retreat and the ice has retreated more than 60 miles into the bay since then, exposing the spectacular fjord system that we can now explore with our vessel. Even so, there are still about a dozen tidewater glaciers and more than 30 alpine glaciers to be found here. Glacier Bay National Park contains 3.3 million acres and together with Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (in Alaska) and Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park (in British Columbia) forms a 25-million acre World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve.

The National Geographic Sea Lion entered Glacier Bay from Icy Strait early this morning and made a quick stop at the park headquarters in Bartlett Cove to pick up Ranger Emily Mount. She accompanied us the entire day and helped interpret all the wondrous things we saw in the massive park. The weather today proved to be quite extraordinary with crystal clear conditions, allowing us to view the distant Fairweather Range, including Mount Fairweather itself rising to 15,329 feet above sea level. The blue sky and warm, sunny conditions made for a truly memorable experience here in Glacier Bay. We sailed northward directly to the South Marble Islands (Figure A), an important breeding site for seabirds where we observed Brandt’s cormorants, pigeon guillemots, tufted and horned puffins, common murres, black-legged kittiwakes, and glaucous-winged gulls both on land and on the surrounding water’s surface. There were also several small colonies of huge northern (Steller’s) sea lions hauled out on the low, bare rocks at both ends of the island. The sea lions no longer breed here and the animals we saw this morning were mostly bachelor males and non-breeding females, as well as a few young animals.

We enjoyed beautiful vistas and scenery all day long, and our next site of interest was North Sandy Cove, a quiet and protected place created by a couple islands located near the eastern coastline of the bay. We circled around one of the islands and marveled at the surrounding dense forest and meadow habitats, our course route this morning, then continued past the confluence with the Muir Inlet, also on the eastern side of the bay. Ironically, this fjord was blocked by a glacier when John Muir explored the bay by canoe in 1879.

As our vessel continued deeper into the bay, we observed many text book examples of glaciology, including glaciers, fjords, meltwater streams, moraines, outwash plains, U-shaped valleys, cirques, hanging valleys, glacial flour, glacial scars, plant succession, and more. We could see clear evidence of the aforementioned glacial retreat as we sailed northward by observing progressively younger forests and newly exposed ice-smoothed dolomite and granite bedrock. 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. Inside Tidal Inlet, we observed where the side of a mountain gave way and slumped into the inlet during the earthquake of 1899. This event must have created a gigantic tidal wave in the bay, but there was probably no one here at that time. Nearby is an exposed outcrop of dolomite known as Gloomy Knob, but there was nothing gloomy about it today. We even managed to sight a couple mountain goats high up on the slopes.

By mid-afternoon, we had reached the very end of Glacier Bay at the head of Tarr Inlet, just a couple miles or so from the Canadian border. We stopped the ship here for a while in order to hang out in front of the debris-covered, static Grand Pacific Glacier and the more pristine, very active Marjorie Glacier (Figure B). We really concentrated on the Marjorie Glacier and our patience was rewarded with a nice calving event. From here, we headed southward and made our way back to Bartlett Cove by sailing along the western shoreline, making a detour into the Johns Hopkins Inlet to view the Lamplugh and Johns Hopkins Glaciers. The Johns Hopkins Glacier is noteworthy not just for its beauty, but also for the fact that it is the only glacier in Glacier Bay that is advancing. In fact, it is one of the very few glaciers outside of Antarctica that is advancing at the moment.

Right after dinner, we berthed at the park headquarters in Bartlett Cove and said goodbye to Emily. Many of us took advantage of the late sunset and went ashore to walk on a beautiful trail through the forest and stroll along the shoreline. Since we know Bartlett Cove was freed of its ice cover only a couple centuries ago, it was interesting to observe 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. Amazingly, as the last of our guests and staff were returning to the ship, a large brown bear was sighted on the beach a short distance off the vessel’s stern. He appeared right near where many of us had walked by just minutes before. A small group of us watched as the bear turned over several rocks and nuzzled in the Fucus seaweed for a few minutes and then disappeared back into the high grass. It was a fitting end to a great day.

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