TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > On the Rocks
Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, AK 09/03/06 (Day 131)
On the Rocks
Work with us here, because the best way we can think of to describe Glacier Bay, if you’ve never seen it for yourself, is to ask you to imagine the world’s biggest Great Outdoors cocktail—take one enormous serving of crystal clear water (with a pinch of salt), toss in a very, very large handful of very, very large ice cubes, stir in as many humpback whales, sea otters, steller sea lions and tufted puffins you can find, garnish with a few grizzlies and wolves then shake gently and serve chilled. Very chilled.
The Glacier Bay Lodge runs the only organized group boat trip permitted inside Glacier Bay (you can charter your own boat if you’re made of money). The tour is a 150 mile round trip journey that takes about eight hours once you factor in the dozens of stops the boat makes so that passengers can get their fill of the abundant wildlife.
Still practically within sight of the dock, we come across South Marble Island which is covered in steller sea lions who have failed to find a mate this year. The adolescent males seem to be amusing themselves by tormenting a nearby humpback whale. They do this frequently says the Park Ranger who’s on the boat to make us all smarter. Seems like a dangerous game to us but it’s been a while since we’ve been a sexually frustrated teenage boy. Off the back of the boat harbor porpoises zip and crest but never linger long enough for us to get a good look at them, the show-offs.
From that point on our binoculars and camera are pretty much glues to our faces (if you forget your binoculars, don’t worry—they have really good Bushnell loaners on the boat). As we duck into a small bay, a dark grey wolf appears on the rocky beach. Up there on a rocky outcropping, a group of mountain goats grazes in impossibly steep circumstances.
Soon we reach our first star glacier, the Lamplugh Glacier which is so bright blue in places that it looks like it’s filled with Slurpie. Next up is the Johns Hopkins Glacier which is one mile wide and more than 10 miles long—and growing around 15’ a day, unlike most glaciers which are receding at an alarming rate. It’s so big that it practically gobbles up the Holland America cruise ship that’s parked at its face—for the first time we’re happy to see a cruise ship in Alaska because the thing really puts the size of the glacier in perspective.
Our much, much smaller boat gently and respectfully maneuvers around bobbing bits of ice in the bay in front of the Johns Hopkins because what look like a harmless chunks on the surface often harbor a mass below that has Titanic potential. We can’t get safely any closer than a mile or two from the glacier, but that’s close enough to feel the rush when a piece of the Johns Hopkins calves off with a crackle, whoosh and splash. The ripples work their way out the bay, making the dastardly ice chunks bob even faster.
The day started off cloudy and cold but by the time we reach the Marquee Glacier and the Grand Pacific Glacier in the Tar Inlet, the sun is showing its face and we are shedding layers and breaking out the sunglasses—you can imagine the glare even a bit of sunshine generates when you’re surrounded by nothing but water and ice.
Enjoying the sun, just like us, is a bald eagle perched on the tip of an ice shard on the face of the Marquis, absolutely dwarfed by the massive size of the ice. This is our turn around point, but not the end of our sightings as animals continue to pop up all along the journey back to Glacier Bay Lodge, including a humpback which surfaces remarkably close to our boat and proceeds to play, roll until it has shown us every inch of itself.We divert into the Geike Inlet where we stop to watch a grizzly with a cub. Two more eagles and another grey wolf sighting round out the day. But mother nature isn’t done with us yet. Over dinner back at the lodge, she puts on a 25 minute sunset that’s so brilliant and so sustained that even the Alaskan staff who’ve been there looking at the sky all season stop what they’re doing to appreciate it. The reds, pinks and purples are amplified into a kind of cone when they hit a column of snow blowing off a distant peak