Alaska on the Rocks

By land or by sea, Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve is something to behold.


By Kim Heacox


So you’re thinking about Alaska, the America that used to be. You’ve read Jack London and John McPhee. Your last walk in the woods was nice, but the trail was too wide and too well-manicured. You passed four signs, 20 mountain bikers, and 12 hikers walking briskly with their iPods and designer dogs. You found yourself wishing for a bear just then. No small black bear. You wanted a grizzly, or better yet, a big coastal brownie, Ursus arctos. A bear raised on coho salmon.

Back home, you’re thinking again. You’re restless. You bust out a map and find the feisty subcontinent of your imagination. You trace the coastline 900 miles north from Seattle to a place called Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve. At 3.3 million acres, it’s roughly one and-a-half times the size of Yellowstone. Big enough to get lost and found and lost again. The park has only two designated hiking trails—short ones, near park headquarters—but if you give yourself plenty of time, you’ll find that the best trails are on the sea—trails with liquid, lyrical names like Muir Inlet, Bartlett Cove, Sitakaday Narrows, Scidmore Bay, and Beardslee Entrance. Trails best explored by boat, where you can drop anchor, enjoy the deep quiet, and safely watch a bear as it walks along the shore.

John Muir first came here in 1879 and explored the bay by canoe. The “Bay of Great Glaciers,” he called it. It changed his life. Now roughly 85 percent of the people who visit Glacier Bay come by cruise ship, and they, too, have profound experiences. Others come by small expedition tour boat (carrying 60–100 passengers). Either way, it’s by sea that you’ll discover Glacier Bay, wrapped in silence and ice.

Northbound

Alaska’s Inside Passage is now the second most popular cruising destination in the world, after the Caribbean. On any given summer day, cruise ships collectively constitute Alaska’s third largest city for sheer numbers of people and energy consumed. A highlight in the Inside Passage itinerary is Glacier Bay. Yet only two ships per day are allowed into the bay. If you go on a large ship, you’ll experience wonderful scenery. You’ll be treated with customary courtesy and respect. You’ll find shipboard activities for everyone—dance lessons for the grandparents and art projects for the children. You’ll have one precious day in Glacier Bay, perhaps an hour at Margerie Glacier or Johns Hopkins Glacier.

You might wish instead to go by a small expedition tour boat that runs four- to seven-day trips to Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka. After a full day in Glacier Bay, these boats often dock in Bartlett Cove near park headquarters and give passengers a chance to explore the forest and rocky shore (see “Travel Essentials”).

Many people on cruise ships and expedition tour boats are deeply touched by the majesty of Glacier Bay. It’s a dream come true, a great experience that proves the adage that in stunning scenery you see more than you can absorb. Get in a kayak and go 40 National Parks camping, however, and you’ll absorb more than you can see. You’ll sleep on the ground and awaken to the songs of small birds, the music of water, the spouts of grand humpback whales. All you have to do is get yourself to Glacier Bay and rent a kayak (see “Travel Essentials”).

Every day of summer, Alaska Airlines flies north from Seattle to Juneau, a two-hour flight, then makes the short 15-minute hop to the small town of Gustavus. You can also fly from Juneau to Gustavus in a single-engine Piper or Cessna via a number of small Juneau-based air taxis. From the Gustavus airport it’s a ten-mile drive to Bartlett Cove, at the southern end of Glacier Bay. Here you’ll find Glacier Bay Lodge, a nice Park Service campground, a museum and bookstore (upstairs in the lodge), kayak rentals, a visitor information station, and park headquarters.

Bartlett Cove

The one-mile Forest Loop Trail and two-mile Bartlett River Trail offer charming introductions to the lush rainforest of Sitka spruce and western hemlock, where mosses, lichens, and ferns abound and where green is more than a color—it’s a texture.

Boats come and go all the time here. One of them, the “day boat,” departs Bartlett Cove every morning to make the 70-mile run up the bay to the tidewater glaciers. The day boat also drops off backcountry campers and kayakers at designated sites and makes arrangements to pick them up several days later. Some kayakers prefer to paddle their way back to Bartlett Cove. Bring a sturdy pair of rubber boots and good rain gear. All backcountry users must attend an orientation at the visitor information station and obtain bear-resistant food containers.

Strong tides come and go twice a day in Glacier Bay, rising and falling 12 to 20 feet in six hours. The currents in some restricted passages—between islands or between an island and the mainland—can appear more like rivers. You’ll see this in “the cut” between the mainland and lagoon island, in Bartlett Cove, where low tide exposes a rich panoply of intertidal life. You can also look for great blue herons, belted kingfishers, river otters, harbor seals, bald eagles, black bears, and moose.

The West Arm

A cursory inspection will show you that Glacier Bay assumes the general shape of a “Y,” with Bartlett Cove at the southern base. Halfway up, about 35 miles north of Bartlett Cove, the bay bifurcates. Muir Inlet goes to the north and the West Arm runs to the northwest, ending at Tarr Inlet and Johns Hopkins Inlet, steep rock-ribbed fjords that reach deep into the Fairweather Range, some of the tallest coastal mountains in the world. These peaks catch storms off the Gulf of Alaska and fill their high pantries with enough snow to build glaciers so robust they travel all the way down to the sea. To best enjoy the icescape of the West Arm, visit Reid Inlet, Tarr Inlet, or the wildest inlet in the bay, Johns Hopkins Inlet.

Thanks to its diversity, the West Arm is the busiest part of Glacier Bay. Cruise ships make the trip to Tarr Inlet or Johns Hopkins Inlet every day. Expedition tour boats also visit the impressive glaciers here, as do private motorboats. (Three tour boats and 25 private vessels are permitted into the bay each day.) If you’re kayaking and you want some quiet, head for the designated wilderness waters of the Hugh Miller Inlet area. Another exquisite stretch of wilderness waters is in the Beardslee Islands, in the lower bay, easily reached from Bartlett Cove.

Muir Inlet

Two hundred years ago Glacier Bay was all glacier and no bay. A single massive sheet of ice—roughly 100 miles long, 20 miles wide, and thousands of feet thick—filled the entire region. It has since retreated to unveil a bay of new beginnings, changing from bare rocks to bears; a looking glass onto the resilience of nature and all that’s possible. From its southern end at Muir Point to its northern extreme at Muir Glacier, a distance of about 30 miles, Muir Inlet is a living laboratory of glacial recession and primary plant succession where communities of plants colonize the new earth and build habitat for moose, bears, wolves, and many smaller critters. This is the quiet side of Glacier Bay. Few cruise ships or expedition tour boats come here. Muir Glacier itself is no longer tidewater, but McBride Glacier is. Give yourself time at the McBride spit where icebergs become stranded on the ebbing tide. It makes for good contemplation and, for photographers, good compositions.

Side Trip: Point Adolphus and Gustavus

I immediately south of the entrance to Glacier Bay, across Icy Strait from the little town of Gustavus, is the northernmost part of Chichagof Island—Point Adolphus—one of the most famous whale-watching sites in Southeast Alaska. Every day in summer, humpback whales cruise back and forth, feeding on large schools of fish, mostly herring. Most of the expedition tour boats spend time here. You can also arrange to visit Point Adolphus by boat from Gustavus as a day trip, or to be dropped off for a camping or kayaking trip. Sleep on shore and you’ll hear the whales all night long, spouting, splashing, tail-lobbing, and throwing themselves out of the water in full-body breaches, quite possibly even swimming into your dreams. And be sure to give yourself a night or two in Gustavus, where people sit on the wooden porch swing of the Beartrack Mercantile and eat ice cream or enjoy pizza from the Homeshore Café, fronted by the sculpture of Gus the Bear. It’s like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. You might also catch a music jam at the Bear’s Nest Café and cabin rentals, a B&B where guitarists play home-grown songs with some Beatles thrown in. In 2004 Gustavus (population 400, not counting the ravens, wolves, and moose) incorporated into a second-class city, the first community in Alaska to do so in 19 years. That same year the little town also cut a deal with The Nature Conservancy to preserve 90 percent
of its waterfront. No other coastal community in the United States has achieved this level of far-sighted open-lands preservation.

Travel Essentials

For more information, email glba_administration@nps.gov, or see the park’s website, www.nps.gov/glba. To find a lodge, inn, or B&B in Gustavus (there are many), contact the Gustavus Visitor Association at www.gustavusak.com, or write to the association at P.O. Box 167, Gustavus, AK 99826. Kayak rentals and guided day trips in Bartlett Cove can be arranged with Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks, www.glacierbayseakayaks.com. If you wish to go on a guided multi-day kayak trip, contact Spirit Walker Expeditions, www.seakayakalaska.com. Princess and Holland America run the most cruise ships into the bay and can be found through any Internet search engine or your local travel agent. As for small expedition tour boats, try Lindblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com) or Cruise West (www.alaskacruises.com). Lindblad excels at education and carries four staff naturalists on each of its boats.

A former ranger in Glacier Bay, Denali, and Katmai National Parks, Kim Heacox lives in Gustavus, Alaska. His recent memoir, The Only Kayak: A Journey into the Heart of Alaska, was a finalist in creative nonfiction for a PEN Center USA Literary Award.

This article appears in the Spring 2008 issue.

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