4:29 AM GMT-5
Location: Juneau, Alaska
Coordinates: 58° 18.073’ N 134° 25.676’ W
"The Master Builder chose for a tool, not the thunder and lightning to rend and split asunder, not the stormy torrent nor the eroding rain, but the tender snowflake, noiselessly falling through unnumbered generations."
I have been siting at my computer now for hours trying to begin this blog entry, but I am truly at a loss for words to describe Three@Sea’s first journey into Glacier Bay National Park. There is no one superlative that captures the experience. No catchy phrase, or playful alliteration. Not even a litany of adjectives can do justice to the enormity of beauty and power that lives in this land. In 5 years 11 months of cruising, having traveled almost 30,000 nm, this is the most heart-stoppingly beautiful place we’ve visited. Spectacular!
We arrived at Park Headquarters in rain and light fog, filled with anticipation. We were joined by dear friends from Boulder, who mentioned over dinner last November that seeing Glacier Bay was on their “bucket list”. With Ayla away at camp, and their kids busy for the summer, this seemed like a perfect opportunity for their first voyage aboard Three@Sea. So the four of us left Juneau the evening of July 2nd, anchored for two nights along the way, arriving at 7:30am, July 4th (the day our permit began). The welcoming committee were several humpback whales, scores of sea otters, and squadrons of sea birds.
Glacier Bay National Park (GBNP) allows only 25 private vessels in the park each day, and entry requires a permit between June 1st and August 31st. Permits can be difficult to procure, and must be arranged 60 days in advance. Fortunately luck was on our side—of course, David faxing the request at 12:01am may have helped too! :) A mandatory boater orientation is required for all first-time boat visitors regarding safety (for both wildlife and humans), weather information, area closures (due to nesting, or landslides) etc. The park staff are incredibly friendly, knowledgable, and extremely welcoming of visitors. While the stats say that 500,000 people visit the park each year, the vast majority of those visitors are on cruise ships (2 per day are allowed in the park). Only about 8,500 people actually visit the park HQ and nearby lodge, with only 850 of those visitors actually going up bay on their own, like we were doing. So exciting!
We spent about 8 hours meandering up bay in light rain, and while we couldn’t see many mountains or any glaciers, we thoroughly enjoyed the wildlife along the way. We all had perma-grins as we watched the whales feed, otters drift by, and sea lions play. Giddiness was certainly in the air. We anchored that evening in Blue Mouse Cove, sharing the large open cove with only four other boats. There are not a lot of anchoring spots in Glacier Bay, as the waters are usually very deep right up to shore, and where there is shoreline, you need to be careful because of the ~20-foot tidal range. Once you find a location to anchor, the anchoring can be a bit of a challenge, as the bottom tends to be plates of rock, with thin mud or gravel on top. Patience and a gentle touch are required to get the anchor set. Thankfully, David has both.
Rain is the norm for Southeast Alaska, but the weather forecast predicted two partly sunny days while we were in the park, so fingers were crossed the next morning as we pulled up the anchor to head toward John Hopkins Glacier. The cloud cover was low and heavy, the temperature chilly, but at least it wasn’t raining. A couple of hours into our cruise we saw our first iceberg. Okay, “iceberg” may be generous, but it was the first chunk of ice we’d ever seen in the water. We were all very excited, and I snapped multiple pictures of our first “bergie bit”, as they are affectionately called. As you might expect, it was not our last, and we marveled as they floated by—each its own piece of art, sculpted by nature. We were like kids on a summer day identifying shapes in the clouds, but with icebergs instead. What fun!
The low cloud cover gradually began lifting, and we started to see our first glaciers. WOW! Really, WOW! I had no idea of all their shapes and sizes: hanging glaciers, valley glaciers, piedmont glaciers, tidewater glaciers, etc. Okay, here is a quick Glaciers 101: Glaciers, quite literally, are rivers of ice. Snow falls at the top of the mountain (in this case the Fairweather Range) and lands in a small depression of the land. Snowflakes pile up over the years, and compress under their own weight into ice. As the accumulation continues, the amount of ice and snow continues to build, and gravity takes hold, slowly moving the ice downhill. Once that ice is on the move, it’s called a glacier.
As the ice moves downhill, following the path of least resistance, it picks up rocks and gravel, which grind away at the underlying rock, thus carving the glacial valleys we are seeing today. Once the ice reaches a lower, warmer elevation, it begins to melt and ceases further progress. If there is no significant change in climate, the glacier is constantly renewing itself, like a one-way conveyor belt moving the ice down the mountain. Glaciologists estimate that it takes about 200 years for a snowflake at the top the mountain to make it down to were we were watching it calve off the glacier into water (obviously, this can vary greatly based on size of glacier, climate considerations etc.). The words to describe the process are simple, but it is witnessing the event that is truly breathtaking. The intense beauty in the color and shapes of the ice; The incredible power and persistent scouring force; The thunderous sound of ice calving into the water; The pure rawness of the process. Humbling.
Visiting Glacier Bay is also a journey through time. You enter the park in the modern era with an old growth forest surrounding the park entrance, and travel back in time to the ice-age with its barren landscapes. The voyage is a mere 65 miles, but the evolution of plant life is nothing short of astonishing. Scientist began studying “plant succession” in this pristine wilderness in the early 20th century, with life lifting its arms out of rocky crags just a few feet from the glaciers, and progressing through the park as shrubs, adding the sporadic trees and finishing with a full forest in just a one-day journey for observers. Mind-blowing.
I’ve managed to explain what we saw, and tried to explain how it happens, but I have not even begun to express how it stirs the soul. It’s not just the vastness nor the beauty; the wildness nor the power. No, it is more alive and complete than those words. It’s a bit like trying to describe a person as combination of limbs, functioning organs, and hair color—obviously we are way more. So is Glacier Bay. This place has a soul, it has an icy breath, and sings its beauty in the sounds of glaciers on the move and in the voices of its wildlife. The Tlingit people are native to this land. They know Glacier Bay to be a spiritual place. I now know it too.