By Lee Foster
Bluish rivers of ice slowly push their way to the water’s edge. As you watch, amidst the silence, massive chunks of ice fall and crash into the water with a sudden thundering sound.
For these special sights, summer visitors come each year to Glacier Bay National Park. About 90 percent of the annual visitors to the park arrive by cruise ship. A popular cruise in these waters might be a trip out of Juneau or between Juneau and Vancouver, passing by Glacier Bay National Park and stopping at Sitka, the original Russian settlement. An Internet search can inform you about all the cruise ships plying Glacier Bay.
Within Glacier Bay National Park, located west of Juneau in southeast Alaska, you are likely to see eagles and bears along the water’s edge. Humpback whales, orcas or killer whales, minke whales, seals, and dolphins disport themselves in the chilly waters. Point Adolphus is the choice spot to see the once-endangered humpback whales feeding furiously on krill and bait fish, showing their massive flukes before diving. Often the humpbacks blow their spouts so noisily as to be clearly audible from the ship.
Ocean wildlife flourishes here because the conditions are favorable for their food supplies. The extreme coldness of the water coming off the glaciers supports abundant dissolved oxygen. Long summer daylight hours encourage rapid growth of plankton, krill, and other small plants and animals at the base of the food chain.
Glaciers in Retreat
The major geological phenomenon of interest here is the rapid retreat of glaciers. Currently, these glaciers are making the fastest glacial retreat in recorded history. Park Service maps record the advance or retreat of specific glaciers. Two hundred years ago the entire region was covered with glaciers. When Captain George Vancouver explored the region in 1794, his log book records that an impenetrable mass of ice impeded his progress at Glacier Bay. He measured the ice mass as 4,000 feet thick, 20 miles wide, and 100 miles long. By 1879, observer John Muir found that the ice had retreated 48 miles up the bay. The known forward face of the John Hopkins Glacier in 1907 was about 15 miles further into the sea than its present position.
Retreating glaciers interest modern scientists and concerned citizens, who want to define the interaction of glaciers with weather and global warming. The study is important because, around the world, glaciers and polar ice store more fresh water than all our lakes and rivers, groundwater, and the atmosphere combined. Glaciers form when snow fall exceeds snow melt. The intense blue of a glacier occurs because water crystals, formed under pressure, are aligned to reflect blue light. Glaciers in Glacier Bay take about 50 years to cycle from snow back to ocean water. The date of ice samples can be determined by testing pollen in the ice.
Glacier Bay is also a premier example of specialized forms of glaciers, including hanging glaciers and tidewater glaciers (glaciers that come to the water’s edge). The area is a perfect laboratory for the study of how plants successively colonize land newly opened up by retreating glaciers. Bartlett Cove at the entrance to Glacier Bay, for example, was solid glaciers 200 years ago, but is now a maturing spruce forest.
A Parade of Glaciers
Individual glaciers you pass are the major attractions. Near the glaciers, the water is grey because of the finely ground stone, called rock flour, that a glacier creates as its weight crushes rock at its base. Eventually this sediment settles out and the water becomes bluish. As the icebergs float away from the glacier, after breaking off, they are dangerous to navigation because their size is uncertain. Rock and sediment in the ice may weigh down all but the tip of the iceberg. However, in contrast to Atlantic glaciers, Pacific glaciers rarely last sufficiently long to endanger shipping.
Reid Glacier is the first major glacier that comes into view. Reid is one of the 12 rare tidewater glaciers in the park.
Lamplugh Glacier has a huge stream of melting glacial water pouring from its base.
Cruise ships take you north along the Johns Hopkins Inlet and the Tarr Inlet to see many more glaciers up close. The ship usually drifts in front of the Hopkins and Grand Pacific Glaciers for a close-up view. At Johns Hopkins Glacier, while the cruise ship pauses, you can hear crashing ice as the glacier slowly breaks up. The process is called “calving,” suggesting the glacier is giving birth to icebergs. The Tlingit Indians had an appropriate metaphor for the crashing sound of the iceberg breaking off. They called it “white thunder.” Thousands of seals crawl up on the ice in front of Johns Hopkins Glacier to give birth to their pups and keep clear of their major predator, orcas or killer whales. In the John Hopkins area substantial flows of glacial ice pass the ship. Onboard Park Rangers present a running commentary on glacial realities.
Further passage in the park is finally blocked by the Grand Pacific Glacier, which blankets the channel.
The park service allows only limited numbers of cruise ships, excursion boats, and private water craft per day to enter the park. Aside from cruise ships, there are limited other ways to get here, by sea or by air. The park is about 100 miles by boat from Juneau. Taking the more direct air route, a bush pilot can fly you there in about 30 minutes. During the peak season, bush pilots run a fairly regular schedule of flights from Juneau.
A Park Service concessionaire boat visits some glaciers, leaving from Glacier Bay Lodge, which is in the park. To reach the Lodge, at Bartlett Cove, you need to have a bush pilot fly you over or take a commuter boat from Juneau. Sightseeing air flights over the glaciers are also possible. Bush pilots operating out of Gustavus can also drop you in a remote area for a camping trip and pick you up at a specified future date. The concessionaire boat can also drop off campers.
The Park Service maintains the rustic lodge and a campground. Observe caution when encountering bears or when camping near glacial rivers or along the shoreline. The volume of water leaving a glacier can change from a trickle to a torrent in a few hours. Campers near the shoreline should make sure they are above the high tide mark.
John Muir, the gifted naturalist, was one of the earliest enthusiasts of Glacier Bay. In 1879 he traveled in a 25-foot canoe paddled by Tlingit Indians up Glacier Bay in the hazardous month of October. Muir hoped that experience with Glacier Bay would confirm his theories about the formation of glaciers, which had also scooped out his beloved Yosemite Valley.
Eventually Glacier Bay received some protected federal status, but only in 1980, under the Carter administration, did it become a full National Park and Preserve covering 3.3 million acres.
Glacier Bay: If You Go
For further information on Glacier Bay National Park, see the parks website at http://www.nps.gov/glba.
For tourism information on Alaska, contact the Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.travelalaska.com.