A much anticipated day was our visit to Glacier Bay National Park.
This area, at the northern end of Tongass National Forest on the Alaskan Panhandle is very special. As far back as February 25th, 1925, the uniqueness of this area was noted. It needed to preserved as true wilderness. In a far sighted act, the then US President, Calvin Coolidge, proclaimed it a ‘National Monument under the Antiquities Act’.
In total, the wilderness area of Glacier Bay National Park covers 10,784 km² (4,164 mi²). There’s also a large extension to the park that’s called a preserve, where hunting can be undertaken, but only under special licence. I’ve never been able to fathom the need for people to hunt and shoot wild animals for ‘trophies’ but that’s the way it is in these parts.
The entrance to Glacier Bay is close to the entrance of the Inside Passage. The big Cruise Ships come in from the Gulf of Alaska via Icy Strait, away from the rolling sea, as I remember it from my last visit here in 2001, and into much calmer waters. On this visit to Alaska, in 2015, I’d spent the night asleep on board our small ship ‘Sea Lion” in the calm waters of one of the nearby coves. In the morning, we only had to sail across the strait to the National Park headquarters to pick up our guide, Nicole. Every ship, large or small, must take on board a Park Ranger. Their task is to check that no rules are broken and also to act as the NP guide for the day.
Many of the glaciers in this famous Bay, owe their existence to the largest of all mountains in the area, Mt Fairweather. Storms blow in from the ocean and dump their icy waters as snow on and over the Mt Fairweather area. Over centuries, glaciers form from the compacted snow.
In the 1800’s, this area became a fishing place for the native Huna Tlingit. Their name for the highest mountain in the area was Tsalxhaan. When Captain James Cook saw it, on a fine day in 1778, he named it Mt Fairweather… not really an apt description as it’s not often seen for cloud and is not known for fair weather. Regardless of that, Cook’s naming has been kept.
The story of Glacier Bay in recorded history is one of fast, spectacular retreat. In Tlingit memory, a huge glacier protruded out into Icy Strait. The first European to mention this area was French explorer La Perouse in 1786. Then, when George Vancouver’s expedition came this way in 1794, they found Icy Strait choked with ice…. hence the name. The area we now know as Glacier Bay was in fact just one tidewater glacier. By 1879, just 85 years later, the famous naturalist John Muir found that the glacier had retreated up the bay by 77km (48mi). And by 1916, the ‘Grand Pacific Glacier’ had retreated 105km (65mi) from the mouth of the bay. This was the fastest recorded iceberg retreat and has been studied by scientists ever since.
The most dramatic example of glacier retreat in the last century was that of the glacier named after John Muir. The calving face of Muir Glacier was 3.2 km (2mi) wide and 81 m (265 ft) high. By the 1990’s, it was no longer calving into the bay. It had retreated back into the ice sheet in the mountains. One wonders what Muir would have made of that!
In the late 1800’s, John Muir found the Tlingit people living in their summer camps near the mouth of the bay. They came here to fish and hunt. These people travelled in their dug out canoes throughout these waters, fishing, hunting and visiting other clans for weddings and for ‘potlatch’ ceremonies in which gifts were exchanged to keep peace between the various clans. Maybe we could learn something from this ‘potlatch’ tradition today to help maintain peace instead of resorting to seemingly endless wars! A tradition of giving rather than taking!
This example of a Tlingit canoe was built, in the traditional way using an adze, by craftsmen in 1987. It’s made from a single spruce tree and is on show at the Ranger’s headquarters.
After picking up our Park guide Nicole and her understudy, Jenny, we sailed on into the bay in search of wildlife. This was the distinct advantage of being on such a small ship. The large cruise ships sail straight up the bay to see the glaciers and then straight back down again. We had the priviledge of taking our time, of exploring around small islands, of slowing right down when animals were sighted and of getting in close to bays and beaches and cliffs. But we stayed on board. There were no off ship excursions or activities. That was not permitted.
Small rocks we passed were often covered in Steller sea lions. They are named after Georg Wilhelm Steller who first described them as a distinct type of sea lion in 1741. They are the largest of the eared seals and like other sea lions, they are thigmotactic; they like to cuddle up close together!
Steller sea lions are, for some as yet unexplained reason, declining in numbers in Alaska. They are the object of much debate by Alaskan scientists, fishermen and politicians. The reason for the decline is likely to be a complex web of factors including less available fish due to over fishing. With less fatty fish like herring available, sea lions eat more of the leaner fish like pollock and flounder. This limits the amount of fat in the diet, a necessary requirement for survival in these cold waters. Other reasons put forward for this decline in numbers are: shooting by fishermen who see the sea lions as a threat to their own livelihoods, changes in climate, contaminants in waters and increased predation by orcas. The latter I find hard to believe. We did not see one Orca on the whole expedition.
The big bull Steller sea lions constantly defend their chosen territory. They are polygynous but, unlike the sea lion species we had seen in Galapagos, these Stella sea lions don’t have harems of females. Instead the bulls control a space where females can come and go but no other male is welcome. We watched this big fellow see off several intruders.
These cormorants seemed to be doing the impossible; standing on a steeply sloping rock face. But they do more than just stand on the slopes; they nest on narrow ledges and shallow depressions on the steepest slopes they can find on the cliffs of rocky islands like this one. The nests are made of anything they can find such as marine algae, grass, moss, sticks and flotsam and debris. They use their excrement to cement these bits and pieces together. All that work is not wasted as the nests are reused year after year. These birds are great divers and feed mostly on bottom feeding fish and invertebrates.
It was wonderful to see quite a lot of puffins in these waters near the small islands. But they are very small and so hard to photograph. And they are endlessly diving for small fish. Their large colourful bills are more colourful in the summer nesting season than in winter when the bill’s outer layers are shed. Their black and white plumage is referred to in their genus name Fratercula, which is derived from the Latin meaning ‘little brother’. It was thought that their plumage resembles monastic robes. Once again, perhaps some imagination is required!
In general, puffins nest underground but at rocky sites like these islands, they do nest on cliff faces. The female lays just one whitish egg and then both parents take turns in the important tasks of incubating the egg and going out to fish. The chick is hatched in July or early August, and then the parents take turns in caring for and feeding the chick. At about five days old, the chick has to fend for itself on that ledge whilst both parents go out to find food. As the colder weather comes in, the birds leave to spend the winter in the Ocean and never venturing back to the land until the next breeding season. So we were very lucky to see them at nesting time.
In several places we saw braided streams coming down through old glacial valleys. Here, the pioneer plants like Alder were in evidence, re-establishing land previously covered in ice.
Ice covered mountains came into sight the further north we sailed up the bay.
Only lichens and mosses could grow on these cliff faces.
The cry of “BEAR! BEAR!” soon had everyone rushing to the side of the ship. Because we were on such a small ship, the captain was able to edge closer to the shore and hold position while we watched the bear graze and wander through the grasses. It took absolutely no notice of us.
We sailed by several of these very picturesque old glacial valleys, testament to the time when this bay was covered in ice… and that just over two hundred years ago… not millennia!
Gravel brought down by the stream from this mountain had formed a beach.
And it was on that beach that we saw wolves (Canis lupus). This caused great excitement. Many of our crew had never seen them and the Captain said it was most unusual to find them in this area. They are usually much more secretive. But on this day, these two chose to wander along the beach and were in view for at least twenty minutes. We just slowly followed them along the beach… from the safety of the ship, of course.
These wolves had very dark pelts, much darker than those found in northern parts of Alaska where, I suppose, they need to be able to ‘melt into’ the colours of a very different landscape. But the pelt colour of Alaskan wolves ranges from black to nearly white, with every shade of grey and brown in between although grey or black wolves like these are the most common.
Wolves can be legally hunted and trapped in Alaska, outside of the area of the National Park. They are classified as both big game animals and as furbearers and are deemed to be not endangered in Alaska. We were told that between 1994 and 2005 more than 14,000 wolves were reported to have been killed or trapped by hunters… and probably as many as that were not reported. We were glad that these two had the protection of a National Park.
Mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus), as their name suggests, inhabit rugged habitats. They are the only North American representative of mountain ‘ungulates’ or rock goats. And they need to live in an environment like this where wolves can’t easily get to them. To survive here, their hooves are specially designed for climbing on steep, slippery slopes. Their feet have a hard keratinous sheath with an imbedded soft pad which enables them grip the maximum surface area on even the smallest rock or crevice. It was fascinating to watch these three gamble about on this cliff, grazing, but ever watchful.
They have another survival adaptation that allows them to live in the extreme conditions of South East Alaska; in winter they grow a long, shaggy coat. They would need it!
We left our search for wild life and sailed on towards the glaciers,
still quite a way to go to the head of the bay.
So time out for lunch.
After lunch the terrain around had changed somewhat.
Now we could see evidence of the ice shelf in the heights above a valley.
Stunning scenery all around us.
Finally, the glaciers were heralded by sightings of small ice flows in the water.
And the glaciers that ice came from is the subject of our next post.
Jennie and David
All photographs copyright © JT and DY of jtdytravels
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