We got a lazy start on Saturday. Our plan was to depart while the tide was rising. Higher water would mean a shorter portage from Scidmore Bay out to the main channel. I also wanted to start up the main channel while the tide was still rising. When the tide is rising, water is rushing into Glacier Bay. That creates a current that makes paddling up the bay faster and easier. For paddling down the bay, it is better to catch the outgoing tide.
This plan meant leaving around mid-day. We slept in a bit before emerging to another foggy morning. At least that is how it started. I was just getting breakfast together when the fog began to break up. Patches of blue sky began to appear overhead. Suddenly, the rugged peaks surrounding the Scidmore Glacier were revealed. We’d been in Scidmore Bay since the previous afternoon, but this was like opening a door into a whole new world. Actually seeing the spectacular scenery surrounding us was quite the revelation. I’m glad it happened this way, because I appreciated it more than if it had been crystal clear when we’d first gotten off the boat.
We had breakfast on the beach while the sun dried our tent, tarp, and rain gear. Afterwards I took a short hike up the Scidmore River. I walked through a vast meadow full of wildflowers while avoiding the thick tangles of alder that have overtaken most of the valley. The Scidmore Glacier tumbled down the rocky peak ahead of me, while the braided river rushed past. Originally I’d planned to hike up to the base of the glacier, but I found myself content with the view that I had. Instead I stopped to filter water and let myself soak it all in.
The mosquitoes were pretty bad near the river, so I slathered on some bug repellant. That was one of the few times during the entire trip that I needed it. That is one benefit of rainy weather – it really discourages the mosquitoes from feeding.
I returned to camp and we packed up. We battled high winds and rough waves on the short paddle to the head of the bay. At that point we beached the kayak and prepared to portage. We unloaded our gear and carried the kayak about half way down the channel. We carried it for about 30 seconds at a time, resting frequently. Although there are beaten paths in the grass on either side of the channel, we mostly walked in the mud. We did this because there were several short stretches where we were able to float the kayak. That was much better than carrying it!
The portage was less than a ˝ mile, but it felt a lot longer! We were maybe halfway when started going back for our gear. That took several trips, as we had four bear canisters (in a duffel bag), paddles, rain gear, spray skirts, the tent, and 4 or 5 dry bags. We eventually carried all of our gear to the far end of the portage before returning for the kayak. We were nearly finished when we met two park rangers coming the other way. They were extremely friendly, and they even offered to give us a hand with the boat. We took them up on their offer, as carrying the kayak was the most difficult part of the whole trip.
We thanked them before paddling out into the main channel. It was about 3pm when we started up the main channel. We were moving at a fast clip thanks to the rising tide and a tailwind. We stopped after a few miles at a beach to stretch and snack. We had a grand view from here, beyond Russell Island and up the Tarr Inlet to the Grand Pacific Glacier in the distance. The mighty Topeka Glacier tumbled down the jagged peaks to the northwest. Rugged mountains rose all around us, though the summits were still partially obscured by clouds. This was easily the best weather we’d had so far, but the mountains were still somewhat hidden from view.
We resumed our journey, and our pace slowed once the tide peaked. We entered the channel leading to the Reid Glacier and paddled towards the wall of ice. We stopped at one point so I could scout for a campsite, but I didn’t find anything promising. We continued towards the glacier and found a great spot on a sandy peninsula facing the ice. I declared it a five star site, and we began to unpack. Later I had to downgrade it to four stars, only because we found even better campsites later in the trip. We had it all to ourselves, with the exception of three small boats that had dropped anchor in the bay in front of the glacier. Aside from the rangers, we hadn’t seen any other actual people through the first two days of our trip.
Aside from the solitude and the spectacular view, the campsite had some other redeeming qualities. There was easy access to fresh water, and I passed through three separate Ptarmigan nests while explore the surrounding area. I also inadvertently wandered through an Arctic Tern nest. While the Ptarmigans took off running at my approach, the terns were more aggressive. They dived at me repeatedly, screeching the entire time. I beat a hasty retreat from that end of the peninsula.
I contemplated doing a hike that is described in my guidebook. The route (no trail) climbs steeply up the west side of the Reid Inlet to an overlook of the glacier. However, it looked like a long, challenging bushwhack, and it was getting late in the evening. I decided to pass, but thought I might have a chance to do it later in the trip.
We spent the rest of the evening relaxing on the beach, admiring the wall of ice directly across from us. We went to bed around dusk, which was after 11pm.
We got an earlier start on day 3. Our goal was to paddle all the way to the end of the John Hopkins Inlet. I’d heard that there was a spectacular campsite on a black sand beach a ˝ mile from the massive John Hopkins Glacier. It would be a long day though, so we needed an earlier start. That meant departing well before we had a favorable tide, but at least we would benefit from it later in the day.
The weather on day 2 had been encouraging, with partial clearing and some actual sunshine. Unfortunately, conditions returned to “normal” on the third day. We didn’t have any rain, but the sky was overcast. There were multiple layers of clouds adorning the surrounding mountains, which gave the bay an ominous beauty.
We resumed our journey up the bay. We stayed close to shore, paddling along the base of sheer cliffs. We stayed close to shore for a couple of reasons. First, the main channel does get 2 or 3 large cruise ships each day. We wanted to avoid them as much as possible, both for safety and aesthetics. Also, staying close to shore improved our chances of seeing wildlife.
Before long we passed Ptarmigan Creek, which features a long sandy beach. We continued up the bay, and before long the Lamplaugh Glacier came into view. We passed fairly close to the ice, but we didn’t linger long. An icy wind was sweeping down off the glacier, which discouraged loitering. Before we left I noted that the ridge on the east side of the glacier looked like a promising hike. If we could climb far enough up the ridge we could get a view of the upper portions of the Reid and Lamplaugh Glaciers, as well as the icefield that feeds them. That was another possibility for the return journey.
A bit farther on we found a small cove where we stopped for lunch. Disaster nearly struck here. We were unloading the boat as the tide was beginning to come in. I put my camera (which was not in a dry bag) on a rock and returned to the kayak to help unload it. I was hauling gear up above the water line when the wake from a distant passing boat reached us. A sudden wave crashed onto the rocky shore, and it would’ve swamped my camera if Christy hadn’t grabbed it. Lesson learned – the camera stays in a dry bag, or immediately goes above the high tide line!
The wake sent numerous large waves at us for a couple of minutes. We had to hold the kayak in place to keep it from being bashed against the rocks or being sucked out to sea. This was a problem we ran into every time we stopped for a break. We either needed to carry the kayak above the high tide line, which was tedious, or keep a close eye out for incoming waves.
We resumed our journey after lunch. The clouds had lifted somewhat, giving us better views of the rugged peaks ahead. The Tacoma Glacier tumbled down them, which was both scenic and encouraging. The Tacoma Glacier is near the mouth of the John Hopkins Inlet. From the entrance, we’d have another 6 or 7 miles to go.
We passed around the dramatic cliffs of Jaw Point and into the inlet. We passed a couple of potential campsites here, but pressed on. From there, it was the black sand beach or nothing. The John Hopkins Inlet is a sheer-sided fjord, and we didn’t see any plausible places to camp once we entered it.
We encountered our first icebergs along here. Most of the chunks of ice were small, but there were lots of them. There were some larger ones, but we gave them a wide berth. Christy was even nervous about the smaller pieces, but they were unavoidable. Some parts of the channel were choked with ice from one side to the other. We zig zagged around to avoid the ice as much as possible, but at times we had to push our way through. This meant using our paddles and the boat itself to push the ice out of our way. Christy relaxed a little once she realized that bumping into the smaller pieces wouldn’t cause us to sink.
Once we relaxed we really started to enjoy seeing the icebergs float past. We even invented a game of sorts. We took turns pointing out what various icebergs looked like. We saw ducks and bunnies, fish and birds, and dragons and gargoyles. The variety was endless.
We made it through the initial swarm of icebergs and into open water. We encountered two or three additional stretches that were difficult to navigate, but we always managed to find a way through. As we neared the monstrous glacier towering over the head of the inlet I began to get nervous. It was late in the afternoon, and we were cold and tired. What if the black sand beach didn’t exist? It had been a couple of hours since we’d last seen a plausible campsite. I wasn’t sure if we’d have the time or energy to go all the way back to the campsites near the mouth of the inlet. I was not at all interested in another 7 miles of paddling through icebergs, in the dark.
We were getting awfully close to the massive wall of ice ahead of us, and still there was no sign of a beach. Then we passed around a rocky headland and saw it sprawling ahead of us. I let out a whoop of joy and relief. Home sweet home!
The campsite was even better than I’d fantasized. The black sand beach stretched for at least a quarter mile. Most of it was covered in icebergs, though the upper end was free of ice. From the beach, we had a spectacular view of the John Hopkins Glacier ahead of us, and the Gilman and Hoonah Glaciers across the inlet. The view back down the fjord was nearly as exciting, as towering peaks loomed out of the fog. Behind us, a monstrous waterfall tumbled down through a cliff before racing across the beach and into the bay. While we were there, the John Hopkins Glacier calved every minute or so. Each calving was accompanied by a roar that sounded like rolling thunder. I decided to name the waterfall “Thunder Falls” in honor of the glacier.
The wildlife was fantastic here, too. The inlet was full of seals, and the entire area was covered with birds. Most of the birds were Artic Terns, which created a symphony of squawking as the soared over our heads. There were several nests nearby, and any time one of us neared one we were dive-bombed repeatedly. We quickly learned to stay clear of their nests.
Initially I pitched the tent on the beach. Everything above the sand was a chaotic jumble of boulders. We were at sea level, but we were also above treeline. This area was covered in ice not long ago, and plants have not yet established themselves here.
After setting up the tent I became concerned about its placement. It was only a couple of vertical feet above the most recent high tide line. Although the high tides were gradually declining, all it would take was one rogue wave from a large glacier calving to swamp our tent. Being doused in 40 degree seawater in the middle of the night could easily be life-threatening. It wasn’t worth the risk.
I did some scouting, and eventually found a great tent site on the rocky headland that we had passed on our way in. It was a rocky, 10 minute hike from the beach, but the spot was compelling. The view from there was even better than the beach, due to being higher up. I moved the tent there before returning to the beach to relax with Christy.
That evening we hiked through the icebergs on the beach before reaching the raging torrent coming from Thunder Falls. I wanted to continue, but crossing the creek would’ve been somewhere between dangerous and impossible. Instead, we followed the creek to get a closer view of Thunder Falls.
Later I sprawled on the beach with the jug of whiskey and listened to the glacier crack and rumble. Occasionally a large chunk of ice would tumble off the face of the glacier and splash into the bay. Other times, the calvings would occur underwater. The John Hopkins Glacier is 12 miles long and the face is 450’ high, but 200’ of that is below water level.
Christy and I have been to a lot of amazing places, but none of them were more spectacular than this one. It felt like we had journeyed to the end of the Earth, and we had it all to ourselves.
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