PART II: GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK
The second part of our trip featured a week in Glacier Bay National Park. From the official park website:
“Covering 3.3 million acres of rugged mountains, dynamic glaciers, temperate rainforest, wild coastlines, and deep sheltered fjords, Glacier Bay National Park is a highlight of Alaska's Inside Passage and part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site-one of the world’s largest international protected areas.
From the bottom of the deepest glacial fjord to the summit of its highest peak, Glacier Bay encompasses some of our continent's most amazing scenery and wildness. It is a land reborn, a world returning to life, a living lesson in resilience. If ever we needed a place to intrigue and inspire us, this is it. Glacier Bay is a homeland, a living laboratory, a national park, a designated wilderness, a biosphere reserve, and a world heritage site. It's a marine park, where great adventure awaits by boating into inlets, coves and hideaway harbors. It's also a land park, with its snow-capped mountains, spectacular glaciers, and emerald–green forests. From the summit to sea, Glacier Bay's wildness is remote, dynamic and intact.
Sailing through Glacier Bay today, you travel along shorelines and among islands that were completely covered by ice just over 200 years ago. When Captain George Vancouver charted adjacent waters of Icy Strait in 1794, he and his crew described what we now call Glacier Bay as just a small five-mile indent in a gigantic glacier that stretched off to the horizon. That massive glacier was more than 4,000 feet thick in places, up to 20 miles wide, and extended more than 100 miles to the St. Elias mountain range. By 1879, however, naturalist John Muir discovered that the ice had retreated more than 30 miles forming an actual bay. By 1916, the Grand Pacific Glacier – the main glacier credited with carving the bay – had melted back 60 miles to the head of what is now Tarr Inlet.
What happens when nature wipes the slate clean and starts over from scratch?
We knew that we wanted to visit Glacier Bay, but we weren’t sure how to do it. There are no roads leading to the park. Access is by plane or boat only. There are almost no trails in the park, and off-trail hiking is extremely difficult due to the horrific bushwhacking that is required. The park operates a daily tour boat that travels up the west arm of the bay to the Grand Pacific Glacier and the Margarie Glacier. That sounded nice, but we weren’t inclined to travel all the way to the park just to take a tourist cruise.
A bit of research revealed that the best way to really experience the park is by sea kayak. However, we’d never really done that. We thought about taking a guided trip, but even a fairly short excursion (3 days or so) was horribly expensive. Plus, guided trips really aren’t our style. The park has a concessionaire on site that rents kayaks and all of the related gear. I was surprised to discover that beginners are welcome, and even encouraged, to rent kayaks and go on their own. Kayaking experience is not required, though they do emphasize the importance of backcountry camping experience. The 2-person kayaks are very stable, and there is very little risk of capsizing.
While it is possible to start a trip at park headquarters in Bartlett Cove, it is a long distance from there to the glaciers farther up bay. One option is to combine a kayak rental with an excursion on the tour boat. The boat stops at 1 or 2 places farther up bay on each excursion. At those points, you can disembark and begin your trip. The additional cost is reasonable, and you are able to include the full day cruise in your trip.
We decided to rent kayaks and include the day cruise with a drop off and pick up farther up bay. That left us with one more major decision to make. Glacier Bay splits halfway up into a west arm and an east arm. The cruise ship goes up the west arm. Drop off points change periodically, but during our visit the two options were the point where the two arms join and Blue Mouse Cove, which is a bit farther up the west arm. The east arm is longer, and getting to the Muir Glacier and the other scenic highlights on that side would require a longer trip than the west arm. Also, the west arm features bigger mountains and more dramatic scenery. On the other hand, the east arm sees fewer cruise ships and other motorized boats. It offers more of a wilderness experience.
Ultimately logistics pushed us to do the west arm. The ferry from Juneau to Gustavus (the only terminal near the park) only runs twice a week. That schedule meant that we would have 4 full days and 2 partial days for paddling. That wasn’t really enough time to fully explore the east arm. In hindsight, I wish we’d added 3 more days to this part of the trip. More time would’ve been great in either the west arm or the east arm. Prior to the trip though, 6 days seemed like plenty for our first ever sea kayaking trip.
This map shows the area that we explored, from the drop off point in Blue Mouse Cove to the John Hopkins Glacier at the end of the west arm:
On Thursday we took a ferry from Juneau to the village of Gustavus. The ferry departed Auke Bay (which is actually 15 miles north of Juneau) at 6am. For some reason the ferry requires, or at least strongly recommends, checking in 2 hours prior to departure. We stored our excess luggage at the hotel and arranged for a taxi at 3:30am. We arrived promptly 2 hours early, and were just about the only people in the terminal for the next 45 minutes. For each subsequent ferry after that, we arrived a little less early than for the previous one. For our last ferry ride to Skagway we arrived an hour early, and that was still earlier than what was actually necessary.
We tried to sleep in the terminal without success before eating the breakfast we’d picked up the day before. After boarding, we discovered that the ship had a full cafeteria with reasonably priced hot breakfast options. Sigh. We remembered that for our next ferry trip and planned accordingly. Unfortunately that boat didn’t have a kitchen. Sometimes you just can’t win.
We checked our luggage (a couple of backpacks and duffel bags) and boarded with small carry-ons. The ride to Gustavus was pleasant, though low clouds and drizzle put a damper on the scenery. The highlight was spotting a pod of Humpback whales shortly before arriving.
The Gustavus ferry terminal consists of a small parking lot and a bathroom. We wandered around the parking lot for a bit before finding our ride. We used TLC Taxi for the 9 mile trip from Gustavus to park headquarters at Bartlett Cove. The service was excellent, and the price was reasonable. On the way there we toured Gustavus, which consists of a handful of homes, a church, a cemetery, and a general store. We stopped at the store because some of the folks on our van needed last minute supplies. At the end of our trip we ran into our driver when we were on our way to the lodge for dinner. He let us store our luggage in the van so that we didn’t have to carry it around with us. That was really nice of him, and it made the last hour of our time in Glacier Bay more pleasant.
Once at Bartlett Cove we loaded our gear into a wheelbarrow for the ½ mile walk to the campground. We set up camp before walking back up to the ranger station to get our permit. Afterwards we completed the obligatory park backcountry orientation. We also borrowed 3 bear canisters from the park, to go with the one we’d brought. Four canisters for 6 days of food sounds like a lot, but everything with any odor must be stored in a canister at all times. Also, the jug of Makers Mark whiskey we’d brought took up most of the space in one of the canisters all by itself. While we were there, we checked the weather forecast for Glacier Bay. Rain was expected on Friday (day 1) with improving conditions on Saturday. After that, there was no mention of rain in the forecast for the rest of the week. It sounded too good to be true.
Then we met the folks at Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks for the kayak introduction. There we learned how to pack, carry and paddle the kayak. We also tried on our rental gear. This consisted of knee high rubber boots and rain gear. We already had our own rain gear, but it is lightweight and designed for backpacking. The rentals weren’t expensive, and were warmer and more durable. We figured it would be worth having just for the extra layer of insulation.
We also went over our planned route using a map and tide tables. Once that was complete we paddled our kayak over to the tour boat for loading. We would bring our gear up with us in the morning, but wouldn’t actually load the kayak until after we were dropped off. There was a very simple reason for this. Our 2-person kayak was extremely heavy when empty. Fully loaded with gear and food for six days, it would be immovable.
I had originally planned to do the short (4-5 miles round trip) hike to the Bartlett River that afternoon. We had talked with another hiker who had seen several bears on that trail. However, all of the orientations and logistics had killed most of the day. Instead, Christy and I did the much shorter hike to a small woodland pond. I was hoping to see a moose or other wildlife, but the animals must’ve been hiding. We had just finished our hike and we were preparing to hike back to the campground to cook dinner when it started raining. It was really coming down, and the prospect of cooking in the rain was uninspiring. We were right next to the lodge, which has a perfectly good restaurant. The temptation was too much to overcome. We both had fish, along with a couple of glasses of wine / beer, and that little burst of rain cost us over $100. At least the food was decent, and it was warm, dry and cozy in the lodge.
We were up early the next morning. We broke camp, packed the rest of our gear, and rolled everything up to the dock for loading. We ended up storing our bags under the passenger seats before assisting the crew with our kayak. I then took our surplus luggage up to the storage shed behind the ranger station.
The cruise ship left the dock at 7:30am. The boat was maybe ¾ full, mostly with tourists, though there were a few other kayakers getting dropped off in the east arm. We were the only ones being dropped off at Blue Mouse Cove in the west arm. The boat offered some light breakfast options and coffee, and also supplied soup and sandwiches for lunch. The crew was very friendly, and I ended up talking with one girl who had graduated from my Alma Mater, Appalachian State University. She had been living in Asheville, but was contemplating a move to Seattle or Portland. I had to hand it to her – she had a knack for living in cool places.
It was a drizzly, overcast morning, so the tour operator focused on wildlife. First we stopped at Marble Island. This rock outcrop featured Stellar Sea Lions and an incredible variety of birds. I’d brought my telephoto lens specifically for wildlife photography. Shortly before we reached the island, I went out on the deck, in the rain, to get a good vantage point along the railing for photos. Before long most of the tourists joined me. One of them was exceptionally rude. She thought nothing of putting her hand on my back and pushing me while I was trying to take photos. This wasn’t helping my photography, but I was more alarmed for my safety. The railing was waist high, and she was pushing me forward rather violently. It was maybe 40’ straight down to the water from where I was trying to stand. After about her third push I shoved back as hard as I could. She went reeling, but managed to stay on her feet due to the surrounding crowd.
I’d had enough jostling so I decided to step aside and let someone else have my spot. I timed it so that the pushy woman wasn’t able to take advantage of the opportunity. I don’t like to reward bad behavior.
This worked out quite nicely. I walked to the opposite railing, which I had completely to myself. Before long I spotted a horned puffin in the water below the boat. Horned puffins look at little bit like penguins, except that they have wide, orange beaks. I got some shots of him taking off, which are a hoot. Puffins kind of run across the water to get up enough speed to get airborne. A few minutes later I caught him coming back in for a landing. That puffin ended up being the highlight of Marble Island for me.
There were a number of other exciting wildlife sightings. First there was a humpback whale not far from the boat. Then there was a bald eagle perched on a rock below Gloomy Knob. Higher up on the cliffs was a single mountain goat. There were numerous seals and otters. The biggest thrill though came shortly before we reached Blue Mouse Cove. We spotted a grizzly bear roaming the shore not far from where we would be disembarking. Unfortunately I’d already packed my camera away. I didn’t think it was a big deal though, since we would probably see lots of bears during our trip. I was wrong about that, but I suppose we saw enough bears on our 2009 trip to last a lifetime.
The other highlight of the cruise was visiting the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers. Near the upper end, the west arm splits again. Large boats can’t go very far up the John Hopkins inlet due to icebergs in the channel. Instead, the tour boat turns north up the Tarr Inlet and continues almost to the Canadian border. Despite the marginal weather, we got a great view of the face of the Margerie Glacier. We even saw a couple of small calvings, where ice would break off the face of the glacier to plunge into the ocean. The Margerie is a beautiful glacier, its face riddled with cracks and shining with blue ice. The Grand Pacific is less scenic, as its face is covered in dirt and rocks.
From there we headed back towards Bartlett Cove. At Blue Mouse Cove we unloaded our kayak, paddles, and bags with assistance from a group that was being picked up. They were extremely upbeat. All they could talk about was how great their trip had been, despite the constant rain. That was encouraging. If they could endure bad weather and enjoy their trip, so could we.
Getting dropped off was a whirlwind. One moment we were ferrying gear up the beach. The next, the cruise ship was disappearing around the headland. We were truly on our own, deep in the watery wilderness in a remote corner of Alaska.
Our plan to was to spend the first 2 ½ days paddling up the west arm to the John Hopkins Glacier. We hoped to make it all the way to the glacier, but our progress would be dictated by paddling conditions and the amount of ice we encountered in the channel closer to the glacier.
We had two choices in routes. The direct approach would be back up the main channel, staying close to shore, before curving west past the Reid and Lamplaugh Glaciers. That meant paddling in open water, where big waves and passing ships were potential hazards. Christy wasn’t entirely comfortable with this. Also, the main channel is bordered by steep cliffs for the first 5 miles. We would have to cover that distance before we’d have a chance to get out of the kayak. We weren’t sure we were ready for that level of commitment.
The other option was to pass through a series of narrow channels and islands into Scidmore Bay. At the upper end of Scidmore Bay we could do a portage to get back into the main channel. This route promised milder paddling conditions in the sheltered bay and the potential for spectacular scenery, if the weather improved. That area also has a reputation for abundant wildlife. On the other hand, the portage would be grueling.
We chose the Scidmore Bay route. The main reason is that it offers a number of camping options. If we’d taken the direct route our first possible campsite would’ve been at the north end of the portage path from Scidmore Bay. The park ranger had warned us to avoid camping there, as there was a fresh moose carcass in the area that a bear was feeding on. Since that wasn’t an option, we would be forced to continue on, possibly as far as the Reid Glacier. That may have been doable, but it would’ve been a long paddle on the first day.
It was a foggy, drizzly afternoon, but at least it wasn’t pouring. In fact, I found the weather to be somewhat charming. Our little corner of Glacier Bay was peaceful, yet mysterious. Rocky islands loomed out of the fog. Sheer, towering cliffs disappeared into the mist. Flocks of birds squawked at us from rocky perches, before erupting into the air. Seals and otters disappeared as we paddled by, while porpoises were breaching all around us.
Navigation was a little tricky due to all of the islands and narrow channels, along with the limited visibility. I cheated a bit and used the GAIA GPS app on my phone to keep track of our location. I only consulted it a couple of times to make sure we didn’t wander off course. I was pleased that I only made one mistake before we found our way out of Blue Mouse Cove and into the main channel of Scidmore Bay.
We paddled to the north end of the bay, to the point where the Scidmore River enters it. This was a long stretch, and we really should’ve stopped for a break somewhere along the way. I quickly discovered that I need to stretch and rest after an hour or two of paddling. My back was really aching and Christy’s shoulder (that she had separated in a mountain biking accident two months earlier) was squawking by the time we neared the north end of the bay.
My 20-year old guidebook mentions good camping options on both sides of the Scidmore River’s outwash. As we approached the river, it looked like there was a sandy beach directly ahead of us. It looked promising, so we headed for it. Looks can be deceiving from the seat of a kayak. We beached the kayak, but instead of a sandy beach, we were in a mud flat. Despite this, I decided to get out and walk across the flat towards higher ground. It looked like there might be some possible campsites near tree line.
I slopped my way through the mud and mussel beds. Thank God for those rubber boots! The walk took longer than I expected, and carrying the kayak and all of our gear across that mud flat wasn’t appealing. I was actually a bit relieved that I didn’t find much in the way of a campsite. I returned to the kayak, only to discover that the tide had receded considerably while I was gone. The boat was sitting in the mud, several feet from the water. That’s when we discovered that we couldn’t budge it without completely unloading all of our gear. Unpacking the kayak in ankle-deep mud was definitely the low point of the day. It took several minutes to do that so we could move the boat a few feet. Then we had to repack it, all the while taking care to keep it floating as the tide continued to recede.
We got back in and fought our way back out into the bay. We paddled past the mouth of the river and approached the head of the bay and the beginning of the portage path. I was leery about camping that close to the moose carcass, so we doubled-back to look for a campsite on the north side of the river. We ended up settling on a spot just above tree line a bit north of the river. It was a decent spot, but not remarkable. The next day I found a much nicer campsite in a meadow closer to the river. That spot would’ve required a much longer walk though. That may sound trivial, but it really isn’t when you have to carry your kayak and all of your gear. The ranger had strongly recommended that we carry our kayak all the way up to our campsite each night. Can you imagine emerging from your tent in the morning to find that your kayak has floated away?
Scidmore Bay was loaded with wildlife, but its best feature was utter solitude. We saw a small fishing boat in Blue Mouse Cove, but no boats or people after that. Motor boats aren’t allowed in Scidmore Bay, which is a nice change from the main channel, which can get pretty busy with big cruise ships and smaller private boats.
We pitched the tent on a moose superhighway back in the alders. That seemed a little risky, as moose are huge and clumsy, but we didn’t have any other options. Setting it up below tree line would’ve meant taking a chance on getting flooded that night by the rising tide. That was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.
We set up the tarp along the moose trail about 50 yards from the tent. It is necessary to cook and eat well away from your tent to avoid attracting bears to where you are sleeping. We had some light rain that evening, and the tarp enabled us to stay dry. As we ate, we gazed out over the misty bay and listened to the frequent splashes from the seals. We went to bed around dusk, tired from a long but thrilling day.
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