Updated: Nov 1, 2020
Wander here a whole summer, if you can...blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge...the time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening it, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal. - John Muir
In the seven weeks we’ve been here in Alaska, I feel as though I’ve become a different creature – a very grateful one, as John Muir intimates is likely. We are traveling in places where the loss of tourism has, like most other spots, put a huge dent in the economy. We’re docked right now in Skagway, which in a typical year saw as many as 12,000-14,000 visitors a day, nearly a million annually. Today, it’s almost empty and the folks here and in other popular destinations are hurting. Even with all of that loss, we have been consistently met with the friendliest of welcomes. We have met locals with stories to tell and ears eager to hear ours and fellow travelers who are more than happy to trade stories and share in the enthusiasm of our respective adventures. I’m grateful for all of them as well as simply standing (or floating) on ancestral land. Every time we enter a beautiful anchorage, I think about who was here before all the Russian, European, and American colonialism; where their villages were, how they traveled, traded, and managed their resources. While this pandemic has ravaged economies, it’s also left us with a much less crowded wilderness to explore, areas that have probably changed very little in the last 250 years. It’s an extraordinary time to be here.
Skagway, from the harbor. This is one of my top 3 marinas anywhere.
It’s no wonder that the language I use when I think, talk, or write about Alaska often seems hyperbolic. This place makes neutrality difficult. It’s easy to forget that Alaska is the largest state in the US, but I didn’t realize that Alaska is bigger than most countries – larger than all but 18 other nations in the world. Dig this: Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas and over three times the size of California. According to James Barnett (who wrote the very digestible Alaskan History – In Brief), if Alaska’s western-most point were superimposed on San Francisco, its eastern-most point would reach Jacksonville, Florida. That boggles. Luckily for us, Alaska has almost 34,000 miles of tidal shoreline, which is three times the shoreline of the remaining states. Of its over 665,000 square miles, over 188,00 of them are permafrost or marshlands and of that, 16,000 are made up of glaciers. I grew up in Minnesota, a state that boasted over 10,000 lakes. Alaska has 3.5 million.
We left Glacier Bay yesterday and during our stay we banked a lot visual treats. For a destination that was not high on my list, I left there feeling anything but disappointment. In the summer months, Glacier Bay National Park can be visited by permit only and this seems wise for a number of reasons. It’s a 4,400 square mile park and preserve and is limited to a total of 25 watercraft, which includes larger boats’ tenders. Basically, if the park is at capacity, you have about 15 larger boats and 10 tenders. During a pandemic, that number is roughly halved. There were only a couple of days when we encountered the other boats in the park, and these moments were in the inlets where the more dramatic glaciers stood. One arrives in Glacier Bay by boat or float plane only. There is a lodge at Bartlett Cove, the Forest Service HQ, but it’s closed this season due to Covid-19.
Glacier Bay from the pilot house
Geologically, Glacier Bay is significant. It was one of the sites impacted by what they call The Little Ice Age, so named because it came and went quickly, by geologic standards. When the Tlinget had their summer fishing camps in the area during the late 17th century, there was only a broad valley with a glacier nearby in the distant mountains. By 1750, the encroaching glacier reached its maximum, all the way into the Icy Strait, filling entirely and then some what we know today as Glacier Bay. 45 years later, in George Vancouver’s time, the glacier had already retreated 5 miles into the newly created Bay and by 1879, during John Muir’s time, the glacier had retreated 40 more miles. Fast forward to today, and one must travel 65 miles into the Bay to check out the glaciers. Makes you wonder what’s next on the geological front.
Because it’s both a national park and a preserve, there are no buoy markers in the park and there are certain areas that are restricted to protect wildlife. Humpbacks, in particular, are protected here by vessel speed restrictions and appropriate distancing to make sure their feeding, mating, and general progress aren’t impeded. There are no pets allowed on shore, except at Bartlett Cove, so that moose, bear, otter, and wild and critical plant life can optimally exist. Sorry, La Bella - just dinghy rides for you.
We’ve noticed that, at least for this year, the bay seems to be the playground of yachts. While we were there, we saw around five major yachts that were over 120 feet, some as long as 200. These are vessels that are operated by professional crews, with owners as passengers. Most were private, but some seemed for hire. We saw only two visitor vessels that were smaller than us: a 24’ sailboat and a 55’ Nordhaven. Some visitors had contracted with professional outfitters. One evening, we saw an outfitter speed boat ferrying a kayak to one of the yachts. We also heard a fair bit of chatter between the yachts, via radio. One such transmission included the negotiation of a bottle of tequila. Serious doings, indeed! This negotiation happened between two boats drifting in Tarr Inlet in front of the glacier Margerie. One yacht’s guests had landed on a large raft-like ice berg and were holding their very own dance party. I can imagine tequila sounded like a good idea for ice berg dancers but it seemed out of step with the vibe I had going on.
I've been a thousand feet down in the crevasses, with matchless domes and sculpted figures and carved ice-work all around me...such purity, such color, such delicate beauty! I was tempted to stay there and feed my soul, and softly freeze, until I would become part of the glacier. - John Muir
There are so many striking features to Glacier Bay that SNL’s Stefon comes to mind, ticking the highlights off on his fingers: “It has everything. Glaciers, otters, whales, and even Puffins!” But it’s true. From the moment we entered the bay, otters were our constant companions. They swam in singles, doubles, and entire rafts were constructed from their bobbing, sleek little bodies. I took to waving at them for no good reason other than once when I did, it looked like the little critter waved back.
Bella is lifted to ecstatic states when she sees creatures moving on the water and I think we are too, just a little bit. In the not so distant past, otter pelts were in great demand because of their very dense fur – the thickest of all animals. They have so many hairs per square inch (1 million!), that their skin never really gets wet. This fur quality is why these animals were hunted almost to extinction. While they have been brought back to some semblance of abundance through conservation efforts (sadly at less than 1% of their pre-hunting numbers, they are still considered endangered). Sea otters live most of their lives in water, including giving birth, feeding, sleeping, and carrying their young for about 8 months. They use beds of kelp for protection from their predators (sharks and orcas), but the kelp also stabilizes their bodies in the waves, so they can raft up with others or catch a few winks without drifting away entirely. In case you couldn’t tell, I am a firm admirer of otters.
The Endeavour looms large from the vantage point of my kayak
The mountains in Glacier Bay are almost too much to fully comprehend. Many have glaciers resting in their folds, like shrinking cloaks, the blue glint separating it from just snow cover. These glaciers are often tiered and striated in curved lines, so they look a bit like highways perched between peaks. Even without glaciers, these peaks are impressive in their sheer size and variety. Some are brown rock, covered in a soft green vegetation. Some are imposing black, with only snow to adorn their highest bits. Many of the peaks rise directly out of the water’s edge, inviting one’s neck to tilt to its limit in order to capture it all. I confess there was a lot of gawking going on. Just when you think you may have become inured to another natural show stopper, another is just around the corner, disabusing you of your cynicism. Very humbling, really.
The glaciers that seem to captivate us most are the ones that sit right at the water, where they can and will calve smaller ice bergs. It’s in these inlets that one must navigate the most carefully. While what we see above the water line may seem trivial, it’s what is below that is concerning. What looks like a small sink bobbing along is actually the girth of a large bathtub all told and while it might not damage our steel hull, it could easily foul our propeller (same is true of logs or floating root balls). Some of these bergs are almost clear or muddied and are difficult to see until you’re almost on top of them.
Johns Hopkins Inlet
The most dramatic inlet we visited was Johns Hopkins. Between the end of the inlet and at the face of the glacier, there were so many ice bergs in the water and it wasn’t until we got closer that we saw most of them were temporary rafts for seals. Hundreds of them. As I trained my binocs on all of this, one seal looked different – stiff and stretched out – and I said to Bill, “Look – this one looks like it’s dead.” At that very moment, the seal turned toward me and raised one paw, as if to say, “Nope! Just resting! It’s all good!” Getting a second opinion is always sound. On another ice berg perched a bald eagle that was clearly guarding something and waiting. When we approached a little too close for her comfort, the eagle gathered herself and what was holding her attention and flew off, a duck’s legs draping from her talons. The circle of life in these inlets was on full display. And the face of the glaciers themselves? Extraordinary. Vertical shards, in varying shades of blue, white, and dirt (that’s a color, right?) were crowded together, like watchful figures, the ultimate Rorschach test delivered by nature. Was that a gaggle of hooded monks over there? Was that the last supper over there? So evocative. We never saw a large hunk calving into the water, but witnessed several small ones and they were still impressive. A large glacier can calve larger sections that might create waves up to 30 feet. One is always cautioned to be careful.
Johns Hopkins glacier. Every black dot in the foreground is a seal kicking back on an ice berg. No big.
Not surprisingly, most of the glaciers are receding. But not all of them. Some are advancing if the conditions are right. For tidewater glaciers, sediment may accumulate at the face of the glacier, providing a protective shoal from seawater, allowing the ice to advance into deeper water. Without the shoal, retreat is inevitable. With the shoal, the advancing cycle may begin again. Fascinating stuff and at times, scary too. I get tweaked by enormous things that are really powerful and I don’t fully understand. Grizzly bears and glaciers are included in this list. One evening, between viewing the glaciers of Tarr Inlet one day and Johns Hopkins Inlet the next, Bill chose Reid Inlet as our anchor point, just off the face of an enormous glacier. I was so freaked out, I went below at 7 pm, so I wouldn’t have to look at it. Bill, of course, was thrilled at the anchorage. It wasn’t until the next morning, when we took the dingy out to explore the glacier that I saw how far away we actually were. On our dinghy ride in, we passed a large grizzly bear ranging the beach. The fact that I hiked in bear country on a glacier is a watershed moment for me. Will wonders never cease? I hope not.
Margerie glacier in Tarr Inlet
And this is really the miracle of what we’re doing here. As we continue to slough off our city slicker ways and the strains and stresses that usually go along with it, we are being pared down, both of us, to what is essential and most meaningful. Pavement and traffic are in our rear view mirror and every day, sometimes every moment, is pulling us deeper into the wild and we both find we really like these versions of ourselves. There is more thoughtfulness, more playfulness, more adaptability, more trust and less reactivity, defensiveness, and doubt. Who wouldn’t want that?
Final words from the last frontier, at least for today: I finally have an oven, people! After four years without, we took the plunge and secured one while we were in Sitka. I am further transformed by this development, and not just because I’m getting fat as a result. I love thinking about baking, getting ready to bake, actually baking and everything in between. Yes, it’s a creative outlet that I’ve missed a great deal but more importantly, it just makes so much sense to have the ability to make some of our staples from scratch when we’re far from markets for such significant stretches of time. And it’s always good to have something delicious to barter with if you need something you don’t have.
The happy baker with no murder in her heart
The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight. -M.F.K. Fisher