Bartlett Cove – The Other Stories

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6/18/19 Aboard the Columbia, Alaska Maritime Highway

Saturday was a down-day.  We really haven’t had one of those yet and after ten days of travel and sightseeing, Joan and I were exhausted.  We are finding that this kind of travel is not only more expensive than trailer camping, but more tiring too.  You might think that it would be easier, and maybe it is for people who do it frequently, but we find the rushing to meet airplane and ferry schedules to be more stressful.  When leaving a campground, there is some general notion that you have to be out by a certain time, but if you are half-an-hour late, the axe doesn’t fall.  But if you miss a shuttle to the airport, well, your entire vacation could be in jeopardy.

So we ate a leisurely breakfast with Deb and her two other guests, talking about our adventures while we ate.  Then we went back to the room and back into bed.  We were so tired that we actually slept a good chunk of the day and still managed to get to sleep that night, despite these insane daylight hours.

Sunday, though, we went back to the park.  We had arranged with Strawberry, the taxi lady, to pick us up at ten and return us to the park visitor center.  There I collected my passport stamp and we discussed with the ranger what we should do.  Turns out that the ranger is the big sister of Sarah, who is the young lady helping Deb run the B&B – once again, the park has a huge influence on the town.

The visitor center, the lodge, park headquarters, and all the other ‘developed’ facilities in Glacier Bay National Park are all clustered around a small bay called Bartlett Cove.  It is a beautiful secluded area off the normal cruise ship path.  In fact, 95% of the visitors to Glacier Bay do so by boat, mostly cruise ship passengers, and a cruise ship will just not fit in or near Bartlett Cove.  So most cruise ship visitors don’t even know Bartlett Cove exists.  Small boats can get in there, and we saw several anchored in the marina, but otherwise, most visitors to Bartlett Cove can only get there by driving the eight miles or so from Gustavus.  (And, as we discovered, getting to Gustavus isn’t exactly easy!)

That’s unfortunate because Bartlett Cove is an important part of the Glacier Bay story.  The views of glaciers and the wildlife sightings from a boat or an airplane are certainly important in understanding the magnitude of the glacier phenomena.  And the marine and hillside wildlife sightings are iconic, but neither the boat nor airplane experience gives you the hands-on sensations of being on the ground.

There are two stories you learn by spending a day at Bartlett Cove – a nature story and a cultural tale.  The nature story is the story of plant succession that happens when a glacier retreats.  The story is best told on a ranger-guided walk through the Forest trail, which is just a little more than a mile long.  Once again, we had the good fortune of having a terrific young ranger, who, although she was a cultural anthropologist by training, was well versed in the biological story.

Moss and Lichen everywhere in the rain forest.

When a glacier slides over a surface, there is amazing force involved.  Some continental glaciers are estimated to have been miles thick and that amount of compressed ice has a tremendous mass.  As it slides along the surface of the earth, it not only picks up whatever rocks and dirt it finds, but it also generates more of them by literally scraping the surface clean.  The telltale evidence of glaciers is the presence of parallel lines where glacial ice literally scrapes the bedrock clean.  This is how the classic U-shaped glacial valleys are formed (as distinguished from V-shaped river valleys). 

When a glacier retreats, it basically leaves big piles of rock at its most advanced face – it literally drops its load as it begins its retreat.  These are called terminal moraines and can be massive hills of rock amounting to impressive heights.  Much of the soil and dirt, though, is washed away by what they call glacial outflow, or the water from melting glaciers, and carried downstream.  What is left is basically rock.  Not much can grow on pure rock.  

So the first stage in succession is nothing more than lichen and moss which arrive carried mostly as spores by the wind.  Finding a little nook in a rock, they take hold and begin their process of breaking down the rock into soil.  As the soil is formed, over decades of course, larger plants have an opportunity.  Usually, the next to develop are grasses and then small shrubs.  

Hemlock and Spruce Mature Forest with a glacially formed pond.

Then larger bushes and eventually trees.  The first of the trees, at least in this part of North America, is the Sitka Spruce, a tall evergreen, which loves the sun.  Since it is the first tree, it develops quickly covering large areas of land.  Then, curiously, the Sitka Spruce becomes so successful that it begins to crowd itself out.  By reproducing rapidly, it grows everywhere and, eventually, overpopulates the land.

The next phase in tree development is the western hemlock.  The hemlock thrives more in shade and so, as the spruce grows, the amount of shade increases which actually favors the growth of the hemlocks.  Eventually, the hemlocks can tend to outgrow the overpopulated spruce and the forest changes to one with more hemlock trees.  (The ranger managed to help me identify, by bark patterns, which trees are spruce and which are hemlocks.  Something I’ve been trying to do since we got here!)

Why did the Porcupine cross the road?

In the maritime rain forests of Southeastern Alaska, this mixture of spruce and hemlock represents the climax forest.  Along river banks and wetlands, there might be a sprinkling of cottonwoods, alders, and some other deciduous trees, but, as the pictures reveal, this is primarily a conifer forest.

Obviously, different plants also attract different animals and so, as the ground cover changes, so does the animal population.  As part of our hiking experience, we were able to spend time watching a porcupine watching us.  He certainly was a fascinating creature, but I didn’t want to get too close because I don’t know how far he can throw his needles.  But we don’t get those animals in northern New Mexico.

The cultural tale at Bartlett Cove is equally fascinating.  And it involves the Tlingit.  This branch of Native Americans is a genetic offshoot of the Athabaskan people who populated central Alaska at least 12,000 years ago, coming from Asians, originally from Central Asia/Siberia.  Another offshoot of these people- based on genetic and linguistic evidence – moved south and became the Navajo and Comanche Indians of the US southwest and plains.

Hoonah Tribal Community House at Bartlett Cove. Eagle and Raven reflecting the balance in their kinship system.

Somehow, though, the Tlingit came to the network of islands that now forms the Inland Passage.  As the Grand Pacific Glacier advanced in the mini-ice age of the mid 1700s, the portion of Tlingit that lived in the Glacier Bay Area were pushed out of their homeland in Glacier Bay south into the area of Hoonah and are now known as the Hoonah tribe.  After the glacier retreated, they moved back into their traditional homeland, occupying the glacial till that now forms the mouth of the bay.

After the park was started up in the 1970s, the park service only recognized their ‘nature’ mission of protecting the wildlife and geology of the glaciers.  To accomplish that mission they, literally, kicked the Hoonah out of their native homeland.  Needless to say, this wasn’t one of their finest moments.

Recently, however, the park service has come to understand that there is a cultural mission in Glacier Bay that rivals in importance their ‘natural’ mission.  As part of a new relationship between the park and the Native Americans, they have worked to re-establish the native presence in Glacier Bay.  Part of that was the construction of a Hoonah Tribal Community House, an important and beautiful new building serving very old purposes.

Part of the Tlingit culture is to build totem poles – in fact, I believe this art form is unique to the Tlingits.  To accompany the community house, the Tlingits have erected two totem poles nearby to commemorate the clans that make up their two moieties, the Eagles and the Ravens.  (As a key component of the kinship system, an Eagle can only marry a Raven, and vice-versa.) We had the good fortune to listen to a talk about those totem poles given by a young lady, Leia, who was an Eagle.  She explained how each symbol on the totem pole represented a different clan under the overarching moiety.  (In addition to defining marriage relationships, clans also define a social structure, imposing boundaries, and standards, on things like occupations and artistic expression.)

Eagle Totem Pole showing clan symbols.

After listening to the totem talk, in the rain, of course, they opened up the community house and we got to see more examples of totem, house, poles, and talk to a Raven in much more detail about how the clan structure works.  (We will be learning much more about Tlingit culture in our next park!). Although much work remains to be done to repair the conflict between the natives and the Park Service, it is clear that a successful beginning has been made.  Now, at least, there is a distinctive and important cultural tale to be told at Glacier Bay, in addition to the traditional natural story.