6/17/19 Blue Heron B & B, Gustavus, Alaska
It could have been a script for a movie. The tension was high and the race was on.
Our Glacier Bay Day Tour boat was paused in front of Marjorie Glacier at the very end of our 65 mile tour up Glacier Bay. We were admiring the ice and, especially, the crack, like a rifle shot, when the ice calved and an iceberg fell with a resounding splash. (National Geographic rates that sound, the birth of an iceberg, as one of the top ten sounds to hear in a National Park. It is a chilling reminder of how much of nature’s power remains to be explored.)
But in short order the boats’ engines fired up and the boat was moving away from the glacier and towards the tall gray moraine that separated Marjorie Glacier from the dirty face of Grand Pacific Glacier. At the same time, the tour boat crew abruptly shut down the galley and there was considerable movement. Doors that had remained closed for all but the very beginning of the trip were thrown open and crew members started moving ropes around.
As the rumors began to stir among the boat passengers, a few confirmations began to emerge. Our captain had received a May-Day call from two kayakers (turns out they were honeymooning in the great and gorgeous wilderness). At breakfast that morning, they had been rudely interrupted by a grizzly. Following camping protocols in bear country, they were eating some distance away from their camp and the bear decided that their tents were just too attractive. So he decided to play among their camping gear. Apparently, they watched in horror as their camping gear was totally destroyed.
Soon, though, the bear became bored with the camping gear and decided the couple might make more interesting playthings. The two spent the next terrifying hour or so running around trying to avoid him. (Fortunately, they were successful.). When they saw our tour boat making its way towards the glaciers, they found their radio, which was still operating, and made the emergency call.
The ship’s crew worked feverishly to bring the stunned couple out, making several trips to bring back remains of their gear. With each trip, the crew dangled ropes down to retrieve the stuff and pull it up into the ship. But kayaks don’t hold a whole lot, even when stuff is tightly packed, so it took several back and forths to bring all the stuff, the two passengers, and the two kayaks onto the boat.
As I am watching all of this activity, a new rumor starts bouncing around the boat. What is that brown blob down the shoreline moving around on the rocks of the moraine? People, myself included, are grabbing binoculars for a better view. Sure enough, it is a big grizzly. I admit that it is difficult to gauge sizes of things when you are looking at them through binoculars, but this one was huge. His claws seemed bigger than his head, the bump on his back was prominent and bulging. As he bounced his way among the shoreline rocks, he seemed to be on a mission.
After watching the bear for just a few minutes, it became clear that he was moving with a purpose – ominously, he was heading back towards the campers. As we watched everything from the safety of the boat, glancing back and forth between the humans feverishly working on the beach and the bear moving closer, the race was on! Tensions rose, and the question of the day – would the rescue mission beat the bear?
I can happily report that they did – the honeymooners were rescued and the bear didn’t get his prize. But this was certainly unanticipated drama.
And this is a prime example of why it is critically important that you experience glacier bay from as small a boat as you can. There was a cruise ship in the bay, near where we were, but the thing was so big that I don’t think it could possibly have assisted the kayakers. Of course, if your boat is a kayak, well, I guess you have other kinds of worries.
Our ship, the park service day cruise ship, is somewhere in-between. Holding about 150 people at a maximum, I don’t think it was half-full on our trip last Friday. And we were accompanied on our day-long excursion by an interpretive park ranger, Coleen, who not only gave several formal presentations all day long, but happily answered all kinds of questions ranging from what kind of bird that was, to how did that mountain form. She was a terrific fountain of information and enthusiasm.
The day was perfect for a cruise. The morning started with some mist swirling about the harbor, but it burned off shortly after we got under way and the day was full of blue skies all day long. It was a perfect day for seeing wildlife.
And wildlife we did see. As I’ve made clear, I am not a birder and so I can’t pretend to identify those things, but there were black ones with white markings, and white ones with black markings, some with orange beaks and feet, others with different colors. We saw birds all day.
We also saw mammals. Early in the trip we passed a group of islands that were swamped with male sea lions. Since the females hadn’t arrived yet, they were mostly well behaved, but still bellowed loudly as they struggled to get up and down the slippery rocks. The ranger said they would have a powerful smell if we got close enough – like most males, I guess. Further on up the bay we saw several mountain goats, mostly moms and babies scattered along narrow perches on the side of a glacier-sculpted mountain cliff. You had to wonder how they managed to stay on the side of the mountain, clearly defying gravity. Sea otters played games on their tummies while they swam on their backs.
And, of course, we saw whales – well, parts of them. I saw the tail fluke of one as it dove down. A person a few rows away actually got lucky enough to see a whale breach AND get a picture of it. Neither Joan nor I were lucky with the camera. Still, though, we did see several of them spouting, the tell-tale mark that whales are just below the surface. And we saw the dark forms of a couple swimming below us a ways out.
I decided long ago that I couldn’t intentionally set out to see ‘wildlife’ – they don’t operate in order to please my desires. (Instead, I decided to specialize in trees because they are much more reliable – they don’t disappear just as you sight them.) I enjoyed seeing the wildlife I did, but none of my pictures are worth a whole lot. Joan has a few that are better.
The mountains, the valleys, and of course, the glaciers are visible from just about anywhere on the bay. And it is the glacier story that drives the ecology of this park. The Grand Pacific Glacier (one of the two glaciers where the bear story occurred) is the one driving the geological story here. During the mini-ice age of the mid-1700’s, the glacier advanced all the way down past the town of Gustavus and into the Icy Straits which are outside the park boundary. Over the last two-hundred and fifty years, that glacier has retreated some 65 miles making it the fastest retreating glacier in history. Glaciers advance and retreat all the time depending on long-term climate changes. So it is impossible to state, accurately, how much of this retreat is due to global warming of the last century, but the retreat rate has accelerated dramatically over the last few decades. In fact, the Grand Pacific Glacier is no longer considered a tidal glacier because now it doesn’t even come in contact with seawater. (Interestingly, there is another glacier in this valley, the St. John, that is actually advancing. While it is possible that represents an actual increase in ice, and therefore a counter argument to global warming, it is also possible that it is actually just slipping down the valley faster than normal due to a layer of water accumulating between the floor of the glacier and the valley floor. Obviously water is a sign of ice melting!)
Glacier Bay National Park is a big park by any measure but it is one that you can only see by plane or by boat. We’ve done both now and I can say that is the way it should be done. The full story is too difficult to absorb with just one perspective.