AUGUST 07 Glacier Bay
My two major goals for this trip were dogsledding and visiting Glacier Bay. As it turned out, Dogsledding was a bust. My thoughts now turned to Glacier Bay.
Glacier Bay National Park consists of 3.3 million acres of mountains, glaciers, rainforests, and fjords. It’s part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site and is one of the world’s largest internationally protected areas.
The ice in the bay is melting at an alarming rate. In 1794, when Glacier Bay was first surveyed, the entire bay was filled with a glacier that was a half-mile thick and 20 miles wide. By 1879, naturalist John Muir discovered that the ice had retreated more than 30 miles forming an actual bay. By 1916, the main glacier, Grand Pacific Glacier had melted back 60 miles. If you’ve seen pictures of Glacier Bay, they were probably taken 10 years ago when Grand Pacific was twice as tall as is now. Ten years from now, it will probably be half as tall it is now.
To protect the fragile ecosystem in the park, the park severely restricts the number of cruise ships that can enter Glacier Bay. Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) is one of only 5 companies allowed to enter the bay. They are limited to 22 ships per year. I’m glad we were one of the few guests to have the opportunity to be here while there’s still something left to see!
Three Park Rangers boarded our ship early this morning. No, the rangers didn’t drive to meet us, there are no roads leading to or from the park. And, no, the ship didn’t dock at the park’s visitor center to pick them up. The Rangers boarded our ship while it was still moving! Just as the medical rescue boat had made an “intentional collision” with our ship back in Seattle, the park ranger’s boat made an intentional collision with our ship early this morning. Our ship didn’t even stop, The Pearl merely slowed down while the Park Rangers climbed a rope ladder. Late in the afternoon, the rangers left our ship the same way. I guess they do that every day as part of their jobs.
The first Park Ranger presentation today was at 7am in the Spinnaker Lounge, which is at the bow on the Deck 13, above the ship’s bridge. The view from the lounge might have been spectacular but everything was shrouded in the morning fog. The rangers outlined the plan for the day, explained what we would be seeing, and answered questions about the park.
As the morning fog was lifting, I went up to Deck 15. This is called the “Sun Deck”. After the summer season, the Pearl sails through the Panama Canal and then cruises in the Mediterranean. In the spring, it sails back through the Panama Canal and cruises in Alaska for another season. I assume that on the Mediterranean cruises, this deck is filled with scantily clad tourists basking in the sun. On this cruise, the few of us who brave the winds up here are wearing parkas, hats and gloves!
All along the edge of the deck there are tall, clear-plastic walls. We had a sweeping view but the camera couldn’t focus through the plastic. I asked a nearby staff member if there was any place on the ship where I could get a forward view that wasn’t blocked by plastic walls. He said that they would be opening up the bow area on Deck 8 at 9am but it might be open now. This is one of the many “staff only” areas on the ship. I immediately went to check. Two others hobby photographers overheard this conversion and followed me. Sure enough, one of the “entrance forbidden” doors was open allowing access to the bow. Since this was never designed for passenger safety, there were no walls, just railings. Perfect!
The first thing you notice about the area inside the park is the complete lack of trees. Even though this entire area is classified as a rain forest, there is not one tree in sight. Why not? There’s certainly plenty of water, it rains here almost every day. There’s enough sunlight, even though it rains often, the sun often pierces through the fog. The landscape looks like the tops of mountains where the “tree line”, marks the altitudes above which it’s high for trees to grow. But, we’re at sea level! Why no trees? The answer is that the other essential ingredient for a forest is soil. All of the land here has been scraped clean by glaciers. There is no dirt! Near the receding glaciers, all of the landscape is exposed rock. Farther from the glaciers, moss and algae cling to the rocks living on the thin layer of dirt that has accumulated after centuries of exposure, giving a green texture to the shoreline. There is some wildlife here, like mountain goats but, unfortunately, too far away for us to see.
Right on schedule, the ship arrived at the innermost cove of the bay at 9am. The huge Grand Pacific Glacier was straight ahead of us. At this time of year, it wasn’t very photogenic. The nose (the wall at the front of the glacier) is dark from all of the dirt that the glacier has pushed along as it slowly moves toward the sea. Margerie Glacier is right next to the Grand Pacific Glacier and is currently much prettier.
One of the rangers in now on the bridge giving everyone an on-going presentation about the area. By now, there were dozens folks at the bow with cameras leaning on the railings clicking away. All of the other passengers were spread out along the ship at their cabin balconies, the promenade deck, the sun roofs, anywhere with a view. This is the highlight of any Alaskan cruise. This is what we came so far to see! The ship slowed turned 360° several times so that everyone had a chance to appreciate the sparse beauty of the scene.
It’s hard to comprehend the size of these glaciers from the photos. On the intercom, the ranger tells us that most of the nose these two glaciers is underwater. The portion of Margerie Glacier that’s above the water is about 25 stories high. That makes it about twice as tall as our cruise ship!
Both of these two glaciers are “calving” at this time of year. For a glacier, “calving” means that large chunks of the glacier fall into the sea becoming icebergs. The ranger says that this glacier is calving several times an hour at this time of year. I witnessed this happening several times. Every time we heard a rumbling from the glacier, all of us would rush to the railings hoping to capture another calving event with our cameras. Unfortunately, the glacier is so large and so far away that I couldn’t capture these infrequent and unpredictable events with my camera. Often, I could only see the splash as the ice falls into the sea.
Later in the morning, the ship went visited other coves and other glaciers. But, nothing could compare with the Tarr Inlet surrounded by both the Grand Pacific and the Margerie glaciers!
At 1pm, I went to the ship’s theater to listen to the last of the Park Ranger talks. Kathy stayed outside and took more pictures, including several islands completely covered by sea lions.
At 2pm, Kathy and I joined our dance group. They had already started dancing earlier. Kathy and I had decided to arrive late. We figured that we could dance anytime in the future but we might never have scenery like this again!
After dancing, Kathy and I went had an early dinner in the main dining hall, still dressed in our matching square dance outfits. We were seated at a window-side table soaking in the view.
The evening activity in the theater was scheduled to be show by the Ventriloquist Jim Barber. We were all expecting to see a ventriloquist walk onto the stage carrying a dummy. What happened instead was that a large dummy walked onto the stage carrying the ventriloquist. Clearly, this was going to be an evening of comedy.
Glacier Bay was advertised as the highlight of our trip. Did it live up to those claims? Absolutely!