Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
|Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska (Rosemarie Salazar/courtesy, National Park Service)|
In the watery wilderness of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, you can witness a landscape at its literal moment of creation. When George Vancouver and his H.M.S. Discovery explored Southeast Alaska's coastline in 1794, Glacier Bay lay buried beneath a mile-thick sheet of ice extending all the way to its mouth at Icy Strait. But the ice has beaten a remarkably hasty retreat over the last two centuries, exhuming a raw, misty realm of steep-sided fjords and tidewater glaciers.
The Y-shaped bay is now 65 miles long. A journey up its arms is a profound regression through the life cycle of a new land, from maturing Sitka spruce forests replete with grizzlies and wolves to thin-skinned tundra to the algae, lichens, and mosses that gain purchase on new land revealed by the retreating glaciers.
Glacier Bay stands at farthest possible remove from the clamor of the modern world. So, at least for a little while, trade in your cell phone's jangle for the pop, crackle, and thunderous boom of a building-size berg calving into the sea from a vast river of ice. Swap commuter traffic for a whitewater ride down some of North America's wildest rivers, the Tatshenshini and Alsek. Whatever you do hereand choices include sea kayaking, fishing for mammoth halibut, and keeping an eye peeled for ambling bears or breaching humpback whalesyou'll be adventuring far beyond the end of the road.
Sea Kayak in a Paddler's Mecca
Glacier Bay's waters are arguably the finest sea-kayaking grounds in the world. In the southerly precincts of the bay at spots like the Beardslee Islands, you can paddle zoom-lens close to moose, bald eagles, bears, harbor seals, and humpback and killer whales. Head up Muir Inlet to the ice-choked waters at the snout of McBride Glacier, and you'll witness the spectacle of a tidewater glacier periodically dumping itself into the sea. Given the intensely wild feel of Glacier Bay, it is a welcome surprise that kayakers of all skill levels can get a deep draught of paddling here. The fractured coastline offers many sheltered quiet-water coves, and the park infrastructurewhich includes a number of officially sanctioned outfitters and a concession-run boat that drops paddle-campers off at remote backcountry locationsmakes it easy enough to hew deep into the far reaches of the bay.
More on paddling Glacier Bay National Park
Raft the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers
The Tatshenshini and Alsek are twin prongs of a river draining what is perhaps the most impregnably wild mountain country in North Americathe St. Elias and Alsekranges, the heights of which are protected by Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Canada's Kluane National Park. Frequently touted as the most out-there river journey you can make on this continent, either river arm pierces a dizzyingly vertical landscape which includes permanent snowfields; wildlife that includes grizzlies, Dall sheep, mountain goats, and caribou; and waters made turquoise-blue by glacial silt. There's also plenty of whitewater frothClass III rapids on the Tatshenshini, and big, bruising Class V's on the Alsek. Raft these rivers, and you'll feel a profound, deepening sense of time-traveling, as you move from the infant lands of the headwaters down toward the lush, fully-developed, temperate rainforest at the rivers' joint mouth in the northern arm of Glacier Bay National Park.
More on rafting in Glacier Bay National Park
Adventuring around Gustavus
Any community beyond the reach of roads and bordered by 360 degrees of wilderness is a pretty safe bet as a sublime destination. Gustavus, on a spit of land reaching into Glacier Bay, is such a place, and it is every bit as good as the maps allude. The tiny, quiet hamlet is replete with B&Bs and inns, and the park's main visitor center is just out of town. In other words, this is a comfortable, slow-paced place to use as a base camp for exploring one of the continent's most special landscapes. And there's plenty to do around Gustavus outside of the park’s boundaries. You can take a kayak tour, charter a small craft and nose around Icy Strait among humpbacks and killer whales, or go on a fishing expedition for gargantuan halibut.
Soar above the Glaciers
For anyone who has a taste for getting deep into the nitty gritty of a landscape, flight-seeing tours tend to be something of a boreall that scenic beauty outside your window might as well be a poster, and it is still too far away to touch or truly experience. But this place is an exception. Seeing Glacier Bay's terrain from above allows for a deeper appreciation of its verticality and immense scale. From the window of a bush seaplane, you'll see the hundreds of cubic miles of ice on the Brady Icefield. Rivers of ice, such as the Lamplughand Grand Pacific Glaciers, will stretch out below you so that you can study the serrated ridges that clearly hint at their flow patterns. There also will be narrow fjords and bowl-like cirques, and you'll be able to see how immense ice flows carved them out of rock.
Bears and Whales and Orcas, Oh My!
Whatever you do at Glacier Bay, watching wildlife will be part of your experience. Each summer during their peak season, 20 to 25 humpback whales regularly feed in park waters, concentrating in the lower part of the bay. The impact of the sight of a humpback breaching clear out of the water only ratchets upward when you trade a cruise ship for a small tour boat, or a tour boat for a one-man kayak. At least 40 species of mammals roam the park. Among them are grizzlies, moose, and wolves as well as more than 220 known species of birds. However you do it, a trip up the bay will offer plenty of sightings along the shorelines. Don’t forget to keep an eye peeled for the blue glacier bear, a rare species of black bear wearing what appears to be a fashionable blue coat.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication