Kayaking Glacier Bay

The Beardslee Island Group Offers Pristine Scenery and Waters
Paddling Glacier Bay
Paddlers slice calm waters along Glacier Bay. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Discovery)

My wife, Laurie, and I leave Bartlett Cove too late, half an hour after high tide, and a noticeable current is already running. Against this ebb tide we must make our way into the Beardslees. The excitement of being here at last, kayaking waters of Glacier Bay, powers our paddles, and we slide easily through the placid waters.

The islands and islets are as we had imagined, densely forested with trees, presenting an even, sculptured contour. Many of the low-lying islands have few trees, or trees that are not very tall. At first we attribute this to poor soil nutrients; then it slowly dawns that these islands are new. They have only recently become islands due to uplift, and the forest upon them is much younger than those on islands of higher elevations. We are elated to recognize graphic evidence of rapid geologic change in Glacier Bay.

Alders line the shore like a landscape border, as if appointed to separate the high-tide line of the coniferous forest. In many places, salt-tolerant rye grass borders the alders at the high-tide mark. Shore is always nearby, which reinforces our affinity for the land even though we are traveling over water. We slow our synchronized, rhythmic strokes and let the friendly, peaceful feel of the place sink between low and high tide. We can detect only a gentle tug of currents—the islands divide the movement in all directions.

It is afternoon now, and we know that capricious breezes are whipping the channel just a few miles to the west. But nestled in the protection of the island group, the wind is gentle coaxing only, small ripples on the water through which our sleek boat slips without resistance. Bald eagles look down on us from perches in spruce along the shore. Some flap away ponderously, their wingspans dwarfing those of all other birds in the air. One eagle feeds in the intertidal zone. We decline to approach close enough to identify the meal. A pair of harlequin ducks feed close to shore, keeping a close eye on us. The male is in breeding plumage, a kaleidoscope of chestnuts, blacks and whites. A raft of scaup paddle by, the drakes saucy in their black-and-white tuxedos. A haunting, half-human cry comes from a grayish bird some distance away, which binoculars confirm is a red-necked loon. In less than an hour, we spot our first black bear. The animal is across the channel from us, feeding at the edge of the alders on shoots of rye grass. We land on our side and watch the grazing creature for half an hour. The bear pays no attention. As we look we are further mesmerized by the odd combination of raw wilderness and peaceful welcome; both mark this island group. Later in the day two moose appear, a cow and nearly grown calf, grazing in the rye across the channel.

After making camp, we talk about our first day in Glacier Bay. We are happy with our immersion in nature. We have seen pigeon guillemots, their sooty black accented only by white wing bars until they fly. Then brilliant, red-orange feet churn madly along the surface until their flying speed is achieved. Gulls, cormorants, grebes and mergansers have entertained us all day. We have almost grown accustomed to the smooth, round heads of the harbor seals, eye-bobbing at the surface, whose sad eyes watch our passage.

We stash our bear-proof food containers some distance from the tent, and turn in. The dulling concerns of our ordinary life have slipped away and are not missed. The sun blazes orange, then, in the final moments, fractures through spruce into rays. The glow remains for a long time, and true darkness does not come.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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