Glacier's Retreat

By Ken Leghorn, of Alaska Discovery

Formed this century by a receding glacier, Icy Bay gives one an idea of what explorer John Muir saw 100 years ago.

Is there an unknown sea kayaker's fantasy land in Alaska? A place where no more than a handful of people have ever disturbed the tranquil waters, where glaciers tumble to the sea from high mountains and meet wildlife and wildflowers in undiminished numbers?

Recently, a group of paddlers discovered such a place. Along the broad arc of the Gulf of Alaska, 100 miles west of Glacier Bay National Park, enveloped in the rugged sweep of beaches at the foot of the 18,000-foot Mt. St. Elias, lies a new bay: Icy Bay.

Icy Bay is well-named. Created just this century, Icy Bay's massive retreat of ice gives one an idea of what explorer John Muir saw 100 years ago when he first visited nearby Glacier Bay: pristine fjords choked with ice, and growing visibly larger each year—or even month—as the glaciers vacate the ocean-filled valleys they have carved.

And if Muir had explored this region in his day, he would not have encountered Icy Bay at all, only a massive tongue of ice, lapping at the Pacific Ocean.

Icy Bay now stretches 40 miles inland, and varies from four to ten miles wide. Its south shore is protected from the crashing waves of the open Pacific by a long, low neck of sand, the Pt. Riou spit, which marks the last forward advance of the glaciers.

At the head of the bay lie three deep fjords and the glaciers that formed them: the Tyndall, Yahtse, and Guyot. In between is 40 miles of unsurpassed wilderness, a paddling and camping paradise.

Our June venture was an exploratory kayak trip organized by Alaska Discovery, a Juneau-based guiding company. The trip began with a spectacular one-hour charter flight out of Yakutat, Alaska. Our route west gave us close-up views of the big-as-Rhode-Island Malaspina Glacier, and the "galloping" Hubbard Glacier—which, at times, has been "clocked" advancing forward more than 100 feet a day. Flying over the sprawling 50 mile wide face of the Malaspina, Icy Bay came slowly into view, dazzling us with its iceberg jewels and deep blue water.

We landed on the Riou spit, and set up our first camp on a sandy beach inside the calm bay, with the roar of the open Pacific only 300 meters away. Strawberry plants stretched on for acres across open meadows. An afternoon hike took us to the seemingly endless sandy beaches of the outer coast and then along the spit where we encountered large nesting concentrations of Arctic and Aleutian terns—dainty gull-like birds who spend their winters in Antarctica.

That evening two brown bears strolled nonchalantly past our camp, followed minutes later by a young moose. At dusk, coyotes began yapping and we went to bed, enchanted.

The next week was spent in relaxed exploration in our highly stable Klepper folding kayaks as we progressed along the southern shore. Campsites were abundant, each one extraordinary in its scenic splendor. The backdrop to every camp was formed by the gleaming white mass of Mt. St. Elias rising directly out of Tyndall Fjord to its painted 18,000-ft. summit. This huge mountain, with its captivating 15,000-ft. south face and miles of hanging glaciers, was often reflected at dusk in the calm waters of the bay in perfect silhouette, broken only by the occasional ripple of a passing seal or porpoise.

The ice bergs, which at times lie solid across the entire bay, always allowed us passage along the south shore. Only once did we fear being ice bound at a camp. The previous evening we had paddled out to the edge of the ice pack, a mile offshore, to drift silently among the bergs watching dozens of seals clamber up onto the ice while the sun settled slowly into the St. Elias Range. At camp the next morning we awoke to find the ice had inexplicably moved in a solid mass against the beach, giving us the impression that we would be landbound for the day—or days. However, high tide brought in a narrow berg-free path along the shore, and soon we were on our way, winding through the ice in single file.

Easy paddle days were mixed with days spent exploring the Malaspina Glacier's forelands on foot. From one camp north of the Caetani River outwash we hiked up onto a lobe of the Malaspina. This is wild country, seldom trampled by human tread. Instead the area is covered with tracks of moose, wolves, bear, coyotes, and fox. But nothing prepared us for the unforgettable scene that unfolded before us.

An easy walk up gravel bars brought us over a moraine hill where we could just make out 5 wolves surrounding a cow moose. She had placed herself in the middle of a swift stream, where the wolves couldn't keep their ground. Although they attempted to seize her for hours, she held fast, and, finally, near dusk the wolves gave up and wandered off.

In addition to this splendor of natural history and geology, the serious birdwatchers on the trip were delighted with fascinating bird sightings. We saw large groups of nesting Aleutian and Arctic terns, kittiwakes, oystercatchers, various warblers, brandt and Canadian geese, sandhill cranes, jaegers, scoters, murrelets, ducks, and a flock of trumpeter swans.

One significant sighting was of a single male bobolink. This misguided bird of the lower 48 has had only one other recorded sighting in Alaska. We hypothesized sadly about the lonely fate and unrequited love we expected to befall this nomad, merrily singing his bubbling song on the shores of Icy Bay.

We were nomads, too, beyond the reach our own home ranges. But as we folded our boats and packed up our gear, we knew the spectacular flight home and reuniting with our friends and family was not going to be enough to wholly cover our sadness of leaving such a wondrous world.

Special thanks to Ken Leghorn, owner of Alaska Discovery and leader of the Icy Bay Expedition, for sharing this adventure.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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