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Tidewater Tapestry

from my 1991 cruise through Glacier Bay:

From 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., we cruised through spectacular scenery spying abundant wildlife on the shores. We visited four tidewater glaciers, hearing the popping and cracking of ice (it's clear why the natives named this place 'Thunder Bay'), floating through iceberg-laden waters, and occasionally seeing new bergs calve (break off) from the glacier face.
The prolific wildlife we saw while cruising was but the beginning of a parade of animals that would accent our whole trip. In the first few hours, I sighted a humpback whale that ended up as the only whale of the vacation. Farther up-bay we saw sea lions, Dall sheep, bald eagles, and gulls, and had our first peek at the amusing puffin. This small bird, about the size of a duck, is best described as a penguin sporting a toucan's bill.
A low ceiling of clouds threatened rain throughout the morning, though it only sprinkled for a few minutes. Later, the clouds lifted enough to get glimpses of some surrounding peaks. On the return to Bartlett Cove, we sight patches of blue skies and sun, though the clouds remained in control.

Monday, 28 August 2023, Glacier Bay NP

How fitting that my last adventure on this trip matched the first adventure of my 1991 trip: an all-day cruise to see the retreating glaciers. I had my bags packed for flying - now I must put airport connections out of my mind; time to see ice!

The taxi driver picked me up at 6:30 for the 7:15 cruise. Life is so low-key here - he'd driven me home last night, but said to pay him for both rides in the morning.

The boat is rated for 100 passengers, but only 28 boarded today. It felt like a reunion of the Park-Chasers committee - Michelle (from Kotzebue) was there with her parents; Janet (from yesterday's kayak tour) boarded with her husband, as did Holly (also from yesterday). Ranger Karley served as our tour guide, the official NPS agent to narrate our voyage. Overcast skies and fog greeted us as we pushed off, but Karley assured us that the weather gods would soon clear things up.

As we cruised up the bay, I reflected on how only 350 years ago, this area housed a broad, verdant valley with a great glacier looming dormant in the distance. But then for 70 years, the Little Ice Age cooled things down, and the glacier surged forth, gouging out the land from 200 to 1400 feet below sea level, forcing the indigenous tribes to flee. In the 240 years since then, the glacier has retreated, leaving behind a new bay extending 65 miles.

As we waited for the skies to clear, we floated by South Marble Island. Here we saw the wildlife which attracts throngs to the bay: the colorful puffins;

otters playing in the water; Steller sea lions raising a ruckus.

The boat lingered off the islands, giving us time to enjoy the fecundity of nature.

By 8:30, we had the first hints of sunshine.

Before long, the skies had cleared, fully exposing the magnificent scenery surrounding us.

We cruised further up-bay before the ship slowed again for wildlife - this time, mountain goats! We watched as they navigated the steep, rocky slopes ground away by the glacier not so long ago.

The tour boat offers a drop-off service in the bay. The boat approached a rocky shore, put down a ladder, and a couple passengers got off with their camping equipment.

Tomorrow the boat would pick them up and bring them back to civilization.

The further we traveled up the bay, the more glacier debris we came across. "These pieces are not large enough to be called 'icebergs'," Karley explained to us. "An iceberg must rise at least five meters (fifteen feet) above the water. Pieces ranging from one to five meters high are called 'bergy bits'; pieces under a meter are called 'growlers'. But to make it easy, we usually call anything smaller than an iceberg a bergy bit."

The boat continued north until it reached Margerie Glacier, the main attraction.

The Grand Pacific Glacier merged with it here when I last visited in 1991, but that glacier has retreated further, grounded and no longer reaching the bay. Due to its alignment (it extends 21 miles to snowfields on the eastern side of the Fairweather Range), we couldn't see the immensity of Margerie until we were astride it.

As I looked on, dwarfed by the mass of ice, I noticed two canoeists paddling toward our ship.

I'm sure Karley lectured them as they pulled up; due to the unpredictable nature of calving, boaters are warned to stay a good distance away from the face. Waves generated by ice falling from the glacier could easily capsize a canoe or kayak.

The captain parked our boat for a spell. Karley warned us that she couldn't guarantee we'd see an iceberg (or bergy bit) calve while we waited... but we lucked out.

While stopped there, the boat's crew snared a growler and brought it on board, where Karley displayed it for us.

Following our break, the boat turned south. It soon turned west into another inlet. At the head of this branch, the Johns Hopkins Glacier towered over the water. Johns Hopkins currently stands as the only glacier still advancing on the eastern side of the Fairweather Range. The largest tidewater glacier in the park, it stretches one mile wide and up to 300 feet high on its face, extending up to 12 miles into the surrounding mountains.

We did not see any calving while we lingered nearby. (That includes 'submarine calving', where a chunk of ice separates from the submerged part of the glacier, then shoots (without warning, often explosively) out of the water.

Sailing away from Johns Hopkins, we passed waterfalls of glacial melt coursing down the rocks of the inlet.

Along the way, we passed one final tidewater glacier, the Lamplugh Glacier. Karley rated it as her favorite, due to the remarkable blue tint in the ice.

This glacier has retreated, and only at high tide does the saltwater reach the glacier face.

After a quick float-by of Reid Glacier,

the boat set its course for home. Again, the landscape impressed me.

Further down the bay, we saw land rebounding from the icy grip of the glaciers.

Green trees and bushes now filled lands covered in white two hundred years ago.

Halfway back, the boat stopped to pick up campers it'd delivered two days before.

When the boat slowed again, Karley got on the microphone. "Look to starboard! You'll see a raft of otters."

(Yes, 'raft' is one of the collective nouns for a group of otters, along with bevy, family, and romp.)

Later, I caught a bald eagle in flight.

It's all over now but for the hours of flying, of rushing through airports. I enjoyed the remaining time on the boat,

reflecting on the wonderful adventures this state hosted for me. Chatting with my fellow park-chasers, I let a calmness wash over me, inviting it to infiltrate my muscles, numbing me for the long journey home


That serenity didn't last long. I got to the airport in plenty of time, only to find out that a dense fog in Juneau had grounded the commuter airlines all morning - a person on the 6 a.m. flight only arrived at noon. The airlines worked hard to recover when it cleared, but the three planes flying to Juneau at 4:40 were all 20-25 minutes late. Once we took off, though, I had one last memorable flight.

Did you notice the cockpit dashboard bouncing in the lower left of the frame? That's a testament to the GoPro's image stabilization - the turbulence over the mountains had my hands going up and down, but the horizon stayed steady.

Given the small airport in Juneau, I had no problem checking my bags and making the connection - but not enough time to wait in line at the only cafe to get dinner. As a consolation, I got upgraded to the exit row on the flight to Seattle.

That left a tight connection to Chicago. I lost precious minutes when my laptop-roller bag disappeared from the overhead bin. I had to wait until the entire plane debarked before the flight attendant could go back and find where it had gotten moved. I had to run across the terminal, but managed to make my flight (one of the last five to board), where I again scored an exit-row upgrade. Even better - the red-eye flight was half empty, and I was the only person seated in either exit row.

The final flight into Philadelphia was uneventful. When I landed, I turned my cell phone off airplane mode to find a text from American Airlines waiting for me. "Your checked duffel bag was offended that you abandoned it several times on your journey, so it decided to spend an extra night in Seattle. It's vacationing without you!"

Yes, it showed up later in the day. What's a long journey without at least one glitch!

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