Glacier Bay is a 65 mile long, Y-shaped fjord off the Inside Passage, just a little way from Skagway. In 1794, Captain Vancouver sailed to the entrance and met a wall of ice, the Grand Pacific Glacier. This was just 50 years or so since the last mini Ice Age had peaked around 1750, and since that time the glacier has retreated 65 miles creating Glacier Bay in the process. This area has the fastest retreating glaciers in the world and one of the wonderful things is that it has enabled scientists to study the renewal of the land and sea area after such a rapid retreat.
Now first of all, what is a glacier? We all learned in school that a glacier is a river of ice. Well, that's about all I learned and I never really understood much about them at all. High in the mountains, where huge amounts of snow fall, and where it does not all melt in the summer time, this snow accumulates and packs down. Under the increasing pressure of new layers it is transformed into ice, typically blue in colour due to the crystal structure of the ice. When the cirque or area between the mountains, which is roughly bowl shaped becomes full the ice begins to overflow at the lowest point of the cirque, just like lava running down the side of a volcano. Thus begins the flow of the glacier and as it moves the tremendous forces gather rocks and boulders and incorporate these into the ice. The rate of movement of each glacier is different, depending on the pressure at the source. Tidewater glaciers, where they run down to the sea, are very impressive sights and ar
e often hundreds of feet high, with an equal depth below the water. Large chunks, often as big as large buildings, fall off into the sea with tremendous noise in a process known as calving. These bobbing icebergs float along the surface until finally they melt and the area around a glacier is often covered with fresh water which floats on top of the salt water. Smaller chunks fall off and they serve as favourite haul-out places for harbour seals and sea lions.
So, on this grey overcast day, we navigated up the bay, amazing at the incredible scenery of the snow covered mountains rising out of the bay, with softened rounded rocky edges at the lower reaches due to having been ground down by the glacier. This whole huge area surrounding Glacier Bay is designated as Glacier Bay National Park and in addition it has been designated a World Heritage Site. This morning we took on board a park ranger from the area who narrated over the load speaker system throughout the day the highlights of what we were seeing, as well as the history of the area.
There are basically twelve tidewater glaciers in the bay and we passed by several and stopped at others. One, the John Hopkins Glacier, is out of bounds to cruise ships since the harbour seals calve at this time of the year on the pieces of ice that fall off that glacier. The seal population is decreasing for some reason so every chance is given to them to reproduce undisturbed. We spent most time before the two very different glaciers at the top of the bay. One, the Marjorie Glacier, has a spectacular blue cast and remains fairly pristine. It travels very fast, up to 6 to 8 feet per day and so does not pick up the rubble that slower moving glaciers do. Adjacent to it is the Grand Pacific Glacier which had receded from the mouth of the bay back into Canada but it has recently advanced again into Alaska, pushing and grinding all kinds of debris before it and thus its face is black.
We spent a lot of time on the deck, ever hopeful that a huge chunk of ice would fall off but there were only one or two or three small falls. It was bitterly cold so we were well bundled up and I took lots of photos but the day was very grey so who knows what they may be like. We also saw several seals in the water plus a few sea lions. Black kittywakes were in abundance as there is a colony of about 3000 who nest there. Several people, including the ranger, saw mountain goats early this morning, but we missed that as we were not yet out on the deck.
One of the things that the ranger pointed out to us while we were going up the bay was how the vegetation changed. Nearer the mouth of the bay were spruce, giving way to alder and cottonwoods and then stunted willows and finally the mosses and lichens that start the regeneration process after the retreat of the glaciers.
After we left the two glaciers the ranger gave a talk in the lounge about the abundant wildlife in the area. Whales are often seen at the entrance to the bay and the marine life is very diverse with seals, sea otters and sea lions. In the bay kelp has colonized itself and small schools of fish and larger fish provide plenty of sustenance to the food chain. Moose, mountain goats and brown bear are abundant on land, having populated the area as the land regenerated.
This area has been home to the Hoonah Tlingit Indian band for 12,000 years and their history tells of being chased out of their settlements by the advancing glaciers. A young lady member of this tribe also gave a talk today about how they have lived off the land and sea for all those years in this inhospitable region.
The lady park ranger, who has worked in this region for the past 13 years, emphasized what a special region this is. She kept speaking about this last bastion of "sweet peace" and it certainly came across that way to me.
As we slowly sailed up the bay looking at the seemingly lifeless landscape we felt that here was an opportunity to get away from the daily scurry of life and appreciate how nature has its own cycle and how in this place we have no effect on it. We just come to observe and wonder at it all and enjoy the "sweet peace" that we find here.
Join me tomorrow in Ketchikan, one of the rainiest places on this continent, with a average rainfall of 160 inches per annum. Mmm, I wonder if I'll need my umbrella.