Glacier Bay

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All but about 5000 of the 600000 annual visitors to Glacier Bay come on cruise ships. There are no roads or trails and at the top of the fjord the nearest road is 65 miles (105 km) away. 

It is wilderness and, in geological terms, relatively young. The bay was a forested valley traditionally inhabited by the Tlingit people until the glacier extended about 700 years ago at a speed compared to that of a running dog. According to one of the presentations we heard today, that speed has been confirmed by scientific measurements of trees felled by the advancing glacier with the bottoms of their trunks immersed in gravel carried by the glacier and the tops sheared off. A bit less than 300 years ago the ocean penetrated the space left as the glacier receded after excavating the valley to hundreds of feet below sea level. Vegetation and wildlife are still recolonising the new landscape formed by the glacier. There are still numerous glaciers in the park and some reach down to the sea. It is those that are the greatest attraction for cruising tourists.

Our day started shortly before 6:00 am when I looked out to see sunrise colours in a mostly clear sky. We have been very fortunate with weather. The places we have visited claim up to 300 days of rain each year but we have had unbroken sunny weather with just a few clouds to make the skies interesting and no rain at all yet.

Soon after 6:00 a small boat delivered the park rangers and cultural guide who would provide commentary to inform our visit. We headed up to the forward lounge on level 10, found seats, obtained coffee, and waited for the presentations at 7:00. That provided some insights into the geological and biological history of the park and the culture of the traditional inhabitants.

We spent a little time on the outside deck admiring the view before going for breakfast on Level 9. Majella spotted a Canadian couple, Ray and Judy, whom we had met at dinner earlier in the cruise. We sat with them and agreed to meet for dinner at 6:00 in the dining room. 

The rest of the morning was spent on various outside decks enjoying the icy mountainous scenery as the Westerdam idled up the fjord. We saw sea lions on a rocky island, a pod of orcas, and several groups of sea otters lazing in the icy water. As we approached the Margerie glacier at about 10:00 the surface of the water was strewn with small pieces of broken off ice.

It was very difficult to have any clear sense of scale at the glacier. We were told it was about a mile (1.6 km) across where it meets the water and about 250 feet (75 m) from water level to top of the ice wall but the whole landscape is immense and there are no easy reference points of known size. Our ship stopped for an hour by the glacier and did a slow turn so that it was visible from every side. We may have been a kilometre or a bit more from the face of the glacier but again that was difficult to judge without some reference object of known size. People who had been before were impressed that it was the closest they had been and that we were the only ship there at the time.

This glacier is moving at about 6 feet (2 m) each day which means there is a substantial amount of ice breaking off each day. We were warned to expect lots of groaning and other noises generated by the movement of the glacier but, whether it was wind direction or ambient noise on the ship, we did not hear much of that sound. We did hear some loud cracks as pieces of ice shifted position relative to other pieces and we saw a few, mostly small, chunks fall off into the water in the calving process. Those events were impressive and seeing a large piece detach would be awesome but mostly, after the initial gasps of amazement, watching a glacier is like watching paint dry but with a continuing sense of wonder at seeing the end product of hundreds or thousands of years of snowfall and slow flow.

There was a second glacier in the same inlet but it does not end in sheet ice cliffs at the waters edge. Instead there is a low hill of moraine pushed up in front of the ice so that it looks like a dirty hummock. That is probably similar to the glacier that forced the Tlingit out of the valley as it advanced, at much greater speed, several hundred years ago. Nobody seemed much interested in that glacier.

The Westerdam cruised back down the fjord passing another cruise ship coming up as we went. That was the only other ship or sign of human life we saw today. About a quarter of the way back we took a sharp right turn up another branch, past a glacier fronting the water and around Jaw Point, named for the jaw dropping spectacle around the corner. There was another glacier, John Hopkins, coming down to the water against a backdrop of jagged mountain peaks. We found out later that we were one of the first ships to be allowed into that arm after 1 September when it is usually closed out.

By the time we had turned in the tight inlet and were headed back to the main arm it was after 1:00 pm. We headed to the Lido for lunch and then to the main theatre area from presentations by a park ranger followed by another by the Tlingit cultural guide. Both were interesting, especially the second, and we left with a better appreciation of the history of the region.

The afternoon involved another presentation by the land journey specialist, Scott, about disembarkation on Sunday. We had already received our disembarkation package with printed instructions and luggage labels. His presentation was somewhat repetitive of one he had given earlier in the week and of the material in our package. Nevertheless there were people asking questions that had been answered in one or both of those. We left as soon as we could.

Tonight was our second gala dinner night. Soon after 5:00 pm we were dressed in our ‘finery’ and down to the piano bar for pre-dinner drinks with an ocean view. Dinner with Ray and Judy was enjoyable, with good food and interesting conversation about life and travels. After dinner we went to the musical presentation in the main stage area. After that and before bedtime, Majella went to work on her jigsaw puzzle and I enjoyed a performance of Latin music by the quintet in the Lincoln Centre Stage area.