Glacier Bay – Alaska part 4

Like “WOW!” – just WOW!

June 21st and we took in our lines to sail the twenty-fine nm from Hoonah to Glacier Bay.  Visitors to the Bay are strictly limited, the better to protect the marine life and the fragile environment.  We are one of the lucky boats that have gotten permission to sail the bay for seven days.  The first twenty miles into the bay are a protected whale area and boats are strictly enjoined to stay in the middle of the passage, since the whales frequently feed in the shallow waters at the edges.  We been instructed to stay a minimum of one nm from the coast as we sail towards Bartlett Cove where we have to register with the Park Rangers.  As we close on the Ranger station, we hear them on the VHF scolding another boat for being only 0.85 nm from the coast.  The Rangers order him to change course immediately or face a fine.

Before we could gain entrance to the bay, we had to watch two videos on the net where a ranger explains all the rules involved with a visit.  When sailors have checked in at Bartlett Cove, they are frequently eager to get further into the bay and forget the 1 mile from the coast rule.  Breaking this rule or forgetting the speed limit in the park results in heavy fines.  Many areas are closed to boats, either because seals are nursing their pups or the environment is so fragile that it is best simply left alone.  Many of the islands are off-limits due to the bird life.  They mean the fines seriously; one warning is all you get.  Aside from the above, you are free to go or sail anywhere, just be mindful of the bears, wolves, whales, sea otters, seals etc.

Outside the ranger station is a skeleton of a humpback whale that died when a cruise ship hit it.  It is one thing to read that a humpback can grow to over fifteen meters long, it is another to stand face-to-face with a skeleton that big.  Seeing it, confirms what we said when a humpback swam up alongside Carpi when we sailed from Hawaii to Port Angeles.  The whale is bigger than Capri – much bigger.

Look at the size of that head
Enormous flipper

We cleared in with the park rangers and dropped anchor for the night in Bartlett Cove.  Use of the dock is limited to three hours. 

Next morning we got up early and sailed off into the adventure of a lifetime……………

Glacier Bay National Park consists of mountains, glaciers, forests, and waterroutes comprising over 3.3 million acres.  In order to protect this unique area, it was declared a National Monument in 1925.  Fifty-five years later, Jimmy Carter declared it a National Park.

Glacier Bay is a relatively new area, geologically speaking, since it has only existed for something like 250 years.  Before that, the area was one big glacier.  Glacier Bay is a product of “the little ice-age” that reached its maximum extent here around 1750.  As described in our blog about Hoonah, the Tlingit lived here until the encroaching ice forced them to move to the other side of the straits and found Hoonah.  In the summer, the Tlingit fished, picked berries and hunted.  In those times, the Glacier did not extend all the way into Icy Straits.

At the start of the 1700’s, the glacier grew quickly – “as fast as a dog can run” according to the oral legends handed down generation to generation amongst the Tlingit and by 1750, the Indians were forced to flee to the other side of the straits.

In 1794, Captain George Vancouver sailed this area on a voyage of discovery.  He charted the area and showed Glacier bay as one big glacier that calved directly out into Icy Straits.  Indeed, his chart shows the glacier extending five nm into the strait.  85 years later, John Muir, naturalist and preservationist sailed his canoe up into Glacier Bay.  He estimated that since Vancouver charted the area, the glacier had retreated approximately one nm per year.  This, of course, was before global warming, atmosphere pollution etc.

There are more than 20 glaciers in Glacier Bay, but less than a dozen are tidal glaciers, meaning they calve directly into the sea.  The rest have retreated so far that they calve on land; several have completely disappeared; only a huge gravel trench remains to show their previous existence.  We will be sailing into the upper reaches of the bay to find the glaciers that still calve into the ocean.

Glacier Bay runs up in three long arms (fjords), two run northwest and one large fjords runs northeast.  The weather, for once, is wonderful so we decided to sail to Reid’s Bay, 45 nm north to anchor for the night.

As we sailed north towards Reid’s Bay, we pass a multitude of sea otters, floating on their backs.  It looks almost as if they are lying on an air mattress, relaxing while they eat their fish.  When they swim on the surface on their backs, they swim just as people do – splashing with their legs and rowing with their “arms”.  If we get too close, they turn on their stomachs and dive.  Frequently we are close enough to have eye contact with them –they keep a wary eye on us, but once they feel we are harmless, they go back to eating or sleeping.  Many of the females have their pups lying on their stomachs, either nursing or sleeping.  They are cute beyond words – see for yourself:

In the mornings, especially the mornings, we see many humpbacks.  From the anchorages we can hear them spouting just outside.  Since our unforgettable experiences with whales on Mauri, we’ve been hoping that we will see them feeding here in Alaska.  They have a special technique.

A group of whales will send a lot of spouts up, then dive and swim in circles releasing air and thereby forming a large circular “wall of air bubbles”.  The fish inside the circle get confused and can’t escape.  A second group of whales will them come up from the bottom inside the circle with their mouths wide open, catching and swallowing anything there.  We see this performed many times but we always keep our distance – we don’t want to disturb the whales.  So we haven’t filmed it, besides not wanting to disturb them – we also don’t want to be hit by a whale swimming upwards with its mouth open (did anyone say Jonah?).

That they blow!
These two were photogenic enough to show their tails – note the ungodly beautiful background

As we sail northward into the giant bay, the landscape opens.  In front of us, giant peaks tower in a long unbroken line.  They are white with snow, almost down to the water and we can see glaciers then run down their sides in the valleys.  These mountains are over four kilometers high.  This is the view that you see on every tourist brochure advertising Glacier Bay.  We are incredibly lucky – the sun is shining from a cloudless sky and everything stands sharp in the clear air.  We say “Wow”, some many times that we finally just fall silent.  Words are poverty-stricken when trying to describe this.

We spent the night at anchor in Reid’s Inlet, a small bay in front of a glacier.  Reid’s Glacier has retreated and no longer calves directly into the water, but on the ground.  Despite this and despite the fact that it is a “dirty” glacier, meaning that since it is melting, rocks and dirt become visible in the ice – it is still incredible and very impressive.

Not as impressive as Tracy Arm – but still.  On one side of the boat, we are looking at the Glacier, the other side we are looking out across the bay at the snow-covered mountains dominating the other side of water.  This a view that you can’t buy for love nor money.

The next morning we sailed further up Johns Hopkins Inlet to Lamplugh Glacier.  This is a tidal glacier the runs completely out in the seawater.  We’re not sure how close we dare sail to the ice – there will be a lot of floes and probably some berg in front.

Looks a bit like a Sea Otter

The area in front of the glacier is filled with ice and we can’t get close.  Lamplugh is still calving.  The one side has retreated until the ground is just visible.  We can see that other boats, including a very small cruise ship have sent people ashore in either kayaks or dinghies.  We don’t have any possibility to do this, the water here is too deep to anchor in so one of us has to stay with the boat.  Happily, there is a motorboat near us that we have seen before and we can radio them and ask them to take some pictures of Capri in front of the glacier.  Great pictures as you can see:

Picture courtesy of M/V Restless IV

Further into Johns Hopkins Inlet, we approach the area that we are forbidden to sail into because of the nursing seals.  This area will open after July 15, when the seal pups are old enough to take care of themselves.  We can clearly see the glacier that comes down the valley as a giant staircase with many steps.

Impressive as all get out.

The glacier has formed a giant staircase as it flows down the mountain

It is still early so we turn and sail up the other northwestern arm – Tarr Inlet, where will see the famous Margerie Glacier.  Margerie is the glacier that is always pictured in the brochures. 

We are overwhelmed.

We decided that this is one photo opportunity we simply didn’t want to miss – Capri in the arctic in front of a glacier.  Little Capri is launched as we edge Capri in through the ice floes and bergs to get directly in front.  Margerie is calving the entire time.  It sounds like sharp claps of thunder when the ice breaks off the face and falls in the water.  So far, she has only calved small bergs in front of us.  We have to be careful, if she calves a big berg, it will displace so much water that it can easily raise a wave that is big enough to capsize our dinghy and perhaps even Capri.  Carsten, therefore, is not completely at ease when he jumps in the dinghy and paddles away from me to get the “perfect” picture.  I’ve promised him that if the currents are too strong for him to paddle back, that I will come and pick him up with Capri.  I won’t just leave him here amongst the “ice cubes” (on the other hand – hmmm, then I would inherit).  As he gets in the boat, I can see that aside from the camera, he is also carrying a hammer.  He is determined to hack off some more ice for our G&T’s.

The ultimate vacation photo – The Arctic – Capri in front of a glacier

While Carsten is in the dinghy, several large “thunderclaps” sound and Margerie calves small bergs into the water.  I kept a sharp lookout for waves in case I need to rescue Carsten in a hurry.  He won’t last long in these icy waters if he capsizes.  He is understandably also nervous and says, “let’s get the hell out of here” as soon as he is back on board.  We didn’t take a selfie in front of the glacier – but I did take a picture of Carsten.

What a pic – thanks Vinni!

We managed to take the ultimate holiday picture.  Arctic – Capri in front of a glacier.  Not many can beat that.  For those of you who are nervous about those sorts of things – Carsten did break off a large chunk of glacial ice and we will have ice for our G&T’s the next many evenings.

G&T’s with 10,000 year old ice – once in a lifetime

After this unforgettable (another unforgettable) experience – after all this is what we sailed more than 7000nm from Polynesia to see – we will celebrate the summer solstice completely alone in Blue Moose Cove.  With glacial ice in our drinks.  Blue Moose is empty when we arrive.  The only inhabitants are two dolphins that patrol the cove, catching fish.  Once Capri is anchored, they lose interest in her.  The view here is magnificent (exactly as it is everywhere else here).  Out in the big bay we can hear the whales spouting.  The feeding out there is intense.  Bald Eagles soar over us constantly, looking for a fish to grab.

We scan the coastline looking sings of wolves or bear.  Our Pilot book says they abound here, but alas, While everyone else who visits Alaska sees grizzly bears – we have yet to spot one.  We hope we will manage it before we sail south.

Ungodly beautiful scenery everywhere we look

Our next night will be spent in picturesque, but before sailing over there, we will sail the length of a tidal inlet that is so rarely visited that it doesn’t even have a name.  This is probably the closest we can come to being explorers.  There is no one here.  We see a couple of dolphins.  In by the coast we see whales spout, one of them is nice enough to give us great view of her tail as she dives.  The cliffs and hillsides rise directly out of the water.  Waterfalls jump from the tops of the cliffs.  The inlet is so narrow that we have no reception on our VHF.  Our GPS loses contact with the satellites and stops working.  The silence is deafening.  The sound of our engine echoes back from the cliff walls.  This must be the ultimate gunkholing experience.

North Sandy Cove lies behind a series of small islands where it is protected from the wind.  We are not alone here – there are three other boats.  It doesn’t matter – there is lots of room.  Others live here – horseflies.  Lots of horseflies.  There are so many that we can’t sit in the cockpit.  Carsten swats them left and right, but even after 31 flies bite the dust, there are more than when he started.  We give up and go below.  We’ve happily not had any mosquitos or flies til now – but apparently the season has begun.

Since it is the summer solstice, morning comes early (2:30).  We are up, although not quite that early, weigh anchor and head north into the last remaining fjord – Muir Inlet.  There is no tidal glacier in Muir Inlet, but the view is fantastic.

We spent last evening talking about our vagabond lives.  We realized when we made the turn at Margerie Glacier that it signified the farthest point of our journey.  It was the turning point.  Hereinafter, all the miles we put under our keel will be miles heading back to Denmark.  Until now, the miles have all been heading outward bound – now they are homeward bound.  Oh, it will take us a couple of years (maybe more) before we are back in Denmark and there will be swings and roundabouts on the way, but we’ve made the decision.

Capri is bound for Denmark and we are heading homeward.

That is difficult for us to internalize.  We love our lives as boat bums, but everything must have an end.  Our age is beginning to catch up with us.  Anne-Sophie and Jamie have decided to stay in Denmark and not move back to the US, so now we have grandchildren living in Denmark.  We’d like to see more of them.

Of course, we still have a couple of more years of the boat bum life.

Our last night inside the bay will be spent in Shag Cove, an idyllic little anchorage under a towering cliff.  Unfortunately, the horseflies also call this anchorage their home and we are forced to spend the evening below.  When they bite I get small red boils that itch like mad.

We spent the last night once again in Bartlett Cove, checking out.  In the morning, we crossed the straits to Hoonah.  We owe the harbormaster there for the three nights we spent there before going to Glacier Bay.  We tried to pay any number of times, but it was the weekend and then he had a day off, so he said we could just pay him when we came back. 

From here, our trip south will be the reverse of our trip north to here (with some side visits).  Before we leave Alaska, we are determined to see some grizzlies and therefore we set sail to visit pack Creek National Forest, renowned for its many grizzlies.  I can tell you now that we had a most unusual grizzly experience – one that very, very few people have had.

So you can look forward to our next blog.

2 thoughts on “Glacier Bay – Alaska part 4

  1. Enjoyed following your adventures since our first short encounter at the fuel dock on Orcas Island in Sept 2020. How fortunate to cross path again with you here in Alert Bay. Maybe the stars will align as we make our way south and be able to connect with you in person. Thank you for the inspiration!
    Marie and Pierre SV Viva

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