Glacier Bay

The second kayaking trip I did in 2009 was a tour through the waters outside the entrance of Glacier Bay, back up to see the glaciers filling the bay’s west arm, and then out to the visitor’s center near the bay’s entrance. This was the best leg of the 2009 trip, the best kayaking trip I’ve ever been done and, indeed, the best trip of any sort I’ve ever done. Simply incredible wildlife, great, varied terrain, and excellent weather throughout. This trip totaled 300 miles of paddling, which I did in 12 days.

Glacier Bay is at the northern end of the Alaskan panhandle, and getting there from Prince Rupert was a bit complicated. In retrospect I maybe should have taken a car ferry up north, but instead I drove inland to Skagway, at the northern end of the inside passage, and took a passenger ferry close to the bay’s entrance.

This was a long drive, about 900 miles on paved two lane roads. Highway 37 is pretty remote, great scenery, the only way to drive to Alaska from BC other than the Alaskan Highway itself. Had a mild SNAFU early on when I tried to get gas at Meziadin Junction (as indicated by a sign at the start of the highway), only to find the station a wreck that burnt out years ago. I cut 40 miles off the highway to the town of Stewart on fumes, stayed the night and left with a full tank the next morning. Stewart looked like a great town though and I would have loved to spend more time there. The first real glacier I saw, while driving to the town:

From here the route winds north through BC, joins the Alaskan Highway and enters the Yukon, then follows the Klondike Highway 100 miles down to Skagway. This whole route is a great drive, though my favorite part was along this last section, which runs past several beautiful lakes (the largest, Tagish Lake, is below), before climbing over a pass in the coastal mountains and dropping into town. All super dramatic and quite the introduction to Alaska.

Spent the night in Skagway (major entry point for folks back in the Klondike Gold Rush, now a tourist town mostly catering to cruise ships) and took a passenger ferry the next morning with my kayak and duffel bags of gear to the town of Hoonah, 25 miles southeast of the entrance to the bay. I put in right next to the ferry terminal and was off.

View Glacier Bay Trip in a larger map

A few hours out of Hoonah I got a taste for how the rest of the trip would go. I was watching the shore and saw my first ever brown bears, a sow and cub. The sow noticed me and the two quickly moved inland, and as they did I got distracted by a humpback whale blowing a few hundred feet away. So many times this would happen during the trip, all sorts of animals effectively competing for my attention. Especially outside the entrance to Glacier Bay and near its mouth, the strong tidal currents and abundant food make for a huge amount of life and quite a spectacle.

The first major spot I got to was Point Adolphus, opposite the entrance to Glacier Bay. Strong currents here attract whales, and when I passed by there were at least half a dozen. Hard to say exactly (and no photos) due to a stiff breeze I was struggling against, which dropped after rounding the point. Nice scenery in this area, the usual northwest trees but nice pebbly beaches. Not long after Adolphus, near my campsite:

I set out early the next morning and saw some groups of otters and puffins (another first) heading west towards the ocean. The best sight of the day though was a group of several whales that passed close as I crossed to the Inian Islands, the last barrier islands between the bay and the ocean. There were a few private boats passing through too, and we all stopped to watch the whales. Very good views, they came in close and did not care a whit about us.

The Inian Islands were fun to explore for a few hours, tons of birds as usual and a lot of Steller sea lions about. Very picturesque, the spot I stopped for lunch:

I spent the rest of the day poking around Taylor Bay, just inside the ocean, and Brady glacier at the back of it. This is a massive glacier, the biggest I’ve seen, a wall of ice two miles wide and hundreds of feet high. For miles in front of the glacier the bay is silted up and full of brush and trees and moose and bear tracks. So I pretty quickly decided against trying to get all the way to the glacier itself, and admired it from afar.

After camping near the entrance to Taylor Bay, the next day I headed back in to Glacier Bay. The best time was during lunch, stopped at another sunny, pebbly beach across from the North Passage between the mainland and Lemesurier island, watching several whales feed just a few hundred feet from shore. Yeesh.

After lunch, rode the wind downhill to Bartlett Cove for the night and registered with the park service the next day. Bartlett is the only place in Glacier Bay with any sort of development, but seems a good gateway to the park. Ferries, rental outfits, a lodge, and road links to Gustavus, a town just outside the park with an airport. Bartlett at sunset:

Crossing back to the west side of the bay, I had the best encounter of the trip. Noticed some blows to my right, and pretty quickly saw they were orcas. Got my camera out, and they just kept coming, making a beeline right for me. Three of them bobbing along, passing just feet from my kayak. Watched them through the water, swimming under me, then moving on. I sat there for minutes, stunned, then resumed paddling. Sometime later I learned that the orcas in the bay generally stay in small packs like this, hunting seals and such. So I figure they were seeing if I was food.

Winding up the bay into the west arm was fairly uneventful. Tons of birds and nice scenery. The main point of interest was a sort of shortcut I took after being tipped off by a ranger back at Bartlett Cove. Instead of traversing around the long and probably a little dull Gilbert Peninsula, I went behind it, through a nice estuary and a few miles to the back of Scidmore bay. This left a mile long crossing to get across the peninsula, but at this tide it was (almost) all wet and I only had to portage a few hundred yards. Even so, this still kicked my butt and after dragging the kayak and carrying gear to a long series of pools, it was fun floating the kayak along the rest of the way to rejoin the west arm. Some birds at the head of Scidmore, and the view from the portage.

Crossing from Scidmore left me most of the way back in the west arm, and about five miles from the first major glacier in the bay, Reid glacier. I camped a half mile or so away in Reid inlet, and explored around the foot of the glacier the next morning. This is a great glacier to explore. Not a true tidewater glacier (at least, not when I was there), Reid ends over silt and rocks a few hundred feet from the beach, and after landing you can walk right up to its base, through the creeks and streams of silty icemelt pouring off it. Maybe not the best idea, but the glacier did not seem active and wasn’t dropping any ice. The foot has a lot of blue ice, not abraded by wind and so forth, and is much cleaner than most glaciers, really nice. View of the foot, and from the mouth of Reid inlet.

A few miles past Reid is Lamplugh glacier, a true tidewater glacier that was much more active than Reid, with one good sized ice collapse while I watched and a river of water pouring out of the middle of the glacier into the bay. The water in front of the glacier was filling up with ice, and from here to the back of the west arm I would be constantly paddling past icebergs.

Lamplugh is at the head of Johns Hopkins inlet, at the back of which is Johns Hopkins glacier. This is a wild place. The inlet is narrow, about a mile wide, and choked with icebergs, so not many boats go back to the glacier, and I don’t think many kayaks do either. Paddling to the back of the inlet and the glacier was an incredible experience. The walls of the inlet are steep, smooth granite, waterfalls pouring down and a few minor glaciers on the sides. The only analogy I can think of is if someone filled Yosemite valley halfway up with water and ice.

Anyways, the glacier was actively calving so I kept my distance, watching from a bar about a mile away. The air coming off the glacier was chilling and the inlet is pretty inhospitable to camping, so I eventually made my way back closer to the entrance for the night. Some ice while heading to the back of the inlet, and the glacier itself.

That night I made my only real screwup of the trip. I was camping near a few other kayakers, a guide and his clients (one of only three times that summer I camped with or near anyone else), and the guide came over to chat while I set up. Nice folks, offered me some leftover dinner (yes please), but in the fuss I left my paddle on the beach overnight and the tide took it. Not a huge problem, I had a spare paddle, as I carry for all non-trivial paddles of any length, and after a couple hours of fruitless searching — try finding a black and white paddle in a sea of black and white icebergs — I had to shrug and carry on.

I had one more inlet in the west arm to check out, which was Tarr inlet. This is wider and friendlier than Johns Hopkins, and seems to get most of the boat and cruise boat traffic. Though even with the great weather, I only rarely saw other traffic: one or two cruise boats a day, and very few private boats other than a cluster anchored in Reid inlet. I think that after Johns Hopkins my senses were overloaded and I wasn’t able to appreciate Tarr enough, but it’s a very nice inlet with two huge glaciers at the back, and good camping right nearby. Very dense ice in some areas made for some kayaking, pushing the small bits of ice out of the way and maneuvering around the larger pieces.

From here was a long, meandering trip back up the bay to Bartlett Cove. As before, the bay kept on offering up great stuff. First were a couple of brown bears in different spots foraging in the barnacles. Viewing them from the water, they don’t care about you (black bears will spook), and you don’t have to worry about them, a great arrangement. Lots of charisma, with the ears especially they look like giant teddy bears, except with large, sharp claws.

More subtle, but not long afterwards I came across a group of arctic terns just floating on the breeze, occasionally diving down for shrimp and so forth in the shallows. I landed the kayak and walked below them in knee deep water for what must have been an hour, watching them and trying to photograph them. These birds summer in the arctic, and come fall fly south and summer in the Antarctic.

Near the mouth of Tidal inlet, about 1/3 of the way back to Bartlett Cove, I ran into a group of three kayakers who were camping for the weekend, taking a break from working at the lodge in Bartlett. Spent the rest of the day with them exploring, good fun. I socialize very little, and almost never on this sort of trip. Nearby was a stream filled with salmon running up to a lake half a mile back. Walked to the lake, past teeming fish resting in pools and frequently jumping, walked around the lake, went swimming (cold), and came back. The guy in the group caught a salmon out of the stream with just his knife (I was still upstream, trying to photo jumping fish, below), made for a good dinner.

There were still a few days left of paddling to get back to finish the trip up, but at this point I was emotionally overloaded and exhausted and took the time to unwind. Went partway up the east arm of the bay and into Adams inlet, turned and came back down through the Beardslee islands and around back to Bartlett. More great wildlife, scenery, weather, some light exploring. Spent another night at Bartlett, and the next day took a ferry to Juneau and from Juneau to Skagway, loaded up my car and carried on with the summer. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this trip, though.

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