In June 2015 we took our first cruise on the Norwegian Pearl to Alaska. On our Alaska cruise we sailed 1,760 nautical miles over seven days from Seattle, Washington to Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan in Alaska, through Glacier Bay National Park, to Victoria, British Columbia, and back to Seattle. Check out our route:
Day 5 started like this:
When you really sit back and think about it, it’s really trippy to be in the middle of nowhere on a boat. There were a few times on the trip where I’d look out off the balcony and see absolutely nothing. In fact, exactly this scene above: water to the horizon line with nothing in between. Since we’ve never traveled this way before it was strange but thrilling in a way. There is obvious beauty in observing the country speeding past the windows of a car. I never imagined I would find that same beauty steadily gliding through water on a behemoth ship.
The reason this particular weather wasn’t welcome on Day 5 was because this was our one full day on the ship, cruising through Glacier Bay National Park. Nonetheless I was ready in our room to view the park from our balcony. There were viewing areas all over the ship but I preferred to view from the comfort of our room – that’s half the reason why we had a balcony after all! Also, I should note, there are no roads that lead directly to Glacier Bay so if you’re a National Park nut like we are, you’ll need to visit by boat or plane.
At 6am that morning five National Park Service rangers from Glacier Bay National Park took a small boat over to our cruise ship (and then climbed up a rope ladder!) to join us for the day. Four of the rangers camped out in Spinnaker Lounge, the highest deck lounge with 360 degree views, with park materials, answering questions, and giving talks about the park.
The fifth ranger stayed in the bridge with the ship captain and narrated our journey through Glaceir Bay over the PA system (which was also audible from a specific channel on our TV).
One of the first things we noticed upon entering the park was this divide in the water: the blue vs. brown. The park ranger noted that this is an estuary – the brown water is fresh water, colored by silt, coming off of the melting glaciers and the blue water is salt water coming in from the Pacific Ocean/Gulf of Alaska. This combination of water types provide a unique and thriving ecosystem in Glacier Bay, rich with nutrients for phytoplankton and other microorganisms (note the seagulls, they are here to feast!).
Federal legislation established Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in 1980. Glacier Bay was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
In total Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is about 5,130 square miles. The park includes 600,000 acres of federally protected marine ecosystems in Alaska. Within the park there are two Tlingit ancestral homelands that are of cultural significance to their existing communities. Glacier Bay is home to 15 tidewater glaciers, descending from high snowcapped mountains into the bay and create spectacular displays of ice.
The earliest traces of humans at Glacier Bay date back 10,000 years. Physical evidence is scarce though because the area has been glaciated so much that all sources of evidence have been lost. Jean-François de Galaup was the first European to explore the region of Glacier Bay in 1786. Since its discovery there has been a long line of distinguished scientists/naturalists to visit the park, perform research, and bring this incredible area to the world’s attention. Glacier Bay was visited by George Vancouver in 1794 during his Vancouver Expedition. John Muir visited Glacier Bay in 1879 to learn about glaciers as a means of understanding the glaciated landscape of the Yosemite Valley. Muir’s writings attracted William Skinner Cooper in 1916, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota, who saw the retreating glaciers as an opportunity to study plant life on the recently exposed land.
John Muir wrote about Glacier Bay with such a spiritual and lyrical style that he changed America’s national perception of Alaska from one of daunting cold to enchanting beauty. In the 1870s, he wrote:
“I will follow my instincts, be myself for good or ill, and see what will be the upshot. As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”
Our ranger/narrator was obviously cut from the same cloth, as her depiction of the park as a divine and sacred place was intensely moving. She read stirring quotes to illustrate her points and offered deeply philosophical reflections about the resiliency and promise of nature.
By the time we arrived at Margerie Glacier, I was so lifted by this place that I couldn’t help but tear up. “That’s a strange reaction!” I said out loud to John. But I don’t think so now. All of Earth’s creations should take our breath away. I hope nature always moves me the way Alaska did. It is curious and splendid and inspirational and graceful. And I want to always see it with wonder.
Margerie Glacier is 1 mile wide at its base and 350 feet tall (250 above water, 100 feet below water), and 20 miles in length (upward into the mountains).
“One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation. That mountains, long conceived, are now being born, brought to light by the glaciers, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes.”
– John Muir, Notes of a Naturalist, 1879
Again, the deep rich blue color of glacier ice is due to the way the snow has fallen and compressed in layers, air bubbles being squeezed out, ice crystal size increasing, and light absorption of all color wavelengths except blue, which is the remaining color we can see.
When the guided tour was over John and I got lunch. At 1PM Ranger John gave a presentation in the amphitheater about Glacier Bay, its history, and its future which was wonderful. He spoke for an hour on the native Tlingit people of the region, the flora and fauna of Glacier Bay, the oceanography of the area, and climate change impacting Glacier Bay.
As the ship turned to head out of Glacier Bay we got a nice view down the John Hopkins Inlet. We could see the John Hopkins and Lamplugh Glaciers off in the distance but my pictures weren’t great because the weather was so terrible.
As we were cruising along, just outside of the park, we saw a breaching humpback whale far off in the distance. Another theme of this trip was the constant surprises. As if seeing a handful of magnificent glaciers wasn’t enough in one day, let’s just end it with another whale sighting. This is what it is to be in Alaska.
Even if I never make it back here, I will carry this place, Glacier Bay and Alaska altogether, with me for the rest of my life.
“One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature – inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, 1869
Stay tuned for Cruise Day 6 in Ketchikan!