August 26, 2016
Today we cruised Glacier Bay National Park. At the park’s visitors center, we picked up two rangers, one of whom provided commentary from the Crow’s Nest (Deck 10), while the other answered questions and sold NPS merchandise.
There is really no other way to see this park except by boat or by air. There is a small airport a few miles from the park entrance, but other than a road linking the airport with the visitors center, there are no roads in the park, which is due west of Skagway and Haines. While cruising, we saw a total of three boats – two ferry-sized and one cruise ship. Every cabin had received a map in our mailboxes and many people tried to locate where we were on their maps.
We decided to go to the Bow – outside at the front of Deck 4. Of course, when we arrived, there were already tons of people along the railing and we had to worm our way in. I was wearing a gray fleece sweater with my windbreaker over it, plus a hat and gloves.
I forgot our map, so I made due looking over a woman’s shoulder who was willing to share with me. She had a GPS on her phone that actually functioned in this remote place, so she could locate our position on the map. We identified a glacier we passed on the starboard side as Carroll Glacier and another, smaller one as Rendu Glacier.
Although we could hear the ranger’s commentary from the Bow, we often could not understand it because the speaker wasn’t working well, and his voice would break up. Someone said it sounded more like he was speaking Klingon than English! So we missed of what he was saying, but persevered because of the panoramic view, unimpeded by windows which reflected whatever was in the room.
It was extremely windy and the floor was wet. I was warm enough in my fleece and windbreaker, gloves and hat, but finally went back, because of all the things I had hanging on me – I wanted to get rid of the camera case, at least – and got the map.
While we were chatting with another couple, stewards brought trays of split pea soup. The wind made it a challenge to hold the tray, especially when it was nearly empty! It wasn’t much – a snack really, at 10:30 in the morning – but it was warm and good.
The wind shifted and first we got a blast of warm air, but soon afterward it turned cold again and blew even stronger. The ranger said were going to head toward Margerie Glacier and stay there for about an hour. The wind by this time was making me uncomfortable and there seemed to be even more people crowding at the railings, so I suggested to Dale that we go up to the Crow’s Nest on Deck 10.
It was crowded there, too, but I took advantage of a temporarily empty chair to take some pictures. Soon the woman who had been occupying it came back so I had to get up.
Getting close to Margerie Glacier allowed us to really look at it in detail. I had expected a solid block of ice looming alongside us but it wasn’t like that at all. After Mendenhall, I knew glaciers could be blue in places but Margerie displayed a variety of colors: stripes of brown (soil & dirt it picked up along the way) alternated with dirty white and there was even a section on the far right that was black. Margerie is 250 ft. above the water.
It’s about a mile wide and 28 miles long. We could see it winding its way down the mountain from its origin high above.
The top and sides were very jagged, as if the pieces of ice had been jammed together haphazardly. There was one flat piece that slanted off the front of a larger chunk and I was sure that every time I looked at it, it was leaning farther and farther, and that it would calve (break off) at any minute! So I stared at it if willing it to fall with my mind. There were a couple of very small calvings, which disintegrated as they fell and hit the water with a splash. Apparently these are typical calvings but I was hoping for something bigger, more colossal! The inlet in front of Margerie became studded with small hunks of ice that floated outward with the current. These calvings and meltings fed the inlets and the streams that began high in the glacier-covered mountains. Glaciers are made of fresh water but they also carry a lot of silt with them that turns the water a grayish-brown. The fresh water mingles with the salt water, so the salinity in these inlets is lower than in the open sea.
The ranger told me that the brown lines visible across the bottom left of the glacier were layers of dirt, rock and silt. These layers cannot be dated as can layers of rock, but the number of lines tells us how many times avalanches have occurred in the life of the glacier. As the glacier moves along, carving the landscape and shearing off pieces of rock, the rocky hillside destabilizes, causing these avalanches. This is the reason the sea bottom drops off so precipitously – no sloping hillsides here! – and the sea level here is 800 ft. deep. What we see of Margerie above the water line is literally only the tip of the iceberg!
Looking at the black part of the glacier it’s hard to believe its main component is ice!
When we left Tarr Inlet, the ship headed back toward Lamplugh Glacier and into Johns Hopkins inlet, which could be seen on the port side, so instead of returning to our room, we sat on the port side of Lido Pool to watch the dramatic landscape unfold, even though the captain had assured us that the starboard side would get a chance to see it on the way out.
As the ship approached the inlet, we watched with anticipation as the cliff blocking our view slid back slowly, to reveal a landscape of high peaks and several glaciers winding their way down toward the shore. Immediately in front of us was Johns Hopkins Glacier. I thought we would get closer to it, but although the ship paused long enough for everyone to get a good look (as well as plenty of photos!) , we didn’t sail into the inlet and consequently also didn’t see glaciers marked on the map that were hidden from view.
We could take a thousand pictures of this dramatic landscape. Every view seemed more awe-inspiring than the last – and of course, I wanted close ups of the high glacier-covered peaks.
Gradually, as we traveled back toward the entrance to the park, the landscape became less dramatic and even the streams that trickled down the mountainsides and ended in waterfalls no longer held excitement. A pilot boat approached and took on the rangers, then headed back to the tiny town of Gustavus, the official address of Glacier National Park.