GLACIER BAY WILDLIFE HEAVEN
It’s in the name. Glacier Bay is known for its wealth of pristine glaciers that crash into the ocean in a magnificent show that ends in dozens of ice chunks floating peacefully in the frigid upper bay. The countless cruise ships that enter the park beeline straight to the back where all this glacial action takes place. In fact, 90% of visitors to Glacier Bay never set foot on land. As usual, our plan for visiting the park brought us into the minority. But in a departure from our usual plan we decided to completely forgo the traditional highlights and namesake attractions of the park.
If you aren’t visiting via cruise ship the only way travel the 60 or so miles to the back of the bay to see some glaciers is by a $200 per person day cruise or a week+ kayaking trip. Without funds to do the former (we concentrated our budget on some great stuff coming up with more bang for our buck) and without time for the latter, we made the difficult decision to skip the glaciers.
Instead we got to learn all about the park and its unique stories through some awesome ranger programs and exhibits (e.g. complete whale skeletons). We got to hike trails through lush temperate rainforest, pick and eat wild blueberries and tramp through the huge intertidal zone of barnacles and squishy plants. The tide shifts up to a ridiculous 24 feet in six hours. Also, the intertidal zone was where we had to do all our cooking and eating due to the persistent bear activity near the campground. We even learned to spot the signs of former glaciers all around us. Just 250 years ago, the whole bay was filled with glacial ice thousands of feet thick. Now the closest glaciers have receded dozens of miles to the back of the bay and the newly uncovered land is rebounding with plants, animals and literally rebounding as the land after relieving the compression of millions of tons of ice.
But the ultimate highlight of our visit was renting a kayak for a full day of exploring the surrounding Bartlett Cove and Beardslee Islands. This was our substitute for the glacier day cruise and it turned out to be a fantastic decision.
The kayak rental came complete with everything to make us feel like pros as we set off in the unfamiliar frigid waters – wading boots, waterproof pants, splash skirt, laminated map and tide chart, life vest and, best of all, a real sea kayak. We love the convenience, compactness and affordability of the inflatable sea kayak we’ve used to get on the water throughout the rest of our trip (from Big Bend to Yosemite to Dry Tortugas), but it’s bulk and drag can make for some tough paddling. Our rental felt like an Indy car in comparison.
Our route was affected by the dramatic tidal changes of up to 24 feet in six hours. Certain passageways between islands were only accessible at high tide. And even if your timing was right your progress could be sped or slowed (depending if you were paddling with or against the tide) by the crazy currents of up to 6 knots created by the tides rushing in or out.
Once we had a handle on the tides and our route, it didn’t take long for the wildlife spectacle to begin. We saw tufted puffins flap furiously across the water’s surface. There were humpback whales spouting and flashing their tales writhing 30 yards of our kayak. Black bears patrolled the sandy shores and disappeared into the bushes. Bald eagles soared overhead and perched high in the trees. Sea lions popping up in front of the kayak. Sea otters played with each other and sped away from us effortlessly in the current.
Then we heard a sound like a thunder clap. It came again a little while later. And again. We tried to guess what it was. Perhaps glaciers calving many miles away? After a few more minutes of paddling we rounded a point in the bay and I saw a tiny splash. A few seconds later the boom made it to us. I squinted to see another splash a minute later. It was something big, just way in the distance. The boom was the noise of that something hitting the water. It took me a while, but My jaw dropped when a finally figured out what it was. A humpback whale jumping clean out of the water and slamming back down on the surface. Breaching over and over.
And it was one of those moments where your breath is taken away and you don’t know if it’s really happening. It was such anticipation because we never knew if or when the giant creature would explode from the water again. As the show continued in front of us, spoosh, boom. More whales spouting to the side and breaching start behind us. It was awesome.
I don’t know if any other National Park to date has matched the incredible wildlife heaven we saw in just six hours of kayaking at Glacier Bay.