Approximately 300 years ago, Glacier Bay was a fertile valley inhabited by the Tlingit people. As the glaciers began to encroach on their homeland, the Tlingit were forced to flee their ancestral home and they ultimately created a new home – Hoonah, just east of Icy Strait Point. As the Glacier now recedes, this remains an extremely important place to the Tlingit people. The United States National Park Service is working to establish a better relationship with the Tlingit and their kinship with this land.
While I could never truly begin to understand the deep connection the Tlingit people have with Glacier Bay, I can feel my own connection to the place. Glacier Bay is alive, in the way anything wise and ancient it alive. It’s also quiet, thoughtful.
I am used to the busyness in my own mind, a tempest fraught with disembodied emotions and vagrant details flying in a chaotic whirlwind. That feeling is my entire state of being. One of the reason I enjoy cruises so much is that the expanse of ocean dulls my mind. The Alaskan landscape does the same thing, but amplified. Quiet and peace settle in my bones as I look upon the cliffs, glaciers, and fog.
The glaciers we look at today contain snowfall dating back to the American Civil War in the 19th Century. If there is more snowfall than melt in a year, glaciers grow, if there is not, the glacier recedes. The global impact on the environment means that this normal cycle of growth and receding has been interrupted, and the glaciers are receding more quickly than the normally would.
We viewed four main glaciers as the Encore sailed Glacier Bay – John Hopkins Glacier, Grand Pacific Glacier, Margerie Glacier, and Reid Glacier (pictured above). All of them are in different states, but the most striking of these is, surprisingly, the Grand Pacific Glacier. Unlike the other three, the Grand Pacific Glacier is dirty and black and unless you know what you’re looking at, it’s easy to assume it’s just rock. As the Grand Pacific Glacier has advanced, it has picked up silt from the land it carved, changing its color from a striking blue to black.
Today, the Grand Pacific Glacier sits at the head of the Tarr Inlet and and is easily overshadowed by its sister glacier, the Margerie Glacier. Together at the end of the inlet, they make a remarkable sight. Remarkable, and sad, knowing how much they have receded in the last 250 years.
As if the glaciers weren’t astounding enough, we were lucky to see a bit of wildlife as we cruised through the National Park. There’s no appearance schedule for wildlife, and so it’s always a blessing when it deigns to appear. While I wholeheartedly encourage anyone considering travel to Alaska to do it (it is so, so beautiful and remarkable), don’t assume you’re going to see a lot of wildlife. Take the creatures you see as a special gift and enjoy the rest.
In Glacier Bay, we saw a trio of otters swimming through the icy waters, their little feet paddling joyfully. Of course, there are plenty of gulls and wild birds out and about as well. My favourite wildlife viewing was the three icebergs loaded heavy with sea lions, basking in the sun.
We were lucky enough to see these sea lions in front of the John Hopkins glacier. At 300mm, they look so small and insignificant, but I know sea lions are a little bigger than I am. It really makes you step back and appreciate the sheer size of these glaciers and their grand beauty.
Among its many other wonders, Alaska truly reminds me how small I am in this universe. There are grand and beautiful things in the world, and in the face of them… I don’t mind feeling insignificant. I feel so lucky to stand near these glaciers and bask in the wilderness. What a truly incredible world we live in.
Glacier Bay National Park is difficult to describe. It’s a natural wonderland, a bit of untouched earth, a transforming landscape, and a culturally important homeland to the Tlingit people. I fully feel the weight of my privilege being able to view such majesty and I am awed and grateful that the Tlingit and National Park Service allowed us to experience this land.
I took nearly a thousand photos in Glacier Bay National Park. None of them portray the beauty I saw with my own eyes. If you can go – go. It’s the experience of a lifetime.