Sunday, September 1, 2013

Day 19 - Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

Weather: Low 40s maybe, but clear skies with fluffy clouds...the absolute perfect day
Steps: Shaun - 8,239 steps, 13 floors climbed; Shannon - 8,179 steps, 24 floors climbed
Critter count: 8 bears, 1 wolf, lots of mountain goats, fifty bajillion harbor seals, 2 sea otters, some of sea lions, 2+ humpbacks, 8 orcas, tons of sea birds, including both kinds of puffins (horned and tufted), 2 bald eagles, scoter, mures, cormorants, and gulls

Overnight we travelled into Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve. The previous night we had stopped to pick up a park ranger and cultural interpreter who spent the day in the park with us. The park only issues 3 permits a day for ships like ours to enter the park, and it's only for 24 hours. We had to wait to enter the boundary of the park until midnight, and then overnight we travelled the 65 miles the glaciers had receded to get to Johns Hopkins Glacier near the north end of the park.

We were once again woken up by Cindy telling us that two bears were on the beach of Russell Island. We grudgingly pulled on some clothes (I was wearing my sleep shorts with my knee-high green rubber boots, if you can imagine that), didn't stop to brush our teeth or hair, and went out on deck to view what turned out to be bears that were very far away. It was freezing out there because we were surrounded by ice, so I gave up watching them pretty quickly. I went back to sleep, only to be woken up by Cindy saying that anyone who wasn't on deck should get there. Luckily, Mom was out there because a wolf had come onto the beach to join the bears.

This was the first wolf we had encountered and a very rare sight in the park, so it caused quite a commotion. However, I missed it. Mom got some good pics, though, so check them out (and thank you again, Grandma Dar, because this wolf was really far away).

After this, I got the message that it was time to get up, so we both went back to the cabin to brush our teeth and get presentable, and put on every layer of clothing we had brought with us. We went down to eat breakfast, and then went out on deck where we spent virtually the whole rest of the day.

Lamplugh the Blue (Glacier)

The water was so still that there were perfect reflections of the surrounding hills, so our pictures of the area look like abstract art. The weather, besides being cool, was absolutely perfect, with blue blue skies and fluffy clouds. We continued up the bay, stopping once more to observe a momma and baby bear running along the shore.

As we came to the turn that took us to Johns Hopkins Glacier, Cindy began to jump up and down in excitement because the turn revealed a glorious vista. It showed the glacier in all of its glory with two peaks behind it (called Orville and Wilbur after the high-flying Wright Brothers). One of the naturalists called the view "epic" and we have to agree.

Don't these look photoshopped?:

Johns Hopkins Glacier is one of the few tide water glaciers in the world (which means that its terminus is in saltwater) and one of the few glaciers that is still advancing, meaning that it is still moving forward as opposed to receding. This also means that it puts out a lot of calves. We spent over two hours in front of the glacier, listening to the thunder and moan of the ice moving, a noise the native Alaskans call "white thunder", and saw numerous ice falls. 

As we sat there and watched, one specific portion was steadily undermined, with cracks continually forming around it. We estimated that the piece of ice was around 5 stories tall. While other ice was falling all across the face of the glacier, our attention kept returning to this area. 

Finally, we had to leave, and the ice was still stubbornly in place. The ship turned around, and everyone congregated on the aft deck to continue watching as we pulled away. We just knew that it was going to fall while we weren't looking. And sure enough, we had been traveling five minutes when that huge, 50 foot-tall slab of ice finally fell with an enormous crash. 

In between watching the glacier and waiting for it to calve, we watched the very cute harbor seals that had taken up residence on all the large pieces of ice floating in the water. Under normal circumstances, our full focus would be on the adorable animals, but the glacier sort of commanded our attention. Still, we got some good pictures of them.

(our naturalists and photography experts)

We started heading back down Glacier Bay, and Ranger Dan and the cultural interpreter, Faith, took the opportunity to do short presentations. Afterwards, we had lunch, then went out to the aft deck and enjoyed the glorious sunshine.

Further down the bay, the naturalists found some mountain goats, but mostly they looked like white spots against the rock. Using the extreme zoom in Mom's camera, we were able to get a couple of pictures (thanks again, Grandma!), but it's hard to tell what they look like from so far away.

We came inside to hear Faith's presentation on Tlingit culture. The Tlingit are the native people who occupy the area around Glacier Bay. They have a rich and beautiful culture, including artwork, music, and folklore. It was interesting because Faith asked us all not to point at anything while we were out on deck observing the glaciers, mountains, and wildlife because, she said, everything has a spirit, and it's disrespectful to point. If we wanted to indicate something, she asked that we use at least two fingers or, even better, an open palm. It was really hard to remember to do this, and lots of people forgot. We found the insights she offered interesting, and we discovered a fascination with the Tlingit material culture.

Right after Faith's presentation, Cindy came down to tell us that there were some orcas outside, including a baby. Now, we were pretty jaded by then when it came to orcas, but Ranger Dan said that it was very rare to see orcas in the park, so we all headed up to the bow to watch them. It turned out that there were about eight of them, including a big male and the baby, so we had fun watching them for awhile.

Our next destination was South Marble Island, which is known for the abundance of nesting sea birds it houses. It also acts as a haul-out for sea lions. Ranger Dan did a presentation on puffins, and Mom was extremely excited because she loves puffins, and she was deprived of seeing puffins when we were in the Inian Islands. Of course, having a humpback whale 30 feet away kind of made up for that!

As we were coming to island, however, there was a potential problem because a humpback whale was between us and the island. There are additional protections on humpbacks in the park, so we would not have been able to go to the island at all if the whale didn't move. Luckily, it did.

The island was as promised, and we seriously got our fill of puffins, including both tufted and the more rare horned varieties. There were also cormorants, lots of different kinds of gulls, mures, marbled marrelets, and scoters. 

The sea lions were there in force, making quite a racket as we had seen in the Inian Islands, and there was one lone sea otter. 

We came around the back edge of the island, and the humpback was back! Actually, it turned out that there were two humpbacks, one of which seemed to be younger, and that one proceeded to breech five times in quick succession. It was so fricking awesome.

We finished what had been another amazing day by stopping in Gustavus, which is just outside the park and is where the park visitor's center is located. We were able to do a short hike, just the two of us, on a one-mile loop trail. It had some nice old growth trees and some good views of the bay, but it was even better since we had been cooped up on the ship all day.

We finished the hike, checked out the visitor's center, and went back to the ship to go through our photos. The photography experts asked everyone to contribute 6 photos each to be part of a guest slideshow and shared with everyone the next night. It was quite a job going through all of our pictures to find our 12 favorites, and we ended up having to get people to vote on their favorites to help us choose. 

Remember how we said that it couldn't get any better than the humpback/orca day? And then remember how we said it CERTAINLY couldn't get any better than being 30 feet away from a humpback whale? Well...this was a pretty good day.

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