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Glacier Bay is located about 50 miles west of Juneau, in southeast Alaska. When the area was first surveyed in 1794, the explorers of the HMS Discovery saw only a wall of ice, nearly a mile thick and 20 miles wide. Glacier Bay, was not a bay, yet. Over the next 200 years, the glaciers receded 65 miles, revealing a complex network of inlets that comprise what we now call Glacier Bay. This remarkably quick transformation allowed John Muir, in 1879, to collect evidence for his then controversial theory that the far away Yosemite Valley had also formed through glacial carving.

Today, only eleven of the fifty named glaciers in the park reach the sea, and only one of them – Johns Hopkins Glacier – is currently advancing. At the typical glacial flow rate of 3-6 feet per year, the ice we see today at the head of the Johns Hopkins Glacier originally fell as snow around the time that first survey visited the area in 1794.

Bald Eagle, Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Cruising : Prints Available

A Bald Eagle soars in front of the massive wall of ice of the Margerie Glacier in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

The land surrounding the bay is among the newest land on Earth, having just been revealed within the past 200 years. The result is an exceptional wealth of previously untapped nutrients, which feeds an extensive food chain from plankton to migratory humpback whales. To experience this ecosystem most intimately, Aubrey and I planned a ten day sea kayaking trip, from the end of the bay back to the entrance, approximately 70 miles “downstream”. While both Aubrey and I had each been sea kayaking before, we had never gone together, never in a double kayak, and never done an overnight kayaking trip. Needless to say, there are many things we would have done differently, but all in all, it was an exceptionally memorable experience.

Food planning - yes, the four jars of coconut butter were absolutely necessary! Photo by Aubrey.

After touring the bay on the Baranof Wind, the parks day trip boat, we were dropped off with our gear and kayak, along with four other groups that were embarking on similar adventures. We quickly organized everyone’s dry bags and bear proof canisters, carried our kayak to the waters edge, and started loading. This was the very first time we loaded our kayak. In fact, it was the very first time either of us had ever loaded an expedition kayak at all. Our outfitter had assured us, however, that no one had ever had a problem fitting everything inside. It turns out you can put a lot more inside a kayak than it looks like!

Kayak drop off from the Baranof Wind.

Map of our route through the bay. We were dropped off at the green point, and finished at the magenta point.

Map of our route through the bay.

With enough food for a week and a half, several days of water (fresh water access is sporadic), and gear to survive the southeast Alaskan weather all stowed safely inside, we climbed in, and set off. Our first destination was Johns Hopkins Inlet, which our outfitter referred to as “the pocket of love” (imagine that with a kiwi accent). Indeed, though southeast Alaska is notorious for bad weather, we enjoyed calm seas and (partly) sunny skies for the first few days, while clouds and rain were visible in every direction around us.

Kayaking Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Kayaking Glacier Bay

My girlfriend, Aubrey, paddles between icebergs in the Johns Hopkins Inlet in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park on a rare sunny day.

We paddled for several miles through a slushy of icebergs, finally arriving at a black sand beach just a quarter mile away from the Johns Hopkins Glacier. Looming above the glacier we could just barely make out the tips of the Fairweather Range, the worlds highest coastal mountain range (look for a bright white edge on the left hand side of the below images). These 15,000+ foot peaks are responsible for providing the ice that feeds many of the glaciers in Glacier National Park.

Camp, by the Johns Hopkins Glacier.

Icebergs and Black Sand Beach, Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park

Arctic Diamonds : Prints Available

Icebergs collect at low tide on a black sand beach at the head of the Johns Hopkins Inlet, with a view of the Johns Hopkins Glacier and the Fairweather Mountains. This was the most spectacular site I visited on my 10-day kayaking trip to Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Johns Hopkins glacier is one of the most active tidewater glaciers in the park, resulting in a high concentration of icebergs throughout the bay. At times, the bergs are so densely packed that it is impossible to pass through – certainly so for the large cruise ships that travel the main bay. Seals, however, have no problems getting around in the icy bay, and each evening harbor seals that had been out foraging during the day came back here to rest on the safety of the floating bergs.

Harbor Seal, Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park

Chillin' : Prints Available

A Harbor Seal family (mother and young) rest while hauled out on an iceberg in the Johns Hopkins Inlet of Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

After relaxing for two days, soaking in the sun and epic scenery, we started on our voyage down the bay. As we got farther and farther away from the glacier, the icebergs became less and less common, and the color of the water changed from a teal color to a clear deep blue. The landscape transformed from ice and rock to one of mossy tree covered islands. We camped on island beaches, hoping to avoid close encounters with hungry grizzly bears that we were told might prowl the mainland (we did not see any). One evening we stumbled upon a strawberry patch laden with ripe wild berries. We whipped up our no-bake cheesecake and celebrated our good fortune by the fire with the best backcountry dessert I’ve ever had!

Picking Wild Strawberries, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Strawberry Fields Forever

My girlfriend, Aubrey, collects wild strawberries near our camp on a small island in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Wild strawberry cheesecake, and a fire by the sea, what more can you ask for?!

The next day it started raining. And it continued to rain, for four days, nonstop. This was the southeast Alaska we had been warned about. Fortunately, we had come prepared with a comfortably large tent and two tarps – one for a large vestibule, and one to cook under. We spent two full days in the tent, listening to the relentless raindrops, reading our books, and drinking hot cocoa with coconut butter (it adds a creamy, slightly nutty flavor, and lots of needed calories). With all the rain and the high humidity of the ocean air we had to take extra care with our down sleeping bags, which would lose their loft if they got wet. The rain put our tent through the ultimate test – was it possible to take it down in the pouring rain, put it in a kayak, and set up again in the pouring rain, without getting the inside wet? With some minimal acrobatics (the tent sets up from the inside), it did surprisingly well! To our great relief, our sleeping bags never did get wet.

Aubrey pokes her head out of the tent to see what it's like outside: still raining, still damp, still dark.

When it's raining out, at least you can look forward to hot cocoa with an extra scoop of coconut butter!

Tidal Patterns, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Good Tidings : Prints Available

The receding tides leave colorful patterns of mussels, seaweed, and polished rocks along the coast of Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Golden Seaweed at Lowtide, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Bay Blues : Prints Available

Golden seaweeds lift the otherwise characteristic blue mood hanging over the seas in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

After four nights of rain, we were starting to think about making the 20+ mile trip all the way back to Bartlett Cove (the park visitor center), where we would be able to dry out and warm up. Strong headwinds that morning kicked up big waves, and we worked hard to make any progress at all. After hours of strenuous paddling, we finally made it to the northern end of the sheltered Beardslee Islands. Instantly, the winds died down and the sun came out, as if rewarding us for pushing through the hard times.

Suddenly, we were surrounded by a pod of Humpback Whales, flipping their tails high in the air and surfacing for fresh air. It was as if the ocean itself was breathing. The whales are protected within the park, and it is illegal to approach closer than a quarter mile, but the whales themselves don’t always follow the rules. They had us surrounded on all sides, and after one breached less than 60 feet away we started to worry that one might accidentally capsize us! It was awe inspiring to see these enormous mammals so close, and from such a vulnerable and intimate setting as from a kayak. Some of these whales are between twenty and fifty years old, and many return to the park year after year, where they eat up to 3,000 pounds of fish every single day. After filling up all summer, they swim 3,000 miles to Hawaii to breed and raise their calves.

Breathing Humpback Whales, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Ocean's Breath : Prints Available

Two humpback whales breathing in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Humpback Whale Muscles, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Humpback Muscles : Prints Available

One afternoon while kayaking in Glacier Bay we were suddenly surrounded by humpback whales, which approached our kayak to within uncomfortable distances, but gave us a unique and unforgettable experience. Just imagine if one of those muscular mammals had tried to surface where our kayak was floating... just twenty feet away!

A breaching humpback whale, which took us by complete surprise only a hundred feet from our kayak.

Humpback Whale Breathing at Sunset, Beardslee Islands, Alaska

Fairweather Breathing : Prints Available

A young humpback whale surfaces to breath at sunset while swimming through a small channel in the Beardslee Islands with a view of the Fairweather Range in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Humpback Whale Tail Flip, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

A Whale of a Tail : Prints Available

A humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) does a tail flip near my kayak in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

After our experience with the whales, and with the sun shining (for the moment), we decided to camp one last night in the Beardslee Islands before returning to the docks. The calm waters teaming with birds, otters, porpoises, and the occasional whale, and a view of the towering Fairweather Range, made of a delightful way to end to the trip.

Taking advantage of a few precious moments of sunshine to dry out our gear.

Fairweather Range, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Fairweathers : Prints Available

Fairweather over the Fairweather Range, seen from the Beardslee Islands in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Stay tuned for the next installment: two weeks of backpacking in the Brooks Range!

And don’t forget to order your 2015 calendars!

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9 Comments to “Rewilding (pt 2) – Glacier Bay National Park”

  1. Boyan says:

    Nice writeup, that’s a lot of kayaking…. These are some swanky Tyvek tarps you have there. Is that the Homewrap? How did you find it in the wind? Noisy as hell? Tolerable? Are these grommets used for tie-down or something else? And how did the Fitzroy stand up to the rain?

  2. Jeremy says:

    Wow! Fantastic experience.

  3. Thanks! The Tyvek tarp is a homemade tarp from homewrap. I put it through the washing machine before making the tarp, which takes out the crinkly sounds. I used just regular grommets, but to make it last longer I should have reinforced them with something. The Fitzroy did great – better than any other tent I’ve ever owned.

  4. Nicholas says:

    Just stunning shots, as usual, Floris! I think my personal favorite is “Arctic Diamonds”, but the humpback shots are unreal as well; definitely some of the best I’ve ever seen. And they’re all the more impressive when one considers that you were just in a tiny kayak when you shot them!!

  5. Nicholas says:

    By the way, I have a number of images on my Google+ page from a 7-day backpacking trip I went on this summer through the Chugach Mountains, which are just east of Anchorage. None of the scenery there is quite as spectacular as what you captured here, but it was still a fantastic trip!

  6. Alex Tsantes says:

    Magnificent shots, Floris! Just like always.

  7. Absolute fantastic Floris! Just curious what camera gear you were using. Particularly with all the backpacking, I suspect you’d want to take something lighter and less bulky than your usual setup?

  8. Thanks folks for the kind words!

    Chris – for our kayaking trip weight was not an issue. I actually had three cameras with me: 5D2 + 100/400 (for wildlife), sony a7R + 24-105 & 14-24, and a canon eos-m. For our trip in the Brooks Range, I took the a7R + 24-105 & 14-24, and a canon eos-m. That’s pretty much the same kit I use no matter what I’m doing, plus or minus a 70-200.

  9. Chris Kayler says:

    Beautiful!! Loved reading through this one, Floris. What a fine experience this must have been. I really enjoyed the image of the bald eagle in front of the glacier as well as the seal on the iceberg. Nice!