By the time we reached Glacier Bay we were deep in fog and rain. We knew we were surrounded by unbelievable beauty but we couldn’t see anything at all. (see photo) We anchored in Dundas Bay which is part of Glacier Bay National Park but doesn’t require an entrance permit. There was a colony of sea otters nearby and it was fun to watch them play in the calm misty waters around the boat.
The next morning, more fog and rain. We decided to go to the National Park headquarters because we knew there was a lodge and informative displays and ranger presentations that we could enjoy while the weather was crumby. We needed to get a permit to enter, however. The National Park has an interesting system. Many boaters request permits for the park months in advance. We did too, but for the following week. Because we wanted to come a week early we had to contact the Park service on the VHF radio and ask for a day pass for that day or call 48 hours in advance for a multiple day pass. We requested a day pass and were granted entrance for the day. We headed to Bartlett Cove dock where all boaters must check in and listen to a half hour long briefing about the regulations we must abide by while in the park. Ex: Stay 50 yards off certain shorelines, keep a course midway in the channel, keep speed down - all for the protection of whales and wildlife. Coming to the Park headquarters was a great idea. The people were friendly, the lodge was comfortable with a large gas fireplace surrounded by comfortable chairs and a restaurant and free wi-fi. What more could we want? (see photo) Plus in between rain showers we were able to walk the nearby beach and rainforest nature trails.
The second day in Bartlett Cove we took a cab 8 miles into the town of Gustavus. It’s not really a town. It’s center is literally called Four Corners because its heart is at the intersection of two country roads. One road starts at Glacier Bay Lodge and ends at the airport. The other road starts at a dock that will soon have ferry service for the first time and ends at another lodge. On one corner is a gas station that is touted to be the most photographed in the country(not sure why, see photo) and kitty corner to that is a small complex that includes a coffee shop, art gallery and pizza restaurant. Besides the grocery/hardware store, further on down the road, that is all there is to Gustavus. 350 people live there full time and the population doubles in the summer due to seasonal employees at the various fishing and park lodges. Peter set up office at the coffee shop making phone calls because we have no phone service in the park and I visited all the businesses in town. We then ate an excellent pizza lunch at the pizzeria next door, and then walked to the dock meeting several others along the way who were staying at Glacier Bay Lodge, a couple from Fairbanks and another from Holland. The highlight of the day was that the sun came out for awhile!
It rained all day the third day in Bartlett Cove and we left the boat in the afternoon to attend a Park video presentation that bragged about the beautiful glaciers and wildlife. Would we ever see them ourselves? We were beginning to wonder. We were getting fed up with the weather but on the bright side, we were making new friends. Our buddies on the Nordhavn boats both arrived in Bartlett Cove shortly after us, so we ate meals with them at the lodge, and we met many others who were coming and going. The lodge lobby was always filled with boaters who were anchored in the cove and lodge guests from all over the world who flew in from Juneau. A very interesting mix of people.
Our last day anchored in Bartlett Cove was not spent in Bartlett Cove. We decided to join the “tourists” and ride the Fairweather Express fast catamaran for an all day tour of Glacier Bay. We thought this would be a great way to see the hi-lights and learn what to do when we were able to venture into the Bay on our own boat. I should explain something that I left out earlier. Once we entered the park with our one day pass we were unable to obtain a multi-day pass until Sunday. We arrived on Wednesday, so the regulations of the Park stated that we had to remain in Bartlett Cove until we had secured a multi day pass to go “up Bay”. Pete finally secured a multi day pass by rowing to the headquarters office in time for 6am opening and was the first to request a permit 48 hours in advance. We secured a pass that would allow us to enter the park on Sunday morning and remain up to the time we had originally requested a pass months earlier. This meant we would be able to cruise the park for a total of one week, but we had to wait three days in Bartlett Cove beforehand. Complicated, I know!!
Anyway, I digress. The tourist boat trip was a great idea. Glacier Bay National Park is vast. It encompasses millions of acres that amount to the size of the state of Connecticut according to the park ranger guide that accompanied us on the tour. Ranger Jeff was extremely informative and shared wonderful information about geology, wildlife and the history of Glacier Bay. The weather wasn’t very good when we left Bartlett Cove, but as we headed north into the Bay the weather improved a lot and we were able to see the glaciers quite clearly. We also saw a lot of wildlife including a Grizzly bear, sea lions, Puffins, a pod of Orcas, a breaching Humpback whale and mountain goats. A perfect introduction to all the park has to offer. We were ready to head out on our own.
Sunday morning we pulled anchor, made a quick visit to the Park dock to take on water and then departed. Our friends aboard the two Nordhavn’s - Sea Star and Outward Bound were also heading into The Bay. It was a calm morning with no rain. Our first stop was to Strawberry Island to fish for halibut. Pete was on a mission. Everyone has told him how easy it is to catch halibut. He has made a couple of attempts but no luck so far. The folks on Sea Star and Outward Bound told stories about hanging a hook off the stern of their boats while at anchor and catching halibut. That drove Pete crazy!
So after asking all the charter boat captains he could corner at the lodge the past few days he was armed with “local knowledge” about the whereabouts of halibut in Glacier Bay. He fished at Strawberry Island for an hour or so while I sat on the bow and listened to the quiet. No luck. So we pulled anchor and headed to another possible fishing spot not far from our end destination for the night, North Sandy Cove. Here, Pete’s luck changed, but the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for,” applies. Pete’s fish was so big it was a challenge to bring aboard. With limited equipment, he was able to bring the fighting fish to the surface three times but lost it as he tried to cut its gills and tie it off the end of the boat in order to keep the cockpit of the boat clean. Fortunately, I was able to document the catch on camera to prove to our Nordhavn friends that he had indeed snagged a halibut. He estimated that it was 60” long and about 90 lb.. It was a heartbreaker to lose the fish, but on the other hand, what would we have done with a fish that big? We couldn’t have stored that much fish in our frig/freezer. When we arrived at the anchorage we shared the story with our friends over cocktails that evening aboard Bee Weems, and they commiserated with us, but were glad Pete had had the experience. After-all, its the excitement of playing the fish that counts. This was the ultimate in the concept of “catch and release.”
The next morning looked promising. The clouds were thinning out and we had high hopes that we might catch a glimpse of mountains. We were not disappointed!
As the day progressed the skies cleared. The scenery was spectacular.(see photo) First, we cruised up the shoreline of Muir Inlet to see wildlife. It wasn’t until we turned southward that we finally spotted three moose on the beach, and then a mile or so further down the beach, a black bear, but this wildlife was nothing compared to what we saw later on.
We were anxious to visit the dead whale carcass that was along the shore of another arm of Glacier Bay. We had heard many stories about the unique opportunity this was to see Grizzly bears and wolves feeding off the remains that had been there since the early Spring. We arrived shortly after 3pm and put down our anchor 50 yards from shore. There was no activity when we arrived, but within one half hour a bear ambled out of the underbrush towards the dead whale and we watched it tear into the tale end of the whale which was no longer recognizable. It wasn’t so hard to watch because the remains didn’t look like anything but a big blob. Then two more bears joined in and finally a fourth. It was fascinating to watch the interaction of these creatures.(see photo) We spent over two hours watching them, and the bonus was that two kayakers showed up who happened to be bear biologists, and they were able to explain what we were watching. They believed that the two bears that arrived together were siblings and that the first bear that came was the mother. They all played together in the water when they weren’t eating - wrestling, tossing seaweed in the air, etc. The fourth was a male, and the three stayed clear of him while he was feeding. An amazing experience. After about an hour, a cruise ship that was returning from up Bay stopped about 1/3 of a mile off shore to watch the bears. All of a sudden we had thousands of eyes on our backs. (see photo) Those little bristles on the topside of the ship are people! Thousands of people watching OUR bears. Time for us to leave. The bear viewing no longer seemed special now that we were joined by a few thousand “tourists.”
It was such a gorgeous day we decided that we would visit Johns Hopkins Glacier.
We had heard it was spectacular on a clear day. Who knew what the next day would be like, so even though it was 6pm we headed into the ten mile long inlet. At first it was easy going, only a few “bergie bits.” But as we neared the glacier there were more and more and the sun was blazing down on us from the west making it difficult to see the bergs. I wanted to get as close as we could to the face of the glacier. A charter boat captain that we had befriended earlier at the lodge passed us, heading out of the glacier. He called us on the radio to let us know that if we hugged the port shoreline we could easily reach the face. I was determined! When Pete grew tired of dodging icebergs he asked me to take over the wheel. I was surprised that he trusted me to steer in these conditions, but I did and I was successful. We came within 200 feet of the glacier. (see photos) and I only hit a few teeny tiny bergie bits along the way! By 8:30pm we had turned around and zoomed back towards our anchorage for the night, Reid Harbor/Glacier. It was dusk when we set anchor at 9pm. We didn’t eat dinner til close to 10pm. A long day, the most outstanding day of our entire trip with spectacular scenery and animal viewing.
Tuesday morning we awoke to clear skies! Another gift of a gorgeous day. I have to admit that after days of rain, the contrast of a sunny day in this majestic setting was over the top!! We put the tandem kayak in the water and paddled to the face of Reid Glacier about two miles away. (see photos.) Up close and personal we were able to walk under the glacier and on top of it to get a first hand understanding of how these glaciers are formed. Wow! The power of the ice is incredible. We paddled to the sandbar our boat was nestled behind to view some amazing wild flowers. How could such delicate plants grow in such harsh conditions? After lunch we pulled anchor to begin our trek down Bay back towards Bartlett Cove because then next afternoon our daughter, Shea, is flying in to join us for our last week in Alaska. We stopped to fish briefly, but without success - just a few nibbles, then into Shag Cove for the night. We could see that the clouds were down Bay. We were leaving the sunshine. We had heard that the weather closer to the mouth of the Bay where Bartlett Cove is located can often be completely different to the weather up Bay.
Wednesday morning we woke to fog and rain. The only consolation was that we spied two wolves on the beach in the early hours of the morning, and after we pulled anchor and were heading out of the inlet we saw a black bear on the beach. We headed towards Bartlett Cove to accomplish some housekeeping chores in anticipation of Shea’s arrival later that evening.