Most visitors to Glacier Bay National Park begin their adventures at Bartlett Cove, located in the extreme southeastern corner of the park. From there they can hitch rides on park tour boats and go 40 or 50 miles to the north to fabled regions such as Muir Glacier, where John Muir built his cabin more than a century ago.
Here in the land of gleaming blue ice, ground that has been laid bare for only two or three decades is already starting to nourish new, although sparse, vegetation. Mosses, lichens, and mountain avens can survive on bare rock, and yellow dryad, a low-growing plant with lovely red and yellow flowers, can live in the sand and gravel left by melting ice.
This diversity of emerging plant life creates a habitat for wolves, mountain goats, moose, bears, and an array of smaller wildlife. More than 200 bird species are found in the area, including large colonies of seabirds, and the fishing (halibut, Dolly Varden, and salmon) is among the best in Alaska. Hikers also enjoy some of the best berry picking, specifically blueberries and salmonberries, on the planet.
The bay supports a food chain that begins with microscopic algae, which provide food for krill. These tiny shrimplike sea creatures are themselves fed on by the soaring fish populations. Harbor seals, with a penchant for basking in the sun on small icebergs, and harbor porpoises, nourished by this abundant sea life, make the bay their home for part of the year. At the top of the food chain are killer whales, which feed on fish and harbor seals.
The park's largest visitors, humpback whales, which are as long as 50 feet and weigh more than 40 tons, arrive each summer to cruise the waters for the tiny krill that are the mainstay of their diet. Today, the great bay is a source of endless activity both on- and offshore. This environment is less than two centuries old, but it provides fascinating viewing for human visitors.
The West Arm
Each June, thousands of harbor seals give birth to their pups on icebergs in the small inlets at the head of the West Arm of Glacier Bay.
The icebergs provide a haven from marauding wolves and bears, but they do not always offer protection from the killer whales that glide easily through the frigid waters. Traveling in groups as large as a dozen, the whales often rise up under one of the floating maternity wards, turn it over, and dump its unwary occupants into the water, where they become easy prey.
The seals spend much of their time in Johns Hopkins Inlet. This is the wildest area of the West Arm. Here, seven huge glaciers flow down to the sea between mountains that rise 8,000 feet above the water. The other inlets of the West Arm -- Tarr, Reid, and Blue Mouse Cove -- offer still more spectacular scenery that includes the park's most active tidewater glaciers and its highest mountains. On clear days there are wonderful views of the distant Fairweather Range, which is capped by the mighty 15,300-foot Mount Fairweather. It is named for the only weather condition in which the peak is visible.
Glacier Bay National Park Photo Opportunities
The terrain at Glacier Bay National Park encompasses monumental glaciers, snow-capped mountains, bays, and narrow fjords, creating endless possibilities for album-worthy photos. Here are a few suggestions:
- George Island: Looking out over Glacier Bay from George Island, the camera-armed visitor can capture an exquisite view of land meeting sea at dawn.
- Muir Inlet: The eastern arm of Glacier Bay is called Muir Inlet, after naturalist John Muir, who was one of the first scientists to study glaciology. From various points on the inlet, boaters are treated to spectacular views of several ice formations. Traveling north, visitors pass Casement Glacier, McBride Glacier, Riggs Glacier, and Muir Glacier.
- The West Arm: All of the inlets of the West Arm offer views of at least one glacier. From Johns Hopkins Inlet, gaze at Johns Hopkins Glacier. Tarr Inlet's waters flow past Margerie, Ferris, and the Grand Pacific glaciers. The towering mountains framing the glaciers make these inlets truly picturesque.
One of the fascinating features of Glacier Bay National Park is how the glaciers have rapidly retreated. Whereas today there is ice, next year there could be grass. For an explanation of the natural processes that occur during the retreat of a glacier, see the next page.