Here are the photos from the plane ride I couldn’t get to post yesterday!
Glacier Bay National Park, day 10 of MikeandTobyTravels, is not much to look at, at least initially. There’s a pebble-strewn shoreline in steady rain, lots and lots of pine trees, moss and tall white flowers that light the dim gloom of the forest like tiny stars. On the rumbling school bus on the way to Glacier Bay Lodge, I get to hear the debate about what they’re called.
“Cow parsnip,” declares one of the Gustavus locals, a weathered-looking woman with round blue eyes and gray roots. She’s got on the bus along with a handful of other hardy souls, mostly college students who look like they thought a summer in Alaska was an adventure. All except us are on the bus to take a work shift out at the Lodge.
“I prefer Queen Anne’s lace,” our chatty bus driver says over her shoulder. I agree. Cow parsnip is not a good name for such a beautiful flower.
“What are those?” I point to a meadow area, where the endless twilight flares over some fluffy white blossoms in a swath that reminds me of snow.
“Wild cotton,” says the local. And that’s a good name, exactly right for the poufs of white on slender stems, collected in masses in any open area.
At the Lodge at last, we trek down a series of boardwalks to a modular unit with a look of the 1970’s about it. I whisk open the curtains, and dripping spruce and hemlocks, dark and forbidding, are all that we can see. Mike still isn’t quite over the disappointment of our flight not being a seaplane.
“I paid extra for a room with a view,” he says, hands on hips, eyes narrowed. “Let me go look around.”
I shrug and head for the shower. I haven’t changed clothes since we got on the ferry three days ago, and I can’t wait to get clean. I’ve just got dressed, happy to be comfortable and warm after the deep chilly drizzle of the day, when he returns, shaking water off like a dog.
“The rooms are all the same. Overgrown and run down. This lodge cost a thousand bucks for three nights, not including the airfare.”
I was better off not knowing that. “There’s nothing to do, so let’s just make the best of it.”
After two glasses of a decent pinot noir, our walk through the forest down to the dock overlooking glassy tidal waters takes on a surreal quality. Back at our room, we fall immediately asleep, knowing that 6:00 a.m. when we’re scheduled to take a boat tour of the glaciers in the park is going to come really soon.
And it’s still light out at 11:00 p.m.
I wake up at 4:00 a.m. after being unable to post my blog yesterday due to connectivity issues and decide to try it when no one’s around soaking up bandwidth. I get ready for the boat tour in layers: my one pair of specially warm hiking socks, hiking shoes, my rustling rip-stop pants, long-sleeved shirt, that weird gray thermal hoodie that’s turned out to be my favorite garment, along with the Viking jacket I got in that town outside of Lillooet. Taking my backpack, I head for the Lodge.
It’s buttoned up tight with a sign on the door that says it opens at 6:00 a.m,, so I sit in the dim morning (the same shade of brightness as when I went to bed last night) at a table on the deck. I find the internet working, and upload my blog post. Can’t import the pictures from the tiny plane ride though, alas, but mission accomplished. I go back to the room and Mike is stirring, and pretty soon he’s up and sorting all his tons of photography equipment for today’s excursion.
The boat, when we get on it, is a large and stable metal catamaran with three decks. I choose a window seat, and Mike gets out what we call the Rhino Chaser. This is a lens so big that it causes comment wherever we go.
“I think we should dub it Size Matters,” I tell him, after about the fifth person has commented on the nearly yard-long, foot-wide cannon of a lens mounted on a monopod because it’s too large to hold steady freehand. In his foul-weather gear, standing gracefully on the deck, rugged with manly silver stubble, Mike looks like a National Geographic staffer.
The ranger does a good job telling us interesting facts. The size of national parks in Alaska is hard to wrap your head around, he says. “Glacier National Park, just one of them, is bigger than the state of Connecticut, and it’s only two hundred years old. The spruce and hemlocks covering everything are so uniform because when the glaciers melted and formed these island areas and deep bays and peninsulas, the plants and trees all arose at the same time.” He reads a portion of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech in authorizing the National Parks.
“Leave it unmarred. Man cannot improve upon its magnificence. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Sea otters randomly float much further out from the shore than I ever expected, and we see puffins, exotically cute as Japanese bath toys, bobbing in the water around the boat as we approach our first landmark, South Marble Island. “True wilderness is untrammeled by man, a place where man has no influence and leaves no footprint,” the ranger intones.
The rocky island’s teeming with life: layers of birds nesting in the cliffs, from seagulls to kittiwakes to cormorants, and two types of puffins. Steller sea lions in teeming, reeking, barking rookeries scrum on the rocky knolls protruding from the water. They are unbelievably huge, the females up to 800 pounds, the males, maned in heavy orangey fur, up to sixteen hundred. Their voices are deep and scary, and there’s a stench of bird guano that whiffs up from the rocks.
After drifting along the shore, we pick up some speed and head to a high, rocky cliff chiseled by frigid runoff waterfalls. The boat pulls all the way up to ground against the pebbled shore, and the crew lets off five intrepid kayak campers, all women. Without a guide. As we pull away from the shore, leaving them smiling and waving among their kayaks and mounded drybags, I feel the vastness, the loneliness and beauty and wild, all around us. They look so tiny and out-of-place as we pull away, leaving them as dots of bright red and yellow and orange on the monochromatic gray shore.
I hope it’s an amazing adventure for them. I feel better about being a passive passenger, sightseeing from safety, when the ever-informative ranger tells us, “Ninety percent of visitors to this park experience it from the deck of a cruise ship as it weaves through these bays. You are part of an elite 10% of our park’s visitors, who actually fly to Gustavus, stay in the park, and get on this smaller boat to see and experience the wildlife up close. Those kayakers are some of the only 1% of annual visitors who opt to go deep into the park to experience it—not so much for what’s here, but for what’s not here. No roads, so buildings, no people.”
I think of the times when I was younger and I paddled a surfboard or a boogie board down the Na Pali Cliffs to Hanakapiai in nothing but a swimsuit. I got to experience Hawaiian wildness so much more than most, in a place that has so many fewer dangers, chief among those dangers being the cold. I am not sorry to have missed the cold.
Some miles further on we draw close to some steep and rugged cliffs, many thousands of feet high. “Look for mountain goats,” the ranger says, and we spot a lone white goat, high on the cliff. My iPhone can’t begin to get anything, so I content myself with binoculars, and we see a pair of twin kids, white as snow, leaping from pinnacle to precipice, banging their little heads together. One of them is too aggressive and the other runs to mama, turning back from the shelter of her side and her lowered, sharp black horns, to confront its sibling. It’s utterly charming and so unexpected in such a desolate place.
We see our first major glacier, Marjorie, and I hear a lecture on the way glaciers work that finally makes sense. “Think of a hundred and fifty feet of snow falling on one spot and never having a chance to thaw. It piles and piles, compressing the molecules until the snow becomes ice. It’s heavy, and pushes down into the earth, pushing the earth up on the sides into mountains. And because it’s heavy, it heads downhill, grinding up the stone into fine silky sand along the way. Glaciers are moving rivers of ice generated by the accumulated snow of each winter.”
We could see this in action when we were watching Marjorie, a “stable” glacier, meaning that water lost off one end as the glacier “calves” is replaced on the other as new snow packs down and pushes. The water directly in front of the glacier is almost sludgy-looking, filled as it is with silt and mineral, and as we watch, with a terrible deep cracking, the sound of a giant breaking bones, a big section of cliff breaks off, plummeting in a tumbling, chunky waterfall into the water below. The chasm left behind is the color of good-quality blue topaz.
It’s genuinely cold on the deck, with a slicing wind, and neither Mike nor I have mufflers, hats or gloves, so I go back inside eventually—but Mike never does, instead reappearing periodically to warm his hands on a cup of coffee, or snuggle with me for a few minutes. He is energized and excited pretty much the whole time and gets a lot of great shots.
We see three more glaciers, each a little different, and then we are finally on our way back toward Gustavus. I’ve never been over-fond of boats, and the vastness is getting to me again by the end of the eight-hour tour. I endure seasickness between wildlife phenomena sightings by falling asleep with my head in the corner, having to take Dramamine since I forgot my wristbands on Maui.
Wildlife checklist from today: humpback whales (numerous) white mountain goats (3), sea otters (8), Stellar sea lions (infinite piles), puffins (2 kinds) nesting bald eagles (2), and a host of different kinds of seabirds. It was worth being on a boat for 8 hours to see all that. I’m privileged to be one of the 10%.
Here are a selection of Mike’s photos from the day. Follow his FB page at MikeRNeal if you want to see more. Aloha!