After anchoring overnight on the 5th in Swanson Cove, we made our way to the entrance of Glacier Bay National Park and into Bartlett Cove for our required orientation and overnight stay in the Cove, the prelude to nearly a week’s stay in the Bay.
Since we left Juneau, the smoke in the air has continued to increase. We are not sure when it will abate – there is no prediction of rain for some time. But it’s not changing our plans.
The waters in and around Glacier Bay are full of nutrients for whales and other animals and we saw many humpbacks feeding near shore both days. We could sometimes see half a dozen blows at once. It was awe inspiring to think of so many large creatures near us in the water.
Glacier Bay really didn’t exist 250 years ago. The story of how it came to be what it is today is an amazing one of natural disaster and cultural resilience. In the mid-1700s, the glacier that was way at the top of the area we now call the bay, which was land at the time, suddenly experienced a glacier surge. This means it pushed forward many miles in a matter of days. The Tlingits described it as “moving as fast as a dog could run”, and scientific evidence has born this out. They had to pack up their village and escape quickly by canoe. They re-established in the area 25 miles away across Icy Strait that is now called Hoonah. There were natural disasters around the world at the same time, including two massive volcano eruptions, that led to the “mini Ice-age” and a couple of years of no summers and no growing seasons. There are descriptions of how this affected many cultures around the world. I had heard about the mini Ice-Age but had no idea that volcano eruptions were part of the explanation for it.
Over the subsequent century, the ice in Glacier Bay retreated quite quickly and left the very large bay which exists today. In the 1920s the Natural Park Service (NPS) created the park after writings from John Muir and others increased awareness of it, but did this without consulting the Tlingits who had resettled summer fish camps in the area.
The Park Service eventually kicked the Tlingits out completely, which led to many hard feelings for decades. However,in the current century there has been a great deal of work between the NPS and the Tlingit to create reconciliation, and we saw several new installations at Bartlett Cove that are part of that.
Just two years ago the Tribal House opened at the cove. It is a beautiful example of native carving and artisanship.
The healing totem pole went up last year to depict that history of the area over the last 300 years and the recent reconciliation between the Tlingits and NPS. We heard the stories of the pole and the Tribal House at an evening presentation by an NPS ranger and a Tlingit cultural interpreter.
We left Bartlett Cove the next morning and battled a fierce current over 5 knots in Sitakaday Narrows to make our way north 60 miles up the bay towards the glaciers. Unfortunately, the smoke was even thicker than the day before. We could tell there were stupendous mountain ranges around us but could barely see them. In the afternoon we anchored in Reid Harbor, a mile in front of Reid Glacier. This glacier has receded far enough that it does not enter the water or calve anymore. We dingy explored up close to get a good view – the stark gravel and silt landscape around the edges of the glacier was broken up by rushing streams of melt water pouring into the bay. The walls of the bay were a thousand feet high or more, with a lunar landscape of bare rock alternating with what we could tell was low greenery, but it was so smoky we didn’t get much feel of greenery or blue sky.
The highlight of this stay was watching the family of orca with at least two juveniles that entered and spent some time feeding on the opposite side of the cove. Mom eventually led the group out the mouth of the cove again, leaving us feeling privileged for having seen such a healthy orca group – a real contrast to what we see in Puget Sound.