An Alaskan Treat
Glacier Bay offers a variety of adventure activities for all budgets, including kayaking, whale watching, sportfishing, mountain climbing, beachcombing, flightseeing, camping and birding.
The ice ages are ancient history—or are they? Visitors to Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve can today travel along sculpted shorelines and among scenic islands that were completely covered by ice just 250 years ago. Part of a world heritage site that is one of Earth’s largest protected areas, this magnificent park encompasses 1.3 million hectares of rugged mountains, stunning glaciers, temperate rain forest, wild coastlines and deep sheltered fjords.
“The primary reason for coming to Glacier Bay is to see existing tidewater glaciers,” says Supervisory Park Ranger Laura Buchheit, who began working at the park in the 1990s, and now lives there. “Most of the glaciers are diminishing in size, yet due to the topography of tall coastal mountains, two of the tidewater glaciers are growing. Visitors are in a temperate rain forest in the morning, then staring at an active tidewater glacier in an ice age scene by lunch.”
Located on Alaska’s Inside Passage, a coastal route for oceangoing vehicles along the Pacific Coast of North America, and about 100 kilometers northwest of the state’s capital city, Juneau, Glacier Bay is an incredibly dynamic environment. Visitors can hear the majestic glaciers growl as they scour the rocky landscape below and watch huge slabs of ice break off and plunge into the salt water. All around, change is dramatic.
“The glacial retreat is the fastest in recorded history,” Buchheit says, noting that the resulting landscape is—geologically speaking—brand new. “Wildlife has moved in as vegetation has taken root, from brown bears, wolves and moose to humpback whales, orca and puffins. It is an amazing, awe-inspiring place for researchers and visitors alike.”
Glacier Bay offers a variety of adventure activities for all budgets, including kayaking, whale watching, sportfishing, mountain climbing, beachcombing, flightseeing (sightseeing from planes), camping and birding.
About 450,000 people visit the park every year, most by cruise ships on seven or 10-day round-trip voyages from Seattle, Washington or Vancouver, Canada. The primary cruise lines are Princess, Holland America and Norwegian. Prices, which include cabin and meals, begin at around $750, with additional fees for various shore excursions. There are no roads to the park, so visitors must come by boat or plane. However, travelers on tight budgets can bring camping gear and use the Alaskan ferry system to reach the tiny town of Gustavus (year-round population 450), about 16 kilometers from the park headquarters in Bartlett Cove, where there is a small campsite. Reservations are required.
Although native Tlingit people have lived in the area for many hundreds of years, Gustavus itself began as an agricultural homestead in 1923. Most current residents work for the park or associated tourism facilities. The town’s population doubles during the summer, when locals grow flowers, strawberries and vegetables in gardens surrounded by awe-inspiring views of snowcapped mountain ranges.
“Some of the most common questions are about what it’s like to live here year-round,” Buchheit says. “A lot of it, I think, is that people are trying to grasp the immensity of the landscape and it’s so hard to comprehend that people ask about the human aspect. I tell them it’s amazing to be able to live surrounded by wilderness and the opportunities it provides for adventure and challenge and solitude.”
The park is always open—“there’s no gate to close,” Buchheit jokes—but almost all visitors come between late May and early September, when temperatures range between 10 degrees to 15 degrees Celsius and the usual weather forecast is rain. Visitors should have waterproof boots and other rain gear, including hats, gloves and a warm coat. Lodging, groceries, restaurants and taxi service are available in Gustavus, and more than 50 companies provide access to the park.
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.