I’m not sure which national park is geologically the youngest (Hawaii Volcanoes, maybe?), but Glacier Bay would certainly be in the top five. What is now a long bay surrounded by sheer peaks and winding glaciers was, only 300 years ago, a wide valley stretching away from the toe of the Grand Pacific Glacier. Home to the Huna Tlingit people from time immemorial, the valley was a fertile stretch, rich in resources and naturally protected by the mountains and the ocean.
Then, in around 1700, the Little Ice Age forever changed the landscape—cold temperatures and more snow made the Grand Pacific Glacier advance rapidly. Huna Tlingit stories described the glacier’s flow as being “at the speed a dog runs.” Glaciologists can now back up the story of this galloping glacier—it’s called a surge glacier and 104 of them have been observed in North America (though most surge only rarely.) The glacier advanced more than 200 miles by 1750, only stopping when it hit the saltwater of the Icy Strait, which began to dissolve the glacier’s toe.
Thus pushed out of their ancestral home, the Huna Tlingit found refuge in nearby islands and inlets, later settling largely in a town known now as Hoonah (pop. 745). As the ice retreated through the 1800s, the people began to return home—instead of a wide valley, though, the land was covered in seawater where the glacier had been. They now called it Sit’ Eeti Gheeyi—“the bay in place of the glacier.”
Modern Hoonah. Hoonah.
At its largest, Grand Pacific Glacier was 22 miles wide and 4000 ft. deep—imagine a 400-story building made of ice. It sculpted the valley as it grew and then shrank back again, bulldozing the landscape in its path and carving a smooth valley. Traveling up the inlets of Glacier Bay, you can see which peaks were ground down and rounded by the glacier and which soared above it—the peaks over 4000 feet retain the jagged summits formed by tectonic uplift.
The Grand Pacific Glacier receded nearly as quickly as it advanced; when John Muir traveled here in 1879 to learn more about glaciers and confirm his theories about Yosemite Valley being formed by glaciers, the toe of the Grand Pacific was 45 miles up the bay. Muir’s writings about Glacier Bay brought more tourists to the area, who came to see the wildlife in the bay and the tidewater glaciers surrounding it. On our visit, we had to take a boat 65 miles into the bay to see these glaciers, including the Grand Pacific, which is now a sliver of its former self and covered at the toe by its brown moraine.
Grand Pacific Glacier today.
Our boat ride up the bay was idyllic: sunny and warm with a low fog and glassy water where sea otters—there is a population of 9,000 of them in the park—bobbed and dove. The day-tour boat is run by the Glacier Bay Lodge and we loved the whole experience. The ranger on board narrated the history of the area and taught us about the bird species, sea otters and sea lions we saw, the crew fed us sandwiches, cookies and salmon chowder (apparently super delicious, according to our representative non-vegetarian, David :).) We cruised up to the end of the bay, past the mountain goats of Gloomy Knob and the basking bachelor sea lions of South Marble Island (the mating couples nest along the coast; only those unlucky in love seek solace together here in the bay—or is that too anthropomorphic? They’re probably just after a quiet place to fish and nap), all the way up to the toe of Grand Pacific Glacier.
Glacial silt mixing into the bay’s water!
Grand Pacific Glacier flows into the bay right next to the much more picturesque Margerie Glacier—more picturesque because you can see the blue ice of its toe and because Margerie is very active, advancing 6 feet per day, which means it frequently calves, putting on a show for the visitors who come by boat, kayak and cruise ship to watch it. The reason for the difference in toe-look is because Margerie has granite along its sides; Grand Pacific is surrounded by softer limestone, easier for the glacier to grind away and carry down its length, making for a much-less scenic view (from the water, at least.)
Between the end of the bay and the coast lies the Fairweather Range, a stretch of high peaks up to 15,300 ft. tall that trap the ocean’s weather and create a massive snowfield that feeds the glaciers below. While we idled, watching for Margerie to calve, storm clouds crept over the Fairweathers and carried to us the typical weather of Southeast Alaska: grey skies and pouring rain, which continued for the rest of our boat tour and into the evening. On our way back to Bartlett Cove, we enjoyed the atmospheric fog and aquamarine water in the lazy and warm comfort of the boat, passing Lamplugh and Reid Glaciers on the way and chatting with our fellow passengers. We didn’t see any whales or bears on our tour (apparently this is unusual), but we loved the smaller wildlife and the views.
Although Glacier Bay is known, of course, for its glaciers—and there are 1000 of them in the park!—it was actually protected for a different reason: its mosses and lichens. Because it was formed so suddenly and so unusually, Glacier Bay makes for a perfect place to study revegetation. In 1916, plant ecologist William S. Cooper traveled to Glacier Bay from Minnesota. He was fascinated by the ways the plants in the area were rebounding after the land was wiped bare by the Grand Pacific. And because the glacier was now receding, he could study which plants would be first to return, how they’d prepare the soil for future growth, and what would be able to grow later.
Glacier Bay is one of the most exciting places in the world for scientists who study lichens—there are 814 species here, and many of them had never been found before in Alaska or North America; in fact, in 2014, a whole new genus of lichen was found! Doesn’t this just thrill and delight you??? 😉
Lichens may not look like much, but without them, plant succession would not be possible and the land of Glacier Bay would still be barren. During the process of revegetation, mosses and lichens first grow across the rocks, slowly breaking them down and forming a thin layer of soil, where increasingly larger plants can take hold—grasses and wildflowers, then small deciduous shrubs giving way to willows and alders later on, which then prepare the soil for more mature forests with hemlocks, cottonwoods, and spruce. Traveling down the bay is like traveling along a timeline of ecological succession, and it was fascinating to experience!
But while lichens are certainly rousing, our favorite part of Glacier Bay was the connection to its native history. The National Park Service has not always excelled at relationships with the native tribes who once occupied the now-protected land. Most of the parks we’ve visited don’t do a great job of talking about the ways in which protecting federal lands often displaced native tribes from their homelands. Native history is presented as happening well before the NPS stepped in, which often was not the case.
In Glacier Bay, the NPS’s regulations have kept the native Tlingit from subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering, and from using the land as they once did. The relationship between the tribe and the park service has been extremely turbulent over the years, but beginning in the 1980s, tribal members have staged peaceful protests, petitioned the NPS and involved themselves in the park’s operations in order to change things. Over time, the relationship has improved and now, Glacier Bay has become a terrific place to learn about the heritage of this tribe and to hear from tribal members, several of whom work as rangers in the park.
Two years ago today (on August 25, 2016), the Tuna Shuka Hit—Huna Ancestor’s House—was dedicated. The first permanent clan house in Glacier Bay since the Tlingit villages were destroyed the Grand Pacific Glacier, the park and tribe worked together to erect a structure that displays the traditional building and carving techniques of the Tlingit, provides a place for tribal meetings, ceremonies and events, and operates as a learning space for visitor’s to the park.
We attended a program in the House where a ranger and member of the Tlingit raven clan told us the stories of the carvings in and around the house. The ranger was a wonderful storyteller and the atmosphere inside the house was incredible; the only light was from the fire in the pit at the center of the room and the whole place was warm and smelled of the cedar planks used to make it. The huge panel inside the house tells the story of the four Tlingit clans; totems around Bartlett Cove represent other traditional stories. On our way to Glacier Bay, we actually rode on the ferry with the newest totem that will be erected here: a healing totem, to both represent and continue to improve the relationship between the park and the native people. The ceremony for this totem was happening several days after we left and we were so sad that we couldn’t stay to watch and learn more about this history.
The mission of the national park is in no way easy, and I don’t envy the complex balancing act they are engaged in between access and preservation. But I really admire the way Glacier Bay has become a place where the park and the tribe have come together to teach history and create a deeply meaningful atmosphere in the homeland of the Huna Tlingit. This kind of growth, learning and becoming better is what I think the NPS is all about, and what will allow the idea of conservation to survive into the future.
Waiting for the ferry back to Juneau. A plane loading onto the ferry. Because Alaska.
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