“Climbing higher for a still broader outlook, I made notes and sketched, improving the precious time while sunshine streamed through the luminous fringes of the clouds and fell on the green waters of the fiord, the glittering bergs, the crystal bluffs of the vast glacier, the intensely white, far-spreading fields of ice, and the ineffably chaste and spiritual heights of the Fairweather Range, which were now hidden, now partly revealed, the whole making a picture of icy wildness unspeakably pure and sublime.”- John Muir on seeing Glacier Bay for first time in 1879
Without a doubt, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve was the highlight of our entire cruise. After the photos and videos I saw prior to our trip, it was also the most anticipated. No doubt we were very blessed to have outstanding weather that day. Many of the ship crew members also commented how extremely lucky we were to have had such a glorious day, as this area is usually cloudy, and receives quite a bit of rain.
Surprisingly we saw very little in the way of wildlife. We did see a bald eagle, porpoise, sea lion, harbor seal and a couple of humpback whales. I was hoping to see more, but that was fine, we were there for the scenery. Some of the other wildlife that thrive in and around the bay include minke and killer whales, sea otters, moose, black and brown bears, wolves, mountain goats, wolverines, lynx, as well as a wide variety of birds and waterfowl.
“The very thought of this Alaska garden is a joyful exhilaration. …out of all the cold darkness and glacial crushing and grinding comes this warm, abounding beauty and life to teach us that what we in our faithless ignorance and fear call destruction is creation finer and finer.”- John Muir on Glacier Bay
John Muir made his first visit to Glacier Bay in 1879, only one year prior to the establishment of his beloved Yosemite National Park. Muir came to Alaska to learn about glaciers and how they shape the landscape. He believed that the Yosemite Valley had been carved by ice, and wanted to prove his theory by studying the glaciers in Alaska. At the time of his first visit the main glacier in Glacier Bay had already receded 45 miles up the bay, thus opening the bay to navigation, exploration and research for the first time.
In his 1915 book, Travels in Alaska, which was a collection of newspaper dispatches, lectures and articles, Muir began promoting Glacier Bay and the Inside Passage to the broader public. This led to President Calvin Coolidge proclaiming Glacier Bay a national monument in 1925. In 1980 Glacier Bay was elevated to a National Park and Preserve. In 1986 it was recognized as a Biosphere Reserve, and then was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
Topeka Glacier also comes into view near the entrance to the inlet:
website the main glacier reached its maximum extent at the end of the Little Ice Age around 1750. At that time the glacier extended all the way into Icy Straight. However, when Captain George Vancouver sailed into the area in 1794, he and his crew described what we now call Glacier Bay as just a small five-mile indent in a gigantic glacier that stretched off to the horizon. By 1879 John Muir noted that the ice had retreated an additional 40 miles, and was in the process creating the bay. By 1916 the main glacier had melted back 60 miles to the head of what is now Tarr Inlet. Since then, over the last one hundred years, the glacier has retreated only an additional 5 miles. The park website also notes that some of the glaciers are retreating while others are advancing.
Indeed, Glacier Bay continues to be shaped by nature. Less than two weeks after our visit a massive landslide spread debris for miles across the Lamplugh Glacier. According to reports the rock face of a 4000-foot mountain, located between the Brady Icefield and Johns Hopkins Inlet, collapsed on a high, steep slope. Once the debris hit the glacier it kept sliding for roughly 6.5 miles. Scientists estimate that the landslide carried about 132 million tons of rock and debris – the equivalent of about 60 million mid-size SUVs - down the mountain and glacier. The Alaska Earthquake Center said the slide was the equivalent to a magnitude 5.5 earthquake. Although no one was around to see it, Paul Swanstrom, a pilot with the Mountain Flying Service, recorded the avalanche on video just two hours after the dust was just settling:
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