We seemed plunked down in a different world. It looked like something from the depths of history. Or maybe from planets beyond our orb.
Great shards of ice glistened like diamonds in deep sapphire waters. Tidewater glaciers swept like rivers of ice down massive mountain valleys. Mountains, some as high as 15,000 feet, rose straight out of the ocean. Snow-draped peaks towered over sparkling fiords.
“It feels like you are going back in time, back to the Ice Age,” said Ranger Fay as the Wilderness Explorer from UnCruise Adventures entered Alaska’s Glacier Bay on our seven-day cruise. “We are traveling on one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
Accessible only by sea or air, Glacier Bay National Park is recognized as a biosphere reserve, as established in 1986 under the Man & Biosphere program of the International Coordinating Council. In 1992, the 3.3-million-acre park also became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Aboard the 74-passenger Wilderness Explorer, we spent three days in Glacier Bay, not merely cruising past the astounding scenery but actually stopping to go ashore, paddle a kayak, enjoy paddle boarding, ride in a skiff or jump into a polar plunge. To see Glacier Bay is to enjoy nature in its primary stages.
Creation of Glacier Bay
When English navigator and explorer George Vancouver first sailed the Alaska coast in 1794, Glacier Bay did not exist. It lay beneath a sheet of glacial ice several miles wide and thousands of feet thick. Glacier Bay was all glacier and no bay. The 400-foot-thick wall of ice was 20 miles wide and more than 100 miles long. Since then, in one of the fastest glacial retreats on record, the ice has shrunk back 65 miles to unveil new land and a new bay.
“Three hundred years ago, you would have seen ice,” Ranger Fay said. “We are traveling on one of the greatest retreats that ever happened.”
Living in the shadow of the great glacier, the native Tlingit people found all they needed to prosper. “The Tlingit people were here for thousands of years until about 300 years ago,” Ranger Fay said. “A natural disaster unheard of at the time chased them out of their homeland.”
Around 1750, the dormant glacier began to move. “It was a very dramatic movement in a very short period of time,” she said. “The Tlingits were forced to leave quickly without any warning.”
The glacier has been receding ever since. When naturalist John Muir visited in 1879, it had retreated 48 miles. What John Muir saw was breathtaking – “a picture of icy wildness, unspeakable pure and sublime.” In 1916, it was 65 miles shorter.
Today, it is almost completely back onto dry land, with just a few spurs hovering above saltwater. Scientist are studying the phenomenon, hoping to learn how glacial activities relate to climate change.
“We like to say that glaciers eat mountains for breakfast,” Ranger Fay said. “Most glaciers all over the world are melting away very quickly.”
Cruises limited in Glacier Bay
In the 1960s cruise ships began entering Glacier Bay regularly. Today, entrance to Glacier Bay is closely guarded in order to protect the delicate environment so cruise lines must apply for permits to visit. A limited number of permits are issued each year for ships which meet the strict criteria.
The scenery is spectacular. The park includes 16 tidewater glaciers with 12 actively calving icebergs into the bay. Wildlife abounds, from sea birds to shore-bound birds. Whales cavort in the waters. Steller sea lions trumpet their songs from icy islands. Orca killer whales patrol for prey. Wolves and bears prowl the shores. Goats nestle in the rocky crags.
Even though we edged near the icy creations on the Wilderness Explorer and in our kayaks and skiffs, we didn’t get too close. Without warning, columns of blue ice can smash into the sea with a primeval roar. Known as calving, the falling ice can create strong waves and toss house-sized chunks of ice.
“The Tlingits have a name for caving,” Ranger Fay said. “They call it ‘white thunder.’”
On our expedition cruise, we were able to get up close to the amazing creatures that call Alaska home. Gigantic humpback whales breached not far from my cabin window. Cavorting and cart wheeling, they snorted huge sprays of air and seawater as their bodies slapped down on the ocean with massive thuds.
Orca “killer whales” skimmed through the sea, looking more like sharks with their black fins gleaming against the dark blue water. Once I even glimpsed a sea otter floating along on its back with its toes stuck up in the air. I think it was as surprised to see our vessel as I was to see it.
The ship slowed – a sure sign that the captain or some other crewmember or passenger had seen an animal – to watch a coastal brown bear amble along the beach with three cubs in tow. Then another bear showed up with two cubs. Soon after that, a wolf sidled up on a small hillside across a stream from the bears. A second wolf lifted his head to howl. Two bald eagles watched from a tall tree and seagulls circled overhead. But none of the animals seemed afraid of the other – almost as though they had staked out their claim and, at least for the moment, were willing to live and let live.
Alaska is star of cruise
Forget about manmade entertainment on the Wilderness Explorer as it cruises Alaska. The real show out here is unscripted, the kind of beautiful adventure that can take your breath away.
Don’t know how Chef Bob and his culinary team prepared all that yummy food in such a small kitchen but they certainly did. But Chef Bob knows that even a delicious sit-down dinner can be put on hold if wildlife has been spotted.
“When it comes to a choice between dinner and whales,” Chef Bob noted with a grin, “the whales always win.”
Cover Photo: Alaska expedition: The UnCruise Wilderness Explorer can cruise close to shore, photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch
All photos courtesy of Jackie Sheckler Finch
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