We seem plunked down in a different world. It looks like something from the depths of history. Or maybe from planets beyond our orb.
Great shards of ice glisten like diamonds in deep sapphire waters. Tidewater glaciers sweep like rivers of ice down massive mountain valleys. Mountains, some as high as 15,000 feet, rise straight out of the ocean. Snow draped peaks tower over sparkling fiords.
“It feels like you are going back in time, back to the Ice Age,” said Ranger Fay Schaller as our cruise ship enters Alaska’s Glacier Bay. “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 Wilderness Explorer, we will spend three days in Glacier Bay, not merely cruising past the astounding scenery but actually stopping to go ashore, paddle a kayak or ride in a skiff. To see Glacier Bay is to enjoy nature in its primary stages.
First, our ship stops at the Glacier Bay Ranger Station headquarters in Gustavus, a town with less than 500 year-round residents and the official entrance to the park. Here we pick up Ranger Fay who will be with us for our entire visit in Glacier Bay. Some passengers and crew make a quick visit to the Glacier Bay Lodge to use the Wi-Fi for a last check of Internet and cell phones. During the rest of our cruise, we will have neither.
But, oh, the beauties we will see. No technology can compete with what Mother Nature has to offer.
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 edge near the icy creations on the Wilderness Explorer and in our kayaks and skiffs, we don’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.’”
Seems like a very descriptive name for an almost indescribable feature of Glacier Bay.
Story and photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch