Icebergs & Whales

Part I:  Icebergs

July 17, 2008
Under way, Portlock Harbor (northwest of Sitka)
N 57 degrees, 43.960 minutes
W 136 degrees, 12.257 minutes

Dear friends and family:

We anchored last night in a lovely little cove (Baker Cove), protected by an intricate set of channels and islands, from the ocean swell of the Gulf of Alaska. As we entered the cove, we startled a small black bear foraging in the grass near the head of the inlet. He (or she) looked at us for awhile and then lumbered off into the dense forest.

We had hoped to spend a day or two in Baker Cove, or other small coves in Portlock Harbor - it looks like there's plenty of exploration to do, perhaps crabs and salmon to catch, certainly sea otters to watch. But the forecast has a weather disturbance coming in tomorrow, and we have 21 miles of open ocean to traverse before we reach Sitka. Today the swells will be 4 feet, tomorrow 9 feet, and Saturday 16 feet. Ian's flight leaves Sunday from Sitka, and we'd just as soon avoid those 16 foot seas.

But let me back up and tell you what we've been doing since I last wrote. We took advantage of a wi-fi network at Bartlett Cove, to send the last report, as we entered Glacier Bay. That was after we went through a mandatory orientation, advising us of all the bureaucratic rules affecting our four-day permit. They have lots of wildlife protection areas mapped out, but the printed map they give you is not the current one, so they have to tell you about all the new restrictions not yet on the map. Approach no closer than 100 yards to the north side of this island, but no closer than 50 yards to the south side.  1 mile from shore. 1/4 mile from any whale. Unless they surface right in front of you. No motors in certain areas or at certain times. If you use up your full permit time, you have to obtain a special transit permit to get out of the park at a specific time. Etc. Etc. All very reasonable, but in the aggregate, rather overwhelming. Glacier Bay NP volunteers at Glacier Bay Lodge

They have a large number of rangers at Bartlett Cove, plus researchers who are surveying visitors, plus concessionaires, volunteers, all asking if you're enjoying your visit, is this your fist time, are you on a private boat, etc. etc.

Approaching North Sandy Cove: an island fades into the mist behind us. We sent our trip report, and then escaped to the north, anchoring for the night at North Sandy Cove, in the fogs and mists. The park only allows 25 motorized pleasure boats at any one time. Considering that Glacier Bay is 60 miles long, with many side channels, that's quite an area to find isolation. Our anchorages always had 3 or 4 other boats, but people were generally very quiet, and many left the anchorages early in the morning.
The next day we motored up to Reid Inlet, seeing many sea otters along the way. They lie on their backs in the water, sometimes in groups of 5 or 6, looking at us curiously as we motor past. Glacier Bay sea otter
Reid Inlet was carved out by the receding glacier which is still at its head. As you round the corner and look into the inlet, you can't say anything but "Wow!" The glacier is immense, dwarfing a couple of boats anchored near the base. This particular glacier isn't dropping icebergs into the water, and there's a small beach in front of it. The shores of the inlet are a classic U-shaped (glacier carved) valley, only recently beginning to be covered by scrub willow and alder.Reid Inlet: Ian washing the anchor chain (it took several tries to get the anchor to bite).  Thousands of creeks are visible on the sides, and they make a constant, lovely roar. The water is gray-green, a color some interior decorator would love - it looks, in fact, as though someone spilled a huge pot of paint into the water. The stuff making that color is glacial silt. It comes up with the anchor chain, making black rivulets on the deck. But it is so fine that if take a pinch, you can't feel any grit at all.

More pictures of Reid Inlet and glacier.

From Reid Inlet we motored up to Margerie Glacier, the prime destination of all the cruise ships. This glacier puts icebergs into the water, but interestingly enough, there aren't nearly so many icebergs as we encountered in Tracy Arm.Margerie Glacier  Many of these icebergs are black, or run through with black stripes. When we reached the glacier face, we could see why. About the southern 1/3 of the glacier is actually black, presumably covered with dirt (or maybe it's that glacial silt) blown in from the adjacent hillsides. Where icebergs have broken off the snout of the glacier, you can see black horizontal lines - presumably these are the annual growth rings of the glacier.
Just north of Margerie Glacier is the Grand Pacific Glacier, an immense river of ice more impressive from the distance than from close-up. We didn't approach it, having seen news reports from the previous week about a mid-sized cruise ship that went aground there on a sand bar. Grand Pacific Glacier

The picture in the paper showed the ship, with the tide all the way out, sitting high and dry. (We talked with one of their crew on our return to Bartlett Cove, and he had nothing kind to say about the First Mate, who had been at the helm at the time of the grounding.)

After watching the icebergs break off the Margerie Glacier, while we had lunch, we motored south and explored the first part of the Johns Hopkins Inlet. The inlet was quite full of ice, and we proceeded slowly to where the inlet takes a 90 degree left turn, and you have a full view of the immense glacier and the mountains beyond. It would have been a full day's work to proceed up to the face of the glacier, between the many icebergs (if it even was possible), so we left that for another trip.


Each of these valleys and glaciers looks like a classical lesson in geology - Here are the U-shaped valleys, the terminal moraines, the V-shaped valleys cut by subsequent water erosion, and upthrust cliffs with vertical veins of different-colored rock.

Icebergs & Whales:  Part II