Thursday, July 7 and Friday, July 8 – Glacier Bay National Park and the western arm
The 30-mile trip to Glacier Bay National Park started at 0600 hours under cloudy skies, calm winds, flat water and 61 degrees. Hoonah had not awakened as the town was quiet and as Tribute glided the length of the town, the streets were empty. After clearing Hoonah Island and turning northwest, the Fairweather Mountain Range with peaks ranging from 12 to 15,000 feet loomed in the distance. This mountain range is within the national park. The dramatic elevation changed, the jagged and snow covered peaks would be the first of many “Wow!” moments that this park would create.
The starting time was intended to take advantage of the currents and the predicted winds. Tribute’s speed was 8 to 8.5 knots as the sun rose, warmed the morning and cleared the skies and the first humpback of the day was seen. Just outside the park boundary, the first sea otters were found diving for food, lounging on their back to eat or rest. Hunted to near extinction, they were introduced in the 1990’s and now there are 9,000 in the park where they are, as described by the Park Service, “dramatically changing the underwater world of the park” because they are veracious consumers of crab and shellfish.
Following instructions, when the imaginary line was crossed into the park, the VHF radio was used to announce Tribute’s presence. Permission was given to enter and we arrived at Bartlett Cove, tied to the National Park Service dock and signed in at the Visitor Information Station. With over an hour to wait for the boater orientation program, we walked to the lodge, looked over the gift shop and a huge skeleton of a humpback whale that was killed by a cruise ship in 2001.
The briefing was a 20-minute video about why the rules are necessary and was followed by a presentation by a ranger of what the current areas that are closed or limited. This is the peak season for the humpback whales to feed in the park as they gorge for 5 months and then swim to Hawaii where they do not eat. Unlike other whales that have a kind of sonar to locate boats and other animals, the humpbacks use their hearing. Therefore, boats should not change course or speed to avoid them, the whales will hear and evade.
Two hours later, Tribute and Shipperly were heading deeper into the bay. The currents in Glacier Bay are substantial because there is only one outlet for this huge body of water. Glacier Bay has two main arms and immense mountains with jagged peaks and wide valleys that were carved by glaciers ring the bay. The flooding current propelled Tribute to 13.2 knots for several miles, which is a new speed record for this Kadey Krogen trawler.
Past Willoughby Island, a humpback surfaced just 50 yards away from Tribute’s port side. A massive back, the whoosh of a blowhole, and the whale was gone – descending into the 900’ deep bay. South Marble Island attracted us because boaters cannot get closer than 100 yards. What is being protected? Answer: the endangered stellar sea lion and lots of them. The 2,000-pound males were strutting on the smooth rock against a backdrop of eye-popping mountains and under clear blue skies. On North Marble Island, Laurie regained her enthusiastic love for the Tufted Puffin that started here in 1983, when she saw two of their distinctive orange beaks. The destination was Blue Mouse Cove, the most popular anchorage in the park. It was empty and we anchored in 45 feet of water after traveling 64 miles. Shipperly rafted to Tribute and we enjoyed docktails as a fresh breeze caused moderate ripples which would all stop when the sun went down at 1030 PM.
The next day was a day that was punctuated with incredible sounds.
We awoke to a humpback whale in the cove, sedately swimming and diving the 150 foot depth and rising to the “whoosh” of its exhale. We stood on the foredeck, enraptured and whispering as the whale captured our attention for 45 minutes and we had breakfast with a humpback under high clouds, still air and 63 degrees.
Immersed in this wilderness, the differences of our accustomed universe are being realized. With no cars, no floatplanes, no broadcast media and no remainders of humanity, the mountains, water, colors, and the moving dynamics of weather capture the attention. Devoid of the addiction and speed of information and the resulting emotional rollercoaster, the pace of life is slower and calmer, less about ambition and desires and more about the massive and complex world outside of our control. A world that has been in the background is now front and center.
Tribute and Shipperly left the anchorage and headed up the west arm and immediately were met with 25-knot winds on the bow, winds channeled and intensified by the steep mountains on each side. At Queen Inlet, the winds dropped and the water lay down. Reid Glacier came into view and this glacier is receding while the John Hopkins Glacier is advancing. Glaciers are like a snow and ice account. When more snow is deposited and compressed than melts, the glacier grows and when more ice is melted than created, it recedes. Of the over 1,000 glaciers in this national park, most are receding and have been for over 200 years. All skeptics of climate change need to come to this national park.
The changing glaciers are perhaps one of the reasons for this pristine wilderness in the 21st Century. There is no history of homesteads, farming and towns, or canneries because of the glaciers. Today, the glaciers are revealing the valleys that have been in their belly, land sculpting in progress.
The upper portion of John Hopkins Inlet is closed to cruise ships but they will come right up to the boundary for a look. Kayakers were at the first glacier, dome tents pitched on an outcropping, and high sheer walls of ice rising above their kayaks. John Hopkins Glacier is in the upper portion and though the icebergs stopped Tribute about 1-1/2 miles from the glacier, the occasional calving into the water was easy to see with the huge splash. The ice was hundreds of feet thick and the cracking, the low, deep-throated rumble of fracturing, spoke of immense power.
After leaving, a cruise ship was encountered and Laurie’s iPhone came alive with a text from Travis. For 30 seconds, we were close enough to pickup their network.
Tribute continued up Tarr Inlet to explore Margerie Glacier and the Grand Pacific Glacier. Shipperly conserved fuel and scouted out the two anchorage possibilities. All the cruise ships go up the Tarr Inlet because Margerie Glacier is the post card glacier with very high, perpendicular walls with spectacular mountains in the background. This is an amazing glacier and again, the deep rumble of moving and fracturing ice. There is active calving but the bay is mostly clear of icebergs, perhaps because of the movement of two cruise ships each day. This illustrates the balancing act of managing the park: access versus preservation. 500,000 people come to the park each year and with only 25 pleasure boats allowed each day, it is the cruise ships that bring well over 80% of the people.
The Grand Pacific Glacier is the opposite of Margerie, dirty, dark, foreboding and leaving behind a moon-like landscape. Beautiful and awesome in its own way. This also marked the northern most point of the trip at 59 degrees north or 11 degrees north from Everett, Washington. This is roughly equivalent to the distance between Seattle and San Francisco.
The 10-knot breeze changed to a stiff 30-knot cold wind at the glacier as it swept down the mountains and across the glacier. Leaving the glaciers, Tribute was going with the mild ebbing current and a light breeze on its stern the entire length or 8 miles to the anchorage at Russell Island with Shipperly, where the anchor was dropped in 80 feet behind a small islet.
Tribute had traveled 51 miles.
The dingy was dropped and the small islets were explored where thousands of birds were floating and flying. These are protected areas due to critical habitat and we admired them from afar. Laurie was certain that one of the flock was Tufted Puffins. Tribute had traveled over 1,400 miles in 5 weeks and this place had the most wildlife, especially birds. All of northern British Columbia was nearly absent of all wildlife. Why is that? What makes this place so special?
Saturday, July 9 and Sunday, July 10 – Eastern Arm
Tribute has a number of complex systems that need attention but the maintenance and troubleshooting of issues is often simple. The Hurricane Hydronic system is a diesel-fired boiler that heats water and provides cabin heat and hot water. Today, the system would constantly flame-out and not start. The well-written operating manual provided the answer: clean the nozzle (a five minute job), and purge the air from the fuel system (a 20 second task). Though the fuel filter looked fine, after 120 hours, it was changed (a 10 minute job) and the whole system was happy and humming again. The destination was the eastern arm of the park including the Muir Inlet. The anchor was raised at 0900 hours to take advantage of the ebbing tide. The AIS display showed a tour boat stopped at a sheer mountainside, the sure sign of a wildlife sighting. We headed for Gloomy Knob, a point on the mountain and Shipperly saw the dozen mountain goats first. They were several hundred feet above the water, on rocky ledges that had enough topsoil to support plant life. Their snow-while coats and horns, both male and female, were plain to see and we enjoyed their presence before heading down the mirror-like surface of the bay.
At 12:30 PM we turned to port to enter Muir Inlet also labeled as the eastern arm. A humpback whale was seen in the distance feeding near the shore and about 20 sea otters would be counted over the afternoon. The Takinsha Mountains rise out of the water and dominate the eastern view and their tallest peaks were encased by puffy white clouds in the blue sky.
The huge Riggs Glacier meandered out of the mountains to the bay. One difference between the western and eastern arms is the latter is heavily forested on low foothills that are in the foreground of the mountains. We turned up the Wachusett Inlet after doing an initial look at Hunter Cove as an anchorage. The anchorage possibilities are very few because of the deep water. Hunter Cove has 60-foot depths but is wide open to the south and the fetch from the long inlet. If the winds remained light, the anchorage would be fine. The few icebergs at the entrance to Wachusett Inlet came from the Muir Glacier and are held in a kind of limbo between the changing currents and breezes. The upper portion of Muir Inlet is closed to motorized vessels. The Wachusett Inlet is 9 miles long. The trip was pure glass with warm, still air and we moved to the flybridge to enjoy it and take in the view. The glacier has receded greatly and was not as impressive as others but like a diamond in a store of diamonds, it is still a gem.
Returning to Hunter Cove, there were white caps that would make the ride at anchor safe but more uncomfortable. The best anchorage was another 12 miles away. The day would be longer than hoped but was acceptable. By Garforth Island, a humpback surfaced near Shipperly and Laurie photographed the huge fluke before it disappeared under the surface.
At 7PM the anchor was dropped in South Sandy Cove, behind Puffin Island in 45 feet of water. This is the peak season for boaters with fantastic weather and this is one of the most popular anchorages; there were two other boats. We had dinner during the movie “Oceans 12” and dropped right off to sleep.
The next day, two of the boats were gone at breakfast. A weak low-pressure system is moving across the region bringing a thick cloud cover. Mid-day temperature is 69 degrees with calm winds and flat water. Shipperly headed out at 0800 hours to Bartlett Cove to fuel and get an Internet connection.
The morning was spent downshifting, catching up on photos and writing and simply enjoying the cove. Laurie did a flurry of baking and created chocolate chip cookies, a blueberry and rhubarb crisp, and lasagna. After lunch, the drysuit and dive gear was brought up from the engine room and an hour was spent scraping the rudder and cleaning the hull in the 50-degree water. The visibility was horrible due to the summer plankton bloom. What is horrible for divers is great for whales as they feed on the critters that live off the plankton.
After the gear was cleaned, rinsed and hung to dry in the cockpit, the departure time was coordinated to match the slack current at the head of Glacier Bay. The water was mirror-flat, the wind was quietly still and this huge national park and wilderness was quiet and empty of people. At 4:30 PM, the anchor was raised and Tribute idled out of the cove leaving it empty of boats. A humpback whale mom and calf were swimming and diving together near Flapjack Island and that was the prelude to an awesome experience that would begin 30 minutes later near Young Island.
The large and repeated sight of water being splashed by huge flukes riveted our attention. Though it was about 3 miles away, the flat water and the height of the water being forced into the air was plain to see. For 20 minutes, the repeated slapping of a huge fluke continued. Spouts from two other whales were close by. Then, long side fins were raised skyward, as a whale would roll on its side.
Tribute was in the mid-channel between Young Island and Lester Island and nearing three whales. Tempted to change course to evade them, the words of the instructions to boaters was clear, maintain course and speed and the whales will evade you. All of this set the stage for the main event.
Ahead of Tribute and about 1-1/2 miles away, a humpback whale breached, coming nearly completely out of the water at a steep angle and came down on their side raising a spectacular splash. The pilothouse was filled with yelps and shouts of excitement. Then, a second whale came right out of the water revealing their total length and color. This was followed another whale breaching into the air and crashing lengthwise into the water.
In the silence that followed, we were stunned and quieted what by what we saw because it was a wholly spiritual moment. No photos were taken.
The whales were temporarily gone.
Looking to our starboard, a Coast Guard Cutter was coming down the bay and Tribute was going to cross its bow. A radio conversation with them told them about the whales and Tribute’s necessity to follow the vessel operating rules in this preserve. A 90-degree turn was made to the south and the Coast Guard Cutter said that they would slow and follow Tribute into Bartlett Cove as they had the same destination. The three humpback whales did evade Tribute and the cutter and were seen to the east near Lester Island entertaining a group of kayakers on the beach.
Tribute dropped anchor behind Shipperly in Bartlett Cove at 8 PM having traveled 26 miles. The long public dock was nearly empty and the bay had about 6 boats, ranging in length from 28 feet to 75 feet at anchor. After a quick dinner, the dingy took us to the dock where we walked to the lodge. About 30 people were eating in the restaurant. Ken and Pauline were on the second floor working on their blog. After checking email and updating the website, we returned to Tribute at 10PM. The next day starts a three day trip to Sitka.
The wildlife count in Glacier Bay National Park: Stellar Sea Lions (endangered): too many to count Tufted Puffins: 7 Humpback Whales (endangered): 15 + Sea Otters (protected): 55 + Loon: 1 Pigeon Gilamot: too many to count Mountain Goats: 12 Surf Scoters: too many to count