A Hasty Retreat: Alaska’s Glacier Bay

LEADGlacierBay2The downfall of Glacier Bay’s namesake attractions is what uplifts the tourists who perch along boat railings below the glaciers. With the incandescent blue walls of the Margerie Glacier poised 100 feet (30 m) overhead, we await with bated breath a signature event that may or may not presage a catastrophe for human civilization.

Squealing gulls wheel by. Clouds dash against the near ridges of Alaska’s Fairweather Range. A whisper of chilled air washes across the 200 feet (61 m) of water that separates our tour boat from the toe of the glacier.

And then a small spire of ice peels away from an inner crevice, dropping into the water inside an ice cave with a slap that echoes to the boat a second later.

My fellow visitors sigh with satisfaction, even clapping, as if the glacier had calved off that tiny piece just for our entertainment. Cameras flash, too late, though the scene itself is memorably otherworldly.

Smiles all around, and a lady next to me turns to offer a happy remark. “Pretty cool!” Not every tour gets to see the glacier shed, our guide has told us. We’re lucky.

Whether we are truly lucky, though, depends on whether you take the short or long-term view. There’s a chance we are celebrating an infinitesimal crack in the climatic dike that holds back the oceans from about half of humanity.

Like most ice around the world, Glacier Bay’s has been receding, and the tiny piece that dropped before our eyes may have raised ocean levels a nanometer higher. I live near sea level in Seattle; witnessing a glacier calve is a fine sight, yes, but also mildly disconcerting.

Touring the marine wilderness of Glacier Bay, one of the best-known and most-visited locales in Alaska that became a National Park in 1980, is a three-dimensional experience. The scenery is sensational, with snow-draped peaks towering over sparkling fiords. Wildlife abounds, from sea birds to shore-bound brown bears. And it affords a sobering chance to think about climate change.

This 63-mile (101 km) inlet, tucked into the northwest corner of southeast Alaska (which Alaskans simply call “Southeast”), was completely encased in glacial ice when English navigator and explorer George Vancouver first sailed by in 1794. The 400-foot-thick (122 m) wall of ice was 20 miles (32 km) wide and more than 100 miles (160 km) long.

A view of the Johns Hopkins Glacier on a rare sunny day.
A view of the Johns Hopkins Glacier on a rare sunny day.

It’s been receding ever since; when naturalist John Muir visited in 1879 it had retreated 48 miles (77 km). In 1916 it was 65 miles (105 km) shorter. Today it is almost completely back onto dry land, with just a few spurs hovering above saltwater. Scientists are studying the phenomenon, “hoping to learn how glacial activity relates to climate changes,” as the National Park Service euphemistically puts it.

Funny, the glacier’s retreat and the growth of the Industrial Age correspond almost exactly. Must be a coincidence.

But climatic and geologic changes do not always produce the local results you expect. While the world’s oceans are almost undoubtedly on the rise, in the short term the geography of the Glacier Bay landscape is experiencing the opposite effect.

As the glacier’s immense weight recedes, the land itself is rising. The chief beneficiaries are landowners in Gustavus, the town that perches at the head of Glacier Bay on one of the few flat plains in Southeast Alaska. As the land rises, they gain new property that once lay underwater.

Morgan DeBoer is one of those, a member of a pioneering family that homesteaded here around the turn of the 20th century.

Each year the water retreats about an inch and a half (3.8 cm) at the shoreline edge of his property; as a result he gains about an acre (4,047 m²).

He’s putting his property, new and old, to two good uses: golf and conservation. Dotted with spruce hummocks, splashed with color by waist-high Indian paintbrush flowers, much of his land will stay just as it is, a unique shoreline park along the waters of Icy Strait.

The name of the passage remains appropriate despite the retreat of its namesake. Brisk winds rush off its 42-degree F (5.5 °C) waters, clearing away morning mist to reveal 15,300-foot (4,663 m) Mount Fairweather, another appropriate name — if you can see it, fair weather is exactly what you have.

Fair weather is common in summer here, along with 15 to 20 hours of daylight, and DeBoer’s Mount Fairweather Golf Course helps visitors make the most of that in unique Southeast style. No manicured layouts here: The rough on several holes is provided by ravens, which use their beaks to plow the fairway for grubs.

A cruiseship stations itself in front of the Margerie Glacier on a typical rainy day.
A cruiseship stations itself in front of the Margerie Glacier on a typical rainy day.

Occasionally one of these avian turf-farmers will make off with a ball that lands nearby ― players who lose their balls thus are granted relief. On the par-4 third hole the “sand” traps are actually wood chips. I’d take sand any day. High tides periodically flood the margins of a couple fairways; if your ball washes away, there’s relief for that, too.

“We have a unique way of doing things here in Southeast,” DeBoer explains.

Armed with love of their land and that unique spirit, residents of Gustavus have joined with the Nature Conservancy to place much of the area surrounding the town in a preserve that ironically incorporates some of the new ground that’s sprung up over the past century. One wonders if it will become, sometime in our children’s life spans, an underwater preserve.

Meanwhile, to naturalists the whole area is a biological laboratory. New ground draws colonists both floral and faunal, whether it’s along the Gustavus shoreline or in the inner reaches of Glacier Bay recently freed from the ice.

From the mature forest at Bartlett Cove, the park’s headquarters near Gustavus, a trip up-bay takes visitors down the evolution of life along the inlet, past alder forest, then willow and berry-bearing shrubs, to the nascent carpet of life composed of what biologists call “black crust,” an algal felt on the bare rock and gravel the glaciers leave behind.

All this is compressed into an even shorter distance in a side inlet, Johns Hopkins. At the entrance, freed of ice in 1892, alder and salmonberry mingle with young spruce and hemlock. Just a few miles in, the glacier hangs high over a cold bay and rock basin that looks as alien and lifeless as the back side of the moon. The Johns Hopkins Glacier pitches a slab of ice into the bay as we hover a quarter-mile (400 m) away, but this time the visitor celebration is muted.

On the way back out, our tour boat pauses by a rocky promontory so we can watch a big brown bear stuff berries and small herbaceous plants into his mouth. She’s indifferent to our attentions, and I reckon her descendants will be likewise when future tour boats will glide by on the warmer, higher waters of a bay named Glacier for its past.

I don’t know what will happen to Morgan DeBoer’s golf course then. Today, I head back for another round, trading serious natural history education for play. Picking a 4-iron for my tee shot on the third hole, I drive a fine 180-yard (184 m) hook directly into a pile of wood chips. A raven lands near by, and I silently urge it to pick up my ball so I can start over. Too bad we can’t do the same with global warming.

If You Go

Glacier Bay National Park

www.nps.gov/glba

Glacier Bay Lodge is the concessionaire for accommodations, meals and supplies at the park headquarters; the lodge also operates the best tours of the inlet, on smaller boats. Each sailing includes commentary by a naturalist. www.visitglacierbay.com

The Gustavus Inn is a family-owned B&B in the nearest town of Gustavus, with splendid meals and comfy rooms.

www.gustavusinn.com

Alaska Tourism Office

www.travelalaska.com

 

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