Getting to Glacier Bay

Sunday was a travel day, flying out of Haines airport on an Alaskan Seaplanes Swiss-made, 9-passenger Pilatus PC-12, a plane I had never heard of before. Our ultimate destination was Glacier Bay N.P. with a layover in Juneau before landing in Gustavus for a shuttle ride to the Glacier Bay Lodge.

It was a little disconcerting taking off from Haines and immediately banking left before making altitude, the adjacent Chilkat mountain range directly ahead.

We flew southeast to Juneau at 3,500 feet, well below the parallel peaks. It was incredible coming face-to-face with hanging glaciers like the one below.

I sat on the right-hand side of the plane, just behind the co-pilot’s empty seat, looking southwest as we passed glacier after glacier.

This side of the Chilkat mountain range lies within the northern reaches of the Tongass National Forest but on the other side of these mountains is Glacier Bay National Park, first established as a national monument by President Coolidge in 1925, then elevated to National Park status by Congress in 1980.

On the west side of the Glacier Bay National Park lies the Fairweather Mountain Range. There are over 1,000 glaciers in the Park. According to a Park Service publication available at the visitor center:

“Storms off of the Pacific Ocean collide with the towering Fairweather Mountains releasing incredible amounts of precipitation. The rain at sea level is typically snow in higher elevations. High in the mountains, more snow falls each year than melts. This massive amount of snow compacts, forming ice. With the influence of gravity, the ice slides down the mountainside. A glacier is born. Basically, a glacier is ice in motion. As a glacier flows down the mountainside, it reaches lower warmer elevations. When a glacier gets more rain than snow, ice melts and the glacier diminishes in size, even as it continues its journey downslope. The balance between the amount of ice forming and ice melting determines whether a glacier advances (grows) or retreats (shrinks), though it always flows forward.”

It’s not far from Haines to Juneau, but the scenery changed dramatically once we crossed over to the east side of the Lynn Canal. In Juneau, we changed planes and pilots after a one-hour layover, then proceeded to Gustavus airport,…

… crossing back over the Lynn Canal before flying between the peaks at the southern end of the Chilkat Range.

Dale took the top right and lower left photos, below, from the left-hand, south-looking side of the plane while I took the others from the right, looking north. All of the pictures show the sculpting of the mountains and valleys as a result of glacial advance and retreat over the millennia.

Again, just a short flight, Juneau to Gustavus. The weather couldn’t have been better.

Here’s a map of the areas we’ve been lately. At the top I’ve circled Skagway and environs; below that, Haines and the Chilkat Peninsula. And finally, at the bottom, Gustavus and Glacier Bay’s Visitor Center and Lodge, where we are right now. Juneau is off the map to the right.

After checking in to Glacier Bay Lodge (and discovering that the hot water would not be working for our entire stay)…

… we went for a walk through the adjacent spruce forest, stopping first to look at the skeleton of a humpback whale that washed up onshore several years ago after being hit by a passing cruise ship.

On our way back to the lodge for dinner, an excited young lad ran up to us and pointed out a porcupine and her baby in a cottonwood tree just off the boardwalk. If he hadn’t called our attention to them, we would certainly have missed them.

Strange animals, porcupines. The mother, resting in the tree about 15’ above the ground, didn’t seem to care that her baby couldn’t get higher than a foot off the forest floor, finally giving up and crawling under the boardwalk. Little did we know at the time that this would not be our most memorable wildlife encounter.

4 thoughts on “Getting to Glacier Bay

  1. Enjoying your and Dale’s daily travails, Mark. Beautiful remote natural environments. Keep on posting and writing!

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