Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg
For a place that is not reachable by any road, Glacier Bay National Park, tucked away in the southeastern corner of Alaska, can boast a great deal of popularity. This 5,000 square mile park, as large as any in the contiguous 48 states, gets its name from the long and narrow bay and the rivers of snow and ice that creep along its edges at a glacially slow pace. (Was that a pun? Ouch!)
Here you can find at least nine calving tidewater glaciers and many landlocked frozen rivers of ice. Some are retreating, but many are actually advancing. Their exotic Tyndall blue color is so deeply embedded in the ancient ice that these glaciers seem to almost radiate the color from within, much like a high quality diamond.
In addition to these spectacular blue-white rivers of ice are the wild creatures who make this semi-frozen wilderness their home. Raucous Stellar’s sea lions are here in large numbers. When lying about on rocks, they seem to feel safe and relaxed, allowing you to approach quite closely. In contrast, the harbor seals that you’ll see hauled out on the many ice floes are shy and will quickly dive into the water for safety when you might still be too far away to get a good shot of these photogenic creatures.
Then there is the occasional whale. Both humpbacks and orcas come here to feed. If you are lucky enough to spot one of the huge mammals, you will be quite safe on one of the big tour boats or even the smaller charter power craft, but if paddling your own kayak, it is best to stay a good distance away from these gentle and well-meaning, but enormous and powerful creatures.
Keep alert for the big grizzlies that often prowl the bay’s shoreline seeking to add to their protein-rich menu. Wolves make this park their home as well, but are very shy and do not often make an appearance. Then there is the rich and varied bird life; from mighty eagles to common murres and terns.
About halfway up the bay from Bartlett Cove, it forks at Tlingit Point. The east side will lead you up the Muir Inlet to the great McBride Glacier and several others. When bearing left at the fork, you come first to the beautiful Lamplugh Glacier. Just a bit farther north, the west arm turns left into the Johns Hopkins Inlet with more glaciers in one place than anywhere you are ever likely to see. The most striking of them all is at the very end of the inlet; the jewel of Glacier Bay, the Johns Hopkins Glacier.
You can choose among three very different means of getting to Glacier Bay National Park.
* Many cruise ships, both large and small, ply these calm waters as part of their Inside Passage itineraries. These cruises afford a pleasant, but very quick ride up and down the bay and are then quickly off to their next stops. While some good compositions are possible from the decks of these floating hotels, it’s a pretty catch-as-catch-can affair and a better choice for a family vacation than a serious photo trip.
* Express ferries from Juneau can get you to Bartlett Cove at the foot of Glacier Bay per their weekend schedules.
* Your other choice may be a better one. Take Alaska Airlines to tiny Gustavus, AK. When arriving with a reservation for the plain, but very comfortable Glacier Bay Lodge, their shuttle service will pick you up at the airport and deliver you quickly to the lodge.
Once there, you can find a few short hikes. But to get up the bay to all of those great glaciers, which is why you came here in the first place, you will have a few options from which to choose.
Perhaps the easiest is the full day boat tour from Bartlett Cove at the lodge. It certainly covers the basics and is reasonably priced.
Next comes the option of a multi-day backpacking trip. Combining it with a kayak that you can paddle around the bay will make it much easier. If you’re up for it, go ahead. This will give you the most intimate, up close and personal glacier experience possible.
A respectable compromise is chartering a small boat with a captain who has a park permit to go anywhere in the bay. It’s a great way to get up close to everything just the way you wish, but comes with a hefty price tag.
Like the rest of Alaska, the best times to visit are late summer and early fall. Make sure to bring lots of high-octane insect repellant.
Jerry Ginsberg is a freelance photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras. Ginsberg has been a National Park Service Artist in Residence in several National Parks.