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Glacier Bay National Park: An Icy Retreat

Ten trips into the changing wilds of America's Last Frontier.  
Text by Jeff Rennicke




Then

January 23, 1971:
What global warming? On this date the temps dip to a record-setting
-80ºF (-67ºC) at Prospect Creek Park.

Now

2007:
Alaska outfitters team up with Sustainable Travel International
(
www.my-climate.org/),
a carbon-offset program, to help visitors neutralize greenhouse gas emissions related to their Alaska trips.

I once overheard a slick-shoed tourist in Glacier Bay yammer into his cell phone that there was nothing to do but "watch birds fly and ice melt." John Muir loved it that way. On his first of several trips here, in 1879, the environmentalist called the glacier-tinseled coast an "icy wildness unspeakably pure and sublime." Today 3.2-million-acre (1.3-million-acre) Glacier Bay National Park protects much of what Muir saw, while a dramatic 65-mile (105-kilometer) glacial retreat ("unzipping," geologists call it) has opened up a kaleidoscope of fjords to paddle and ridgelines to hike that Muir and his shaggy dog, Stickeen, could have only imagined.

The Alaska Moment:

 Alaska Range  | 
ANWR |  Glacier Bay  |  Tongass  |  Yukon  | All Alaska Trips

New Frontier
Rafting to No-Man's-Land
John Muir had a poetic vision and an iron will. What he didn't have was a helicopter. The big brawling Alsek River winds its way through six days of wilderness and rapids, such as Lava North (Class IV), before getting squeezed in the fist of the Tweedsmuir Glacier at Turnback Canyon—where only the likes of legendary white-water kayaker Walt Blackadar dare to tread. Meanwhile, on Alaska Discovery's 12-day guided trip down the Alsek ($3,390; www.mtsobek.com/alaska_discovery) you'll simply hop on an outfitter-arranged, eight-minute helicopter portage across the ten-mile (16-kilometer) froth-filled gorge. From there, relying on the capable, white-water-tested arms of some of the country's best river guides, cruise the Alsek for four more white-water-, mountain-goat-, wildflower-filled days, and sneak through the back door of Glacier Bay National Park on the iceberg-tossed waters of the river.

Need to Know:
Hot Pogies are not a strange Alaska sandwich. They're insulated paddling mitts ideal for Glacier Bay. Mountain Surf Oven Mitts ($40; www.mountainsurf.com) are bombproof.
 
Classic
Chasing Glacial Ghosts
Like a jagged lightning bolt, 65-mile-long (105-mile-long) Glacier Bay cuts a pair of deep fjords—the West Arm and Muir Inlet—into the Alaska coast. With less than 15 miles (24 kilometers) of hiking trails in Glacier Bay National Park, most near the visitors center at Bartlett Cove (www.nps.gov/glba), these waterways provide the best access to the park's frozen heart. Rent a craft from Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks ($35 a day; www.glacierbayseakayaks.com) and hitch a ride aboard the Fairweather Express II ($214 round-trip; www.nps.gov/glba), which departs from Bartlett Cove and cruises past the puffin-feathered North and South Marble Islands. Haul out at the foot of Mount Wright for the start of a 55-mile (89-kilometer), five- to seven-day paddle up Muir Inlet, which was completely buried under ice in Muir's day. The 40-degree (4-degree Celsius) waters make this a DIY trip for moderate-to-advanced sea kayakers, while novices can cruise with Alaska Discovery ($1,990 for a five-day guided paddle; www.mtsobek.com/alaska_discovery). Each stroke takes you back in time as you follow the ghost of the glacier's retreat up the inlet. (Unburdened from the ice's immense weight, the shoreline is rising at a rate of an inch and a half a year.) At night listen for the roar of calving ice, "white thunder" to the native Tlingit people and, to Muir, part of the "infinite storm of beauty" on this "great dewdrop" we call Earth.

Need to Know:
That fizzing sound you hear popping from the icebergs is called "bergy seltzer" and is caused by billions of tiny air bubbles popping within the ice as it melts.

The Alaska Moment:

 Alaska Range  | 
ANWR |  Glacier Bay  |  Tongass  |  Yukon  | All Alaska Trips

Cover: Adventure magazine






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