The Grandeur of Glacier Bay

This is the seventh of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.

With only two more posts to go, to wrap up the memorable week on the water in Alaska, I almost abandoned the effort; but, I have dusted off the blog, and am committed to seeing it through! I could not leave the journey without sharing the grandeur of Glacier Bay.

We had an early departure from Flynn Cove, hoping to see bear, but only a couple made cameo appearances in the distance on shore. The Misty Fjord continued along Icy Strait into Glacier Bay National Park, radioing ahead to the National Park Service Rangers to announce our arrival, our head count, and intended length of stay.

Passing South Marble Island, the diversity of wildlife provided a new appreciation for the richness of southeast Alaska. The barking of Steller sea lions could be heard even before the eye discerned the details – covering almost every flat (and even not so flat) segment of the island’s shoreline were masses of sea lions of all sizes.

Periodically an enormous bull dominated the section of real estate a particular group occupied. Some tussling between what one assumed were younger males would disrupt the water or erupt in the middle of the group. And when we were downwind from the island, the odor of the sea lions was unmistakable.

Keeping the sea lions company on the island were groups of cormorants and gulls – clustered on the ledges, nests appearing beneath pairs of cormorants who stood like sentinels of the island.

In the surrounding waters, tufted puffins floated amidst the gulls, their bright beaks in contrast to black bodies. If the puffin was spotted in the air, the orange-red legs stood out like a beacon.

Looking down, we watched a sea otter lazily floating in the pollen-filled waters.

Looking up, we were delighted to see mountain goats high above us, nimbly clambering along the precarious edges, and then grazing on spruce tips and lichens. Their white hair or fur stood in contrast to the craggy cliffs behind them.

We moved along, scanning the cliffs as we went, spotting mountain goat after mountain goat in nooks and crannies here and there. We had almost glided by “mountain goat cliff” when one of our fellow boatmates shouted “baby”! It was only a couple of weeks old and still getting its climbing feet under it. The kid cavorted and scrambled near its mother, losing its balance slightly when loose gravel and rock was underfoot. The mother protectively watched while nibbling on vegetation. What is it about baby animals that softens the heart and has one acting as protectively as the mother herself with each trip or stumble?

The Misty Fjord resumed its journey to Margerie Glacier, seeing only a handful of other ships the entire day. Thanks to Glacier Bay National Park regulating the traffic, the opportunity was created to experience this vast wild treasure out of earshot and eyeshot of any other travelers beyond the eight passengers and four crew on our boat for most of our time in the park.

Glacier after glacier dotted the mountains lining our horizon. Some had receded substantially, leaving a wide swath of crushed rock in its former path. Others still pushed slowly down the mountainside dragging dirt and debris with them to the waters below, or sometimes appeared to have stacked without release at the base.

Margerie Glacier is one in the Park that is best known to visitors, often calving during a visit. She had a craggy face that had several sections looking poised to calve, but only a small piece crashed to the waters while we were in view. The bay near Margerie was not as dramatically filled with unique iceberg shapes as it was in Tracy Arm; instead smaller white and clear pieces of ice dotted the landscape.

The sound of rushing water could be heard in the background. A waterfall or cascade tumbled downward on the mountain face opposite Margerie, while the silty runoff of Grand Pacific Glacier, abutting the Canadian border turned the chalky aquamarine water a milky brown.

We put in our kayaks in the bay to paddle to shore, where the glacier running from Canada was shedding its surface, creating a stark landscape from afar. Once you were on shore, the rocky sand beneath your feet unveiled a rich collection of stones from various geological sources – granite speckled in black and white, dark shale-like stone with streaks of quartz and green or copper accents; golden brown veins ran through some, strands of white creating human-like designs in others. Sizes varied from small boulders to the tiniest of pebbles, with several glacial-size deposits dotting the surroundings to remind you of the power of that moving ice floe.

The ”sand” was silt, and soft beneath our feet as we trudged forward with rubber boots from the ship to keep us dry when we waded through shallow rivulets branching off from the main glacial runoff, which moved dangerously fast. The goal of marching to the border was foiled by a wide branch of churning silty water, causing us to call it “good enough” perhaps a quarter-mile from Canada.

While schedules were loose, we still had certain locales that had to be reached within set time ranges, so it was time to move out and bid Margerie adieu.

The chef’s fresh salmon dip with crackers was waiting for us after we paddled back to the boat, and we settled into happy hour with cocktail in hand. Captain Lucas interrupted our post-kayak cocktails with an announcement that the window of “glacial plunge” opportunity was here! We quickly changed into our swimsuits, put on life jackets, and lined up on the back deck of the boat, hand in hand. Before you could second-guess the wisdom of jumping into an ice-filled bay within eyeshot of a glacier, you found yourself airborne. The Captain and another crew member jumped with us, and were the first ones back out of the water to help haul us back on board. That initial shock of near freezing water was something that set off alarm bells in your brain … “I shouldn’t be here!!” … The life jackets caused you to quickly pop to the surface after jumping in, but the numbness caused by the frigid waters almost immediately set in to the extremities, and you understood intimately the danger these waters posed to anyone falling in during a situation of distress. Being immersed in the glacial water would be deadly within minutes for the average human without protective clothing, but taking the plunge with towels and dry clothes within arm’s reach once on board instead created an adrenaline-filled memory.

We closed the evening in Sebre Cove, a peaceful mooring within the wilderness of Alaska’s Glacier Bay, and rested up for our last full day of our week on the Misty Fjord.

~ Kat

Next post: Final Day on the Water

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The Sea Lion Posse of Frederick Sound

This is the fourth of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.

The Misty Fjord left Baranof Springs in the morning to head into Frederick Sound for Day 3 of our Inside Passage cruise.

Inside Passage cruise on the Misty Fjord

Whales teased us with a water spout here and there in the morning, while we watched the isolated sea otter (or two or three) lazily float by us.

Trio of sea otters in Alaska's Inside Passage

The landscape changed, and sandstone-colored cliffs held a surprise.

Hidden gem on the sandstone cliffs of the Inside Passage

Tucked in between the mossy surfaces was a pictograph — a red-pigmented sun painted in a location that left one pondering as to the mechanics of creating that art.

Pictograph in Alaska's Inside Passage

For some period of time, the wind was at a minimum as we traveled across the water, creating large expanses of almost-mercurial cloud reflections. On board, the Misty Fjord’s eight passengers wrote in journals, read books, or quietly chatted as the boat continued its way through the Sound. We embraced the relaxed atmosphere of the small ship, comfortable in our relatively confined space, considerate as we shared stories and company while creating space for solitude, as well.

Traveling through Frederick Sound in Alaska's Inside Passage

We passed a raft of sea otters in the kelp near a rocky outcropping ….

Raft of Sea Otters in Alaska's Inside Passage

…. with seals keeping a watchful eye from shore as we passed by.

Sea otters and seals in Alaska's Inside Passage

After lunch, the captain took us to a small island in Frederick Sound where sea lion haulouts were common. Sure enough, as the boat approached, varying shades of brown in cylindrical shapes could be seen lining the shore and rocky ledges, at first only visible through binoculars or a telephoto lens, and then distinguishable by the naked eye.

Sea lion haulout in Frederick Sound, Alaska
Sea lion haulout in Alaska's Frederick Sound

As the boat drew closer, the sea lions could see us, too, and let us know our presence had not gone unnoticed. Vocalizing with an increasing flurry of activity could be observed, and the previously stationary lumps on shore sunning themselves became quite animated, with a few pushing off into the water, while the big old bull sat prominently above the crowd, literally barking orders.

Sea lion haulout in Frederick Sound, Alaska

We found a calmer spot to anchor on the backside of the island, the scattered haulouts a distance away, to provide a safe entry point for our group of kayaks. After instruction on how to give the sea lions wide berth, we set off to circumnavigate the small “sea lion island.”

Kayaking in Alaska's Frederick Sound

Canoeing skills do not directly translate into kayaking skills, so my husband and I often almost immediately fell behind the group a short distance. I am not sure if that was more or less comforting as we watched the sea lion “scouts” or “defenders” of the haulout crew launch themselves noisily in the water, posturing and barking as they swam in coordinated effort toward the kayaks.

Kayaking

We gave the sea lions wide berth, as instructed, and while we were not in any real danger, I would be lying if I said I had no concerns!

Kayaking in Frederick Sound, Alaska

When the posse of sea lions would immerse themselves and disappear as a group and then pop up several feet closer, still creating turbulence and noisily barking all the while, we could not paddle fast enough!

We relaxed as we rounded the corner of the island after successfully making it past both haulouts …. one on the main island and the other on a smaller rocky island perch nearby. But just as we assumed all was well, we were greeted by one more round of gang-like sea lions, causing us to push out even further from the shoreline as we finished our circle tour. Even as we continued moving away from the heavily populated haulouts, the irritable barking traveled through the air. They may have been out of sight, but they certainly were not out of mind.

Scenic views from Frederick Sound, near Hobart Bay, Alaska

Hobart Bay was our final destination for the evening, where we would dock for the night.

After dinner, we took a short hike uphill to an overlook of the strait beyond the Bay, just as the sun set, the layers of dark pine-covered hills and snow-capped mountains fading from view.

Sunset view

When we returned dockside, the bonfire was going strong, having been warmed up by a couple rounds of s’mores to fuel our hike.

Sunset bonfire in Hobart Bay, Alaska

Darkness settled in, reflections on the lake dimming with the light. Stories were told around the campfire, and we bid another adventure-filled day adieu.

~ Kat

Next post: The First Iceberg

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Destination Baranof Warm Springs

This is the third of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.

Blue skies as far as the eye could see, with wispy clouds of white fanning out like the tentacles of the octopus (which was a common motif in the Sitka area). The Misty Fjord untied from the mooring buoy and began Day 2 of its exploration, headed for the Peril Strait.

Peril Strait, Alaska

Humpback whale spouts were spotted soon after launching for the day. The pleasure of a small ship like Misty Fjord, holding no more than 10 passengers (and this cruise, sailing with 8), is that the captain has only a few mandates for the itinerary, with the rest determined by the conditions and sightings of the day. As we spotted whales, the captain slowed the boat and cut the engine, so we could scan the waters and soak in the scene.

Humpback Whales in the Peril Strait, Alaska

The whoosh of a spout echoed across the strait, and the arched back of the whale soon followed. After several rounds of this routine, that magical tail flip would be the reward for patiently watching and waiting, the waters slowly streaming from the edge of the flukes as the large creature again entered the depths below.

Humpback Whales in Peril Strait, Alaska

With waters glassy and calm on the Peril Strait, the decision was made to put in the kayaks. Four tandem kayaks and a single kayak for our naturalist guide soon were quietly paddling across the surface as whales pushed air noisily through their blowholes from multiple corners of the channel.

Kayaking in the Peril Strait with Alaskan Dream's Misty Fjord

A whale would move lazily through the water, sometimes with a tail flip to signal a dive, and sometimes just repeating those undulating movements, all while our group continued making its way along a section of the strait.

The view of humpbacks from the kayak in the Peril Strait, Alaska

While we did not have a firm schedule for the day, we did need to get to Baranof Warm Springs for the evening. After enjoying the peaceful surroundings with the whales for a time, we paddled back to the boat to continue on our way.

Kayaking in the Peril Strait of Alaska

Making our way from the Peril Strait into Chatham Strait to the eastern side of Baranof Island, the Misty Fjord detoured into an almost hidden small bay. The bay was home to a spectacular waterfall cascading down the mountainside, spraying us as it reached the bay’s deep waters.

Viewing from the bow of the Misty Fjord (Alaskan Dream Cruises)

Rounding the corner of the bay back into the strait, we dismissed a lump in the water as a log …. until it moved …. and a harbor seal with its spotted belly did a slow turn into the water, while another whiskered nose peered our way and then dipped below the rippling wake.

Seals in the Inside Passage of Alaska

We continued southward along Chatham Strait. Mother Nature showed us just some of her many creative facets, using pollen to paint artistic patterns on the mirrored surface of the water.

Pollen art on the surface of Alaska's Inside Passage waters
Pollen art on the surface of Alaska's Inside Passage waters

Our final destination of the night was on the opposite side of Baranof Island from Sitka, along Warm Springs Bay.  Baranof Warm Springs is the name of the small community in the bay, but also refers to the naturally occurring mineral hot springs that converges with a rushing river fed by mountain snowmelt.

Approaching Baranof Warm Springs, Alaska

The Misty Fjord moored alongside a boardwalk-connected dock in Warm Springs Bay. With swimsuits under our hiking clothes, we grabbed beach towels and followed the boardwalk, up the stairs, and along a rocky, tree-rooted path.

Hiking to Baranof Warm Springs
Hike to Baranof Springs
Skunk Cabbage

At one point, the path opened to a pristine lake with a view that competed with any postcard scene.

Scenic lake stop on the way to Baranof Warm Springs

The trail led from the lake to a short, technically challenging spur that connected to the hot springs.

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The Baranof Warm Springs are not large, but consist of a couple natural pools with rock ledges and temperatures that reportedly range from 102 to 107 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 38 to 41 degrees Celsius). We carefully navigated the incline down to the pools and scooted in slowly, feeling our way to a level “seat” beneath the hot water, or sitting on the rocky edge with lower legs dangling in the flowing natural bath while our bodies adjusted to the warmth. The sub-spring surfaces were slippery to the touch, and one could go slithering into the deeper center of the pool if one picked the wrong spot as a “seat.”

Enjoying the Baranof Warm Springs

Many of us brought a cold beer to enjoy as the steam rose around us, even enjoying a little sunbathing while perched on the natural divide between the cold waterfall and hot springs.

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For those who wanted to extend the warm springs experience, the public bath house along the boardwalk provided a scenic spot to soak and relax.

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After dinner the tide rose high enough for us to take out the kayaks through a narrow channel that opened to a mountain amphitheater. Once you navigated the kayak past the rocky opening, you could float or gently paddle around the enclosed bay. The scenery was just as interesting under the kayaks — water clarity allowed a peek into the underwater world of starfish, anemones, and urchins of different colors and types.

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The sky dimmed and we paddled back to the boat to unwind and rest up for what tomorrow might bring.

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~ Kat

Next post: The Sea Lion Posse of Frederick Sound

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