Tidewater glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park calve icebergs into the sea with loud blasts. Humpback whales breach, spout, and slap their tails against the water. Coastal brown bears feed on sedge, salmon, and berries. Bald eagles soar overhead, and mountains in the Fairweather Range come in and out of view. This magical place rewards those who get out on the water—whether it be in a cruise, a day boat, or a kayak.
Glacier Bay is a marvelous laboratory for naturalists of all persuasions. Glaciologists, of course, can have a field day. Animal lovers can hope to see the rare glacial "blue" bears of the area, a variation of the black bear, which is here along with the brown bear; mountain goats in late spring and early summer; and seals on floating icebergs. Humpback whales are also abundant in these waters; the best time to see them is June through early August. To get a sense of a whale's size, check out the articulated skeleton of Snow, aka whale 68, an adult humpback who
was hit by a cruise ship and killed in 2001, but now serves an educational purpose. Birders can look for the more than 200 species that have already been spotted in the park, and you are assured bald eagle sightings.
The bay is a still-forming body of water fed by the runoff of the ice fields, glaciers, and mountains that surround it. A sense of the dramatic geological changes this area has undergone is evident in the evolving series of indigenous place-names given to Glacier Bay over time by Tlingit residents: first S'é Shuyee, or "edge of the glacial silt," followed by Xáatl Tú, or "among the ice," and finally Sít' Eeti Gheiyí, "the bay in place of the glacier." Non-Native history also records these changes. In the mid-18th century, ice floes so covered the bay that Captain James Cook and then Captain George Vancouver sailed by and didn't even know it. At the time of Vancouver's sailing in 1794, the bay was still hidden behind and beneath a vast glacial wall of ice, which was more than 20 miles across and in places more than 4,000 feet in depth. It extended more than 100 miles north to its origins in the St. Elias Mountain Range, the world's tallest coastal mountains. Since then, the face of the glacial ice has melted and retreated with amazing speed, exposing 65 miles of fjords, islands, and inlets.
In 1879, about a century after Vancouver's sail-by, one of the earliest white visitors to what is now Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve came calling. The ever-curious naturalist John Muir, who would become one of the region's earliest proponents, was drawn by the flora and fauna that had followed in the wake of glacial withdrawals; he was also fascinated by the vast ice rivers that descended from the mountains to tidewater. Today the naturalist's namesake glacier, like others in the park, continues to retreat dramatically: the Muir Glacier's terminus is now scores of miles farther up the bay from the small cabin he built at its face during his time there. However, some of the glaciers are still healthy, such as the Johns Hopkins Glacier and the Marjorie Glacier, which receive enough snow from the Fairweather Mountains to maintain their size or even grow.
A remarkable panorama of plants unfolds from the head of the bay, which is just emerging from the ice, to the mouth, which has been ice-free for more than 200 years. In between, the primitive plants—algae, lichens, and mosses—that are the first to take hold of the bare, wet ground give way to more-complex species: flowering plants such as the magenta dwarf fireweed and the creamy dryas, which in turn merge with willows, alders, and cottonwood. The climax of the plant community is the lush spruce-and-hemlock rain forest, rich in life and blanketing the land around Bartlett Cove.
Also in Bartlett Cove, a 2500-square-foot Huna Tribal House will be unveiled for the National Parks Centennial in 2016. The facility represents four Huna Tlingit clans that called Glacier Bay home before their village was destroyed by an advancing glacier. It will be a space for tribal members and for visitors to learn about Tlingit history and culture.