Monday, June 9, 2014

Glacier Bay National Park

This adventure in Glacier Bay began with a Facebook post. I needed a partner, as all the kayak rental companies refuse to rent to solo paddlers, I'm sure for risk and liability reasons, and I really didn't want to be on the water by myself anyway. So I solicit for a partner a couple months ago on Facebook and Jason Acuna comes thru. Jason is the kind of guy down for any adventure at any time and was great fun to have along. We are CGA 09 classmates and have had identical Coast Guard careers. We were roommates for 7 weeks during tactical training in Camp Lejeune, NC so I knew we could get along under high stress and in crappy places.

Jason flew up to Juneau from his current post in Hawaii. We left on the Juneau-Gustavus ferry early the following morning on May 28th. That afternoon we picked up our rental tandem kayak, packed our dry bags, and reviewed our route. 

On the 29th we boarded the MV Baranof Wind, the national park shuttle and tour boat, for a drop off at the base of Mt. Wright and the entrance to the East Arm of Glacier Bay.

After a good paddle with a following wind and tide we set up camp in Goose Cove under fair skies.

Our first meal was likely the best - chicken fajitas with home-dried beans and peppers. For the remainder of the week were were on a diet of instant oatmeal, dried fruit, dehydrated vegetables with couscous, and some leftover MREs. 

With a tasty meal in our belly and not another soul in sight, we were in good spirits to finally be out in the wilderness following the intensive planning and logistics that go into a weeklong kayaking expedition. The good weather helped too. Little did we know that it was all about to change, and that we'd be spending a lot more time in the tent...

After Goose Cove we paddled to the far end of the East Arm, roughly 30 miles in two days. We wanted to put in most of the effort in the front end of the trip while we were fresh and so we could have a leisurely paddle on the backside. Or so went the original plan. This shot of another party in the Muir Inlet sums up the majority of the weather for the next 5 days. Despite the adversity we kept high spirits. Luckily we had a few moments without rain or clouds to cook dinner on a couple nights and attempt to dry out gear. 

The Muir and Riggs Glaciers reside in the far reaches of the East Arm. They are large and have carved cool fjords, but they are both grounded out now and don't reach the water. We were impressed until we entered McBride Inlet and saw our first tidewater glacier. Here Jason celebrates momentarily in front of Riggs Glacier. He stopped celebrating when the 25mph winds kicked up two foot waves that we had to paddle into to get to our next camp. I was in the front of the kayak and got pretty soaked.

McBride Glacier and Inlet was the most interesting feature on the kayaking portion of our trip. It's receding fast and routinely calved icebergs. We watched as a block about the side of a house fell off. It threw up a decent swell in the inlet (that's why we didn't venture much closer than this photo) and sounds exactly like "white thunder" to use the native phraseology. It echoed off the fjord walls and we'd hear calving all night from the tent. So cool. We enjoyed McBride Inlet so much that we camped for two nights.

As a byproduct of all that calving, McBride Inlet was chock full of icebergs. It was surreal to paddle in and around them (watch out for rollers!). During low tide many would get stranded on the beach, making for interesting exploration of all the different shapes and hues of blue.

Thoughout Glacier Bay we saw humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, mountain goats, lots of seabirds, and a brown bear (safely from the shuttle boat). It was hard to photograph wildlife; many of the encounters were fleeting.

The seals were my favorite. They were very curious and often approached the kayak. This guy nibbled on the bowline and then played with the rudder.

The birds were my least favorite. The arctic terns and black oystercatchers were very territorial. If you stumbled across a nesting site along the beach you were mercilessly dive-bombed and attacked. And the ruckus they made was loud enough to wake the dead. 

After McBride Inlet we decided to "beast mode" just under 20 miles in one day. We wanted to find a great spot on an island next to the pickup point to set up a two night camp and relax away our last day in the wilderness. But another cloud settled in the fjord and we instead spent 24 hours straight in the tent. We slept, read, slept, played cards, and slept.

We were awoken at 0400 by screeching birds, following shortly by a 5.7 earthquake for 30 seconds. It was my first quake. Thankfully no tsunamis filled the bay or we would have been helpless and screwed. Post-quake we had the best weather of the trip, which I was very thankful for. Since we used the sightseeing boat for the shuttle, we actually got the full 6 hour tour of Glacier Bay's scenic West Arm after our pickup. So we gorged on the donuts and coffee, learned some cool stuff from the onboard naturalist, and soaked in the sun and the sights. The "normal" tourists on the boat were impressed with our manly feats of courage and fortitude, but probably less impressed with our smell. Mt. Fairweather, the tallest peak in British Columbia, and taller than anything in the lower 48 at 15,300, is below.

The glaciers of the West Arm were frankly more impressive than anything in the East Arm. However, this comes with a price. I'm very happy that we chose the East Arm for kayaking - it was more intimate and secluded, a true wilderness paddle. Cruise ships, personal yachts, and the park tour boat all ply the waters of the West Arm. And for good reason: check out this glacier - it's taller than the cruise ship! A few good sized bergs and the accompanying "white thunder" broke off during our tour.

The park boat finished its rounds and we returned all our rental gear. After another night in the campground with a raging campfire and some new friends we flew back to Juneau (problem with the ferry schedule) on June 5th. The six-seat Cessna was the smallest plane either of us had ever been on before. But there was no TSA at the airport, so that was a plus!

It was a great trip. It's impossible to capture everything in the blog and part of the point of my travels is to spend less time on the computer. So I hope this will suffice. Jason is a great amateur videographer and is making a video of the trip that I hope to post soon. I'm looking forward to it - we got some good footage and funny clips. After a week of challenging paddling, hit or miss weather, too much tent time, and countless life list sights, we were still good friends. Thanks for coming along buddy. Looking forward to more adventures down the road. 


  1. I've never made it down to Glacier Bay, but I'd love to do a trip like this sometime! You're making me miss Alaska! You're seeing her the right way. Tell those tourists they smell way to clean.

  2. Brooke - I'm in and out of Fairbanks for the next couple weeks as a base for my ANWR trip. Any suggestions for a good bar or pub while I'm in town?