When John Muir first canoed into what is now Glacier Bay National Park in 1879, he was gobsmacked by the same overpowering beauty that draws nearly a half million people to this Alaskan national park each year.
The glaciers. Of course, they are not as abundant now as they once were. Some estimate that the glaciers have receded nearly 60 miles in the past 300 years. Who knows what the next 300 years will bring? But for now, with the bay no longer covered in ice, it’s possible to actually cruise into this protected area, allowing us to witness the path of these ice flows from a perspective that John Muir never witnessed. The calving of glaciers, the delightful marine life that thrives in these frigid, ice-infested waters – you need to experience this at least once in your lifetime.
Something New at Glacier Bay
Other than the movement of the glaciers, at a speed that is authentically glacial, not much changes from season to season in this national park. Bruce and I first visited in 2006, but when we returned 10 years later, there were two new exhibits to experience on land.
Long before cruise ships and even John Muir came to Glacier Bay, the people of the Huna Tlingit clans called this area home. Many still live in small fishing villages and camps on the bay’s shore. In the summer of 2016, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the Huna worked with the NPS to open a traditional tribal house on Bartlett Cove, a few hundred yards east of the park’s visitor center. The tribal house serves as an interpretive center, explaining the Tlingit culture to visitors and offering clan members a place to celebrate tribal activities throughout the year.
Humpback Whales at Glacier Bay
As you walk the path from the visitor center to the tribal house, you’ll pass another interesting exhibit that came to the park in a a heart-breaking turn of events. It’s the skeleton of a 35-ton whale named Snow, a beautiful humpback with white spots on her belly who had spent her summers in these waters since at least 1975. She was 44 years old in 2001 and pregnant with yet another calf when she was hit by a cruise ship. She died instantly and floated ashore in Bartlett Cove.
Hundreds of community and park service volunteers helped clean and retrieve her bones, which were then sent to an expert in Maine who created the exhibit.
Snow came back to live permanently at Glacier Bay National Park in the summer of 2014 to help teach visitors about these massive, gentle creatures that live in these waters, and to remind us that we share this planet with them.
Long before Snow’s death, the NPS limited the number of cruise ships and other vessels that enter Glacier Bay and the speed at which they can travel. This is one reason why. Keeping the area a pristine outdoor laboratory will ensure that the park and its creatures are here for our children and grandchildren, as well as the children and grandchildren of other humpback whales like Snow.