Two Reasons to Get Off the Boat at Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park

Blue ice in Glacier Bay National ParkJohn Muir, the father of the National Park Service, first canoed into what is now Glacier Bay National Park in 1879. His writing describes 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. We may now witness the path of these ice flows from a perspective that John Muir never could have. The calving of glaciers, the delightful marine life that thrives in these frigid, ice-infested waters, the crystal blue sky with powerful eagles in their element.

 You need to experience this at least once in your lifetime.

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Honoring the Huna Tlingit 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 was indeed something new at Glacier Bay.

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.

Tribal house at Glacier Bay National ParkIn the summer of 2016, the Huna worked on a special project to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Working with the NPS, they built 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. The building also provides clan members a place to celebrate tribal activities throughout the year.


Humpback Whales at Glacier Bay

Humpback whale bones at Glacier Bay National ParkAs you walk the path from the visitor center to the tribal house, you’ll pass another interesting exhibit. However, it is not a celebratory event that brought this exhibit to the park.

It’s the skeleton of a 35-ton humpback whale called Snow. Whale researchers named the beautiful humpback because of the white spots on her belly. Researchers had documented her presence in these waters each summer since 1975.

She was 44 years old in 2001 and pregnant with yet another calf when she was hit by a cruise ship. Snow died instantly and floated ashore in Bartlett Cove.

Hundreds of community and park service volunteers mourned Snow’s death while helping clean and retrieve her bones. Her bones were then sent to an expert in Maine who created the exhibit.

Snow came back to live permanently at Glacier Bay National Park in 2014. The exhibit in an open shelter helps teach visitors about these massive, gentle creatures that live in these waters. Snow’s death reminds us that we share this planet with them.

Cruise ship in Glacier Bay National ParkLong before Snow’s death, the National Park Service limited the number of cruise ships and other vessels that enter Glacier Bay. They also limit the speed at which they can travel and how long they can be in the park. This is one reason why.

The goal is to keep Glacier Bay as pristine and natural as possible, as it was when John Muir canoed here. In doing so ensures that the park and its creatures are here for our children and grandchildren, as well as the children and grandchildren of humpback whales like Snow.

Whale fluke in Glacier Bay National Park

Prepare for Glacier Bay National Park