Tuesday - July 19th - Glaicer Bay - Mark and I agree that probably the most vivid impression we have of the trip so far is of the VASTNESS of the wilderness! A few towns cling to the coast, but a short distance inland there are countless square miles of mountains, forests, and glaciers. Juneau, like Ketchikan, is landlocked and only accessible by air or water. These are a couple of Alaska’s larger cities (Juneau, the state capital at 30,000 and Ketchikan at 6,500), and have only a few miles of roads extending in either direction along the coast from the downtown core. Unlike Oregon, the outlying areas are sparsely populated, since there are no roads, and no services like electricity or phones.
Nothing could demonstrate this concept of vastness better than Glacier Bay National Park which we visited yesterday. This is the second largest wilderness area in the world, eclipsed only by Antarctica (according to our guide), and it is simply mind boggling.
We began our trip with a flight from Juneau to Glacier Bay in a 9-passenger plane. Weather was questionable, and at the last minute they decided they could get enough clearance for our little plane to land, so they hustled us off to our destiny. The 25-minute flight was fine, but then it came time to land and suddenly the ground was obscured by a dense cloud layer. Undeterred by this minor inconvenience, our bush pilot descended directly down through it in anticipation of having room to get his bearings and land safely below the clouds.
Well, it wasn’t quite that smooth, and when we finally burst through the clouds we were VERY close to the ground, and not lined up with the landing strip! So he initiated a steep bank to make a u-turn, and busted a move that had everyone shrieking, the sound of which mostly fell on deaf ears because the stall warning drowned it out.
Just as well that we didn’t hear the engine stall (this according to the passenger behind me who is a private pilot), and by some seat-of-the-pants piloting we landed with the rubber side down, and were quite relieved to be alive.
Sheer terror behind us (at least until time for the flight back to Juneau!), we embarked on most unforgettable boat trip into Glacier Bay.
This was truly Nat Geo from start to finish, and I don’t reference that term lightly, because our guide says the folks from NG are out on the bay as often as 4 times a week depending on weather.
Now, how to describe this magical experience?
The glaciers were awesome, but for me it was all about the wildlife. We began with many humpback whale sightings right in Bartlett Cove (of course we’re old hands at whale watching by now, so were not blown away), and then we were treated to some fine bird watching on an island populated only by birds and seals.
The ever popular tufted puffin was my favorite, and here’s a trivia question: What do you call a group of them? Answer later, but one hint is that you do not call them a flock.
The next island was ideal habitat for mountain goats because of its sheer cliffs that are not accessible to bears and wolves, and we watched a couple of mama goats with their kids lounging about.
The bay had become as placid as a lake as we got farther along, and to our delight we were able to see a couple of orcas up close. One of them had a distinctive dorsal fin that flopped over at the top, and the guide said he has been named T2 by the biologists who have been studying this population, and he is estimated to be over 50 years old.
Then we had our “first brown bear” sighting - actually four different bears, one of which was a cub. These coastal brown bears are larger than the interior grizzles, because their diet is so rich with the abundant seafood and they don’t have to work so hard to make a meal out of berries.
Another adorable creature that we saw many of was the sea otter. They have the most endearing little faces, resembling an old man, and swim on their backs while they are at the surface, cracking open their shellfish on their bellies with a rock.
Of course there were many bald eagles and seals, but by now we have come to take them for granted.
Oh yes, and we did see glaciers,one of them (Marjerie) over 25 stories high. The blue of the ice is truly a magical color, and the sound of the perpetual cracking and calving of the glaciers is phenomenal.
Safely back in Juneau after an unremarkable (thank goodness!) flight home, we collapse into our camper and look forward to a leisurely morning after so much sensory stimulation and very little sleep over the last few days. It just seems unbelievable that every day brings some new and amazing discovery.
Answer to the trivia question: You may call them a puffinry of puffins (not bad), a circus of puffins (probably due to their garish costumes), and my favorite: an incompatibility of puffins!