Spires and Ice

Three months, 3,000 miles, 1,024 gallons of diesel, and totally worth it. That's the pull of Glacier Bay's mountains and namesake formations.

      Ahead of Tribute, about a mile and a half away, a humpback whale breaches. Almost its entire body comes clear of the water at a steep angle before it comes down on its side and raises a spectacular splash. Yelps and shouts of excitement fill the pilothouse.

Then, a second whale comes right out of the water and reveals its total length and color. It is followed immediately by another whale that breaches into the air and crashes lengthwise into the water.

In the silence that follows, Laurie and I are stunned and quieted by what we just saw, because it is a wholly spiritual moment. The event is so engrossing and sudden that no one takes a single photo. The whales are temporarily gone.

To our starboard, a Coast Guard cutter is coming down the bay and we are going to cross its bow. We have a quick radio conversation with its crew to tell them about the whales and our obligation to follow the vessel operating rules in this preserve. We make a 90-degree turn to the south and the Coast Guard cutter crew informs us they will slow and follow Tribute into Bartlett Cove, since that is their destination too.

It’s an incredible close to our time in Glacier Bay. The next morning we will leave the bay and begin a three-day trip to Sitka.

Our 30-mile trip to Glacier Bay National Park starts at 0600 hours: cloudy skies, calm winds, flat water and 61 degrees. Hoonah is quiet, still asleep, streets empty as Tribute glides the length of the town. After we clear Hoonah Island and turn northwest, we spot the Fairweather Mountain Range, whose peaks vary from 12,000 to 15,000 feet, looming in the distance, firmly within the national park. The dramatic elevation changes and the jagged, snow-covered peaks are the first of many “Wow!” moments the park will create.

We time our departure to take advantage of the currents and the predicted winds. Tribute, our Kadey-Krogen 39 trawler, is moving at 8 to 8.5 knots as the sun rises, warms the morning and clears the skies, and we spot our first humpback of the day. Just outside the park boundary, we spy sea otters diving for food, lounging on their back to eat or rest. Hunted to near extinction, they were reintroduced in the 1990s and now there are 9,000 in the park where they are, according to the Park Service, “dramatically changing the underwater world of the park” due to their voracious appetite for crab and shellfish.

Following instructions, after we cross the imaginary line into the park, we use the VHF radio to announce Tribute’s presence. We receive permission to enter, and after we arrive at Bartlett Cove we tie to the National Park Service dock and sign in at the Visitor Information Station. With more than an hour to wait for the boater orientation program, we walk to the lodge, look for goodies in the gift shop and check out the huge skeleton of a humpback whale that was killed by a cruise ship in 2001.

The briefing consists of a 20-minute video about why the rules are necessary and a ranger’s presentation regarding the areas that are currently closed or limited. We are here for peak feeding season for humpback whales in the park; they gorge for five months before they swim to Hawaii, where they do not eat. Unlike other whales that have a kind of sonar to locate boats and other animals, humpbacks use their hearing. Therefore, boats should not change course or speed to avoid them; the whales will hear and evade.

Two hours later, Tribute and Shipperly — our Cutwater 28 buddy boat owned by Ken and Pauline Phillips — are heading deeper into the bay. The currents in Glacier Bay are substantial because there is only one outlet for this huge body of water. Glacier Bay has two main arms, and immense mountains with jagged peaks and wide valleys carved by glaciers ring the bay. The flooding current propels Tribute to 13.2 knots for several miles, which is a new speed record for this Kadey-Krogen trawler.

Past Willoughby Island, a humpback surfaces just 50 yards away from Tribute’s port side. A massive back, the whoosh of a blowhole, and the whale is gone, descending into the 900-foot-deep bay. South Marble Island attracts us because boaters cannot get closer than 100 yards. What is being protected? Answer: the endangered Steller sea lion. Lots of them. The 2,000-pound males are strutting on the smooth rock against a backdrop of eye-popping mountains and under clear blue skies. On North Marble Island, Laurie regains her love for the tufted puffin that started here in 1983, when she saw two of their distinctive orange beaks.

Our destination, however, is Blue Mouse Cove, the most popular anchorage in the park. It is empty. We anchor in 45 feet of water after traveling 64 miles. Shipperly rafts to Tribute and we enjoy docktails with Ken and Pauline as a fresh breeze causes moderate ripples that will disappear when the sun goes down — at 2230 hours.

We awake to a humpback whale in the cove, sedately swimming, diving and rising to whoosh its exhale. We stand on the foredeck, enraptured and whispering as the whale captures our attention for 45 minutes. We have breakfast with a humpback under high clouds, still air and 63-degree air.

Immersed in this wilderness, we realize the differences between it and our accustomed universe. With no cars, no floatplanes, no broadcast media and no reminders of humanity, the mountains, the water, the colors and the moving dynamics of weather capture our attention. Devoid of the addiction and speed of information, and its resulting emotional rollercoaster, the pace of life is slower and calmer, less about ambition and desires and more about the massive and complex world outside of our control. A world that has been in the background is now front and center.

Tribute and Shipperly leave the anchorage and head up the west arm and are met by 25-knot winds on the bow, winds channeled and intensified by the steep mountains on each side. At Queen Inlet, the winds drop and the water lies down. Reid Glacier — receding while the John Hopkins Glacier advances — comes into view. Glaciers are like a snow and ice account. When more snow is deposited and compressed than melts, the glacier grows, and when more ice is melted than created, it recedes. Of the more than 1,000 glaciers in this national park, most are receding and have been for more than 200 years.

The changing glaciers are perhaps one of the reasons for this pristine wilderness in the 21st century. There is no history of homesteads, farming, towns or canneries because of the glaciers. Today, the glaciers are revealing the valleys that have been in their belly, land sculpting in progress.

The upper portion of John Hopkins Inlet is closed to cruise ships but they will come right up to the boundary for a look. Kayakers are at the first glacier, dome tents pitched on an outcropping, high sheer walls of ice rising above their kayaks. John Hopkins Glacier is in the upper portion, and though the icebergs stop Tribute about a mile and a half from the glacier, we can see the occasional chunk calve into the water with the huge splash. The ice is hundreds of feet thick, and the cracking noise — the low, deep-throated rumble of fracturing — speaks of immense power.

We continue up Tarr Inlet to explore Margerie Glacier and the Grand Pacific Glacier. Shipperly conserves fuel and scouts two anchorage possibilities. All the cruise ships go up Tarr Inlet because Margerie Glacier is a postcard glacier with very high perpendicular walls and spectacular mountains in the background.

Again we hear the deep rumble of moving and fracturing ice. There is active calving but the bay is mostly clear of icebergs, perhaps because of the movement of two cruise ships each day. This illustrates the balancing act of managing the park: access vs. preservation. About half a million people come to the park each year and only 25 pleasureboats are allowed each day, so the cruise ships bring more than 80 percent of the people.

The Grand Pacific Glacier is the opposite of Margerie: dirty, dark, foreboding. It leaves behind a moon-like landscape. It’s beautiful and awesome in its own way.

This stop also marks the northernmost point of the trip, at 59 degrees north — or 11 degrees north from Everett, Wash., roughly equivalent to the distance between Seattle and San Francisco.

The 10-knot breeze changes to a cold and stiff 30-knot wind at the glacier as it sweeps down the mountains and across the glacier. As we leave the glaciers, Tribute is going with the mild ebbing current and a light breeze on its stern the entire 8 miles to the anchorage at Russell Island where Shipperly awaits. We drop the anchor in 80 feet of water behind a small islet after a 51-mile day.

Today our destination is the eastern arm of the park, including Muir Inlet. We raise anchor at 0900 hours to take advantage of the ebbing tide. The AIS display shows a tour boat stopped at a sheer mountainside, a sure sign of a wildlife sighting. We head for Gloomy Knob, a point on the mountain, and Ken and Pauline see the dozen mountain goats first. They are several hundred feet above the water, on rocky ledges that have enough topsoil to support plant life. Their snow-white coats and horns, both male and female, are plain to see and we enjoy their presence before heading down the bay, its surface mirror smooth.

At 1230 hours we turn to port to enter Muir Inlet, also labeled as the eastern arm. We spy a humpback whale in the distance feeding near the shore and the first of about 20 sea otters we count during the afternoon. The Takinsha Mountains rise out of the water and dominate the eastern view, their tallest peaks encased by puffy white clouds in the blue sky.

The huge Riggs Glacier meanders out of the mountains to the bay. One difference between the western and eastern arms is the latter is heavily forested on low foothills that are in the foreground of the mountains. We turn up the Wachusett Inlet after conducting an initial look at Hunter Cove as an anchorage. The anchorage possibilities are very few because of the deep water. Hunter Cove has 60-foot depths but is wide open to the south and the fetch from the long inlet. If the winds remain light, the anchorage will be fine.

The few icebergs at the entrance to Wachusett Inlet come from the Muir Glacier — the upper portion of Muir Inlet is closed to motorized vessels — and are held in a kind of limbo between the changing currents and breezes. Wachusett Inlet is 9 miles long, and the water is pure glass, the air warm and still, so we move to the flybridge to enjoy it and take in the view. The glacier has receded greatly and is not as impressive as others, but like a diamond in a store full of diamonds, it is still a gem.

Returning to Hunter Cove, we see whitecaps. The ride at anchor should be safe, but it will definitely be more uncomfortable. The best alternative anchorage is 12 miles away, which will make the day longer than we hoped but is acceptable. Near Garforth Island, a humpback surfaces near Shipperly and Laurie photographs the huge fluke before it disappears under the surface.

At 1900 hours we drop the anchor in South Sandy Cove, behind Puffin Island, in 45 feet of water. We’re lucky. This is peak season for boaters and this is one of the most popular anchorages, but there are just two other boats. We eat dinner during “Oceans 12” and drop off to sleep.

The next day, the two other boats are gone at breakfast. A weak low-pressure system is moving across the region and bringing a thick cloud cover. Midday temperature is forecast at 69 degrees with calm winds and flat water. Shipperly heads out at 0800 hours to Bartlett Cove to take on fuel and get an internet connection.

We spend the morning in downshift mode, catching up on photos and writing and simply enjoying the cove. Laurie does a flurry of baking, which yields chocolate chip cookies, a blueberry and rhubarb crisp, and lasagna. After lunch, I bring the drysuit and dive gear up from the engine room and spend an hour scraping the rudder and cleaning the hull in the 50-degree water. The visibility is horrible due to the summer plankton bloom. But what is horrible for divers is great for whales, since they feed on the critters that live off the plankton.

After we clean, rinse and hang the gear to dry in the cockpit, we coordinate our departure time to match slack current at the head of Glacier Bay. The water is mirror-flat, the wind is quietly still, and this huge national park and wilderness is quiet and empty of people. At 1630 hours we raise anchor and idle Tribute out of the cove, which is now empty of boats. A humpback whale mom and calf are swimming and diving together near Flapjack Island, and that is the prelude to an awesome experience that will begin in 30 minutes near Young Island.

Our attention is riveted by the repeated sight of water being splashed by huge flukes. The action is about 3 miles away, but the flat water and the height of the water being forced into the air makes it plain to see. For 20 minutes, the repeated slapping of a huge fluke continues. Spouts from two other whales are nearby. Then, long side fins are raised skyward, as a whale rolls on its side.

Tribute is mid-channel between Young Island and Lester Island and nearing three whales. Tempted to change course to evade them, we remember the clear words of the instructions to boaters: Maintain course and speed and the whales will evade you. All of this set the stage for the main event, which is the scene that opens this story.

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