January 30, 2014 by Rokman61
A visit to spectacular Glacier Bay National Park is the highlight of virtually every cruise to the Alaska Panhandle. The vessel spends most of a day cruising up and back down a long narrow fiord. At the top end, the cruise ship parks for an hour or so to allow passengers to stare at walls of ice. As described, it doesn’t sound like much, and for some travellers it isn’t. But for most it is truly a mind-bending experience.
The earliest inhabitants of Glacier Bay were displaced when glaciers moved in and filled the entire bay during the Little Ice Age. Since that time, the glaciers have retreated far back into the fiord that they had carved. Because the ice has so recently left the landscape, the top end of the bay is devoid of trees and absolutely barren looking – a marked contrast with the forested slopes at Skagway, which is at similar latitude. This is a landscape that is usually only seen by hardy mountaineers and high Arctic travellers, but here anyone who can buy passage on a tour ship has a chance to observe it. Of course it is a situation in which you can“looky but no touchy”.
Several glaciers come right to the tidewater where the front breaks up and pieces calve off into the sea. As we approached we began to see some evidence of what lay ahead.
As our ship pulled in close, the awed passengers assembled to gawk and take zillions of photographs.
From the veranda of our cabin, I had a straight-on view, and was able to take LOTS of photos. Back in my geology days I had seen and walked on a fair few glaciers, but this was like seeing the mother load. I took more photos.
The Margerie Glacier reaches the sea. (Click on photos for larger view).
Up close, the entire vista is a continuous mass of sculpted and jumbled ice pinnacles. I’ll dispense with a few thousand words here and let the pictures do (most of) the talking.
Clean pure ice has a bluish cast. White ice is charged with numerous tiny bubbles of included air.
Included silt and sand makes the ice gray.
The image below may not look quite as attractive as some of the bluer ones above. However, it would make a glaciologist quiver with excitement, because of the features it shows. At lower left the layering has been folded (bent downward), reflecting the internal flow which is the mechanism for movement of all glaciers downslope. Near the lower right corner of the photo, a vertical grey wedge is a pocket of gravel that was washed into a crevasse before this part of the glacier arrived at its present location.
The wet climate along the coasts of BC and Alaska provides for a luxuriant covering of forest, and most ‘bare’ rock is hidden under a thin layer of moss. Even near-vertical slopes are coated with blackish lichens – rock simply does not readily show itself in this country. But because at Glacier Bay the landscape has so recently been scraped clean by glacier action, the bedrock at the head of the Bay is superbly exposed for all to enjoy.
In this photo a wall of granite is cut by several vertical gray ‘dikes’, which were formed by the injection of molten rock upward through fractures. The details are so clear that you can see from colour variations that there have been multiple pulses of injection. Note the margins on the big dike, especially at the yellow arrow: here the intruding rock has cooled and solidified more quickly along the contact with the cold host rock, resulting in a finer texture and darker appearance. You may also notice parallel lines across the cliff face sloping sightly down to the left: these are scratches left by the glacier as it scoured its way past.
It turns out that the bedrock geology here is every bit as spectacular as the scenery. All along the entire western part of the American landmass are areas of bedrock that several hundred million years ago were not part of the continent. These ‘terranes’ were once far off to the west or south of where we see them now. Tectonic movements have shoved them up against the continental edge, with attendant earthquakes, volcanic activity, and uplift of mountain ranges (you have just been subject to the shortest course in Plate Tectonics ever). The junction or ‘sutures’ between terranes are ‘faults’, or surfaces along which the rocks on either side have been displaced for great distances. Near the head of Glacier Bay is a world-class example of such a terrane suture.
On the right are granites with several dark vertical dikes like those in the previous photo. On the left are layered sedimentary rocks – beds of mud and silt that have been compressed and slightly metamorphosed to slates. Note that the dikes do not intrude up through the slates, and from this we can conclude that the contact between the slates and the granite is indeed a ‘fault’. Because granites form at depths of 10 to 20 kms below the surface, and sediments are deposited on the surface, we can further infer that there has been considerable displacement across the fault.
I was told by the USGS Park Naturalist that the slates in this photo are part of the Alexander Terrane, and the granites are part of the Wrangellia Terrane. Interestingly, Wrangellia extends south at least as far as the North Shore mountains at Vancouver, and possibly farther south.
While cruising in Alaska waters we encountered several large pods of Hump-backed Whales, one group that stretched almost to the horizon, and must have contained over a hundred animals. We observed many fins, blow spouts, tails, and breaches, but were too distant to get worthwhile pictures. Here is a shot (taken on a boat ride off the coast of Vancouver Island in 2011) which is typical of what we mostly observed.
Pacific Whiteside Dolphins were fairly common, observed several times. These frolicking little cetaceans seem to delight in playing in the ship’s wake. They were close enough to photograph, if one is skilled and lucky enough. It was like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole where the moles were quicker than I was.
We had only one sighting of Orca (Killer) Whales, and I just happened to have my camera in hand.
In Glacier Bay the ship cruised by the ‘Marble Islands’, little more than a few big rocks sticking out of the water, coated with Northern Sea Lions. Count ’em if you can.
In Glacier Bay there are several bird species I wanted to see, small seabirds called murrelets. They nest there, but spend the winter off at sea, and had already left before our arrival. As consolation, another local nester was present in good numbers around the ship, and provided me with the only decent bird photo op of the entire trip.
This is the Black-legged Kittiwake, a small gull of the northern oceans that almost never gets to the Vancouver area. These photos of adult birds in flight are nothing special, but they very nicely illustrate the features that make this dainty little gull a bit different from all the others; small unmarked yellow-green bill, sharply-defined black wingtips with no white spots, black legs, flight feathers paler than the rest of the wing, and a square-cut tail.
The juvenile or ‘young-of-the-year’ kittiwakes (at right below) are arguably more attractive than the adult (on left). As mentioned above, we missed seeing some of the specialty birds of Glacier Bay, but instead we got to see the young kittiwakes.
Even prettier in flight.
There were very few birds observed while the ship was underway, and nearly all were seen while we were stopped to view the glacier. In this photo, you can see why the gulls were there: the prop wash stirs the water and apparently brings up edible goodies to the surface.
After leaving Glacier Bay the ship was scheduled for another shore visit, this time in Ketchikan for the following day. That was not to be. The winds came up, with gusts reaching as high as 100 km/hr. The seas were angry!
The waves may not appear to be all that big in the photo, but remember it was shot from near the top of a very tall ship. I can assure you they were BIG.
Because of the high winds, no cruise ship could not safely dock at Ketchikan, so our visit had to be scrubbed. The vessel bounced around a bit as might be expected: water sloshed out of the pool onto the deck, the big floor show had to be rescheduled, and dispensers with little white bags appeared beside each elevator door.
Eventually the big blow abated and we continued cruising down the Inside Passage to Vancouver. They say the scenery is world-class, and we will have to take their word for it, as we encountered murk and low clouds the whole way. Despite not being able to see the mountains, we quite enjoyed the ethereal views of endless steep green slopes and innumerable islands, peeking through the diaphanous mists.
Daylight the next morning found us moored back at the terminal in Vancouver, with Stanley Park in view, and the weather much the same as when we departed.
This marked the end of our journey, and so we disembarked with many memories, lots of digital images, and overfilled bellies.
I will end my presentation with a tidbit of Alaskan folklore that was told to us by an old-timer in the Panhandle.
The first commercial venture on the Alaska coast dates from about 1750 to 1900, when Russian seaman established a very lucrative trade based on sea otter pelts. The furs were highly prized in China, and a brash young Mongolian pirate, Wrustie Khan, took to raiding the Russians and stealing skins. He soon became a terrifying scourge along the coast, and try as they might, authorities were unable to apprehend Wrustie. Eventually word of his exploits got back to Mongolia, causing great embarrassment for the Khan Clan, who were still sensitive about the reputation of their ancient ancestors. The patron father, Pawpp Khan, decreed that the eldest son, Biehr Khan, must go Alaska, capture Wrustie, and return him to Mongolia and so restore the family’s honour. Of course Biehr was successful in his mission, and hence the origin of the old Alaskan saying “It takes a Khan to Ketchikan”.
(Editor’s note: The editor did not approve the inclusion of this story, but she did concur that it was time to get off the Khan and end the account).