In 1794, when Explorer George Vancouver sailed east through the waters of Alaska's Icy Strait, Glacier Bay was only a dimple in a spectacular and solid wall of ice. Extending 100 miles north into the Saint Elias Range, a glacier plugged the 20-mile-wide trough between the mountains to a depth of more than 4,000 feet.
Since the time of Vancouver's voyage, this vast battle arena between the ice and the deep, silent forest has undergone more natural change than any other chunk of glacial geography on the face of the earth. The glaciers of the northwest Alexander Archipelago are receding faster than any other ice masses in the world. Within the memory of man they have retreated 65 miles from the mouth of Glacier Bay to the snout of Grand Pacific Glacier far up Tarr Inlet.
Until four summers back, only a handful of people each year visited this remote marvel of nature, separated by fjords and mountain ranges from the coast of Alaska and possibly forever beyond reach of the automobile. Fishermen knew it as a great tidal fish trap for halibut, silver and king salmon. A few adventurous yachtsmen ventured beyond Bartlett Cove at its mouth every summer, bearing charts, tide tables and, usually, a local guide well acquainted with the navigational hazards of these waters. Scientists came, documenting the startling speed with which Glacier Bay's Little Ice Age glaciation is shrinking. Yet even after the national monument was created, in 1925, not more than 300 persons a year were able to visit Glacier Bay.
The picture changed dramatically four years ago when the National Park Service constructed the million-dollar Glacier Bay Lodge, considered by many the most attractive new resort in all of Alaska. An excursion boat, the icebreaker Sea Crest, was brought in, and airline flights scheduled. In the past few summers more people have toured the wonders of the national monument than ever glimpsed the beauty of this ice-scoured bay in all the years before.
The wilderness adventure remains, however. The only mark of civilization is at Bartlett Cove, monument headquarters, and the only added feature is ease of visitation. Alaska Airlines schedules five flights daily, four from Juneau, including an early-morning trip by Grumman Goose to the cove at the door of the lodge, and one a day from Sitka. Twin Otters land at Gustavus airstrip, nine miles from Bartlett Cove, and are met by airlines bus for the final leg over rutted road through deep forest.
Glacier Bay Lodge (American plan) accommodates 50 guests, but you must reserve well in advance of the season from June 15 to Sept. 15. An alternative is the loneliest, most exciting and often the wettest camping experience that can be imagined, even in Alaska. Although there are no established campgrounds, the monument's sandy, morainal shoreline and exquisite drifts of islands provide unlimited camping and exploring opportunities. You must bring in your own food and gear from Juneau or Sitka, and it should include waterproof clothing.
Arrangements can be made at the lodge for delivery and pickup by charter seaplane or small boat to innumerable fascinating locations for bird and animal watching, geologic observation, fishing (the mouths of any of the streams provide excellent fishing for Dolly Vardens, and many contain cutthroat trout), photography, hiking and boating by small inflated dinghy, with due regard for weather and the dangers of getting too close to floating ice or tidewater ice cliffs. Icebergs require very little disturbance to upset their balance. Ponderous tide-worn bergs sometimes roll at the light takeoff of seals!
Every morning the Sea Crest, a 65-foot Park Service tour boat accommodating 49 passengers, leaves Bartlett Cove on an all-day cruise between the parallel 15,000-foot mountain ranges to headwaters of the bay. Equipped with ironbank hull for pushing through floating ice, the Sea Crest chooses its route according to wind and ice conditions. Favored is the 265-foot-high face of Muir Glacier at the upper end of Muir Inlet, where great chunks of ice continually crack off the two-mile-wide snout into the sea, crowding the inlet with icebergs.
Whatever route they take, visitors will see abundant wildlife—multitudes of sea-birds and migratory land species, bluefin and killer whales, porpoises, hair seals and sea lions. Mountain goats are spotted on the barren rocky heights, and bears, wolverines, lynx, wolves and coyotes scrounge the tidelands. The rare blue glacier bear lives only in this area and inland from Yakutat in the Saint Elias Mountains. From the cruise ship can be seen rivers of flowing ice retreating beyond deposits of rock-strewn moraines of fantastic size, soon to sprout with fireweed and alpine flowers as vegetation moves back in to the ice-scoured arena. On the western shore stumps of 3,000-year-old forests have been revealed just recently by the ponderous swing in climate.
For lodge reservations, charter boat with fishing guide or other service, write Manager Frank Kearns, Glacier Bay Lodge, Glacier Bay National Monument, Gustavus, Alaska 99826. Make travel arrangements to this national treasure through travel agents or Alaska Airlines, Seattle-Tacoma Airport, Seattle, Wash. 98158.