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GLACIER BAY & THE GLOBAL PANDEMIC OF 2020

THE GRAND CLIMAX

I always figured that I would save Glacier Bay for my finale when it came to completing my dream of visiting all of the United States’ National Parks. For most of my working life, I thought I might be 80 years old before the trail would come to its lifelong end. I therefore envisioned my ancient self taking a cruise boat tour, with others of my generation, into the natural beauty of that glacial wonderland.

3.3 million acres of a World Heritage Site

But karma has a way of assisting when your feet are purposefully striding certain paths. After an early retirement (which I had not planned, but happened upon) I was able to travel more often, and willingly sought out my final 15 Parks. After a harrowing passage from Isle Royale last year in which our vessel was tossed in eleven foot waves, my mission was then only one step from completion. But I hesitated. After all, I felt I was still years away from supping at the Captain’s Table.

And then, because of a wondrous dream I had early one morning in February of this year (2020), I began researching the best ways to reach the waters of the glaciers’ embrace. This dream was significant and rich in detail. I felt it may have been a portent that the climax might be grand and beyond scale.

Johns Hopkins Glacier

Before the Pandemic tightened its grip over the globe, I found out that large ship cruises were indeed plentiful. Charter boats of a smaller capacity were also abundant for hire. Another good option turned out to be staying at Glacier Bay Lodge and reserving a seat on their daily catamaran trip to the glaciers. But upon researching further, I found that these ships and boats could head only into the West Arm of Glacier Bay. There is a whole other arm named Muir Inlet that would be left unexplored. Unless, of course, you had a smaller boat.

Being the type that seeks the “road less travelled”, I NEEDED to get into Muir inlet. My DNA proclaimed it!

Muir Inlet

I dawdled a bit with securing a passage, not feeling comfortable with any of the available choices. And when the Covid-19 crises began to expand, I slid the frypan to the back burner.

As fate would have it, one of the outfits I had called during my search actually phoned me back. It was Captain Jim Kearns of Fairweather Adventures in Gustavus. He and his family operate a bed and breakfast and charter out two smaller boats, four passengers each, into both arms of the park. Later on I found out that his cruisers are named The Alaskan Dream and Dream 2.

"The Alaskan Dream"

THE ALASKAN DREAM

During the dilemma of travel restrictions fluctuating week to week, Jim and I became pretty good friends. He would call me with updates, and after a time I began to call him more frequently myself, asking for advice. He has this assuring nature that endears you to him. Because of his sincerity and calm attitude, I was able to keep open the possibility that perhaps we just might pull off this fledgling adventure, global pandemic notwithstanding.

There were several hoops I had to jump through in order to further the cause. First, I booked a flight to Gustavus via Seattle and Juneau. This needed to be a one-way passage because, for the second leg of the trip, I wanted to include a drive from Haines north to The Yukon. At that time the Canadian border was temporarily closed due to covid-restrictions and I could only hope as to when it would reopen. Luckily, Alaska Airlines had an affordable one-way with a “no change fees” policy included. I could change my flight at any time for no extra charge.

Then Jim offered to book me for residence at his house with an option of 2 or 3 days on the water, and because of the pandemic, at no upfront charge. (Jim had recommended 3 days, but because of my hope to visit Canada, I was slightly reluctant to commit. It was very fortunate for me that the government of Canada did extend its border closure so that, in the end, I took that third day out on The Alaskan Dream. I would not have seen the glory of Dundas Bay if I had not.)

Dundas Bay

Jim did not have to do that, postponing payment. His policy is to charge part of the voyage up front. But he understood the uncertainty of the situation we were in. His kindness in this matter was very helpful for me in staying the course.

The State of Alaska’s covid policy also changed from time to time. They weren’t worried about travelers becoming ill after arrival, but rightly concerned that tourists might bring the disease there. Gustavus is a small community in a remote area. All of their residents would be at risk if even one became infected.

So I was required to take a test screening before my departure. There were two policies at the time. A negative test taken 5 days before departure would gain you entry; but you would be required to take a 2nd test upon arrival and need to self-quarantine for two days until the results came back. A negative test taken 72 hours before departure would be sufficient to gain access to Gustavus and Glacier Bay without a quarantine required.

I therefore took two tests. Five days out, and still not certain this would work out, I visited an Illinois State facility for my first ever nasal swab. They phoned me and said the results indeed came back negative, but that they could only send the results via US mail. Their policy, for some frustrating reason, was that they could not send them electronically. This seemed absurd.

I found this out two days before my departure. Luckily, I had also taken a rapid test at my neighborhood urgent care facility. This required waiting in line in a parking lot. They were hesitant about giving tests willy-nilly, but with a recommendation from my primary physician, they gladly complied. These results turned out to be negative as well .... and they gave me a copy of the results.

I was overjoyed and confident the adventure would now begin. I wasn’t overly fearful of the Coronavirus situation. I understood the perils of traveling into the headwinds of an invisible foe. But because the way the fates were propelling me forward, I deemed the graces were favorable to the outcome. And I knew in my heart, that every adventure requires an overcoming of fear.

My attitude was soon to change dramatically. After finding that the 5 day test would not permit me to stay in Alaska without having the test results in hand, I texted Jim with the good news that I did have the rapid-test summary. He responded with a text stating that Alaska’s policy website informed that such a test most likely would not suffice. My spirit fell back to Earth.

The following day was packing day. Jim had phoned me and asked that I forward a picture of the rapid-test results. He wanted to double check with the Fire Chief at the airport in Gustavus. I half-heartedly stowed my layers of clothing and gear into my duffle bag. I was pretty sure I would not be getting on the flight to Seattle the next AM. But, just in case….just in case….

My flight was scheduled to leave my home port of O’Hare Field in Chicago at 5:30 AM. At about 9:00 in the evening, I found myself about to dial Alaska Air to cancel my flight. My son was watching a movie. Instead of calling, I decided to sit down with him. I could always call just before midnight to cancel my dream.

Then, around 10 o’clock that evening….Jim called. “John”, he said, “get on the plane!!”

taking flight

GUSTAVUS

Jim’s wife, Julene, met me at the airport with two of their granddaughters. During the summer, many of their 21 grandchildren come to visit and help with the charters and lodgings.

After my covid test results were accepted as good to go at the airport, we climbed into their pickup and headed off into Glacier Bay National Park, my final Park, to pick up Jim at the boat launch. He was ending up his day there.

black bear cub

After fetching Jim, he explained that of all the other concessionaires including the cruise lines and charters, Fairweather Adventures was one of the only ones still in operation. Even Glacier Bay Lodge and their famous, ranger-guided catamaran tour was closed for the pandemic. It was to me a small miracle that I had chosen Fairweater...or they had chosen me!

After reaching their well situated home and led into my cozy room, I also was to find out that all restaurants nearby were closed due to the pandemic. Though the understanding was that Fairweather Adventures only serves a warm breakfast and a boat lunch, Jim and Julene had taken it upon themselves to also include a home-cooked dinner as well. This was another thoughtful kindness.

comfortable room
Fairweather Adventures Bed and Breakfast

After meeting the remainder of the family and the other guests (their B and B consists of three large guest rooms) , we sat for a delightful supper. The feeling was the same as you get when eating with your own family. The conversation was absorbing and the laughter plentiful. Though I had already grown to know Jim, it was now my pleasure to get to appreciate his wife and grandchildren, as well as the other lodgers who were friends of his.

Through our multiple conversations, Jim had found out that I am the sort who needs to walk or exercise nearly every day. When dinner was done, Jim suggested I go for a hike through the spruce and hemlock forests of the neighborhood. To my astonishment, his teen-aged grandkids (and the grandsons of my new friend, Jay) wanted to go with me.

I have worked with teen-agers and young adults throughout my life, but it was still surprising to feel their acceptance of me as one of their own so quickly. This is an attribute of the place I now found myself in. A frontier community on the edge of The Great Wilderness. A society of amicable youth. A youth easy with friendship which, obviously, was instilled into them through their families.

Jay’s grandsons were Jacob and David. Our conversations throughout the week shifted from Jacob’s keen and humorous observations and his devotion to fishing to David’s thirst for literary knowledge. Both were on a quest to spend more meaningful time with their courteous and humble grandfather.

Jay, Jacob, and David

Julene and Jim’s grandkids were as follows: Karisa was quiet and always smiled when you thanked her for whatever she cooked that day. Sarah was the energetic one, and as adventurous as her grandfather. Emma, she had a heart full of fun as she tricked me into believing a bug had fallen on my ear during our hike. As I tried to brush it off, she giggled while holding a cattail stem, and told me the creature at my ear was an “Emma Bug”. Josh was the elder statesman and captain of The Dream 2. His wife, Anna was his kindly first mate who exuded contentment.

Karisa and Emma

THE WEST ARM

The first day had us up bright and early. Julene and the young ladies prepared a fine breakfast which we ate casually, carrying on our conversations from the night before. Julene is a gifted cook. Some of the specialties we enjoyed on the mornings of our stay included a light, “Glacier Bay Quiche”, blueberry-stuffed french toast, and Southeast Alaskan sourdough waffles with homemade blueberry syrup. No trip to Alaska is complete without some sourdough. My favorite dish, however, was the “Fairweather Amish Casserole” with its eggs and cottage cheese base. Not only was it flavorable, but it provided an energetic start to the day.

have spoons, will travel

By 8:00 we were on our way to the marina at the Visitor Center. The tide was out and you could smell the earthy mud flats on the walk across the bridge to the boat pier. It was an overcast day, but bright enough to capture the dramatic hues of the ever changing sea.

the varied hues

Jay and his family headed out on their fishing expedition on The Dream 2, piloted by Josh. I boarded The Alaskan Dream with Captain Kearns and his trusted mate, Emma. Two other passengers shared the day with us, Steve and Lisa.

our first grizzly

After only a short while on our voyage, we spotted the first of many grizzlies we would encounter that day. The night before, while picking up Jim, we had come close to a black bear sow and her two cubs from the safety of the pick-up truck. That was special, to be sure. But brown bear encounters bring a higher level of adrenaline flow, for they are more unpredictable and unruly than blacks. From the safety of a drifting boat however, one can appreciate the movements and actions of these kodiaks without fear and without the need of a plan of escape.

on the move

The waters of Glacier Bay are abundant with rafts of sea otters. Whenever Jim would slow the boat for a view, mums and pups floated by, gazing curiously to determine how close they would allow us before diving below the glassy surface.

raft of otters
mum and pup

Flocks of assorted seabirds would fly or swim or skim by The Alaskan Dream throughout the day. Captain Jim identified for us all the species of which there were scores.

surf scoters
Caspian Terns and friends
bald eagle

Near Bartlett Cove each morning we would hear the ringing tenor of Ruby-Crowned Kinglets and the high octaves of the Varied Thrush. Out on the seas were of course the cries of myriad gulls and terns. Though it was too early in the season to see loons, there were a multitude of duck species and geese, scoter and brilliant puffin. To see these orange-masked birds, whether nesting in the rock fissures towering above the sea or paddle-boating upon the sea’s surface, was always a thrill.

tufted puffin nest

And always as thrilling was it to spy eagles, venerable and white-headed, a-nest in lofty, solitary spruce or in flight eclipsing the clouds. There were petrels and the streamlined Parasitic Jaeger to also behold. Other interesting specimens were the penguin-like Guillemot and, bobbing on the waves, the Marbled Murrelet. Not only was I educated by Captain Jim, but Lisa was an avid photographer and with her husband, Steve they often pointed out far away shapes guessing, but sometimes correctly naming, the classification of feathered friend.

Glaucous-winged Gull
eagle's perch

Due to the abundance of varieties of food sources in the sea, on the rocky shores and cliffs, and in the dense forests... as well as the modest amount of potential predators…. Glacier Bay is a birder’s Promised Land.

black oystercatchers
black-legged kittiwake
eagle takeoff

Along our way north by northwest, Jim would often swing the boat near the coasts of the multitude of islands to spot nesting birds or other animalia. We were fortunate enough to see mountain goats grazing high above us on one island.

mottled starfish
symmetry of sea lions
Stellar Sea Lion colony
skittish Harbor Seals

And, as mentioned, throughout the day we kept coming upon big, brown grizzlies. One or two ran off into the dense thickets of forest. But most ambled undaunted along the shore, overturning large rocks looking for mussels or pawing at the earth to turn up some crab. There was a mother teaching her two cubs these techniques. The youngsters seemed oblivious to our floating presence; but the sow would raise her nose from time to time to smell us and be sure we were not a threat.

grizzly sow and cubs
bear in grotto
back to the forest

At some point on our journey we began seeing large, displaced boulders standing sentinel on the shoreline. These are known as glacial erratics. They were left by the retreating glaciers, hundreds of miles from which they came, to be harbingers of the glaciers ahead.

glacial erratic
glacial erratic
glaciers ahead

The mountains of the West Arm are magnificent. Hidden in their folded arms lie an assembly of different glaciers. These are miles retreated from former scapes. Through the millennia of time Mother Earth has gone through five or six major glaciations. We were headed for another ice age until about 15,000 years ago when the march to the inevitable glacial epoch stopped and fantastically levelled off. Thus began the time of civilised humankind.

Then, about 4,000 years ago, what is called The Little Ice Age began. The ice sheets and glaciers of this wonderful park are remnants of this age rather than the global glaciations. Around about 1750, the Little Ice Age reached its peak. Soon after, in 1794, Captain George Vancouver’s expedition into these waters was stopped by a cliff of ice approximately 20 miles wide. By the time John Muir was enticed to visit these lands, less than 100 years later in 1879, the ice wall had retreated 65 miles north and the single, massive glacier eventually evolved into 11 prominent individuals.

Reid Glacier
Lamplugh Glacier's terminus
Marjerie Glacier
McBride Glacier

Whether or not the industrial age caused a speeding of glacial melt is a matter of serious debate, of which I am ill-suited to partake. But with my own eyes I have seen the devastating effect of air pollution in Asia. And over the years I have had to adjust and accept that I can no longer merely dip my canteen in a rushing stream for a bracing drink of cold mountain water. And there are friends of mine, serious outdoorsmen and women, who lament the dramatic changes that have occurred since populations have exploded across the globe. My point here is that within the last 15,000 years glaciers are still retreating and expanding. This can be witnessed today in the fact that some of Glacier Bay’s tongues of ice are melting while others, like the Hindu goddess, Kali’s, still expand.

I would have liked to have seen this land of ice and sea along with Muir, when the icefields were far more gigantic. We could have conversed the nights away at our camp above the glacier’s terminus, and contemplated the significance of the glacier’s calling.

But now the sea beds are hundreds of feet shallower. And the glaciers are more like pearls apart, rather than an arctic cap. There is more life here now that the melt has occurred. And therefore a different type of beauty. One that still asks to be preserved.

Reid Glacier

We came first to Reid Glacier with its relatively low hump. Beyond that, the picturesque Lamplugh Glacier. Lamplugh (pronounced: “Lamp-loo”) falls to the tidewaters at a cross-angle to the black mountaintop behind it, making a dramatic effect. Though colored by the typical glacial blue, it is a medial moraine glacier and blackened heavily on its top by the landslide which occurred when a side of a mountain collapsed in 2016. This event was so impactful that more than half the glacier’s length is affected by it.

Lamplugh Glacier
the landslide's effects

After spending many minutes under its impressive and striated terminus, we moved on. This is where I found out how adventurous a captain Jim Kearns actually is. Perhaps it was because he had come to know that I am game for bolder experiences ; or perhaps it was because he is like a teenager himself at heart …. whichever it was, Jim proposed a hike.

The next glacier on our haul north was to be Johns Hopkins Glacier. This is one of the advancing glaciers in the park, but its waters are closed off in June and early July for harbor seal calving season as they give birth upon the floating ice floes. Therefore, Captain Jim piloted us to a small cape directly east of the beginning of the inlet and northwest of Russell Island. He prodded the Alaskan Dream just short of shore while Emma dropped off a step-ladder from the bow. We all cautiously climbed down to the gravelly beach and then Jim anchored the boat offshore. He proceeded to ease his tiny red kayak into the icy strait, and paddled in to join us.

We climbed a causeway of giant boulders made slippery with seaweed and the constant mists of air. We scampered up scree to the cape’s rock wall which we could hold with hands to help secure our balance as we climbed higher. It was about a two to three hundred foot elevation gain. But the views were so worth the effort. From the rockhead’s baldy summit you can spy Lamplugh Glacier directly south and Johns Hopkins (named after the university) as a crow flies to the west.

Lamplugh to the south
Johns Hopkins to the west

The sun came out at this time, which made the scenery intensely more realistic, and we sat or lay back to rest. I remember now the serenity of soaking in the Sun’s rays of warmth (for the weather remained in the 40s to low 50s all week) while impressing the views in my mind’s eye.

Emma offered to take a picture of me with Johns Hopkins far off but highlighted behind me, flowing down from the cloud bound Fairweather Range. The “picture” turned out to become a series of photos, because of our mutual enthusiasm in the moment; but some turned out to be keepers to show my great-grandchildren, like Bilbo Baggins might, one day.

While climbing down to the boat we could see that the tide was rapidly coming in and that the red kayak was perilously close to being carried off. This is another condition one must accept while on an adventure: the possibility of things going awry. But Jim sped up his pace to get there in time. In fact, he was aware of the tidal schedule and had timed things to the minute.

Then the day’s proceedings brought us to the iconic Margerie Glacier ambling down from Mount Root on the Canadian border. This tidewater mass extends its shoulders about one mile from end to end, though in the pristine light it looks like a city block. Once you realize the true breadth, you are absolutely amazed and humbled by its size. Spires of blue and white castles reach into the air above it. Creaking cries and explosions of moans seduced us to wait with wonder as to where exactly the next calving of glacier might be.

Marjerie Glacier
Marjerie's ramparts
ice castles
ice cubes from Marjerie

My only regret of the day was the fact that the clouds had covered the mighty Mount Fairweather, which rises on clear days as Margerie’s rearguard, from behind….

Grand Pacific Glacier

Margerie, along with the adjacent Grand Pacific Glacier are at the extreme northwestern boundaries of the park. Late afternoon meant it was time to turn back. The seas began to chop and it was a bouncy, if not mildly distressing, path back. But with Captain Jim at the helm, and hot chocolate making the rounds, all was well….all was well.

MUIR INLET

After a wonderful dinner at the Kearnes’ residence and a peaceful night’s sleep, we were back at the boat dock the following morning. The fishermen once again took off in the Dream 2 and I was joined on Captain Jim’s boat by a young lady from Chile named Kelly. It was to be the most adventurous of days.

The previous day had yielded no whale sightings for us on the Alaskan Dream, but this excursion would be much different. From the Beardslee Islands to Muir Point, the waters were consistently adorned with humps and fins on our starboard side.

These weren’t the closer encounters you may find off the coast of Maui during mating and calving season. By summer these cetaceans have migrated into this subarctic seaway only to feed. They are much more likely to dive away from a ship that has approached too closely than to breach the surface for a curious glance as they do in the tropics. Still, the sight of a dorsal fin or the view of a symmetrical fluke arching up, seawaters a-drip, then gracefully slipping to the depths, is a magnificent thing.

humpback's dive
humpback fluke

We must have seen a dozen or more humpbacks on our way north, and perhaps another dozen on our return. But the real visual arousals of the journey were to occur beyond Muir Point, where the “Grandfather of the National Parks” had camped at glacier’s edge in 1879.

Today the glaciers of the east arm have receded significantly, but this narrow inlet is chocked full of icy flotsam and jetsam provided by the calving of the neighborhood ice floes. Blue ice-boulders decorated the portside shore, and chunks big enough to be called icebergs floated in the channel. Sharp-edged and earmarked, teardrops of air pockets encrusted themselves just under their glittering surfaces.

blue berg

The blue typical to the color of glaciers is due to the intense compression of her ice which squeezes out the red part of the spectrum of the color of white. It is a fair turquoise shade, but faded, nearly like beryl. But these inlet bergs were painted by a more liberal artist, one who enhanced and deepened the shade a touch for a more eye-quenching effect.

turquoise juggernaut

Captain Jim weaved his ship between the floats producing a surreal arena. He got close enough that his granddaughter, Sarah could reach and touch one from the bow. Spying that one berg had a sandbar on a flattened portion of it, he maneuvered the Alaskan Dream in a way to nudge it just onto its bank. Determining that the landing was safe, he instructed Sarah to place the stepladder ashore. She climbed down and then helped Kelly, who was overjoyed at the prospect of such an opportunity, disembark. I immediately began snapping pictures to memorialize this unique undertaking.

First Mate Sarah

We prudently remained there only a few minutes, but it was enough time to foster years of memories. How unusual an experience the stars had provided us: to walk upon a floating iceberg. In all my days…..

But more adventure awaited us ahead.

Mcbride Glacier is high shouldered, standing 200 ft above the surface and is sunk also about 250 ft. below. In fact, there is a submerged moraine under the inlet’s iced waters. The glacier itself flows from the Takhinsha Mountains 14 miles to the north. We spent our lunchtime in its shadow listening to the cracks and moans it composed, and as always, we speculated where the next ice break might be. The Dream 2 had caught up to us there, so we also had the benefit of conversation comparing our day's adventures between us.

McBride Glacier
faces of McBride
the approaching Dream

After that boat headed back looking for more suitable fisheries, Captain Jim pointed out to me that the glacier’s eastern arm had completely melted since he last was there. He hadn’t noticed it until then. He wondered if we could find a place to climb. So, once again, his daring came to the front.

He aimed the boat to a small peninsula and, after dropping us off via the trusty stepladder, anchored in a slender cove. He paddled to shore to join us, and then led the way up the scree. The footing was better near and even in the shallow waterfall of glacial melt, so for the most part we skirted it.

It was a semi-strenuous climb, mainly because of the shifting rocks beneath our boots, but after about 400 ft. the terrain levelled off. By now we were well above McBride and had a magnificent view of not only the glacier, but also its bay to the south.

McBride from the melted shoulder
McBride Inlet

And then Jim said something to me that still brings goosebumps to my arms. “John,” he said. “Look at the diversity of these rocks up here.” Indeed, I had observed this. There were stones and boulders of all types, sizes and colors. The colors were wet in their luster. Many were multicolored or else amalgamated after centuries of enormous compression.

“You have to realize something”, he continued. “We are probably the first people to ever walk up here on these stones. Or at least for centuries.”

This thought fireclapped itself in my mind. A feeling then welled up in my belly, a sense of being part of all ancestral life forms, be they humanoid or animalistic. It brought me within the boundaries of the Mind of the Universe. It opened up for me sight into the ages of time, not only Earth time, but eternal time.

Sarah, far far below
the descent

After as many minutes as we could spare, treating our eyes to the views of this pristine happy-hunting-ground, we finally began our descent. Along the way I took pictures of the cornucopia of stones and boulders. At one rock ledge I found a sprout of a plant growing. I was amazed that so soon after the retreat of a glacier, life flourishes.

life returns

On the way back the temperature dropped, so we huddled in the cabin for most of the return journey. Jim and I had a wonderful conversation. We talked of our families and of other things which had touched our lives. And we told each other jokes.

At one point I did ask Jim his impressions of the impact of the melting of glaciers. He simply said that he believed “It’s the dynamics of the whole thing.”

He has lived in this area his entire life. He is an elder in his church. He has been a teacher. He is a husband, father and grandfather. Since the age of eighteen he has always been a boat captain. If a philosopher is a person who offers straightforward views on complicated matters, perhaps the captain was also one of these.

Captain Jim Kearns

After putting in, we all gathered into the pickup trucks awaiting us and drove several miles to the Beartrack Inn, which had the only restaurant open in Gustavus at that time. Jay and I wanted to treat Jim and Julene and all the lasses and lads to a fine meal that they didn’t have to prepare and preside over.

Beartrack Inn

It was a feast of fish and meat dishes accompanied by appetizers and luscious desserts. I hadn’t realized my hunger, perhaps because I was so filled with the awe the day had brung…

DUNDAS BAY

On the third day we were to pick up and transport two kayakers to Dundas Bay in the afternoon. So in the morning Jim and this day’s First Mate, Karisa steered the Alaskan Dream out toward Strawberry Island. Once again, having chartered a smaller boat proved to be a huge blessing. We were able to anchor offshore for the third time in three days and hike yet another area of the park.

sea otter

Strawberry Island is situated just north of Glacier Bay’s mouth. Jim had not walked that shore nor passed through its forests for many years. He had brought a man there whose deceased father, Johan Nilsson had worked on a fox farm there in 1929 and wanted to reconnect to him through his journeying there. I understood this, having visited the hallowed places my own father’s feet had tread in his lifetime.

The view from the shore of Strawberry was fairly stunning as the waters were calm as glass and the overhanging clouds brought a colorful blue hue to the occasion. Bullwhip kelp interlaced the shore sands at tideline. Further on, as an apron to the dark forest, strawberry vines intertwined underfoot. Strawberries are only a sparkle of an idea at this time of season, but their vines promised a late summer bounty.

bull kelp

Immediately upon entering the forest, the ocean becomes forgotten. For this is the realm of the rainforest, with its muffled sense of quiet. The older trees are of a mossy green and stand softly in meditation.

It took us some time before we located the fox farm. The foliage was thick and wet, but did not dampen our resolve. Jim eventually noticed a standpoint of evergreens, all in a row as if planted. Indeed, the fox furriers must have intended these to grow into a break from the ocean winds. We climbed the berm on which these stood and found the lost foxfarm.

Some of the dilapidated, wooden foxhouses were still standing, though they were overgrown for the most part with ferns and burgeoning yearling spruce. There were discarded tool parts and a rusty bucket and even leather strands from former horse harnesses. All the while, Jim narrated historical facts and speculations.

The most interesting find was of the cabin in which Carl Swanson and Johan Nilsson had lived. It is nothing more than a shack leaning into the hill behind it. It is dilapidated but still standing. How tiny of a quarters it is has etched itself on my mind. It is incredible to me how wilderness folk were able to live and thrive in such harsh, and sparse, conditions.

After boarding the Dream anew, we spent the rest of the morning fishing and idly conversing. Then we headed back to Bartlett Cove to pick up the outward-going kayakers.

The party consisted of two hearty souls, a married couple by the names of Melanie and Kim Heacox. It took some time to load their gear from the muddy flats of the cove, but once they were aboard I realized what an auspicious encounter this would turn out to be.

Melanie is a recently retired environmentalist of 40 years. Though the cabin was cold and the waters bouncy-rough, not to mention the difficulty of understanding our speech through our coronavirus face masks, she was able to identify the species of plants I had discovered the previous day on the bare glacier. “Most likely, Dwarf Fireweed”, she said. She tried explaining above the boat motor that Dwarf Fireweed is a “pioneer plant” and often is the first thing to sprout in disturbed soil.

yellow moss and dwarf fireweed

Kim, to my understandable satisfaction, is an accomplished photographer and oft published author for National Geographic. Some of the works in his 16 book bibliography are award winning. It was so interesting to learn his story, as much as he could tell. At one point he casually mentioned to Jim how blessed he felt to have fallen into the life he was given and how in awe he was at the places he was allowed to travel. I was impressed by his life’s summary, for this is how I feel, for the most part, about my life as well. .

At one point of our discussions, Captain Jim pointed out to Kim that this trip of mine to Glacier Bay was the completion and compilation of visiting all the national parks of the United States. I was wonderfully shocked, but in a very subtle and reticent way, when I saw Kim’s eyes open wider from inside his glasses, his face framed by his coronavirus mask.

I observed this as a journeyed outdoorsman, as one observes a full moon rising...or better yet, a Solar Eclipse of the Moon.

I questioned myself, how could this world renowned photojournalist be somehow impressed with my humble accomplishment. He even immediately offered to send me a signed copy of his book, The National Parks: An Illustrated History (2015) by dint of my efforts. {This wonderful book has since been received, and set on my family room table for all my friends to see}. But after my return home I realized that Kim and Melanie and Captain Jim understood the dedication it must have taken.....48 years of planning, reading maps and calculating distances, outfitting and being ill-outfitted in rainstorms and snow squalls. When you do these things in the moment, you hardly recognize them. But kindred spirits do recognize. And hold in esteem.

Kim and Melanie were embarking on what would be the first of three kayak trips during the pandemic summer, this one for five remote days on the shores of Dundas Bay. This bay lay off west by southwest of Bartlett, midway to the Gulf of Alaska. If I hadn’t signed up for this third day on the water, I would not have been privy to the artistry of Dundas with its tapered mount tops, glistening seas, and pendants of misty skies.

We dropped them off on a sandy beach which was being prowled by a lone wolf. We watched them haul their equipment from shoreline inland as we idled away. They had with them among their vitals a portable electric bear fence, "which may come in handy", I thought to myself, "out there". During one of their treks from their fledgling camp back to the gear at waterline, I spied Melanie doing a little dance jig in happiness at her surroundings. I know that feeling.

After we began pulling away at a higher speed of travel, I looked at those contoured mountains fading in the distance, but which were impressed like a glacier’s stone in my mind. I see them still. And I wonder. I wonder how could I ever describe their beauty, the way those cones reach in graceful symmetry to the heavens …. heavens which hover as a lucid picture frame above and a-flank, the sea awash and glacial-blue below.

And I wonder still, how could this all have been accomplished, if not for the graceful symmetry of those same heavens …. reaching a-flank and awash to the seas and the mountains --- to all life: plant, animal, and human --- in the glacial-blue light below.

---- John Syron

travel date, late June 2020

Created By
John Syron
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