Glacier Bay National Park: Forest Trail

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Glacier Bay, at the northwest end of Alaska’s Inside Passage, was established as a National Monument by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925. Coolidge acted at the urging of the Ecological Society of America. One of their members, William Skinner Cooper, had realized the area’s unparalleled potential in the study of forest succession, the development of a complete forest ecosystem from newly exposed bedrock to mature forest.

Skinner had been drawn to Glacier Bay, as many before him had, by the writings of John Muir, who “discovered” Glacier Bay in 1879 and returned in 1890 and 1899. Muir publicized the wonders of Glacier Bay in contemporary magazine articles and eventually the posthumously published Travels in Alaska (1915).

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter enlarged Glacier Bay National Monument in anticipation of the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which would eventually pass Congress in 1980. ANILCA enlarged the protected lands of Glacier Bay to over 3.2 million acres, establishing Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

The vast majority of Glacier Bay’s 500,000 annual visitors experience the Park exclusively by boat from the deck of a cruise ship. Only five percent of visitors actually set foot on the land of Glacier Bay National Park. We were among this small fraction.

Sean and I had arrived around noon on Wednesday, September 2. After checking in for our three-night stay at Glacier Bay Lodge, we had a bite to eat and by 1:30pm, we were ready to join a Ranger-led, mile-long hike through the forest around Bartlett Cove.

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Ranger Caitlin Campbell led the hike. As the group gathered, she introduced the bear and wolf safety precautions that we had heard from Rangers in both Kenai Fjords and Denali.

Then, in introducing the idea of how special it was that we were here on dry land in the Park, she asked each of us to introduce ourselves and say what had brought us to Glacier Bay National Park. This was the first real introduction we had to many of our co-passengers from the ferry that morning. And many of this group would be people we would repeatedly see and chat with throughout our days at Glacier Bay.

Our cohort of about fifteen included a lovely British couple and a quartet of delightful Southerners (two from Tennessee and two from North Carolina). They were four friends, two couples on a trip of a lifetime to Alaska, and one of the couples was completing an odyssey to visit all the National Parks. Glacier Bay was their park #58, and they were considering the journey complete. The only Park they hadn’t visited was the National Park of the American Samoa, which was so distant that they weren’t going to fret about it. “If it turns out that we make it there someday, so be it.”

When it came to our turn, Sean was right there stating plainly that we were at Glacier Bay because we were on our honeymoon. There were delight, good cheer, and well wishes all around for us from the group.

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With that, Ranger Caiti led us along a path through the forest and down to the edge of Bartlett Cove.

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The calm waters and forested shoreline of Bartlett Cove at the southeastern edge of Glacier Bay house essentially all of the management and visitor facilities of the vast National Park. The lodge, Visitor Center, boat docks, headquarters, campground, employee housing, ranger housing, research facilities, and emergency services are all at Bartlett Cove.

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Since the Bartlett Cove area is located at almost the farthest distance from the snout of Grand Pacific Glacier, its forest is among the oldest, most established in the Park. Over a couple hundred years, lichens have given way to a succession of small, tenacious shrubs, willows and cottonwoods, and then the moss-draped conifers of a mature Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Forest dominated by Sitka Spruce

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Sitka Spruce

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Sitka Spruce

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Sitka Spruce

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Shelf Fungus

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Glacier Bay National Park is part of an enormous transnational UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Glacier Bay connects with Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia, which connects with Canada’s Kluane National Park, which in turn connects with Wrangell-St. Elias National Park across the border again in Alaska. Taken together, they comprise the largest contiguous area of protected land on the planet, 33,000,000 acres.

Bartlett Cove, where we were enjoying our leisurely hike, was the southeastern point of an unimaginable stretch of wilderness to the northwest encompassing entire mountain ranges, ice fields, forests, and innumerable glaciers.

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As we hiked, there were those of us who lagged behind taking photos or examining the flora in greater detail. Among our little group was the charming British couple. They were going to be spending several days in Seattle as they completed their trip. Since they were so delighted by our forest hike, Sean and I recommended that they visit Olympic National Park while they were there, particularly Hoh Rainforest.

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Also lagging behind was one of the party of Tennesseeans and North Carolinians. She was an avid photographer, and we began sharing  ideas for shots.

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A faint but very real trail (above) intersected the well-maintained trail we were hiking along. This trail had not been created by the National Park Service, nor had it been created by any human. It was a trail created by River Otters as they passed back and forth between a favorite pond and the shoreline of Bartlett Cove.

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Shelf Fungus

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Shelf Fungus

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Ranger Caiti spoke about the ultimate end of forest succession. It had long been assumed that the mature spruce/hemlock forest we were walking through would be the final stage of forest development in the area around Bartlett Cove, but increasingly there was suspicion that this forest may develop further into a mix of bog or fen and forest.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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A “glacial erratic” boulder dropped by the glacier as it retreated

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Presently, we came to a large pond. Ranger Caiti wrapped up her tour on a boardwalk overlooking the pond, letting us know that it was a good place to watch for moose. She needed to get back to the Visitor Center to staff the information desk, so she said her goodbyes  and continued on to the end of the loop trail with a few of the visitors.

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The rest of us remained, standing or sitting at the overlook and contemplating the lovely pond and the forest surrounding it.

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Glacial erratic

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The Tennesseans and North Carolinians asked if someone could hold their video camera while they said a few words. Throughout their trip, they’d been recording, but they’d not all been on camera at once. A young fellow agreed to, and he framed them against the pond. The man who was completing his National Park odyssey at this spot spoke about nature and our shared spaces. He spoke about friendship and experiencing these places with those close to you. It was lovely. When he finished, a shared sense of camaraderie among all of us at the pond was palpable. Throughout the rest of our time at Glacier Bay, we’d be friendly with the folks who comprised this group. We all began sharing some of our experiences in Alaska. The man who’d been to all the Parks was envious that some of us had seen a Bull Moose.

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Belted Kingfisher

The longer we lingered at the overlook, the more we began to notice the birds around the pond. In particular, the British fellow and I were catching site of them. Or rather, I was catching sight of them and pointing them out to him.

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Pacific-Slope Flycatcher

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Eventually, we all began to slip away, one by one or pair by pair.

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Hoonah Tlingit Raven representation carved into a tree. The carving is modern, but the image and placement are ancient.

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Sean and I lingered at a second overlook. From here, the trail became a boardwalk as it passed through a more boggy section of the forest before crossing the main road as it returned us to the lodge area.

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Southern shore of Bartlett Cove with Glacier Bay beyond

After returning to the lodge and dock area, we walked down to the shore of Bartlett Cove. The waters of the Cove and of Glacier Bay shimmered in the afternoon sunshine. In the distance to the northwest, the snowy Fairweathers guarded Glacier Bay from the Pacific Ocean.

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Bartlett Cove with Lester Island across the water and the Fairweather Range in the distance

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Kelp

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Bartlett Cove Fuel dock

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Coastal Strawberry

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Bartlett Cove

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Hoonah Tlingit Canoe

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Hoonah Tlingit Octopus

Back on our room, we finished unpacking and relaxed for a couple hours. By early evening, we weren’t yet ready to eat, but we wanted to go to the 7pm Ranger talk in the Visitor Center. So we decided to have a drink on the Lodge deck before the talk.

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Beartrack Mountains

We sat, sipped our drinks, and took in the late afternoon view across Bartlett Cove, particularly the Beartrack Mountains to the north along the eastern shore of Glacier Bay.

 

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While we sat, one of the delightful quartet of Southerners came out and said hello. Her group was eating dinner inside, and she’d noticed us sitting on the deck. She offered to take our photo together with my camera, as a memento (above).

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The Fairweathers

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At 7pm, we went upstairs to the Visitor Center auditorium for “Growing Up in Glacier Bay,” a presentation by Ranger Caiti about the scientific knowledge and ecological ideas that had developed or been expanded in Glacier Bay. She spoke in some depth about William Skinner Cooper, the creation of the National Monument, and how important Glacier Bay was to proving the concept of forest succession rather than a static and eternal ecological world.

Ranger Caiti also focused on how more recent studies conducted at Glacier Bay, particularly an ongoing study of Humpback Whales, have contributed to a fuller understanding of marine ecosystems. The Glacier Bay whale survey was started in the 1970s by a Juneau high school teacher and his students. The National Park Service continues the survey almost daily in the summer season after the whales return from wintering grounds in Hawaii until they depart again. The whales can live up to sixty years, and the study has become very familiar with the individuals that make Glacier Bay home.

Another ongoing study in Glacier Bay is of Sea Otters, which were first observed in the Park in 1995. From an initial five, the population has exploded to about 3,000 individuals. The population has been so explosive that it is highly likely that the otters, realizing what an amazing place they’d discovered, actively went out and recruited other otters from outside Glacier Bay to come and live there. Current thinking is that the population is either at or above the size that Glacier Bay can maintain with stability, and a slight decline is expected.

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After the hour-long talk, we returned to the main floor of the lodge. There was a bit of a wait for a table for dinner. While we waited to be seated, we stepped out onto the deck and spotted a Porcupine waddling around on the slope between the lodge and the trail to the dock.

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Porcupine

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The sun was so low that it was hidden behind the great wall of the Fairweather Range to the west, but it still illuminated the few clouds floating above Glacier Bay and Bartlett Cove. Everything was backlit by a soft orange glow, creating brilliant, sharp silhouettes. We lingered on the deck until it was time to be seated for dinner.

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While we were eating, the sun setting over the Pacific threw a final purple light onto gray-blue clouds above Barlett Cove as the twilight deepened in the woods. The final orange of the day illuminated the quiet waters of the cove.

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And then the sun was gone, the clouds became deep indigo against a saturated blue sky changing to tangerine behind the distant peaks, and night came.

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While we were eating, we got into a fun argument about whether one of the waiters was the same Joseph who had been working the front desk that afternoon. I was convinced he was, but Sean was convinced he wasn’t. We took to referring to him as Joseph/Not Joseph because the resemblance was so strong. Sean’s evidence was that it appeared his name tag said that he was Brandon from Missouri.

We finished our leisurely supper and sat by the large fireplace in the lodge for a bit before heading to our room and to bed.

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That night, I woke up to an alarm every hour on the hour between midnight and three because of the predicted visibility of the northern lights. Each time, I put on pants and shoes and slipped out into the chill air and along the boardwalk to where I could see open sky. And each time nothing but stars greeted me. Resigned to not seeing the aurora that night, I set my alarm for the morning. I didn’t want to be completely obliterated for our morning paddle on Bartlett Cove.

 

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