Naturalist John Muir believed that the creator taught his children with every sublime expression of nature. Glacier Bay was one of Scotsman John’s greatest teachers: and, since his discovery of the 50-mile fiord in 1889, this scenic wilderness on Alaska’s southeastern coast has taught the world much about glacier behavior.
Glacier Bay has many branches, inlets, islands, and winding channels that hold many opportunities for scientific exploration. Thus, the area is popular as a cruise ship destination during peak seasons of the year. According to the National Park Service statistics for calendar year 2009, 444,653 people visited Glacier Bay, of which 422,919 of those being cruise ship passengers. Glacier Bay, the body of water, covers about 1,375 sq. miles of formed mature glaciers and accounts for about 28% of the localized designated park area. It is considered one of the largest single formed glaciers of solid ice till early 18th century.
Geologists believe that Glacier Bay existed during a minimum of four glacial periods. The last of these four glacial periods ending is the Littlee IceAge, which has a 4,000 year old record. Remnants of this period can still be observed in the park today.
Within the 3,554-square mile national monument, created in 1925, visitors can see at work the same glacial forces that sculptured California’s Yosemite and scoured Maine’s Acadia and Michigan’s Isle Royal. Alaska’s frozen cataracts, some of them thousands of feet deep and several miles wide, grind irresistibly down the towering Fairweather and St. Elias Ranges like giant plowshares, carving their own valleys, wedging into, even splitting apart whole mountains, carrying within their icy bowels the composites of crushed landscapes. Many flow into the Pacific Ocean or into Glacier Bay, terminating in ice cliffs, such as Muir Glaciers 265-foot face.
Here in Muir Inlet, from a cautious half-mile out, the mariner might see the shore line change before his eyes. Great chunks of ice crack off and crash into the water, sending out huge waves and crowing the inlet with icebergs. Thus a glacier retreats, exposing new shore. John Muir built his cabin near the foot of the flow: today the receding snout is more than 13 miles away.
Not all glaciers in the monument reach the sea. Many melt in warm lowlands, depositing vast rock-strewn moraines as they recede. Mosses and lichens attack these barren ridges to help make soil for firewood and alpine flowers. Dwarf willow thickets follow, and clumps of alders. Giant spruce and hemlock forests complete the camouflage. But tree stumps, standing like grotesque tombstones on the bay’s western shore, bear witness that glaciers recede but to return, to crush relentlessly those bold growths again and again as the pendulum of climate swings in the ponderous rhythm of the ages.
From nearest tourist facilities at Juneau it’s less than 100 miles by boat or plane to Point Gustavus, entrance to Glacier Bay. Ashore, the camper invades virgin forest, haven for bear, mink, and black-tailed deer. Afloat, he shares the bay with spouting whales, seals basking on ice cakes, waterfowl nesting by the thousands. He marvels at the glaciers especially that named for Muir.
Here in its cavernous crevasse God-fearing John Muir became lost one day. Stumbling back to camp in the middle of the night, he exclaimed to his partner: “Such a sight! What magnificent beauty! I considered staying there and feasting my soul, and softly freezing, until I would become part of the glacier.”