Glacier Bay – Alaska

Kevin GouldingGeneral

Departure from English Bay – Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

A short story about a trip to Glacier Bay in Alaska from the city of Vancouver (British Columbia) in the wake(s) of Captains James Cook and George Vancouver.  From 1998, some 20 years ago now but still with some interesting images and video.

James Cook, one of the world’s most famous explorers and navigators undertook three world voyages. George Vancouver who was with him for two voyages learned the skills to enable him to later complete an incredible survey for the Admiralty. George Vancouver, who has an Island and a City named in his honour, completed this task just before his untimely death at the age of forty.

50 Days of New Horizons
The expedition’s timing and duration took account of the time needed for preparing the boat after shipment from the UK to Canada, including some refitting. August was the last month before the start of the Alaskan winter with ice flows at their maximum melt before the start of the big freeze.

Skookumchuck, the name of our RIB, was christened from Coast Salish Indian, meaning ‘strong and powerful water’, given to an awe-inspiring standing wave, part of the Sechelt Rapids on the Sunshine Coast BC.  She was a well-proven 7.5 m South Coast Scorpion RIB, powered by two Honda 90 hp four-stroke outboard engines, chosen for their good fuel economy, enhanced range, low noise and no fuel oil for the protection of the wilderness and our anticipated encounters with the marine life of Alaska. Our boat was equipped like the ‘ark’, everything onboard ‘two by two’. I was pleased that we managed a creditable 36 Kts at what must have been very close to 2 tons of RIB.

The number of Charts and Pilot Books required to cover the whole coastline was quite alarming. Charts in fathoms, feet, and metres intermingled to provide the coverage needed. £10 each and needing 200 put a different complexion on the matter. Cook and Vancouver had no charts when sailing in these waters but prudence ensured however that we carried a hefty library in addition to our electronic ‘C Maps’.

After an intensive week of re-fitting the boat, after its long journey from Liverpool by ship to Montreal and then a train across Canada, at  Zodiac Hurricane. The fitting out of our Mustang thermal survival suits in desert baking temperatures of +40° C, it was oh so refreshing to get on to the water. While British Columbia was busy establishing new temperature records and fighting major forest fires as a result, we were now handling the media interest in our little sojourn. The greatest satisfaction from this attention in the early hours of our mornings was that the BBC interviews were carried out on ‘Call Collects’.

August 1st and we departed at noon from Vancouver Maritime Museum. Our newly made friends from the Kitsilano Coast Guard station turned out in their magnificent cutter to wish us bon-voyage and a safe return. Out into English Bay and across Georgia Strait en-route south to Victoria via Porlier Pass. On our arrival on to Vancouver Island shores we just had to share a couple of beers in the still blistering heat during our final brief with Kevin Tomsett the Canadian Coast Guard RHIOT (Rigid Hull Inflatable Operator Training) supervisor.

With the snowcapped Olympic Mountains of Washington State towering above a foggy Juan De Fuca Strait in the background our evening arrival into Victoria Harbour was duly overseen by Cook from his quayside pedestal and Vancouver from his lofty perch atop the Parliament Buildings. A couple of days stop-over to meet with our logistical field agents, Jasco Research, who regaled and entertained us admirably, made our second departure difficult as we found this part of the coast idyllic.

Navigational Hazards – The skipper apart! A close study of the charts and frenzied references to the pilot guides quickly illustrates the change in buoyage system, a profusion of rocks, reefs and rapids along with up to a 25° compass variation, but only in those areas not subject to large magnetic anomalies! Icebergs and, oh yes, I nearly forgot to mention the occasional Tsunami. These were really no hard challenges to us real boaters, eh? That is until mankind had made his mark with driftwood and deadheads, tugs and tows.

Log Litter and Deadheads – now there’s something to be reckoned with and respected. Timber from broken logging booms is in profusion on the shoreline waiting for a rising tide to sweep them onto the ocean waves to languish on crests and rest in troughs later to become ‘deadheads’, waterlogged wood floating on or just below the surface, vertically! The Coastguard hunts and harpoons them with an orange dayglow flag but most are never found and remain to wait to catch the unsuspecting mariner. Our course was never straight, in parts of British Columbia, as we slalomed through debris, our pace slowed to walking during the daily ebb tides. Plus occasional meetings with tugs and their barges under tow stacked three storeys high with a half-mile line, dancing on the water, between.

Fishing- When the salmon run, the fishing trawls close off the waterway so as not one fish can escape capture. The whole experience is quite sobering, particularly when in one of those infamous ‘fog banks’ which stretch for 30 miles or more, which I forgot to mention to the crew. Sea fog engulfs the mountains in a cloak of cold, mixes with the cloud above and shows a glimmer of what the Alaskans call Blue Cloud, (the little bit of bright sky). These huge fog banks shroud the sea and land sometimes for up to a week.

We woke to a beautiful morning in which to explore Nooka Sound

Nootka Sound – Appearing in our sights in the early evening light was Nootka Sound as we stopped to take photographs from the same location that Webber illustrated the coastline of Cook’s first landfall in northwest America, 30 March 1778. We made our landfall at 7 pm to rest the night on the beach at Yuquot – Friendly Cove, 6 August 1998.

Surprising spectacular dawn brought with it a superb day for our exploration of Cook’s refuge during his ship’s re-fitting. We proceeded to Cook’s anchorage off Bligh Island, only a handful of miles away. Another excellent illustration by Webber, on display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, of the ships at anchor led us to confirm that we had entered what Cook had simply called, the cove. It was later named ‘Resolution Cove’ in honour of Cook’s vessel. A very unique feature of the cove is a rock that the explorers used on which to construct their observatories in order to obtain a more accurate fix and make astronomical observations.

Astronomers Rock, and standing atop this rock where Cook and his midshipmen worked and to look across the cove to the surrounding mountains after our voyage on the Pacific Ocean was one of our highlights of the expedition. During Cook’s stay contact was made with Maquinna (Ma-kwee-na), chief of Nootka and the natives at Yuquot who hosted, entertained and traded with their visitors. It was from these meetings that Cook named the cove on the shores of Yuquot, Friendly Cove, a name which is still used today. Cook’s explorers estimated some 2000 natives were at Yuquot, which was just one of the twenty-two settlements in the Sound. Interestingly when we arrived we found only two native Indians living in the village, left as guardians over their spiritual homeland.

The Mowachaht Band are now relocated at Gold River, a settlement 40 miles to the south-east, established around the pulp making industry. I was surprised to also learn that some of the clan are now living close to my homeland in Lancashire, England. Quite remarkable.

Vancouver, who was a young midshipman with Cook, was to visit Yuquot again 14 years later with instructions from the Admiralty for the final ratification of a treaty with the Spanish. These meetings would be the final resolution of a major international crisis which occurred at Nootka in 1789 when a zealous Spanish Commander seized three British vessels and brought Spain and Great Britain very close to global war. Vancouver and the Spanish Commandant Quadra established an agreement which ensured that British influence would prevail in this part of the world for almost the next two centuries.

The Spanish built a Church at Yuquot and I found what I thought to be an incredible irony. The Church was protecting what could be perceived as ‘pagan’ idols, hereditary totem poles erected on the high altar of the church. All Christian artefacts removed to the balcony at the back of the church and an enormous carving of the mythological Thunderbird soaring above the inner entrance to the church nave. With the harsh climate of the temperate rainforest, totems survive only 80 years or so, under the Cloak of Christianity a great deal longer!

An earlier walk along the shoreline of Friendly Cove turned up an unusual stone believed to be a fishing line weight used by the local native Indians. With some imagination, the stone looked as if it had a pair of eyes and reminded resident Terry Williams of her now bespectacled demure. Giving us the stone as a parting memento of this magical part of the world, Terry said they were “her eyes to watch over us”. What a kind and considerate parting gesture from where Cook found to be Friendly Cove in 1778.

I anticipated that with thousands of miles of coastline and millions of acres of temperate rainforest we would meet orca, whale and bear around every headland. Only in specific locations did we find the wildlife relatively abundant. A couple of locations boast around 100 resident Orca but on a coastline of many thousands of miles, these numbers pale into insignificance.

Man’s influence has no doubt had an impact, the southern Orca resident group easily accessed by visitors from Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria – it was alarming to see more than 50 commercial operators doing three or four trips a day to see the whales. Northern pods are generally viewed out of Telegraph Cove which manages Orca viewing in a more sedate operation, combining excellent education, along with a unique experience for the visitor as well as maintaining a natural refuge for the animals. Interestingly the southern population is showing a small decrease in numbers while the northern population a gradual increase.

I found it fascinating to learn that different Orca pods have different dialects when communicating with each other, and that behavioural patterns change when transient and resident Orca are in the same waters. Resident orcas generally live in the same location, within several hundred miles, while transients roam the oceans. Another important observation is that residents feed largely on fish with the profusion of salmon whilst transients on warm-blooded animals, including other whales, seals, penguins and sea lions.

Transient Orca Encounter! We believe we met a marauding transient, just once, when we stopped for lunch and were just bobbing on the water. A dorsal fin by a good estimate more than 2 metres high which indicated a mature male some 9 metres long. This magnificent animal bigger and heavier than us and our boat was just a boat length apart, I’m not sure he was just checking out our cheese sandwiches!

Humpback whales provided the magic, the rasp of their air blows echoed from the mountains and filled the air with their breath forming a mist. After quietly resting on the surface they huddled close to one another before, with a final flip of their tails, they sounded quietly to the depths below as if performing at the ballet. We only once witnessed a breach of a humpback but how impressive. Suddenly and surprisingly and perhaps too close for comfort but still a magnificent sight as 30 tons of whale leapt out of the water only to fall back in a cascade of foam.

You can’t visit British Columbia or south-east Alaska without being impressed by the predilection for salmon fishing. At Ketchikan and we witnessed in the creek Coho salmon, shoulder to shoulder against the current to reach their spawning grounds, only to find them at the same creek 12 days later in their death throes as is their natural destiny. So profuse are the salmon during their annual runs that on more than one occasion as they jumped, a net rather than a rod would have caught a tidy meal as they virtually bounced along the inflatable tubes.

Eagles, Sea Otters, Stella Sealions and Deer were all encountered, but regrettably no ‘Bigfoot’. Nothing, however, would surprise me in this largely untouched wilderness. The Park Services estimate that more than 20,000 insect species still await classification. I met some of them, not surprisingly as an irritant on two occasions. Once when persistent ‘black flys’ were intent on sharing my lunch and secondly towards the end of the expedition when a stealthy pack of mosquitos dined on my feet while I ate at the table. This encounter left my feet like squiggly balloons for the following three to four days.

To stand before the tidewater glaciers from Icy Strait, as Vancouver had done just over 200 years before, was to be quite exciting. We departed Juneau on a brighter day which permitted a glimpse of the huge Mendenhall Glacier in the mountain valley and headed north-west and eventually into Icy Strait. No ice, no glaciers? Vancouver was halted in his wake at the position we held. Only humpbacks, seen sounding now, provided suitable recompense for the demise of the huge ice walls once observed by the valiant crews.

Glacier Bay opened before us, one of the very few topographical features that were not witnessed by Vancouver and his crew. We had to voyage a further 1° north to stand before Alaskan glaciers. In over 200 years the tidewaters and weather patterns have claimed 60 nautical miles of the seaway. At the expedition’s most northerly position, we stood before towers of ice thousands of years old calving into the tidewater, which was very impressive. With cracks like gunshot and rumbles like thunder huge towers of ice tumbled into the inlet to form natural ice sculptures under the artistic embrace of “Salty Sam”.

The environment is strictly managed by the Park Services, staffed by researchers. Bartlett Cove, at the entrance to the bay, provides the only human contact. Park Ranger headquarters, a government dock and a visitors lodge. The lodge is the only accommodation and watering hole for everyone who visits the bay. After a day at the glaciers which was a 120 nautical mile voyage the return to the lodge’s warming log fire was greatly appreciated. One step outside however and the crisp air abruptly reminded us of our own vulnerability, as quite literally a bear hurried by under our very noses.

Glacier Bay is a nominated World Heritage site and the researchers have a living laboratory on their doorstep for secession studies, in all fields of science. From the cold glaciers and barren mountain tops, ice scarred and uncovered, to the fertile forests of the lower shore is a unique opportunity to see the development and establishment of species in only 200 years. We witnessed new life grasping the uncovered land, rivers and inlets and were pleased to see the animals of air, sea and land represented in their quest for survival. Most remarkable was the Ice Worm that lives within the thawing ice blocks of the great glaciers.

The Indian Tlingit’s retain their aboriginal rights to the bay and, as is their tradition, have carved out magnificent emblems into the living trees of the new forests around the land at Bartlett Cove.