Glacier Bay National Park, at the northern edge of southeast Alaska, is a capstone destination for many cruisers. We spent 9 days there in late May / early June and had pretty much the worst weather luck you could possibly have. Near constant rain every day, cold, fog, dense clouds obscuring the views, low visibility and little wind (so the sailing was usually poor). And yet, it was still awe inspiring. That kind of tells you how special of a place Glacier Bay is.
It’s the most alive place we’ve ever been. Much like the rest of Alaska, but more. Wildlife that would be a rare sighting in other places is an everyday occurrence here. We saw sea otters and humpbacks pretty much every day, and orcas on several days. Everyday was different, and seeing first-hand the uniqueness of this area made it clear why it’s protected.
We can only imagine what it would be like in sunny weather. Weather impacts perception of a cruising destination immensely. We learned that early in our cruising learning curve when we went to Princess Louisa Inlet and were thoroughly underwhelmed by a lot of motoring and poor views – the mountains were obscured by low cloud cover and rain the entire time. It’s possible to be passing towering mountains and have it look about the same as Tacoma Narrows on a foggy day – with low cloud cover you’d never know there are 2000 foot cliffs and 8000 foot peaks around you.
Glacier Bay was different though. Despite terrible weather, it was still worth it. In fact, the adversity of the weather made us appreciate it all the more in the brief moments when the mountains came out.
Permits and Timing
After June 1st, a permit is required and the max length is 7 days. You’re allowed to hold two permits at a time, so in theory you could get two back-to-back for a 14-day visit. Our strategy was to go at the end of May, before permits are required, getting a few “free” days to make our seven day June 1-7 permit into up to a 10 day visit.
We could easily spend 2-4 weeks here (4 only if the weather were better!) – there are many places to explore, and we moved quite slowly since we were trying to sail (some days) and the weather was bad (so you may want a few weather days to wait for better conditions). In my opinion, 7 days is barely enough time. Many tour boats and charters come in and do a quick run up to the bucket list glaciers (including cruise ships – some of the small ones are already back), but these tourists are not getting a true sense of Glacier Bay. It’s only in taking the time to explore that you can really appreciate its scale and diversity. (Glacier Bay National Park is about the same size as the state of Connecticut, 3.3 million acres.)
Planning a trip to Glacier Bay isn’t simple. Since permits are required after June 1, you can’t just pick and choose your weather window based on a favorable sunny forecast 1-2 days in advance. Although they do reserve some “walk-up” permits, you still would need to be positioned nearby (ex, in Hoonah) to get there quickly when the favorable forecast arrives, and that could involve weeks of waiting (it’s been over a month since we’ve had more than one day of sun in the forecast).
It’s likely that July or August are better bets – those are the more popular months. But we’ve heard a lot that April, May and June can be the driest months in southeast Alaska (not this year though! May had double the usual amount of rain and was the second wettest on record for Juneau!). And we were nearby in late May / early June, so decided to go for it. Since weather forecasting isn’t very accurate past 3-5 days and we were planning to spend 7+ days there, you kind of just roll your dice and go with it. No matter what, we would have some rain, and hopefully some sun.
In early June, there was still snow on the ground at sea level in Glacier Bay, which is something we haven’t seen anywhere else in southeast Alaska this late in the season (most other places the snow at sea level melted out by mid-May). It meant that melt water runoff from waterfalls, cascades and streams was flowing very fast, and made our photos look very different from ones we’ve seen from July/August (gulleys and valleys that are dry then were snow filled during our visit).
Unfortunately the sailing in Glacier Bay was pretty bad. Most days had no wind or very light wind (4-6 kts) and only two days had wind over 7 kts (we had some great sailing those 2 days, in 10-14 upwind and 15-20 downwind). We sailed in anything over 4 kts, which meant we motored about 70-80% of the time in Glacier Bay.
We had high hopes for being able to sail here because Marilyn Johnson, author of the “Taken By the Wind” book that we use as a resource, had been able to sail here. I’m not sure our stay was typical. I’m sure there can be strong wind in Glacier Bay at times, but it seems the rainy, cloudy weather minimized the inflow / outflow patterns you’d normally get. When no land warming happens (because the sun is never out), you don’t get the pressure differentials that cause glacial inlets to outflow or inflow.
The wind forecasting was also very difficult. NOAA forecasts often said SE 15 or N 10 but the actual wind we found was less than half that (6-8 kts in the SE 15 forecast, and N 2-4 in the N 10). Even in SE 20 we had 0-2 kts. The GRIB models (ECMWF) were a bit better, though still difficult to interpret. We didn’t have cellular or VHF reception in much of the bay, so were using our Iridium Go to download weather.
The lack of sailing was particularly disappointing because we have mixed feelings on the dilemma of burning fossil fuels to visit glaciers that are melting (in some cases). It feels wrong (although in the grand scheme of things isn’t the real issue – our engine burns less fuel than your average truck uses driving to Costco, and is nothing compared to the cruise ships that come in here normally).
Dodging Bergie Bits
Going up the west arm towards Reid Inlet was our first experience in dodging bergie bits. We’ve dodged small house-sized icebergs before (near Petersburg and Tracy Arm) but that’s actually a lot easier than bergie bits. Bergie bits are small broken off chunks of ice and in some areas we were faced with a sea filled with them. Ranging from cantaloupe sized, to watermelon, to refrigerator sized and a few the size of small cars.
It’s challenging to navigate through a field of these when they’re closely spaced. Mainly because they’re difficult to see. Some of the small ones are hard to spot until you’re nearly on top of them. While a cantaloupe sized one wouldn’t do damage to our boat, we still don’t want to risk it hitting the propeller (which could do serious damage). And some of the ones that seemed to be quite small – good cocktail ice – actually turned out to be watermelon sized when we got closer, since a lot of the ice rests under water.
Navigating through the bergie bit fields in cold spitting rain meant we had to stick our heads out from the protection of the cockpit’s dodger (which was too coated in rain to be able to see well). Our soaked faces got cold quickly and we had to shield our eyes from the pelting rain. This is one time we were jealous of motor boats with their luxurious heated cockpits and windshield wipers. How much easier it would be to explore Glacier Bay in a posh motorboat!
There’s a ton of wildlife in Glacier Bay. We saw so many sea otters, brown bears (and a couple black bears), humpbacks, orcas, and bird life.
One day we decided to go for a short hike onshore a small island of our Russell Passage anchorage. As we walked across rocks, cresting a blind spot along a small ridge, we found a massive grizzly bear lounging on a boulder only 100 – 150 feet away. We had been talking loudly, standard practice to avoid surprising a bear, but he hadn’t spotted us yet. He was sniffing the air though, likely knowing something was nearby.
Since he hadn’t noticed us we slowly retreated from view and back to our dinghy. It was a surreal moment suddenly coming so close to a 500+ lb brown bear, sprawled out across a rock above us. Clearly he was king of that island, enjoying the views in a rare moment of sun.
We were bear prepared (horn + bear spray) but it was a good reminder to never get lazy about that when in bear country. Usually we can avoid getting anywhere near a bear, spotting them at least a quarter mile away, but this was one time where the encounter was much closer than comfortable!
In Shag Cove in Geikie Inlet, we had three humpbacks come into our anchorage and surface all around our boat, only 100 feet away. Later that evening we could hear them coming back by the sound of their calls echoing through our hull. As the calls grew stronger, an eerie sound kind of like a loon, we looked out to see them bubble netting just across from us!
We’re heading back to Hoonah to reprovision and dry out the boat a bit more (our diesel heater helps, but it can’t keep all the moisture at bay when it’s raining every day and the water is nearly ice cold). Counting the pre-trip staging in Hoonah (3-4 days) and post-trip staging, our Glacier Bay visit took over 2 weeks. It’s a big effort to go to Glacier Bay on your own boat, but worth it.
Next we’ll be heading south in Chatham Strait, exploring the east side of Chichagof and Baranof islands for up to a month.