Kayaking Glacier Bay National Park - A Trip Report

elemmac

AKA Lauren
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Location
The Granite State
**Long trip report...enjoy the read, or just scroll through the pictures...your choice :)**

Glacier Bay National Park, located in the southeast Alaskan Wilderness, is a pristine 3.3 million acres of exposed mountains, glacial giants, emerald-green rainforest, milky blue waters, and natural coastlines. It’s a place that inspires adventure, encourages exploration, and delivers powerful insight on the resiliency of the earth.

GETTING THERE:

Only accessible by air or sea, Glacier Bay sees well over 500,000 visitors every year. Most visitors only see the park from the deck of a cruise ship, never stepping foot on land. If cruises aren’t your thing, you have an option to enter the park from the city of Gustavus. A small community that resides on the outskirts of Glacier Bay National Park, Gustavus is home to approximately 500 residents. It has a small airstrip with daily flights to and from Juneau. Though Gustavus cannot be reached by any roads, it is connected to the highway. The Alaska Marine Highway. A ferry runs once a week between Juneau and Gustavus.

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Baggage claim at the Gustavus Airport

A single road connects the town of Gustavus to Bartlett Cove, the headquarters and only infrastructure in the park. The 10-mile road dead ends at the Visitor Information Station (VIS). Here you can find rangers to answer your questions about the park, acquire backcountry permits, and rent bear canisters to store food in the backcountry. A short walk away from the VIS is the Glacier Bay Lodge, a primitive campground, and two large docks (one public and one private).

Getting to Gustavus is a full day’s work, especially from the east coast. The morning started early with a 3:30am departure. Caught a bus to Boston Logan Airport, a flight to Seattle, flight to Juneau, and finally we flew into Gustavus. One more bus ride for the final stretch to the Lodge at Glacier Bay. 16 hours had passed since leaving home.

OUR PLAN:

It all started with a crazy idea…Then I had to talk my husband into it.

Allen was easily persuaded.

Glacier Bay is a Y-shaped inlet that extends north from the Icy Strait, at the north end of the Inside Passage of Alaska. The two branches of the “Y” are referred to as the East and West Arms. The East Arm offers a more remote experience as most of the inlet is closed off to motorized traffic. The West Arm tends to see more people, but with good reason. It is home to a high concentration of tidewater glaciers, allowing more opportunities to get close to these icy giants. Being that we wanted to see glaciers, camp next to them, and get know them on a personal level, we chose the West Arm.

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GPS Track:
Light Blue = Tour Boat Track
Other Colors = Kayak Track


The Park runs a tour boat that departs Bartlett Cove at 7:30am every day of the summer. The boat travels 65 miles “up bay”, all the way up the West Arm, through waters that were fully covered in ice only 250 years ago. A Park Ranger onboard provides commentary, informative programs, and helps spot wildlife in the vast landscape. The round-trip tour takes around 7-8 hours. For an even more personal experience, the tour boat offers drop-off service for those looking to fully immerse themselves in the wilderness of Glacier Bay. The tour vessel has two drop off locations daily. One on the east arm, and one on the west. The exact location changes halfway through the summer to minimize human impact on the delicate land. The locations are also changed year by year, or even in the middle of the season, as needed.

After some research, we planned on renting a double kayak from Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks located in Gustavus. Two-person kayaks are generally more stable, and thus less likely to flip than solos. In the unlikely event that you do flip, self-rescue is easier when you have a partner to work with.

Choosing a time to go was one of the hardest parts of planning. We planned based on the drop-off schedule of the tour boat, predicted tides, sunrise and sunset, and expected weather (May and June are the driest months, whereas September and October are the wettest). Lots of moving parts that were outside of our control. We then planned around our busy summer schedule; around work trips, weddings, and other commitments. We also needed to consider my parents vacation schedule, as they were the designated dog sitter. Lastly, once we picked our dates, we needed to make sure kayak rentals were available.

After all of that, our dates were set, on August 13th we would be dropped off in the West Arm at Blue Mouse Cove, and on August 17th we would be picked up 25 or so miles up the bay at Ptarmigan Beach.

DAY 1-2 BARTLETT COVE:

Watching the weather prior to this trip was a whirlwind of emotion. Southeast Alaska was experiencing a massive storm system that would drop upwards of 7 inches of rain throughout the region. The exact track of the storm was difficult to predict. The weather was going to be a crapshoot…hoping for the best, we planned for the worst.

We arrived in Bartlett Cove, on Wednesday afternoon, August 11th. As expected, it was raining.

Thankful we decided to book two nights in the lodge instead of in the campground, we got off the bus and checked into our room. Glacier Bay Lodge has a main building with a fireplace and sitting area, a dining room, and a gift shop on the main level. A staircase sits in the middle of the room leading to the Visitor Center upstairs. The individual rooms are accessed via wooden walkways detached from the main lodge. Two porcupines scrambled across the decking as we headed towards our home for the next 36 hours. We settled into our room which overlooked the water in Bartlett Cove. A couple seals swam by welcoming us into this remote part of the world. We had dinner at the Lodge then went back to our room and crashed…hard.

(Tip: The Alaska Tour Saver book offers a "book one night get one free" in the Glacier Bay Lodge...well worth the $50 coupon book)

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Our Room with a View

The next morning…as expected…it was rainy with thick cloud cover. We hopped over to the Lodge for breakfast then explored the area. Walking down the shoreline was beautiful, despite the dreary weather. We walked the Forest Trail, a 1.5-mile loop along the beach, around the primitive campground, and through the rainforest. Everything was so green, covered in moss, and had an enchanting feel to it.

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The Forest Trail at Bartlett Cove

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Looking out towards Glacier Bay from Bartlett Cove

Along the shoreline, a couple of informative signs described the edible vegetation around; blueberries, strawberries, and the coveted nagoonberry. After a short look around, we found a couple nagoonberries. Sometimes called Arctic Raspberries, they are yummy. The tartness of a raspberry mixed with the sweetness of a strawberry, this little fruit packs a big punch of flavor. The English word for “Nagoon” comes from the Tlingit word for jewel, “neigoon”. The Tlingit (pronounced “clink-it”) are the native people of Glacier Bay and have a fascinating history living off the land near present-day Bartlett Cove. Today’s Bartlett Cove honors and exhibits the history of the Tlingit culture and resiliency living in this ever-changing land.

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Nagoonberry Sign

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Huna Tribal House at Bartlett Cove

The rain started to pick up and we had things to get done before our early morning departure into the backcountry. We headed to the VIS to pick up a backcountry permit and bear canisters then back to the room to pack. After stuffing our gear into dry bags and food supply into bear canisters, we met Brittany from Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks at the covered picnic tables just outside the VIS. We discussed our plan with Brittany. She gave us invaluable information about the Bay, the weather system moving through, and changes we should make to our planned route. We were advised to paddle through Scidmore Bay rather than navigating the main corridor around the Gilbert Peninsula. The waters on the outside of the Peninsula are known to be rough, even in good weather. With the winds we were experiencing, the swells would be huge. Cliffs line the shore and there are no bailout points for miles. Paddling through Scidmore Bay had its own challenges, but overall would be a significantly safer route. At the north end of bay there’s a tidal cut that is only navigable a handful of times each summer. Based on the tide predictions, a short portage would be necessary.

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Close up of our itinerary:
Orange - Blue Mouse to Scidmore
Yellow - Scidmore to Reid
Blue - Reid to Lamplough
Red - Lamplough to Ptarmigan


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Sh*t's Getting Real. Bear Cans, Permit, and Tide Chart. Ready to Go!

The rain really started to come down by the time we ventured onto the dock. Brittany introduced us to the Easy Rider Expedition Beluga, an 18-foot tandem kayak, 32 inches wide, and 79 pounds in weight. This would be become our reliable companion for the next five days. We received a quick tutorial of how the rudder works, foot pedals are adjusted, and a quick demonstration of self-rescue.

After the kayak orientation, we went back to the Lodge for dinner. We were sat right next to the large panoramic windows overlooking the water. Two orcas swam right through the bay putting on a little show for the dining room. I took this as a good omen of what was to come.

DAY 3: TOUR BOAT, BLUE MOUSE, AND SCIDMORE BAY

We awoke early and to the sound of pouring rain outside of our open window. Lots of doubts came to mind…Are we going to be miserably wet for the next five days? Are we really doing this? In that weather? I once received advice, it’s better to be sent home by the weather, rather than never going at all. This trip was a perfect example of how true those words are. We had a backup plan. If we were miserable, we would head back to Blue Mouse Cove and catch the Day Boat for an early emergency pickup. Determined to have a good time (or at least some Type II fun), I stumbled out of bed and pulled on the clothes I laid out the night before. Layering up, I had camo leggings under my green work-wear rain bibs. A merino t-shirt, and long sleeve under my navy-blue rain jacket. Lastly, I pulled on my rubberized Xtratuf boots (an Alaskan staple) before heading out the door.

We ate a quick breakfast and headed to the dock to help load kayaks at 6:30am. While loading gear and kayaks we met the other crazies getting dropped off as well. There was a guided group with two guides and six guests, as well as two other guys on an unguided adventure. All of us had intentions of a similar journey, but in the end, we ended up with very different stories.

While on the tour boat, we saw puffins, sea lions, mountain goats, otters, seals, and many different birds that I don’t know names for. The thick cloud cover was lifting, and the weather was improving throughout the journey “up bay”.
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Accurately Named: Gloomy Knob

We approached the Margerie Glacier at the far end of the West Arm. The tour boat paused, a ¼ mile from the Margerie, and we sat in awe at the marvelous wall of ice that stood before us. We were lucky enough to see a huge chunk fall off the face as the glacier calved.

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Margerie Glacier with a Kittiwake Bird Flying Above

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Margerie Glacier Calving, Right in Front of Us

Continuing through the West Arm, we passed by the Lamplough Glacier, and the Reid Glacier. The tour boat followed the same path we would travel over the next 4 days, in the opposite direction.

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Along the Shoreline Heading Towards Blue Mouse Cove on the Day Boat

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Find the Bald Eagle ^

We reached Blue Mouse Cove just after 1:00pm, unloaded our gear and kayaks. And there we were, dropped off in the middle of nowhere with 10 strangers.

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Waving Goodbye to the Tour Boat

Allen and I loaded up our kayak with surprising efficiency, and lifted the heavy boat into the water (with not-so-surprising difficulty). We were the first ones to launch. Questioning our sanity, I climbed into the front seat and got situated. Allen pushed us off and started to situate himself. It was a rough start. Our boat got tossed around, we fought against the tide and battled the wind, but managed to stay upright. These were by far the largest waves I had ever kayaked through.

In order to get into Scidmore Bay we went through two small tidal cuts (low points that can only be navigated when the tide is high enough). After the first one, we were basking in the glory of now paddling WITH the tide and WITH the wind, a couple otters seemed to even be cheering us on, waving and splashing around. With this newfound high, we went a bit too far and missed our second cut. This resulted in an extra 20 minutes of paddling directly into a brick wall of wind, and headfirst into the tide rushing towards us. We were salmon swimming upstream. After what felt like eternity, we turned the corner into the Scidmore Bay. White caps speckled the water, but at least we were surfing the waves instead of fighting them. We saw the other group of two unguided paddlers and moved along at a similar pace. The group of 8 were yet to be seen.

Halfway through the bay I saw a fin pop out of the water. Was that a…dolphin? It was black but had the distinct look of a dolphin surfacing in the waves. There it was again! I called it out to Allen, did you see that!?!? It was a black dolphin! I think he had a moment of questioning the impact those waves had on my state of mind…then it resurfaced, and he saw it for himself. Two dolphin-like creatures* swimming along in front of us. So cool!

*Despite learning that they were harbor porpoises…we continued to call them black dolphins throughout our journey.

After nearly 3 hours of paddling, the end of Scidmore Bay was in view. We were just ahead of schedule. The tide wasn’t quite high enough to paddle all the way through. The four of us hung out for a bit to let the tide come in more and see if the guided group was going to make it. With four people lifting each boat, the portage was easy, even fully loaded. We floated the boats through the reeds for a hundred yards or so, while calling out “hey bear” on regular intervals. We received several warnings from park staff, Rangers and kayak guides that there had been a lot of bear activity along the shores of the cut. Floating out the other side into the main channel felt like a victory.

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Walking our boats through the reeds. Our two new friends, right behind us.

Just as we were reaching the end, talking about where to camp, the black bear of Scidmore Cut greeted us, stepping out of the bushes on the shoreline. We decided to continue on and not share the beach with the bear.

When reading through guidebooks and blogs, everyone said, “your boots will get filled with water at least once on your trip”…I was par for the course on Day 1. We managed a rocky, awkward, wet landing, did a quick sweep for bear signs and the four of us decided to call it home for the night. We had covered nearly 11 miles in 4 hours of paddling, and I was exhausted. Little did I know, my boots would remain wet for the next 2+ days. We set up tents, cooked up some grub, and called it a night.

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Campsite #1 - Scidmore Cove

DAY 4: SCIDMORE TO REID

After a chilly night where temps dipped into the 30s (?), I woke early to an unfamiliar sound outside of our tent. Listening to the sounds, and trying to figure out what it was, it occurred to me, WHALES! I found some warm clothes as fast as I could and slipped out of the tent. There were humpback whales hanging out in the cove, right off the shoreline coming up to the surface, and spouting water out of their blowholes. Glaciers create U-shaped valleys, so the water is deep right off the shore. This allows large whales to swim close to the shoreline. I watched them for a bit as they surfaced, spouted water into the air, and dove back down. The black flies finally drove me back into the tent for a little more rest.

Our paddling schedule is defined by the tides. You always want to be moving with it, rather than trying to paddle against it (exhibit A from yesterday). This meant we could have a leisurely morning, enjoy a cup of coffee (or 2), slowly pack up, and wait for the tide to turn around noon.

The water was calm as we set off heading further up bay. After the rough introduction to Glacier Bay, I welcomed the smooth, Blue-Koolaid colored waters and the comfortably cool 40-degree temperatures. As the clouds started to lift, every view seemed more magnificent than the last. Paddling at a respectable but leisurely rate, we reached Reid Glacier, covering 7.25 miles in under 3 hours. This is where we split off from our new friends. We headed into the Reid Inlet to find a good campsite with a glacial view. Our new friends continued further up bay, with hopes of having enough time to make it to the John’s Hopkins Glacier in the next couple days.

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Smooth, silky, blue waters

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One of many cliffsides that line the bay.

Our Reid campsite was magnificent. Panoramic views of the inlet with Reid Glacier, front and center. Fresh water was just a short walk away, and a nice flat sandy place for our tent, what more could we ask for? We had a relaxing evening, setting up camp, cooking dinner and just simply enjoying ourselves.

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Tent views from Campsite #2

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Reid Glacier

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Black Oyster Catchers in front of Reid Glacier. Keeping warm by tucking one foot up into their feathers.

The simplest tasks take so long to complete when you’re in bear country. Once you find a good campsite, you store your bear canisters 100 yards down the beach to keep the food smells away from your sleeping quarters. Then all cooking is done in the intertidal zone. The waves wash away any crumbs and smells left behind. If the tide is coming in, enough space between the waterline and your cooking location is necessary. Otherwise, you quickly find yourself in a race against the tide trying to finish dinner.

DAY 5: REID TO LAMPLOUGH

After another chilly night we got up and started our chore list for the morning, cook, clean dishes, filter water, pack up camp, and load up the boat. Just as we were finishing up breakfast, savoring the last sips of coffee, the sun crested above the slopes of the inlet. The warm rays felt amazing on my face. And maybe my boots would dry out after all!

We said goodbye to our beach campsite and continued west, even further up bay. The clouds continued to burn off into the early afternoon and after an hour of paddling we were under blue skies and a hot sun…my navy-blue rain jacket was not doing me any favors. We found a good-sized beach to pull over and remove some layers. Only later would we realize it was Ptarmigan Beach, where we would return for pick up two days later. Paddling on, we played a game of “what’s that cloud look like”, but with icebergs floating nearby. Spaceships, flamingo floats and whale-bergs all floated around us.

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View heading towards Johns Hopkins Inlet. An iceberg perched up on the rocks, trapped during low tide.

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More beautiful cliffsides line the water's edge

As we rounded the bend to the Lamplough Glacier we noticed a large group on the far side of the beach in front of the glacier, just little specks amongst the beached icebergs. A huge blue glacier beamed in the sun, a small stream flowed in the center, filling in the lagoon at the base of the glacier.

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Lamplough Glacier's lagoon filling in as the tide comes in


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Large Icebergs with the Fairweather Mountain Range in the Distance

Perched up on the cliff side was the perfect campsite. At first look, we both knew this was going to be our home for the night, but not without some serious effort. Enough space for two, maybe three, tents. We deemed the more sheltered location our tent site and the second, more exposed spot, our “porch”. We unloaded the kayak and carried it well above the waterline as the tide was still coming in. Slowly shuttling our gear to the perch above the glacier was no easy task, but the real work was getting the kayak well above the high tide line. The rock lined beach showed no indication of where high tide regularly fell. We decided ‘better safe than sorry’ and hoofed the boat up the rock ledges until we reached some small vegetation, tying it off on some large rocks.

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"One of the Best Campsites in the Park" - Guidebooks Everywhere

We set out into the field of icebergs to explore a bit. The ice chunks ranged from Volkswagen Buses down to basketball sized ‘bergs. The maze of ice brought on a child-like wonder, I was completely in awe with the experience. The way they sparkled in the sun was mesmerizing; I could have wandered through the sea of ice for hours. But the tide was coming in, the sun was getting low.

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Yours Truely, in Front of the Lamplough

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Massive landscapes everywhere...(husband for scale)

It was late afternoon and the glacial wind was picking up.

Dinner consisted of freeze-dried chili, mac and cheese, hot tea, and chocolate for dessert. We ate and watched as the tide came up and washed the beached icebergs out into the bay. What a spectacular way to end the day. The wind howled for the next hour or so, then like a light switch was flipped, it died off and left us with a calm perch up on the cliff side.

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Campsite #3

DAY 6: LAMPLOUGH TO PTARMIGAN

Waking early with the sun, I got up and simply enjoyed the scenery, losing track of time.

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The Lamplough Glacier in the Morning Glow

While basking in sunlight, a small cruise boat came into view with the unwelcomed hum of their motor. Thankful they didn’t disrupt our night, but really wishing they would leave, we made our way down the hillside for breakfast and coffee.

Determined to ignore the cruise boat, which was now all the way across the cove, we had a delicious breakfast of hot granola and coffee. Working through a second hot cup of coffee, we see the cruise boat’s Zodiac coming across the water filled with 10 or so guests. We’ve now got company. And seriously? They’re coming right at us. After a few jokes about their miserable attempt to land the Zodiac on the beach, and some apologies from them for blowing up our solitude, we reluctantly started to change our mindset. Their guide then asked if we had any allergies, let us know they were going back for one more group, and they’d bring us some snacks…maybe they weren’t so bad after all.

A much smoother landing the second time around. They emptied the boat with similar apologies for interrupting our breakfast, surprised comments on “you slept up there?!?”. The guide came over with a quart sized bag filled to the brim with bacon/cheddar biscuits, and a gallon sized Ziplock stuffed with cinnamon rolls. I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten that many carbs in one sitting. It was glorious. The tour headed off to hike a primitive trail above the glacier on the east side, and we headed back up to camp for some R&R before paddling.

A few hours had passed, and we started packing up camp. The Zodiac came back to pick up their guests, and hollered up to us "the Captain thought you might want a warm lunch". Grilled veggie wraps were on the menu! Amazing way to fuel up before paddling out.

Our friends that shared our first campsite landed on the beach not long after lunchtime. They had camped just around the corner for the past two nights on a beautiful beach, about a tenth of a mile long, named Mary’s Beach. Shortly after their landing, we were also reunited with the guided group that was dropped off with us. We listened to both of their stories of the past few days. The guided group got separated shortly after leaving Blue Mouse Cove and had to turn around. They stayed the night at the drop-off location and waited for the winds to calm down. They left Blue Mouse on Day 2, camping at Scidmore, then Reid, just one day behind us.

Both groups were planning on spending the next night at Mary’s. We opted for the longer, but still short, paddle back to Ptarmigan Beach. This would give us a leisurely morning before a 12:30pm pick up the next day.

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Paddling past Mary's Beach on our way to Ptarmigan

Arriving at Ptarmigan we had the entire half mile of beach to ourselves. A beautifully level stone plateau sits up well above the tidal waters. It’s a perfect perch for at least a dozen tents. The pebbled beach then gently slopes towards the bay. A few icebergs have floated up and are perched on the warm shore. A freshwater creek flows out of the mountains and into the bay on the eastern end. I can easily see why this is one of the most popular spots in the bay, and yet, we have it all to ourselves.

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Ptarmigan Beach

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Campsite #4

With the sun still high in the sky, we went for a quick swim in the glacial waters before setting up camp. A quick dip was all that I needed. The sun belting down warmed you up instantly after exiting the cold waters. Such a refreshing experience.

That night we feasted. A massive meal of Bibimbop from a local (local to us on the east coast) dehydrated meals company, Good to Go, and rounding it off with a backcountry apple cobbler dessert and hot chocolate. Drunk on delicious food, we stumbled our way into the tent, and reflected on what an incredible journey it had been thus far, knowing there was a lot more in store for us.

DAY 7: PTARMIGAN TO GUSTAVUS

Waking up to gently lapping waves, whale sounds off in the distance, and nothing else but silence, makes you smile ear to ear. Unfortunately, the silence didn’t last long. A massive cruise ship strutted up the bay. This boat dwarfed the cruise we previously saw near the Lamplough. You could hear the megaphone echoing from miles away, sounding like the teacher in Charlie Brown movies… “Wah wah wah wah. Wah wah.” We now understood the hatred of mega-sized cruise boats by locals. We were lucky enough that this was the first and only boat of that magnitude we saw in 5 days in Glacier Bay. In a normal non-pandemic year, two ginormous boats enter the bay daily, blasting their megaphones, interrupting the peaceful silence of the bay.

As the megaboat floated away, we were once again left alone and in silence.

Taking our time, we packed up everything except our tent. Lugged our gear to the pickup spot on the western end of the beach and piling it under our kayak to keep it out of the impending rain. Back to the tent, just in time for the rain to start. As the guided group and our two new friends arrived at the pickup spot, we broke down our wet tent and joined them, waiting for our ride back to civilization.

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Day Boat Pickup

We arrived back at the docks in Bartlett Cove, unloaded our kayaks and gear, said farewell to our new friends, cleaned out and rinsed our bear canisters, returned our backcountry permit with notes of where we camped and wildlife sightings, and mentally prepared ourselves for the next stop on our agenda, Gustavus and the Annie Mae Lodge.

A shuttle from the Annie Mae picked us up at the Glacier Bay Lodge. The shuttle driver was one of the owners of the Annie Mae; an older woman who had extensive knowledge of the history and the landscape of the area. I listened intently to every single word; I really tried to soak it all in, however, it was like drinking from a fire hose…so much knowledge was flowing that I could only take in so much. We got the full run down of brown bear migrations in the area, black bears, moose, wolf, and the forestation…old growth, new growth…really amazing history of how the area has bounced back from a time when everything was covered in thick glacial ice.

We settled into our room, took a much-needed shower, and went into the dining room for dinner. Dinner started out with the most amazing bread, followed by a delicious salad (you forget how good fresh vegetables are when you’re out in the backcountry). The main course consisted of fresh salmon smothered in lemon, capers and butter. A side of veggies and couscous to bring it all together. Amazing. Full to the brim, we retired to our room and slept soundly through the night.

DAY 8-9: GUSTAVUS TO JUNEAU

Waking the next morning, coffee and breakfast waited for us. We gorged on fresh fruit, blueberry muffins, “moose butter granola”, scrambled eggs, and the best bacon I had ever had…it was the perfect thickness, the perfect amount of salty, and cooked with the most perfect crispness. The sweetest part of the whole meal was that we didn’t need to walk a football field’s distance to get to the kitchen, no need to filter water from a stream for our coffee, it was all fresh rather than dehydrated, and we did it all without the company of mosquitos trying to make us their meal. Delightful!

The Annie Mae had already proven their dedication to hospitality, and it only went up from there. They provide shuttle service during your stay, would help book any tours and charters in town, pack a (delicious) bag lunch, and provide anything and everything that they realistically can.

We had dried out all our gear the night before. It looked like a bomb went off in our room. After breakfast we tidied up, packed up our belongings and checked out of the Annie Mae. Though, we still had a full day of adventures before departing on our 7:30pm flight to Juneau. Annie Mae let us store our large bags in the entryway as we went off to explore Gustavus.

“Downtown” Gustavus consists of an L-shaped building with a coffee shop, a gift shop, a pizza restaurant, and large bear statue centered in the front yard. Across the street is the only gas station in town, which has three functional, old-school gas pumps. The first holds stove oil, the second diesel, and third gasoline. A small market sits just around the corner. I’m not sure what my favorite part of Gustavus was; the charm of the simple life that people live, or the incredible hospitality and kindness that locals exhibit. Before arriving in Gustavus I was told that you wave at everyone, and everyone waves at you. They were not kidding. Every single car that passed on the road, person on a bike, residents walking their dog…they waved. It’s a simple gesture, but really made you feel like you were part of the community, even for a short time.

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Downtown Gustavus

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The Gustavus Dray, the only gas station in town

Despite the (still) gloomy weather, we went for a stroll on the Beach Trail, unsure on where we were going or what we would find. We made it out to the beach and kept walking along the shoreline. We could see the town dock off in the distance, and knew downtown was somewhere out that way. Just under a mile away from the dock, we found a river blocking our path. Oops, probably should have looked at a map. Figuring if we walk upstream along the shore, we’ll eventually find the road into town, and be able to cross at a bridge. Our off-trail expedition took us across little streams, through “suck mud” (the kind of mud that almost pulls your boots off with every step), and into tall grasses. We were making minimal headway. Allen was determined to flag down the next person with a boat and ask for a ferry ride across. We didn’t need to walk much longer before we saw a man across the river putting his boat in the water. Despite the boat being not much larger than my bathtub, the kind man gave us a lift. We thanked him for giving two foolish tourists a ride and continued on our journey.

Making it to downtown Gustavus around noon, we poked around the gift shop, got lunch at the pizza joint, milkshakes from the coffee shop, and slowly made our way back to the Annie Mae. We took the road in order to avoid the necessary ferry across the river.

We still had a few hours before our flight, so a little relaxation and reading in the living room of the Annie Mae was a nice way to unwind before travel. As we sat there, we caught wind of flights being cancelled throughout the day. Juneau was socked in, and Gustavus wasn’t looking too much better. With finger crossed we headed to the airport just in time for our flight to be officially cancelled. We rescheduled for a 2:30pm flight the next day, and turned our attention to our immediate plans…where to sleep. Being the last flight for the day, and lots of cancellations, vacancy in town was non-existent.

Continuing down the hospitality trend, the Annie Mae offered us a spot in their living room for the night. Being that we had our camping gear, and enjoy our privacy, we opted for a spot in the backyard instead. Most comfortable campsite of the trip! The luscious grass was a huge step up from the awkwardly shaped, rocky campsites in Glacier Bay. Plus, a real bathroom, warm shower in the morning, coffee that I didn’t need to filter water for, and another breakfast with the most amazing bacon.

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Annie Mae's resident horse checking out our tent in the morning

We took our time getting up on the morning, and tried to connect to WiFi to reschedule plans in Juneau. That’s when we got word that both morning flights had been cancelled. Time to entertain Plan B - The Ferry.

Unfortunately, everyone trying to leave town in the past 36 hours were still trying to leave town. The ferry was sold out online.

Our amazing hosts at Annie Mae let us know that if we get to the dock early, there’s a good chance of getting a walk-on ticket. So, fingers crossed again, we loaded up into the shuttle to head to the dock. We were early…real early. With plenty of time to eat lunch (one of those delicious bag lunches from the Annie Mae), watch the sea lions feast on fish, hang out, and enjoy the scenery. At least it wasn’t raining.

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Watching the sea lions feast at the ferry dock

We got tickets and loaded up. Upon finding a seat and exploring the upper deck, we felt like locals. We said hi to our two new friends from Glacier Bay, two brothers that we stayed up late with at the Annie Mae, another couple from the Annie Mae, a kayaker from the guided group we met, and a local worker on the Glacier Bay Tour Boat. We bonded with a few Boston Red Sox fans and saw a few others that we recognized from various parts of our journey thus far.

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Orcas from the ferry

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Quick stop in Hoonah

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Lighthouse outside of Juneau, and the Mendenhall Glacier in the background

Even though we left Gustavus, we didn’t leave the Alaskan hospitality. Our AirBnB host spoiled us with kindness. I had messaged him to ask if we could cancel our first night when our flight was cancelled. He replied, “unfortunately it’s too late to cancel, but I can hook you up with fresh halibut and salmon to throw in the grill when you get here”. Then proceeded to send photos of him on a boat with an abundance of fish laid out. Complete with captions, “catching your dinner”, and “I hope you’re hungry”.

The AirBnB was filled with all of the necessities for a couple days in Juneau, snacks, yogurts, oatmeal packets, coffee, creamer, crackers and cheese, Gatorade’s, juices, wine!….the list goes on. The deck was gorgeous, there were ducks in the pond, and the house was so unbelievably clean and organized. The only downside was that we only had one day there due to the flight cancellations.

DAY 10: JUNEAU

Making the most of the short time we had in Juneau, we went into full tourist mode. We saw the biggest attraction in Juneau, the Mendenhall Glacier and took a walk out to Nugget Falls. And after that…do what we do best, seek out the best food and drink in the city. We hit the key spots, Tracy’s Crab Shack and The Red Dog Saloon (complete with Duck Fart shots...Kalua, Bailey's, and Crowne...an Alaskan staple).

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The Mendenhall Glacier

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As noted "full blown tourist"

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Nugget Falls and the Mendenhall in the distance

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Red Dog Saloon, an old bar from the mining days of Juneau

We then branched out to a couple recommended breweries, Devil’s Club and Forbidden Peak. Devil’s Club definitely won my vote for most delicious beer of the trip. At Forbidden Peak we gorged on chicken wings, soft pretzels and of course delicious beer before heading back to BBQ some salmon dinner.

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Devil's Club Brewery

DAY 11: THAT'S ALL SHE WROTE

We caught an early morning flight to start the long journey home.
 
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dbostedo

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Awesome! Did you get any guidance on how close it was safe to approach the glaciers in case they calved?
 
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elemmac

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@dbostedo - You’re supposed to keep 1/4 mile between you and any tidewater glacier. Large calving events will create a wave, often called a calving tsunami…and you don’t want to be caught off guard in a little kayak. Also, keeping distance from large icebergs since they have a lot of mass under the water and they will roll over as they melt and transform.
 

Kyle

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Though I only saw the area from the deck of my cruise ship, the day we spent in Glacier Bay was one of the highlights of my life. I would love to get back and do what you did. Thanks for sharing.
 
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elemmac

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Though I only saw the area from the deck of my cruise ship, the day we spent in Glacier Bay was one of the highlights of my life. I would love to get back and do what you did. Thanks for sharing.
It’s really an amazing little piece of this world! And crazy how much you can see and learn just from cruising up on a boat. Definitely a highlight of my life as well.
 

socalgal

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Well, you have ruined me;). I have added another trip idea to the ever growing adventure list. Thanks for sharing!
 

Tricia

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This is an incredible Trip Report.
I featured it on the front page yesterday, but forgot to comment partly because it was so mesmerizing to read.
As for the glacier wandering, I know what you mean. When we did the guided tour hike on Matanuska Glacier I felt very small. I also felt like a kid learning new things.
 

Bad Bob

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Great adventure. Thanks for sharing it.
Glaciers are an amazing environment to hang out around. Nothing better to put in your cooler to keep the beer cold than glacial ice, it lasts for days (not the beer, the ice).
 
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elemmac

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Glaciers are an amazing environment to hang out around. Nothing better to put in your cooler to keep the beer cold than glacial ice, it lasts for days (not the beer, the ice).
It's amazing how long glacial ice lasts! Even sitting out on a hot rocky beach...spends the whole day chillin' there.

Our beverage of choice was bourbon...Much easier to pack a flask than a 6-pack in a bear canister. Ha! Plus, when it was cold out, warm tea and a splash of whiskey made an amazing backcountry hot toddy.
 

Seldomski

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Great pictures! Went to AK on a cruise ship a few years ago. The views of the overcast sky are like none I have ever seen. There is something beautiful and clean about that steel grey sky and the way the sunlight filters through it.
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elemmac

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Great pictures! Went to AK on a cruise ship a few years ago. The views of the overcast sky are like none I have ever seen. There is something beautiful and clean about that steel grey sky and the way the sunlight filters through it.
Gorgeous! I never thought I would take so many pictures of grey skies. It shows the beauty of the region in a different light which is just as incredible as sun soaked mountains. To quote the guide book I noted above, who quoted John Muir: "July 27, 1890. All....day it rained. The mountains were smothered in dull-colored mist and fog, the great glacier looming through the gloomy gray fog fringes with wonderful effect. It is bad weather for exploring, but delightful nevertheless, making all the strange, mysterious region yet stranger and more mysterious." - Written at the face of the Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay.
 
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elemmac

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Feeding the grey skies trend...here's a few extras from the trip archives:

Margerie Glacier looking out towards the Grand Pacific Glacier (can barely be seen on the far right of this photo):

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Close up of Margerie's layers in the fog:

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Mt. Cooper looking majestic AF. It's 6780 foot summit, rising out of the inlet, glowing in the sun. Lamplough glacier sits at it's base:

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Reid Inlet with dramatic clouds and shadows (taken from the tour boat):

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Some mountain just outside of Juneau that was looking pretty (taken from the ferry):

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RJS

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Your campsite looking over at Lamplough Glacier is to die for :golfclap:. Looks like it was an amazing trip.
 

RJS

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@elemmac (or anyone else who has toured Glacier Bay) I have a question: if someone was visiting Juneau for a few days, would it be worth taking a day or so to fly to Gustavus just for the one day National Park cruise of Glacier Bay? I am tentatively planning a long weekend trip to Juneau for next year, I have a couple of cool hiking/backpacking trips planned for near Juneau. But I am unsure if it's worth taking a day or so of that trip to also do the boat cruise of Glacier Bay, or if Glacier Bay truly deserves multiple days to really appreciate :).
 
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elemmac

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@elemmac (or anyone else who has toured Glacier Bay) I have a question: if someone was visiting Juneau for a few days, would it be worth taking a day or so to fly to Gustavus just for the one day National Park cruise of Glacier Bay? I am tentatively planning a long weekend trip to Juneau for next year, I have a couple of cool hiking/backpacking trips planned for near Juneau. But I am unsure if it's worth taking a day or so of that trip to also do the boat cruise of Glacier Bay, or if Glacier Bay truly deserves multiple days to really appreciate :).
The boat tour is definitely the highlight of Glacier Bay in my opinion (outside of getting into the backcountry with a kayak). I think you could very easily do a one-night trip from Juneau.

You'll either fly with Alaska Airlines that makes one trip a day, or Alaska Seaplanes who have about 5 flights a day. From Juneau, it's only about a 20 minute flight. From the airport there's a Lodge shuttle, if you're staying there. Or taxis are available otherwise. Most people arrive in Gustavus the afternoon/evening before they go out on the boat, stay in the lodge or the campground, check out early, take the tour, then get shuttled to the airport for a late afternoon flight (the Lodge will hold any bags for you if you're staying there, or the National Park service also has a gear cache).

If you have time in the afternoon, you can explore Bartlett Cove and the few established trails, but really there's not a ton around there. It's gorgeous, but you don't need a ton of time to feel like you've seen it.

I'd say it really all depends on how much time you have, and your appetite for risk when travelling...as you can see from my trip, flexibility is helpful if weather doesn't want to cooperate.

There are also tons of glacier tours up the Tracy Arm, whale watching. or helicopter tours that land on the ice field, that are supposed to be amazing out of Juneau...so if you chose not to take the gamble with Glacier Bay.
 
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