On many Alaskan cruises, the first stop out of Juneau is Glacier Bay National Park -- for most passengers, an itinerary highlight. Because of the pristine and precious nature of this place, only a relatively few ships are allowed to visit, and they are carefully regulated. On our cruise with American Safari Cruises, we were joined by an enthusiastic ranger from the park lodge at the mouth of the bay. Then we sailed up a strait speckled with tiny icebergs until we came face-to-face with a tongue of the Grand Pacific Glacier.
Captain George Vancouver sailed by Glacier Bay back in 1794, when it was almost entirely covered by ice. Since then, the busy glacier retreated, leaving a bay that's currently 60 miles long. Whether they're retreating because of global warming or just going through their normal life cycle, glaciers are slow-moving rivers of ice, which break off in small bits and crash into the sea when they reach the end of their slow journey. A calving glacier loses six to eight feet of ice each day. Considering that the sloughing face of the glacier is about 250 feet tall and a mile or so wide, that's a lot of baby icebergs.
Scientists figure that the ice that finally tumbles into the sea is over two hundred years old. That means rain that fell on the day Captain Vancouver dropped his anchor here could actually be the calving ice visitors see from their ships today.
Our small cruise ship has a stern designed for fun. A landing ramp lowers to the transom, providing a convenient and comfortable launch pad for kayaks and paddleboards. With the help of a hardworking crew, you simply put on your life vest, sit in the kayak and clip on your "skirt." They push you into the water -- like a new ship sliding down its dry dock after the champagne crashes on its maiden voyage.
Whether on a small-boat tour, or even closer to the water in a kayak, when exploring desolate little bays and inlets, sea lions are a constant presence. From a distance, they look at first like floating bowling balls. As you get closer, hearing their snorting as they come up for air and seeing their little doggy-boy faces curiously checking you out, you realize they're sea lions.
While kayaks get you away from the ship and very close to the sea life, stand-up paddleboards take things one step further. My first time on a paddleboard was over Alaskan waters -- and a polar bear I'm not. I was nervous. A paddleboard is an oversized surfboard that you kneel on, paddle a bit to get some momentum and then gingerly stand up on. While I was filled with anxiety until I actually did it, as long as you don't overthink it, paddleboarding is not hard. And once up and gliding across the bay, you gain confidence. For me, the reward came when I got into shallow waters. With a higher view of underwater sights (like Dungeness crab, pincers up and ready for action), this beats a kayak.
In Freshwater Bay, we spent a morning exploring. Several guides took small groups out in kayaks or on small skiffs. They were in radio contact, because when nature provides some action, they all want to be there. Word came that a bear was fishing at the waterfall at the head of Pavlof Harbor.
Paddling determinedly yet silently, we approached the waterfall. The scene was like an old-school museum tableau. It felt utopian: waterfall below mighty snow-spotted mountain; salmon leaping up falls, getting enough air for three tail wags; sun glancing off ripe brown seaweed; a family of duck-like mergansers in the foreground; berry bushes and crushed grass on the banks. And there, to the side of the churning waterfall, was a brown bear trolling for salmon. Looking wary, then still, then suddenly jerking into action, he made his catch. While young and not terribly graceful, he was good. He'd stomp on the salmon, pin it to the rock with his paw, bend down, and bite its head. Then, with his meal thrashing in the grip of his mouth, the bear lumbered to a sunny perch where, like a kid savoring the only Fudgsicle, he'd enjoy a fresh salmon picnic.