Editor’s note: This story is the second in a two-part travel series by Dr. Robert Burke, a longtime Central Texas pediatrician who is sharing his adventures with his wife, Bonnie, along the west coast of Canada and Alaska.
Our expedition to Alaska from Seattle onboard the National Geographic Sea Bird provided us with breathtaking vast wilderness landscapes and sightings of wildlife, as we explored remote bays and inlets of the famed Northwest Passage.
Rainfall intermittently added to the ambiance of our passage, but it did not dampen our kayaking or boating activities and spotting of wildlife including humpback whales, bald eagles, sandhill cranes, other birds, harbor seals, and sea otters.
Along the Jackson Narrows intertidal zone we marveled at the numerous sea stars and urchins along the lichen and barnacle covered rocks as we kayaked during low tide. On Princess Royal Island we hiked in the Great Bear Rainforest up to the lake above Butedale, home of the Spirit Bear (a white brown bear). I reported previously on our experiences in Haida Gwaii. Before re-entering the USA from British Columbia, we enjoyed passing through misty fjords with snow-capped forested mountains, beautiful waterfalls and estuaries.
The “Yosemite of the north”, Misty Fjords National Monument, was breathtaking in its beauty with half-mile high granite cliffs and waterfalls. We enjoyed an unusually sunny day there at high tide (18 feet!), noting lines of spruce pollen on the water throughout Rudyard Bay and sighting brown bears eating sedge along the shores. Passing through Clarence Straight, we were entertained by some humpback whales and some orcas.
At a small fishing village, Petersburg, we hiked on Kupreanof Island to a muskeg bog, ate fresh Dungeness crab, and took a photographic walking tour of this picturesque town, meeting some very friendly folks.
Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness was majestic. Our zodiac boating among ice floes beneath sheer granite cliffs with waterfalls and snow-capped mountains of sitka forests, on a clear and cool day, while breathing the fresh air, rewarded our senses incredibly. Spotting a cinnamon-colored black bear playing and foraging with another black bear re-affirmed that we were in Alaska.
After thinking that this passage through Alaska could not be more beautiful, we arrived the next morning at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to discover one of the most and last pristine wildernesses on Earth.
To keep it pristine, entrances to the park can only be by boats of limited size and number, and they must be accompanied by a forest ranger and native Tlingit cultural interpreter on board. Both serve as naturalists, guides, and historical educators.
Glaciers are of several types including tidewater, hanging, valley, and mountain. The bluest, biggest, and most resilient are the tidewater glaciers. Currently 95 percent of the world’s glaciers are receding due to global warming. In the past 250 years, the tidewater glaciers here receded from the entrance to 65 miles inland! We sailed that distance to the glaciers, admiring them and the glacier carved fjord and wildlife along the way. Unfortunately, rising water temperatures have almost eliminated humpback whales from this area, by decreasing plankton, small fish, krill and other nutrients upon which they rely.
However, around South Marble Island we saw hundreds of nesting birds including eagles, tufted puffins, murres, marbled murrelets, and other birds. There were also colonies of stellar sea lions and many sea otters. At a safe distance from the glaciers which were a mile across and almost 800 feet high, we witnessed the roar and majesty of “calving” (when ice breaks from a glacier).
Back at Bartlett Cove, our entrance point, we hiked through a boggy forest trail past a Tlingit “Big House” and a display of the skeleton of a pregnant whale named “Snow”, which had been killed by a cruise ship.
Chichagof Island and the Inian Islands are all part of the protected northern end of the Inside Passage, adjacent to the Glacier Bay National Park. On Chichagof we hiked along a bear trail, evidenced by paw prints, recent scat, routing of skunk cabbage, and claw marks with hair embedded on some trees.
Our naturalist discussed findings and flora in the forest, as well as safety when encountering bears. Near Fox Creek which normally is full of salmon later in the year, we indeed encountered a grizzly bear that came within 40 feet of us, but then continued on his way! Fortunately, we had been alerted to his approach by observers from our nearby ship that also sent a zodiac boat to remove another part of our group from danger.
Our excitement continued throughout the day. We kayaked around Pavlof harbor in Freshwater Bay, finding sea stars, sea cucumbers, sea anemones, and mussels.
Zodiac boat cruising along the Inian islands brought us in view of an island that literally had hundreds of nesting bald eagles and their juveniles, some busily fishing. Sharing the island were colonies of stellar sea lions, some sunning on the rocks with others playfully sliding into the frigid waters and some curiously swimming to our boats. En route to the ship, an occasional sea otter would float by on its back with head raised and forelegs relax-fully crossed on its chest.
This remarkable journey ended as we sailed to greet the sunrise at Sitka. We disembarked there and visited the raptor rescue center before flying back to Seattle.
That flight provided incredibly clear aerial views of the mountains and wilderness we had just explored. More importantly, it gave us time to reflect upon the consequences of global warming, the interconnectedness of our ecosystems, and how we should continue to actively protect them.