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Section 5: Glacier Bay National Park

Where we left off in Juneau on July 5 2023, we were in the middle a bit of a nightmare scenario. Our food drop had been sent back to Vancouver by UPS, forcing us to spend hundreds of dollars at Costco to resupply for the next 40ish days.

A week full of vistas in Glacier Bay National Park

After our Costco blitz, we spent an afternoon reorganizing and packing food into USPS Prepaid boxes, to ship food ahead to Post Offices in Gustavus, Yakutat, and Pelican via General Delivery, a trick we'd learned about from our friend Ken. This day was a bit of a whirlwind, with me bound in a Cafe writing blog posts, doing laundry, and charging all our gear while Nathan packed and mailed the food we'd organized. Thankfully, we got back to the campsite with enough time to clean and return our Turo (thank you Amber!). We invited some friends over for snacks, Antarctic guide & woman of many talents Jensina as well as Fiona -- who we'd met both at UPS and by chance while watching the fireworks. It was nice to relax with some new friends and learn a little bit about the local community. We also now think we know the difference between a Bight and a Bay, thanks to Fiona. We even met a cool couple in their 60s from Quebec who'd motorcycled here, via the Dempster Highway & Arctic ocean.

A great crew for snacks and a neature walk in Juneau

Thankful to have sorted out our food and for great weather in Icy Strait, we left Juneau on July 6th. We were hoping to stay at Clover Island Cabin, but it was unfortunately booked. When we arrived, we asked the family staying there permission to camp nearby, and they graciously obliged. They were a really nice family of 5th generation Juneauites, and the two young kids were really excited to hear about the trip and share their knowledge about fishing and the best places nearby for me to hammock. We traded stickers for s'mores and went on our way the following day to our next campground in some islands at the intersection of Icy Strait & Excursion Inlet. It was lovely to spend time with young kids, especially these two gems!

And then things started to go downhill, again.

We lugged around a bottle of bourbon to surprise Ken with on our last paddle of the trip together. Surprisingly good.

We were planning on entering Glacier Bay National Park on July 9th. The forecast called for building winds, and we got stuck in them. As we transited through the channel on the north side of Pleasant Island, those winds built. We were paddling hard and barely moving anywhere, and at points felt like we were moving backwards. When we arrived at the Gustavus dock, 13 NM short of our intended destination, we called it. We dragged our boats up on the beach, and called Judy.

The Gustavus beach is a long carry. Judy advised landing at a high tide, and we now we know why

Judy is Jim-from-Baranoff-Hotsprings' sister. Jim put us in touch with her as she was a kayak guide in Gustavus for 25 years, and has walked significant stretches of the Alaskan Gulf Coastline that we were planning on paddling. And oh boy did she save us. After we hauled our boats up a heinously long beach carry, Judy came down to the dock, picked us and our gear up and drove us to her house. We met her husband, Greg, and then drove us over to the post office to pick up the food we'd mailed from Juneau, and then to the Glacier Bay National Park Visitor Center ("The Vis") so we could do our mandatory park orientation.

While we were in The Vis, Leah from Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks showed up, and offered to pick up our boats from the dock and move us to the park, preventing us from missing out on 2 days of paddling due to wind. An incredibly huge help.

After our orientation at The Vis, where we learned about the indigenous, natural, and settler histories of the area, we rocketed back to Judy's for a very tasty dinner with Salmon, Rice, and Sea Asparagus. We hustled through dinner so we could attend a talk at the local library from Dr. Arlene Blum. Someone whose name I didn't know, but I probably should given that I regularly use resources from the Green Science Policy Institute, of which Dr. Blum is Founder & Executive Director. Turns out she's also a pioneering mountaineer. A total surprise to have a talk like this in Gustavus, our bad luck with the weather had quickly turned into very good luck.

One of many tasty meals fed to us by Judy & Greg

The following morning, we had breakfast with Judy, Greg, & Kathy (Greg's daughter). This is an adventurous bunch, with stories of walking the outside coast of Alaska, spending winter months camped in the backcountry observing wildlife, and knowledge of clever safe-through-bad-weather routes around dangerous places like Cape Spencer. Judy, in her 80s, had solo paddled to Pleasant Island, harvested sea asparagus, spent a night, and paddled back. I want to be like that. They were a wealth of knowledge & stories, and we spent the morning soaking up all we could. We had some great tips for Glacier Bay National Park, as well as the rest of our Journey to Yakutat.

After breakfast of Greg's homemilled wheat and homemade sourdough pancakes on July 10th, we headed back to the docks to organize our gear and get ready for our pickup from Leah. It ended up being a late day, we only launched at around 4pm. Though it was a little windy, we decided to round the south side of Young Island and setup camp at Strawberry Island. And so the adventure in Glacier Bay National Park began.

The next week was spent with my jaw on the floor.

Paddling through Glacier Bay National Park is probably the closest any of us will get to experiencing time travel. It may sound far fetched, but hear me out.

The Huna Tlingit people inhabited the region now known as Glacier Bay National Park for thousands of years, prior to the "Little Ice Age" that began in the 1600s years ago. This period of glaciation forced them from their homeland. The park was fully glaciated until the mid-1700s, but by the 1900s there were large water filled fjords left behind as the glaciers receded. The National Park Service has a great explanation of the Glacial history. Over a period of 300 years, the area went from a thriving ecosystem with human inhabitants, to ice, and back to a thriving ecosystem. The glaciers are still receding, and this ecological evolution is still on going.

As Glaciers recede, they erode rock and constantly deposit sediment, everything from micrometer Glacial Flour to meter sized boulders, while carving kilometers long valleys into the terrain. It's in these barren rock scapes that life begins to take hold.

The otherworldly landscape at Johns Hopkins is like looking back in time

The closest we got to the beginning of time was John's Hopkins Glacier. The land around here is dominated by >1000m mountains, with sharp, exposed rock and recent land slides. There's very little greenery, and what is there is mostly short shrubs. While there are planktons that attract seabirds, seals that shelter here from predators, and light shrubbery patched on the rock, it's mostly barren rock. Even the rivers haven't matured, bouncing their way down cliffs rather than cutting through river valleys. Being here feels like being on another planet, it's absolutely surreal.

The view from on top of Grand Pacific Glacier, looking up Tarr Inlet. Trees, shrubs, and small plants on the glacial till

A ~20NM paddle away lies Marjorie & Grand Pacific Glaciers. The shrubs are thicker, there are flowers, and even some trees. The rivers that run around these glaciers run with fish, attracting grizzly bears. These rivers are still full of sand-like sediments, indicating they haven't been running long enough to wash these fines into the ocean, which they eventually will. A step forward in geological and natural time, by paddling for a day. Moving through space time.

The rest of the park, outside of the inlets dominated by glaciers and recently carved rock, is teeming with life. Thick forests, with beach facing fronts impossibly thick. With trees 100ft tall. Full of apex predators like Grizzly Bears, Wolves, and Eagles, and the food web necessary to support those animals. Moose. Jumping fish. Berries. Bugs! So many freaking bugs! And whales -- orcas and humpbacks -- and sealions. We were fortunate to only see signs of Grizzlies and Moose --- scat, prints, and beds. But we saw the rest ourselves. From wolves so close you could see their eyes, to humpbacks breaching just a few hundred feet offshore, to mountain goats napping in the shade below the high tide line during a low tide.

Paddling through the park, you get to see how landscapes are formed and how life takes hold, processes that take 100s of years available for you to paddle through in 10s of miles. It's like time travel.

Our paddling was punctuated with a few fun adventures. At Grand Pacific Glacier, we tried (and failed) to cross the Canadian border. We were stymied by a glacier covered in glacial till that I was just not comfortable crossing. We hiked Gloomy Knob, as recommended by Kathy, and got a beautiful view of the park from 400m high. And sore legs. We saw Ken twice, and split some -- surprisingly good Kirkland brand -- bourbon we'd picked up to share from Costco. And, of course, we also almost got run over by a cruise ship.

Nathan paddling infront of the massive Marjorie Glacier

We returned to The Vis on July 16th and were greeted by Leah, who again kindly trucked our kayaks back into town. We spent the afternoon working on our boats and gear in her beautiful shop, giving it all some much needed love.

Our drysuits have been performing admirably well, given the number of hours of use & abuse we've put them through. Maintaining, breaking, and fixing your gear is part of a big trip. And life.

Judy & Greg invited us over for dinner again, and we gratefully obliged with brownies to share. We swapped stories, learned a lot about how the places we'd been to changed in their life times. Our campsite at Marjorie Glacier was still glaciated when Judy was last there 15 years ago. They're receding fast.

We slowly made our way back to Leah's shop, where we worked on our boats and finally met Jeff. Jeff is the first person we had met that paddled the outside coast who was willing to sit down and give us some information. He had some great advice on camp sites and what to expect in terms of weather windows. We're eternally grateful to Jeff for this information, and sharing his stories.

Jeff giving us the goods on paddling to Lituya Bay

The rest of the evening and following was dominated by boat and gear repair. Leah loaded us back to The Vis, where we enjoyed our final trip dinner with Ken.

Huge thank you to Judy, Greg, and Leah, for rescuing us from bad weather, giving us great advice, giving us a place to stay, and sharing so much knowledge and many stories. Also a big shoutout to the Park Rangers, especially Brady, for all the knowledge and protecting these spaces.

Glacier Bay National Park and Gustavus weren't on our original trip plan, but we're sure glad we ended up here. This place is absolutely surreal. I'll be back. And here's a photo dump for your enjoyment!

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