Kayaking on Alaska's Glacier Bay

Kayaking Glacier Bay

By Sally Stuart

The Spirit of Adventure approached the drop-off site at Skidmore Beach and ran up the beach a short distance. We crawled up over the chairs, out the window and onto the deck. The crew lowered a ladder. We climbed down and reached up for our gear and kayaks as the crew handed them down.

We waved as Spirit of Adventure backed up and pulled away. Looking at the pile of gear on the beach, we wondered if everything would fit in our kayaks. With our gear finally loaded, we squeezed in our kayaks and paddled off to Skidmore Bay to spend our first night in kayaking Glacier Bay National Park.

Eight friends plan an adventure

Map of Glacier Bay

Map of Alaska’s Glacier Bay

After attending a program on kayaking Glacier Bay in the summer of 1989, several fellow kayakers and I decided we wanted to experience the solitude and natural beauty of the wilderness and see the amazing wildlife, towering glaciers and spectacular mountains. The eight of us met monthly for the rest of the year to plan our trip.

We sent for material on Glacier Bay; browsed maps, marine charts and tide tables; and researched the hazards of wilderness camping, bear and moose encounters, and cold-water kayaking. Glacier Bay Lodge offered bunks at a reduced rate for kayakers, and Glacier Bay Kayaks rented double kayaks. A daily tour boat would drop us off with our kayaks and gear at selected locations. We were set.

Since the rental kayaks would be doubles, we planned to kayak and camp in pairs. A pair would share a kayak and a tent and be self-sufficient if we were separated. Each pair would be responsible for preparing a dinner and each of us would bring our own water, breakfast, lunch and snacks. Each kayak would be equipped with charts, tide tables, compasses and handheld VHF radios for weather reports if they were available. We included pepper spray and a water filter system just in case. We would be on our own in the wilderness.

Looking back, we may have been naïve to venture out in the wilderness without a guide. Most of us had only been kayaking for only a little over a year.

Alaskan adventure begins

On July 20, 1990, we boarded an Alaska Airlines jet in Seattle. After a brief stop in Juneau, we landed in Gustavus five hours later. The small runway was lined with fireweed. Gustavus was surrounded by Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve on three sides and water on the fourth.

A shuttle bus picked us up and drove us to Glacier Bay Lodge in Bartlett Cove, a 9-mile ride on a bumpy road. The lodge sits in a temperate rain forest of hemlock, spruce and deciduous trees with moss hanging from branches and growing on tree trunks.

Essential wilderness adventure skills

The next morning, we attended two mandatory orientations: one for wilderness camping and another for kayaking Glacier Bay. We received permits for back-country camping, “bear barrels” to store our food, and “Alaska sneakers” to keep our feet dry.

Our instruction included keeping all food and scented supplies (soap, toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) in the barrels stashed well above the high tide line and hung from a tree or placed on a ledge; taking care of all meal preparation, cleanup, hygiene and toileting in the intertidal zone; and eating all meals in the intertidal zone and away from our tents, leaving no trace that we’d been there.

The park ranger reminded us several times that we were in bear country and that bear encounters were likely. The ranger told us to avoid beaches where grizzly bears had been recently sighted. If we encountered a black bear, we were to order the bear to stop in a loud authoritative voice, stand together and slowly wave our arms above our heads to make ourselves look big and scary. If chased by a black bear, we were to run, and if attacked, we were to punch it in the head and face. If approached by a brown or grizzly bear, we were to back off slowly and play dead if attacked. If approached by a moose, we were to back off, run behind a tree, or curl up in a ball if knocked to the ground.

After picking up our kayaks, we received instructions not to eat in them or leave anything inside except for skirt, paddle and life jacket. We were warned to keep our kayaks and tent above the high tide line and out of sight of curious bears that could wander by in search of food and possibly destroy our kayaks.

We were cautioned to be aware of our surroundings at all times while kayaking, especially when paddling among icebergs or close to glaciers.

A shift in the wind could pack icebergs together and trap us, or tidewater glaciers could calve and create wakes large enough to swamp us.

Icebergs can be dangerous because 90% of the berg is below the surface, and they tend to flip over, which could damage our kayaks or create a wake large enough to capsize them.

After the orientations, we went for a trial paddle to check out our kayaks and make necessary adjustments. The rest of the day and evening, we organized our gear and loaded it on Spirit of Adventure, the tour boat that would take us up the bay and drop us off at Skidmore Beach.

Cruise and learn

Spirit of Adventure drops kayakers off at Skidmore Beach

Spirit of Adventure drops off kayakers on Skidmore Beach

From Bartlett Cove, we traveled north on Spirit of Adventure for about 65 miles from the heavily forested lower bay at the lodge to the rocky, icy upper bay. As we cruised past small islands, the National Park Service naturalist on board described the history, wildlife, and glaciers in Glacier Bay and pointed out the many seabirds in the water and sitting on large rocks.

We passed through shorelines that had been completely covered by ice just 200 years ago. As we continued north through the glacier-sculpted landscape, the scenery and sights were overwhelmingly spectacular.

After the naturalist’s presentation on the history of the ice ages and formation of glaciers, we enjoyed a hearty lunch while the tour boat sat in front of the Margerie Glacier. Afterward, the boat dropped us off at Skidmore Beach on Gilbert Peninsula.

Skidmore Beach

With kayaks loaded, we paddled through Skidmore Cut, a ¾-mile isthmus, and into Skidmore Bay. The tide needed to be at least 15 feet for us to paddle through the narrow channel without having to portage our kayaks. We made it through and watched in awe as the water drained out of Skidmore Bay at low tide. We were literally locked in the bay until 4:30 the next afternoon when high tide would give us enough clearance to paddle through the cut and into the main bay.

Kayakers eat dinner on Skidmore Beach

Kayakers eat dinner on Skidmore Beach

Anita and I cooked the salmon we brought with us for our first meal over an open fire made from sticks and driftwood picked up from the beach. It was sunny and warm while we ate our dinner and gazed at the snow-covered mountains surrounding us and planned our next day’s adventure.

After dinner, we burned the salmon remains and carton and scattered the ashes so they would go out with the next tide and not attract bears. We noticed moose scat while setting up our tents.

We didn’t see any large trees to hide behind in case a moose showed up, but it was too late to find a new campsite. After setting up our tents, we eventually settled down for the night. It was late but not dark, and we were tired. Despite the threat of moose and bears, we slept well until a ptarmigan rooster made the rounds at 3:30 a.m. and woke us all up.

Reid Glacier

A little before 4:30 p.m., we sat in our loaded kayaks waiting for high tide to float them so we could paddle back through the narrow channel and into the main bay.

Dan and Larry kayak on Glacier Bay

Dan and Larry kayak on Glacier Bay.

As we entered the main bay, the beauty of the steep, snow-covered granite walls overwhelmed us. We gazed at the multiple falls cascading down the sides and contrasting with the dark granite walls. Trees and vegetation had not grown back since the glaciers had retreated, so the scoured walls were mostly bare except for a few alder, stunted spruce trees and fireweed that grew out of pockets in the granite.

Our camping destination was the beach along the inlet to Reid Glacier. We set up our tents near the ruins of a cabin built by a gold miner and his wife, Joe and Muz Ibach, in the 1920s. The Ibachs lived on Lemesurier Island near Reid Glacier for several summers. Joe Ibach reportedly had numerous claims and several working mines in Glacier Bay, but the mining operation never became profitable, so they abandoned it. Fully grounded, Reid Glacier’s shore and walls were covered with a thick tangle of alders.

Lamplugh Glacier and Ptarmigan Creek

Anita checks the chart

Anita checks the chart

The next morning, we kayaked north past Lamplugh Glacier and paused briefly to gaze at the intense blue color of its ice before continuing to Ptarmigan Creek where we planned to camp for the night. We christened a large rock in the intertidal zone Kitchen Rock, where we would prepare our meals. An oystercatcher had a nest on top of the rock and loudly monitored our activities. Leslie and Bill fixed dinner that night, green salad, bowtie pasta, canned stew and chocolate mousse—ultra gourmet.

Throughout the night, we could hear the loud booming sounds of the Johns Hopkins Glacier calving. In the morning, we found icebergs on the beach that had been left as the tide went out overnight.

Backcountry camping was hard. At each campsite, we had to haul our kayaks and gear up the steep beach, set up our tents, store our food and prepare meals. We decided to use Ptarmigan Creek as a base camp and take day trips for the next several days.

Dan prepares dinner on kitchen rock

Dan prepares dinner on kitchen rock.

The tidal exchange in the bay is between 20 and 25 feet every six hours, and the beaches are steep. To save ourselves from carrying our kayaks and gear up and down the beach, we became skilled at using high tide to depart and return from our outings. We had perfect weather, mostly sunny and warm with no wind, and the sun never completely set. We did not need to use our flashlights, and mosquitoes didn’t bother us.

Johns Hopkins Glacier

The next day, several of us paddled into the inlet that led to the Johns Hopkins Glacier. The Fairweather Range, the source of the river of ice that ended in the bay, loomed in the distance.

Anita and Sally paddle near Johns Hopkins Glacier

Anita and Sally paddle near Johns Hopkins Glacier.

The sides of the inlet were enclosed in sheer granite cliffs, largely devoid of vegetation. We watched as several small glaciers cascaded down the side of the granite cliffs and into the sea. As we paddled among the icebergs that floated by, a seal would slip off the bergs and follow us for a closer inspection. Arctic terns nesting in the sheer granite cliffs dive-bombed us. We would hear loud cracking or booming sounds and then watch as huge chunks of ice broke loose from the glacier and crashed into the water. The thick pack ice from the calving glacier prevented us from paddling up close for a better view. Surrounded by icebergs, we watched them closely so we wouldn’t be trapped and stayed a safe distance away in case they flipped over.

Russell Island

The following day, we paddled across the channel to Russell Island. Now covered with brush and trees, the island was covered with ice 200 years ago. Scientists are particularly interested in the influence of gravity on Russell Island. As the glacial ice melts, it relieves the weight of the ice, the Earth’s crust springs up, and the land slowly rebounds or rises. Scientists are finding that gravity is getting weaker in the park possibly due to the uplift in the ground moving the park away from the center of the Earth. The farther from the center of the Earth, the less force of gravity. Heavy fog drifted in as we explored the island, so we had to use our compass and chart to find our way back across the channel to Ptarmigan Creek.

Our last day on Glacier Bay

July 27 marked our last full day and night in Glacier Bay. After packing our kayaks and double-checking to make sure we’d left nothing behind and no evidence that we’d been there, we left Ptarmigan Beach and paddled back to Skidmore Beach for our last night.

We had a potluck dinner using what remained in our bear barrels: apples and cheese for appetizers, rice pilaf, turkey chili, canned chicken, muffins baked in Bill’s bake-packer and chocolate for dessert.

Kayakers await pickup on Skidmore Beach

Kayakers await pickup on Skidmore Beach.

As we settled down to eat our dinner, a black bear ran down the beach toward us. It looked up, saw us and paused. In a loud voice, we told it to stop, stood together and waved our arms over our heads. As it ran into the interior, we applauded the bear for good behavior. We slept well that night despite knowing a bear might be lurking close by.

After a leisurely breakfast, we packed up and paddled to Skidmore Beach, where the tour boat would pick us up and take us back to the lodge.

Fogged in

Poor visibility due to the thick fog and heavy rain prevented the Alaska Airlines jet from landing at the Gustavus airfield to fly us back to Seattle, so we had two extra days at the lodge. Around Bartlett Cove, several hiking trails wound along the river through the spruce and hemlock forest. Before we set off for a walk, we were again reminded that we were in bear and moose country. After walking a short distance, we spotted a black bear coming toward us, so we climbed up on a rock to make ourselves look big. It ran into the woods when it saw us, and again we applauded it for good bear behavior.

With no indication of the rain letting up or the fog lifting, bush pilots arrived in a fleet of small planes and flew us to Juneau. Flying low over Icy Strait in a fog was quite an adventure.

Sea kayaking was an incredible way to experience the beauty, solitude and vast wilderness of Glacier Bay. It’s said that a journey through Glacier Bay is a journey through time. One passes through hundreds of bold changes and transitions where plants and animals pioneer new ground as the glaciers retreat and the barren rock turns to lush forests. With memories of the overwhelming beauty of the towering mountains and glaciers and the solitude of the Glacier Bay, I boarded the small plane home. Life takes on a new meaning when having spent time in the marine wilderness.


Sally Stuart grew up on Mercer Island in Lake Washington and spent most of her childhood either in or on the water. She started kayaking in the late 1980s, and after kayaking and camping for several years in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, she and a friend obtained a timeshare on a 32-foot Nordic Tug, Shanty Irish. Sally joined the Bellevue Sail & Power Squadron/16 for classes, achieved the grade of Senior Navigator and was elected commander in 2006. She is currently writing about her kayaking and boating adventures.

This article was originally published in the squadron newsletter, Bellviews.

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