Sitka spruce and western hemlock forests draped in moss and lichen slope steeply toward the sea. The forest forms a nearly impenetrable wall giving the illusion that it is sealed from that which bares its reflection, but the illusion that one has nothing to do with the other is false. These elements – the sea and the forest – are connected, as is everything in Glacier Bay National Park in southeastern Alaska.
John and I are on a boat that will travel 65 miles up Glacier Bay toward the Canadian border. We are poised on the back deck with binoculars in hand and the slap-happy grins we often see on the faces of Yellowstone’s tourists where we live. My nose twists with the rich aroma of the sea at low tide. Despite being the end of June, I’m wearing my down coat, wool hat, and gloves. This is Alaska, after all.
Glacier Bay is a massive fjord – a long, deep inlet formed by glaciers long ago, and glaciers still shape the landscape. The crooked fingers of the fjord point northwest into the watery depths of the park. But until about 300 years ago most of Glacier Bay was entombed in ice.
According to the oral history of the native Tlingit (people of the tides), the sudden advancement of a massive glacier thousands of years ago drove them from their homes near the mouth of the bay. The glacier had lain silent for as long as the Tlingit remembered until a young girl teased the glacier to life (in religion and mythology women are often blamed for natural disasters).
The young girl tried to appease the glacier, and her grandmother even gave her life in an attempt to stop it. But it was too late. Once awoken the glacier descended upon Tlingit villages with fury, driving them to the outer reaches of the bay where they’ve remained, involuntarily, ever since. But that is a story for another time.
The glacier, black with silt and sand, swept forests clean of their trees. It entombed boulders in ice and carried them away without effort. It pushed sea lions and whales ahead of its track and pressed down on the earth with such force that the ground sank into the mantle.
The Tlingit legend, one that has passed through the lips of 160 or more generations, is supported by science. The Little Ice Age began about 4,000 years ago and finally ended during the 1700s. When the ice began to retreat, it left behind a rocky and barren landscape shorn of life.
And now the earth is springing back. Literally. No longer under the weight of all that ice, the land at Glacier Bay is rising by about an inch a year. The park is gaining ground not through an act of Congress but by natural processes as old as Earth.
A stiff wind shimmers across the surface of the silver sea. Everything is silver in Glacier Bay – the clouds that rarely part for the sun, the sea, and the granite mountains bare of vegetation at their peaks. I shiver and pull the zipper of my down coat toward my chin. Despite the chill, I stay put on the stern of the boat not wanting to exchange these elements for a comfortable and warm seat inside the cabin.
As we travel “up bay” as it’s known, spruce-hemlock forests disappear in favor of stunted shrubs and meadows . Up bay was the last place the glaciers retreated and so plants have had less time to recolonize the landscape.
But plant succession in Glacier Bay is rapid despite its northern latitude. Within a single lifetime one may watch the land only recently released from ice transition from rock to grass to alder shrublands and finally, to impenetrable spruce-hemlock forests slick with moss and lichen. Inside those forests varied thrushes call like Sirens – inviting us inside their enchanted fortress.
The sea itself has also been recolonized. Stellar’s sea lions loaf atop rocky islands, sea otters float on their backs crunching basket stars or snuggling their young, and humpback whales blow at the water’s surface. We watch as one whale slaps the sea with its marbled 12-foot long pectoral fin. She is communicating with her kin. I wish I spoke whale.
As we near Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers at the head of the bay and the Canadian border, hundreds of snow-white kittiwakes forage low above the water’s surface. Harbor seals haul out on ice flows. Bald eagles perch on them, too. A crack of thunder roars toward the boat as the glacier sheds blocks of ice. Glaciers appear still, but they are in constant motion. Margerie Glacier flows at a rate of 6 to 8 feet per day.
The kittiwakes have learned that calving glaciers create instant meals. The falling ice stuns fish and stirs up crustaceans. Glaucous-winged gulls join them and then a plump bodied common murre flies low over the water — white-bellied and dark on top. We didn’t know then that this would be only one of two common murres we’d see during a week in Alaska.
Last year common murres began washing up on beaches all across the bay. One guide told us that you could reach down and pluck them right out of the water if you were so inclined. They were dying by the hundreds. Sea otters feasted on their carcasses, but they were dying too, as were sea lions and all the creatures that depend on the fatty cold-water fish that are normally abundant in the bay.
In 2013 a small patch of warm water developed in the Gulf of Alaska. It began as a 500-mile wide and 300-foot deep mass – large by human standards but small when considering the scope of the Pacific. By 2014 this patch of warm water had expanded to 1,000 square miles earning the nickname “The Blob.” The blob continued to grow like a pool of blood. By 2016 it had separated into three distinct patches ranging from Alaska to Mexico.
The blob was created by a high pressure system off the Pacific Coast that prevented the upwelling of deep, cold nutrient-rich water. This, coupled with lower than normal heat loss from the ocean to the atmosphere, drove the fatty, cold-loving fish that common murres and other sea life depend on to deeper water. And so these predators starved by the hundreds all up and down the Pacific Coast. There is even evidence that the blob triggered a spike in ozone.
But John and I didn’t know any of this as we floated amidst a seemingly endless bounty of life in the bay. We saw a dozen humpback whales, the dorsal fins of orcas, a hundred or more sea otters, tens of sea lions and seals, and countless seabirds including tufted and horned puffins, marbled murrelets, Kittlitz’s murrelets, and bald eagles in numbers I’ve never seen before.
But that is what I love about science. Science reveals truths that they eye cannot see. Science turns ideas upside down. Science creates space between how things seem and how things really are. I don’t always love the truth, but there is power in knowing.
Thankfully, the blob has mostly dissipated. Hopefully, over the next few years wildlife in Glacier Bay and elsewhere will recover, but I can’t help but think that the blob is a window into the future.
By most measures, though, Glacier Bay is healthy and the resilience of the ecosystem is astounding; only 500 years ago I would have been standing on a glacier in the middle of an ice age. And now I float amidst whales and watch brown bears flip boulders for mussels.
Back on land John and I walk the shore. On one side stands a wall of Sitka spruce; on the other lay calm ocean. A perfectly aligned row of spruce grow atop an ancient log brought there by ocean currents long ago. A nurse log it’s called. A toe-hold for life. The nurse log started as a seedling on land who knows how long ago, perhaps atop another nurse log. Eventually the nurse log was swept to sea by glaciers and then deposited here in this very spot to support another round of life.