Day 1 After being dropped off at Blue Mouse Cove we packed our boats and then paddled out into a relatively sheltered fjord area called Hugh Miller Inlet. Hugh Miller appears on a few landmarks named by John Muir, the famous Scottish naturalist. Miller was a 19th century geologist who lived and worked in Cromarty, a town 10 miles from our home on the Black Isle in the highlands of Scotland.
Paddling down the narrow Charpentier Inlet we saw our first distant humpback whale breaching and some curious seals followed us- a good wildlife turn-out to start the trip. We eventually set up camp in the evening between snow patches and bushy willows at the mouth of Scidmore Bay in a still but drizzly foggy evening- what John Muir, Hugh Miller and we would call ‘dreich’ conditions.
The beaches in Glacier Bay are universally very thin strips of flattish gravel squeezed between the line of high tide and impenetrable undergrowth of willow and alder shrubs. This was our first camp. We had been told by the Park staff not to camp near signs of bear. There were signs of bear everywhere! Bear scat, bear paw prints, trees that were scratched… it was immediately apparent that the bears use the thin strip of shore above the tide as their own bear highways to get around! But this was also the only flat, open ground to pitch on so we pitched. I arranged the cooking gear in the intertidal to make dinner, feeling a bit un-nerved from the remoteness of the site and the omnipresence of evidence of bear. At that point Brian came back and casually mentioned that he had spotted a half eaten moose carcass 100 m along the beach. Basically a bear diner. A larder. A snack shack. And we were camped next to it. I felt panic rise but it was too late to shift camp. Somehow I managed to sleep anyway.
Day 2 In the morning we paddled north up Scidmore Bay past small islands and a glacier alluvial fan. We beached at the head of the bay in wind choppy conditions at a short tidal channel. Our plan was to wait for the tide to rise high enough to allow us to paddle through the channel into the main Glacier Bay fjord. Eventually we got impatient though and portaged the gear across about 100m of land to the other side of the channel and a lovely shingle beach with a snowy mountain backdrop.
Now in Glacier Bay itself we kayaked north for a few miles towards Reid Inlet but encountered uncomfortably choppy conditions, perhaps caused by the ebbing tidal flow out the bay and with a southerly wind against. After an adrenaline fuelled shouted consultation we turned around to the safety of the nearest beach and set up camp in what turned out to be a lovely spot where we were able to dry our gear out. We even made a little fire in the intertidal area.
We dragged the kayaks high up the gravel beach. Tide differences in the bay can be as much as 7.5 meters (25 feet), so at every camp we had to keep an eye on where we left our kayaks and gear to ensure it wouldn’t get swept away by the high tide at night.
Day 3 Our plan was to make the 3 mile crossing of the main Glacier Bay but after the experience of the previous evening we were happy to wait for calm conditions at slack tide. That meant waiting till 2pm for high tide, which gave us time to relax, get our head around the isolation and enjoy the maritime mountain views. When high tide came, the wind was still too high for us so we took an afternoon walk above camp up the nearest hill. This was not a stroll in the park but a well defended scramble through thick undergrowth. The view made it worthwhile though.
Back at camp we had an early dinner and set off at 18:40 to cross the bay at the slack water of low tide. Despite blue skies there was still a goodly north westerly wind coming down the bay, slapping waves into our side, but we committed to it and paddled hard for the 3 miles. The views during the crossing south to Mt Fairweather were superb and we saw minke whales in the distance. We headed into a cove to camp but found a grizzly already occupying the beach we were aiming for so had to paddled onwards and land on a bit of beach further east, pitch, eat and go to bed.
As I went for the final ablution of the day behind a large boulder, I saw a bear trotting towards us along the beach (from the west, maybe the one we saw earlier). It saw me and kept trotting, full speed. It was a huge adult grizzly. I called over to Brian, we stood high on the beach, shoulder to shoulder, facing the bear. Brian held up his jacket to make himself look bigger. We both shouted at it. The bear stopped, stood up on its hind legs (2.5 to 3 meters tall?) looked at us, went back on all fours and continued to trot towards us. When it got within 10 meters of us it suddenly turned right at angles into the dense vegetation above the beach and was swallowed up by the greenery. We could see bushes shaking and heard twigs breaking: it seemed to make a detour around us. We stayed where we were and watched. The bear went around us in a respectful arch and disappeared to go its own way. Or is it an inquisitive type of bear? Is it just waiting nearby until we have gone to bed? These were the thoughts that came to me and I didn’t sleep much that night.
Day 3 The bear did not return! And we were up early and a hummingbird joined us at breakfast. A very mellow morning paddle took us south east around a headland and into the narrow, 8 miles long Rendu Inlet. The water this day was peacefully flat and the wildlife abundant abundant: white mountain goats on waterside cliffs, seals and minke whale. At one point we had just spotted two grizzlies on the slope above us when a loud splash in the water behind us announced two humpback whales spouting nearby at the same time – fantastic! We headed out to the end of the fjord with lovely waterfalls and glaciers above and then turn back on the other, eastern shore to find a campsite.
It was Brian’s birthday and we had a special Mexican dinner and some Speyside Single Malt I had bought in Juneau. When it was time for bed, humpbacks were spouting as they swam past our beach, singing us into sleep.
Humpbacks migrate north from Mexico or even Hawaii each summer to feed on the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Glacier Bay. Although tourists boats visit the area, many fjords are restricted to non-motorised craft such as our kayaks we hope the wildlife appreciate – we certainly did.
Day 4 It was raining the next morning and we lazed around, reading and writing our diaries. It dried up and we headed out around midday, heading back north into the Queen Inlet. We spotted arctic terns for the first time.
The whales were with us all day – as many as three flukes at a time. Most remarkably we saw a humpback breaching full body i.e. the whole huge whale becoming airborn as it leapt out of the water. All day we heard them roaring, singing and booming. One surfaced 100m from us – Park Rules say you have to keep 500m away from them (basically “don’t chase the whales”) but this one came to US and there was nothing we could do (except hope it was actually aware of our presence and wasn’t going to accidentally leap on top of us next). We rafted up for safety and just then a little black porpoise skimmed by, paying no attention to us either. Amazingly close encounters with the cetation kind.
The huge delta at the head of Queens provided a chance for a break and we eventually camped on the east side at a pretty open gravel area covered in wildflowers – another great day.