Wednesday, September 2 we departed Juneau via the Alaska Marine Highway System and journeyed to Gustavus (population 442), the gateway town to Glacier Bay National Park. Gustavus sits on the shores of Icy Passage, thirty-seven nautical miles west of Juneau. Our ferry ride would take just over four hours to reach it.
Our sailing was at 7am, but we woke at 4am because the Alaska Marine Highway System website stated we needed to check-in two hours before. The Juneau ferry dock was not on the Gastineau Channel in downtown Juneau, but rather near the northern end of the Juneau road system in Auke Bay.
We were bleary-eyed but excited as we loaded our bags into the taxi at 4:40. Our driver was a gruff, but friendly older fellow with a big beard. We chatted with him about our trip, Chicago, and that we had failed to visit “Juneau’s glacier,” the Mendenhall, while we were in town.
We arrived at the ferry terminal right around 7am, and we were the first one’s there. So we settled into some seats near a window that looked out at the water and waited for dawn.
We would be sailing aboard the ferry MV LeConte, which had been built in 1973 in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. It had joined the Alaska Marine Highway System in 1974. In 2004, the LeConte ran aground on a reef in Peril Strait while on its way to Sitka. The boat nearly sank, but the passengers, crew, and automobiles were rescued unharmed. The cause of the accident was determined to be pilot error, and the crew members responsible were fired. The LeConte was towed to Ketchikan, repaired, and put back into service.
Even though we were at the terminal so (seemingly unnecessarily) early, it was a delight to watch the light over Auke Bay change softly as it grew brighter in the east. I took the opportunity to take my new camera for a test run in some low and changing light conditions. It took a while to get the hang of it, and I would continue to be learning some of its features throughout our time at Glacier Bay.
A Bald Eagle landed on a the railing along the dock. It sat there, surveying the scene. Presently some gulls began to dive bomb it, swooping low and screaming at it, presumably to chase it away. The Bald Eagle got irritated and started screaming a high-pitched, wailing cry back at the gulls as they passed overhead.
But the eagle stuck its ground and didn’t leave its perch on the railing.
Around 6:30, it was time to board. We passengers without vehicles lined up around the back of the terminal. The crew checked our tickets and we filed aboard over the broad gangplank and into the below-decks vehicle area, then up a staircase into the main passenger lounge.
Sean and I found some seats in the front of the lounge by long windows that looked out over the prow of the ferry.
Soon the crew was untying the LeConte, and at 7am we set sail.
It was a beautiful day to sail. Although chilly on the water, the sun was warm and the weather fair.
As we headed south out of Auke Bay, behind us the Mendenhall Glacier, spilling down from the coast range, came into view.
Much of the dramatic, forested shoreline, mountains, and islands of the Inside Passage comprise the protected lands of the Tongass National Forest, at seventeen million acres the largest National Forest in the United States, established in 1907 by Teddy Roosevelt.
Sean remarked on how staggering it was not only to be surrounded by such extensive vistas of forests and mountains, but that it was nearly all protected land. Later, when asked about Alaska, Sean would say that one can get very used to being surrounded by mountains and the sea.
After we left Auke Bay, we turned north, passing between Shelter Island and the Mansfield Peninsula, the northernmost tip of enormous Admirality Island.
Between the scenery, breakfast and lunch, and exploring the vessel, the four hours we spent on the LeConte flew by.
We had already eaten our boxed breakfasts from the Silverbow Inn back at the ferry terminal, so we sat in the galley dining area and drank coffee.
After rounding Point Retreat at the tip of Mansfield Peninsula, we turned south, passing through another channel. Now Admirality Island was to the east and the mainland with the imposing Chilkat Range was to the west.
We rounded Point Couverden, turned northwest, and entered Icy Strait, which ultimately spills into the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean. As we entered the Strait, a massive mountain range, gleaming white with snow, appeared in the distance. This was the Fairweather Range.
The Fairweather Range is among the highest coastal mountain ranges on the planet. The summit of Mount Fairweather on the US/Canada border is 15,300 feet. And eight peaks in the range top 10,000 feet. Their height is rendered all the more dramatic since the range rises virtually out of the ocean. The size of the Fairweathers is what causes them to capture unimaginable amounts of snow from winter storms blowing in from the Gulf of Alaska. And it was from the Fairweathers that Grand Pacific Glacier descended to carve out Glacier Bay.
The Fairweathers are so named because they are only visible when the weather is fair. We were very lucky to have such a dramatic first glimpse of Glacier Bay National Park.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that since there are only two weekly ferry crossings between Juneau and Gustavus, many of the tourists on the LeConte with us would be part of our little group, almost a cohort, arriving on the Wednesday before Labor Day and departing on Saturday. Over the next three days, we’d get to know some of these people who were total strangers to us that morning.
As we reached our third hour aboard, we had a light lunch.
Gustavus lies on a broad, flat peninsula (above, foreground) at the delta of the Salmon River to the east of Glacier Bay. It’s the eastern remnant of the broad valley, ancestral home of the Hoonah Tlingit, which was destroyed when the Grand Pacific Glacier surged down from the Fairweathers
By 10:45, we were within sight of the new ferry dock at Gustavus, and before 11:15 we were disembarking.
The ferry dock had to be long enough to reach vessels as large as the LeConte even in low tide.
Cars were parked along the road beyond the dock. We spotted a green school bus with a sign for Glacier Bay Lodge. We loaded our bags into the back and joined the other lodge guests who’d been on the ferry crossing.
The town of Gustavus is a series of homes, cabins, lodges, and a few businesses strung out along a couple of roads connecting the dock, the airstrip, and the National Park. We made a brief stop to pick up a few people at a restaurant and continued to the Park.
The only road into Glacier Bay National Park leads west from Gustavus. The Lodge and Visitor Center and the Park’s only maintained trails are nestled along Bartlett Cove in the southeast part of Glacier Bay.
We stepped off the bus, gathered our bags, and lined up with the other guests to check in. We were among the lucky visitors whose rooms were ready. Already, some of the personalities of our cohorts at the Lodge were beginning to emerge. There was a problem with the reservation of a couple whom we referred to as “Porkpie Hat and Big Hair.” The young man behind the counter, whose name tag read Joseph and indicated he was from Arkansas, handled the issue with aplomb, asking them if they’d mind waiting while he finished checking in the other guests so that he could call the main reservation office of Aramark, the Park’s concessionaire.
With that we were given the key to our room and off we went.
Glacier Bay Lodge is comprised of a central lodge building with a restaurant, a gift shop, and a lounge with a large stone fireplace. A deck looks out on Bartlett Cove. The Glacier Bay National Park Visitor Center is upstairs.
The rooms are in separate buildings accessible along boardwalks. Each building has five or six rooms.
Our room was cozy, and our window looked out into the dense rainforest of the Lodge grounds, with a glimpse of Bartlett Cove beyond the trees.
We had arrived. It was only just noon, plenty of time to unpack and rest before a 1:30 Ranger-led nature walk in the forest.