Our ferry would be leaving Santa Cruz Island at 4pm on Sunday, May 29, 2016, and all too soon it was time to board. And the next day we would return to Chicago, concluding a ten-day trip to California that had included visiting Patrick, going to Disneyland, and camping at Yosemite National Park.
Channel Islands National Park was established in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. The National Park upgraded and expanded the earlier Channel Islands National Monument established in 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt. The Park protects five of the eight islands in the California Archipelago off the coast of southern California: Anacapa and Santa Barbara (which comprised the original National Monument), Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. The Channel Islands, which were never connected to the mainland and are separated from the North American coast by deep underwater trenches, are called the American Galapagos because of their wealth of endemic species (at least 145 species of plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet).
During the last Ice Age, when sea levels were much lower, the four northernmost islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa) were connected as one huge island south of what is now the city of Santa Barbara. At that time, the distance from the mainland was much shorter, allowing mammals as big as mammoths and as small as mice to cross to the island. Birds, currents, and winds carried seeds to the island. After sea levels rose with the melting of the huge ice sheets, many of the species on the islands were cut off from both the mainland and the other islands, evolving into distinct species and subspecies.
Our friend Patrick’s year in Los Angeles on a Getty Fellowship was the ideal opportunity to visit Channel Islands National Park, particularly since the ferry dock was less than an hour from his apartment and (even more importantly) he was keen to join us for a day trip. Our voyage across the Santa Barbara Channel would be the conclusion of a larger eleven-day trip visiting Patrick, Disneyland, and Yosemite National Park.
Logistically, we knew that we wanted to avoid either Disneyland or Yosemite on weekends, and going over to one of the Channel Islands on a Saturday or Sunday worked best for Patrick. As planning for the larger trip solidified, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, our final full day in California, became the best option.
The only remaining question was which of the Islands we would visit.
Standing here, with facts so fresh and telling and held up so vividly before us, every seeing observer, not to say geologist, must readily apprehend the earth-sculpturing, landscape-making action of flowing ice. And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation; that mountains long conceived are now being born, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes; that moraine soil is being ground and outspread for coming plants,—course boulders and gravel for forests, finer soil for grasses and flowers,—while the finest part of the grist, seen hastening out to sea in the draining streams, is being stored away in darkness and builded particle on particle, cementing and crystalizing, to make the mountains and valleys and plains of other predestined landscapes, to be followed by still others in endless rhythm and beauty.
– John Muir, 1879, from Travels in Alaska, published posthumously in 1915
Friday, September 4 dawned overcast at Bartlett Cove. We were taking the 7:30 am boat tour of Glacier Bay, which lasted eight hours and traveled 146 miles roundtrip from the dock at Bartlett Cove, up into the end of the Bay’s West Arm and back again.
Thursday, September 3 was sunny at Glacier Bay National Park. It was the second sunny day in a row after some six weeks of clouds and drizzle, according to the staff at the lodge.
Back in early July, while we had been planning this portion of the trip while sitting on a veranda in southern Wisconsin, I’d turned to Sean and asked which of our two full days at Glacier Bay did he want to do a half-day paddle and which did he want to do our full-day boat tour. He’d replied that we should do the paddle the morning of our first full day. Now that we were actually here, his instinct could not have served us better. The forecast was for it to be sunny and warm on Thursday, and the drizzle was supposed to return on Friday.
It was sheer luck, but we’d be paddling Bartlett Cove’s waters while they were completely calm and shimmering in the sunshine.
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.
Our nine-hour boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park continued. That morning, Thursday, August 20, we’d traveled out of Resurrection Bay and down the coast, then in the early afternoon, we’d explored Northwestern Fjord. Now it was time for our last major stop before returning to Seward: The Chiswell Islands, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Established like so many other public lands in Alaska by the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980, the Refuge is administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and covers 4.9 million acres from the Gulf of Alaska to the Chukchi Sea. Although they are administered by two different services of the Department of the Interior, here off the coast of Kenai Fjords National Park, the National Wildlife Refuge and the National Park act in concert to protect wildlife.