Things to Do in Alaska: Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
If the idea of exploring magnificent areas that define the extremes of the world is the kind of thing that gets your heart racing and tickles your fancy, a trip to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska might be just the thing for you.
A tract of land that extends over some 3.3-million acres of mountains, fjords, glaciers and rain forests, Glacier Bay is the grand daddy of protected areas in the United States which you can visit and explore to your heart’s content – and which will unequivocally leave you (maybe a bit colder) but certainly richer for the experience. Photo: Jo Ann Snover/Fotolia
The really ancient history of Glacier Bay, Alaska comprises a remarkable conflation of ancient oral history from the Tlingit community and western university-based anthropological research. This research has over the years revealed that the area of Glacier Bay was habitable for many centuries – long before western scientists can even reach in their documentation and hypotheses. Some say different communities of people may have been living in the area, up to 9,000 years ago.
The flow of glaciers effectively began to shape the land as we now know it, destroying small villages inhabited by the Tlingit and Huna and other people in its icy wake. But the communities of the Huna and Tlingit people have been recognized as having great reservoirs of hardiness. Having had to face great loss and change, they reestablished themselves when the glaciers had subsided. Indeed over 100 years later, it was the Tlingit community that guided famous Scottish-American naturalist and explorer John Muir to Alaska’s cold and magnificent heart. Muir was the first western traveler into this harsh but fascinating terrain. He enjoyed a deep curiosity for the phenomenon of glaciology and effectively, through his writings, brought this astonishing area to the attention of the whole world.
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A massive earthquake in the region in 1899 rearranged all the glaciers there, and it became a considerably treacherous place to explore for several decades thereafter. But industry did trickle through into developments there, by way of small-scale business practices such as seal hunting, fish farming, fox farming and salmon canning, drawing from species that were naturally a part of the area.
In 1925, United States President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the area surrounding Glacier Bay as a national heritage monument. Effectively this meant that the small-scale industries that fed off animals and fish in the area were halted, but mining remained a controversial matter. Indeed, in 1936, US President Franklin D Roosevelt was convinced, against the better judgment of scientists such as William Cooper, to allow mining in the area.
For a couple of months during the Second World War, an area in Glacier Bay called Gustavus was constructed as an airfield. While contributing sporadically to war efforts, it remained an airfield after the war, which has lent itself significantly to the relevance of the area in the modern world – not only in terms of tourist accessibility, but that of scientists and environmentalists as well.
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In 1979, UNESCO declared Glacier Bay a world heritage site. The area’s conservation status was at the time enlarged by 523,000 acres by US President Jimmy Carter in 1980, which is when the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve was formally established. In 1986, it became recognized as a Biosphere Reserve and within less than 10 years, it was acknowledged as vital for research on the Huna and Tlingit communities. This meant that the oral traditions, customs, stories and myths of these very ancient people was finally given the credibility and honor in American society and research that they warranted.
Today, Glacier Bay is a mature but still evolving national park which is home to ancient communities and truly astonishing manifestations of nature. It’s not a casual holiday to invest in, but something of a life-changing experience.
Photo: Ruth P. Peterkin /Fotolia
As with any outdoor national park, in Glacier Bay you can indulge in all kinds of physical activities, which include hiking, camping, mountaineering and bird watching. Be warned, however: this terrain is icy and therefore very slippery by nature. Watch your step and make sure that you buy yourself proper Alaskan hiking boots. Better still, if you’ve never yet explored the area, go on a guided tour with a local ranger. That way, you will be able to familiarize yourself with the environment, as you will learn to respect its hazards, the sensible way.
If you prefer to visit the area more remotely than hiking between the glaciers’ interstices or tiptoeing around caves which may contain sleeping bears, have a look at this part of the world from a boat. There are several cruises in the area which typically enable you to spend a full day in Glacier Park where you can see a major tidewater glacier among other things. These cruise boats do not dock anywhere in the region, so you are only able to look at the landscape from the confines of the vessel in which you are travelling.
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Still keen to visit, but not that keen to get your feet cold or wet? Have you ever heard of the concept of fjord flying? Well, it’s exactly what it implies. You can charter a small aircraft that will fly you through fjords and enable you to see the amazing sheets of ice, mountain and water from above. There are many different aircraft carriers in the area which will cater to your flight-seeing needs in comfort and safety.
Back on the ground and in your snug Alaskan boots, you can take part in a join-a-ranger tour, which brings together all the thrills and spills of being in a huge glacier-bound territory without the fear of having to navigate it alone. The rangers are all very well-trained in the area’s history, geography, geology and politics and you can rest assured that your walk with a ranger will be invigorating and educational every step of the way.
But if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can partake in a rafting adventure through the small river systems in the area – there are scheduled rafting tours which average six days on the water, plus additional layover days. While you’re on the water, you might be captured by a yen to fish – the practice of sports fishing is encouraged in the saltwater or freshwater rivers, and the saying goes that while it might give you a life-changing rush to catch a giant halibut, it’s nothing to compare with the rush of setting it free again.
»Plan Your Visit
Because of the extremity of weather which Glacier Bay is heir to, it’s not advisable to try and visit in the depth of winter. Indeed, while the whole park is open all year around, the visitors’ centre to the national park is only open from late May until early September, which is when it is best to visit. At this visitors’ centre which is situated in Barlett Cove, a public use dock in the region, you can access everything from maps and permits to recycling contains and potable water. Whether you’re planning to stroll through the park or do a stint overnight in a kayak, rest assured that all permits for Glacier Bay are free – but you need to secure them in advance from camping outlets.
Similarly, you need to be savvy about the harshness of the landscape you’re entering, and you need to equip yourself sensibly with not only comfortable but warm and light-weight clothing and gear.
At Bartlett Cove, there’s a fully equipped camp site, where you can listen to the whales sing in harmony with one another as you lie in your sleeping bag. Snuggled next to a rain forest, this camp site features free firewood, bear-proof food storage cache and some of the most beautiful and tranquil landscapes you could only dream of. Be warned though: you are not permitted to stay in this region for more than 14 consecutive days, and the space is fairly primitive: the facility does offer you the use of wheelbarrows to move your possessions, but that’s about as sophisticated as it gets. And you’re only permitted to eat or cook food in certain designated times and area of the beach, for reasons of safety and cleanliness to the area.
Whichever way you look at it, a visit to Glacier Bay National Park will shift all your perspectives. It’s truly an unforgettable holiday that will never be able to stop talking about.
Back to: Best Places to Visit in Alaska
Contact: Gustavus, AK 99826, Phone: 907-697-2230
Things to Do in Alaska: Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
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