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From the moment the plane took off from Juneau’s airport, I knew I was in for an incredible adventure. Gustavus is less than a 30-minute flight from Alaska’s capital city but I immediately wished it was longer. It was a rare bright sunny day with the snow-capped mountains, forested islands, and sapphire waters all in view. It seemed that everyone on board was excited about what lie ahead, after all, this is a remote wilderness area, one that few are lucky enough to experience.
There was no luggage carousel at Gustavus Airport. Just steps from the plane we grabbed our bags and walked over to the shuttle bus nearby that would bring us to our destination. We traveled mostly through dense trees, with the occasional glimpse of civilization like the one small grocery store which gets its goods from the Juneau Costco, purportedly the world’s smallest in the giant retail chain.
I was already wishing I had more than two nights here even before I got the keys to my room.
A network of boardwalks connects the lodge rooms that are nestled among Sitka spruce at the edge of Bartlett Cove. From my large window, I had a good glimpse of the still blue water and Fairweather mountains beyond. Famished at this point, I quickly settled in and went back to the lodge restaurant for a delicious salmon meal, using the Wi-Fi connection to check back in on the “real world.” If only I didn’t have to get back to it so soon!
The sun was still high in the sky afterward, so I went for a walk to enjoy the scenery and watch for wildlife. While there were no whale spouts to be seen, I did come upon a whale named Snow.
In July of 2001, nearly 20 years to the day, a 44-year-old pregnant humpback whale was found lifeless in Glacier Bay after being struck by a cruise ship. Snow was well-known to the community, having been observed frequently in southeast Alaska and Hawaii since 1975. Turning tragedy into triumph, students and community members cleaned up the bones and created one of the world’s largest humpback displays so that Snow might “teach and live again.”
The highlight of my time at the lodge would come early the next morning, with a full-day excursion deep into the waters of Glacier Bay to get up close to dramatic tidewater glaciers, in hopes of seeing a calving glacier, and Alaskan wildlife along the way.
After breakfast, I headed down to the dock. Many of the passengers had never witnessed anything like this, other than in movies or on TV anyway. While I had come face to face with glaciers in New Zealand and icebergs in Newfoundland, this was something truly special. It wasn’t more than a couple of minutes before a pair of harbor porpoises were spotted just a short distance away, and then the tail of a humpback appeared as the animal dove deep into the water to rest. The sightings were frequent, the whales seemed to be all around us, but that wasn’t all.
Somehow the scenery just kept getting better. We made our way through small, rocky islands, watching sea lions fight for a perfect spot under the sun, while puffins whizzed about. Our catamaran stopped alongside a steep mountain cliff where mountain goats were precariously perched, effortlessly climbing the rocky face. Just around the bend, a massive coastal brown bear had found an ideal spot for a nap while another strolled across a pebble beach. Before we reached our first glacier, we even saw a moose munching on the leaves of a tree.
And then, there was the star of the show, 21-mile-long Margerie Glacier in the farthest reaches of Glacier Bay. She’s one of the most active glaciers and we were treated to the cracking sounds of the ice just before it became a “boom” with it plunging into the water. After calving, those icebergs become resting spots for animals like harbor seals and sea otters, of which we’d seen many of along the way.
Our park ranger/guide managed to bring a chunk onboard for a close-up look.
We had lots of time to soak it all in and though it wasn’t exactly a day in the tropics, I don’t think any of us cared. To be there immersed in the majesty and grandeur of the Alaskan wild with “bergy bits” floating by in a place so pure was a privilege, a reminder of just how beautiful our planet really is, and why we should all want to keep it that way. It’s something I don’t think any of us will ever forget.