Total miles: 68.1
Day 1: 17.7 mi (ocean)
Day 2: 2 mi hike, 1.3 ocean, 2.4 hike (along flooded river), 3 mi ocean = 8.7 mi
Day 3: 7.4 mi ocean, 0.5 mi hike = 7.9 miles
Day 4: 6.1 mi hike
Day 5: 2.7 mi hike, 10.1 mi float (Beartrack), 0.9 mi hike = 13.7 mi
Day 6: 2.7 mi hike, 9.1 mi float (Bartlett), 2.2 mi ocean = 14 mi
Total hiking: 17.3
Total ocean: 31.6
Total river miles: 19.2
Day average: 11.35 miles
The route runs clockwise with start and finish at bottom in Bartlett Cove (park headquarters). Red is GPS (actual) route, blue is intended route.
TY: I’ve spent part of almost every summer of my life in Glacier Bay. There are always enough surprises that it never gets old, like a black bear wandering through the yard in Gustavus, a humpback breaching, or wolf cubs wrestling in a meadow. Once a broad river valley, ice gouged out the land in a front that reached Icy Straight just 250 years ago. When the terminal moraine (pile of rock at glacier front) reached that deeper fjord carved by Wisconsin glaciation, it fell in, exposing the glacier’s terminus to water, which precipitated the glacier’s retreat. That ice retreated 65 miles leaving behind a new and magnificent landscape framed with ice fingers and ruggedly steep walls. The land is still relaxing, expanding in relief from the massive weight it carried in a process called isostatic rebound. Even in my short lifetime I have seen changes. The cut into the Beardslees we used to navigate easily in the skiff, but now must be traversed with care in a kayak! Comparing our late 1970’s topo with Glacier Bay’s recent nautical maps, we were struck by how quickly the land had changed.
We planned an ambitious circuit beginning and ending at the Park Headquarters at Bartlett Cove. We would paddle about 20 miles up bay to Spokane Cove, (which incidentally is closed to camping due to two independent cases where lone campers were eaten by black bears 30 years ago) hike up an unnamed drainage and over a saddle to the Beartrack River headwaters where we hoped to view the seldom-seen south side of Adams Glacier. From there we planned to make the first recorded descent (we think) of the Beartrack River, then hike some forest and around lakes to float the Bartlett River back to Bartlett Cove. The local backcountry legends laughed when we related our planned ascent to the Beartrack headwaters, saying politely, “sounds like a lot of brush”.
TY & MARIELLE: We started out on the Bartlett River trail at 8:00am and paddled the estuary into the Beardslee Islands to avoid scraping bottoms at low tide through the cut from Bartlett Cove. Although we had tested our boats on miles of rocky shallows, we had a deathly fear of incisions by barnacles.
The Beardslees are a group of islands at the mouth of Glacier Bay. They really seem to be a microcosm of life in the bay (Ty has coined them “The Corcovado of Alaska”! – for those of you who know Costa Rica) – by lunchtime we had seen two black bears foraging in the intertidal areas of the islands, numerous groups of inquisitive seals and porpoises, a couple of bald eagles and an array of interesting sea birds including the famously endangered marbled murrelet, which is not uncommon in Glacier Bay.
We were lucky enough to have absolutely flat water and an incoming tide with us most of the way up to Spokane Cove, and covered almost 18 miles in the first day; we reached our proposed Camp 2 by the end of our first day! (Little did we know we would be back there again the following night…). It drizzled on and off, and clouds would at times settle in around us, creating an eerie atmosphere with the dead calm water. Ty took an amazing video (see below) in which I [M] appear to paddle into white ‘nothingness’!
The real life Neverending Story – Marielle paddling into the ‘nothingness’: “I really couldn’t distinguish between sea and sky, a bit of an alarming feeling really!”
On our way up to Spokane Cove we decided to stop for water at York Creek. As usual, we called out to announce our landing and shortly afterwards were greeted by a brown bear (subadult). Thankfully we had come ashore about 100 yards or so away from the creek where the bear emerged from the brush and stood on its hind legs, sniffing for a few distinguishing particles from our sweat and breath. We made a hasty retreat back out to sea in our trusty packrafts, exhilarated from the close encounter. I’m glad I [M] had seen a bear safety video before the trip; it had given examples of different bear behaviour and had explained that when bears stand up on their back feet and start sniffing the air, they are just being curious–trying to work out what you are.
Paddling the flat water was much easier than we had anticipated and we paddled about 3.5 mph most of the time by the GPS speedometer. We covered 18 miles in 8 hrs moving time, 11 hrs total, with a mostly relaxed pace and many stops for videos and photos. We tried Hig and Erin’s trick (www.groundtruthtrekking.org) of linking the two boats together by driftwood creating one long raft, but we only affixed one log on one side and were fighting to stay on a true course. The paddling was easy so we abandoned the method. I [T] was interested to see the cut linking the Beardslees with the open bay beyond at Beartrack Cove, as it was bound to be an interesting example of isostatic rebound. We hit it a little before high tide, but it would have to be quite a tide to actually paddle through. The ‘cut’ was covered in sea grasses, and had a brackish pool in the middle. Maybe in ten more years it will be permanently above the highest tides.
The cut to Beartrack Cove, an example of isostatic rebound.
We spent that night on a forested triangular point a couple of miles south of Spokane Cove. This was the only area of flat land in the coastal forest, which otherwise rose steeply from the coast. We found a perfect food stash in an undercut, steep bank at the small price of a short but treacherously slippery climb.
“Today started off serenely and ended dramatically” (Marielle).
The next day we took time to explore the intertidal ecosystem, and met a resident river otter, who crawled down the beach next to us and then sat on a rock, watching us whilst he tucked into a fish.
Having packed up the rafts the day before, we (lazily!) decided to hike the remaining couple of miles around the coast to Spokane Cove. However, the terrain got progressively worse until we were faced with huge talus and cliffs. Not enjoying the sketchy terrain, we finally relented and blew up our boats. Just 100 feet later we found impassable cliffs, which we should have expected from the map. Lessons: read the damn map realistically; just blow up the boats, travel with them is much faster!
Upon reaching Spokane Cove, we bushwhacked along a “stream” – actually a raging torrent which had burst its banks, flooding the forest. The main channel was roaring with constant class 3 rapids and no eddies. This summer all the glacially fed rivers were huge, due to the hot summer, and the rain-fed rivers were really low. The abundance of bear, wolf and moose tracks on heavily used game trails, coupled with poor visibility and audibility, made us understandably jumpy! Devils club (a giant herb covered in large spikes), alder and trees densely interlaced into a practically impenetrable web covered the sides of a steep stream gully and made the going a bit slow. It looked like a very old forest with exceptionally massive trunks for Glacier Bay – almost all spruce except for one lonesome old cottonwood. Tasty, plump salmon berries provided some relief from the stressful trudge. Passage was slow and difficult (we had covered one mile in two hours!), and with no signs of it getting any better and twelve more miles of this on our map, we turned back. We both felt disappointed to retreat so early in our big trip, but there were no suitable camp sites in the forest, and as camping is prohibited in Spokane Cove we needed time to get back to the previous night’s site.
We saw the last of the alders part way to reveal the peacefully open cove. We had a couple of instants to relax while our brains denied resolution of the hazy outline of a mother grizzly and three rather large cubs. They were a couple hundred yards from us, and we were downwind in a fog rendering us invisible–they started toward us. Crap. We made a hasty crossing of several deep, fast, and extremely cold channels to the other side of the cove. We lost sight of the bears in the tall grass and it was worse not knowing where they were. A bit frazzled and defeated, but much alive, we blew up the rafts and headed back to Camp 1.
Mama grizz and three big cubs.
Our otter friend was eating fish just off the beach again. What a life. We admired more weird and wonderful intertidal creatures: starfish, anemones, and tube worm casts.
There was even a miniature world inside an urchin shell: on the water’s surface, tiny dark grey centipede-like creatures clustered, walking awkwardly and flicked to different positions like quantum teleporting [watched one trying to walk on water away from the group, but surface tension interaction was pulling the whole writhing mass behind it!]
After filtering water at a small stream on the beach, we backtracked down the bay to Beartrack Cove. From here we hoped to find easier passage to Beartrack River, and possibly up as far as Adams Glacier.
This time we weren’t so lucky with the weather, having to battle in a strong headwind for 3.5 hours to get into the Cove. Beartrack Island provided a nice rest stop along the way. We explored its eerie, dark forest with beautifully moss-draped trees. The forest had very little undergrowth, and a cold wind was passing through, but we felt none of the rain that was going on outside. We found two trees with curious window-like notches cut into the outer layer. They were clearly old, quite possibly a relic from the Tlingit people when they lived among the “ice mountains”.
Guardian tree on beach. It’s a wooden, ducklike creature crossed with a bull. There was a standing double of this creature in the forest.
We paddled into Beartrack Cove in the early evening, just as an amazing spectacle unfolded with the receding tide – flocks of gulls and kittiwakes, and four eagles swirled over and in front of us, diving into the stream delta. Dozens of seals trailed in our wakes, popping up to stare at us whenever they gauged we weren’t looking.
After a dinner in the comforting visibility of the beach, we desserted on fresh, delicious strawberries, which slowed our progress into the forest. But once we entered it, the hiking was remarkably easy and we found a prime camp spot not far from the coast. Using one of our rescue throw bags we strung the food bag in a leaning tree.
As far as Glacier Bay forest travel goes, passage through the wood next to the Beartrack River was probably about as good as it gets. We traveled along erratically placed narrow ridges–probably eskers, the ridges formed by outwash streams running beneath a glacier. We followed some well trodden animal trails and made excellent time wherever they went in our direction. Dropping down for a peek at the river we encountered a repetition of steep ravines lined with fallen logs complimented by devils club. We were rewarded with the sight of a broad, green river with no visible rapids–we could float this! Travel got a bit worse as we climbed. Plowing through highly dense thickets of brush and devils club, the occasional bear trail was a godsend.
Esker left from the stream beneath a glacier that flowed above.
Bear trail through devils club thicket.
By late afternoon, views of the Beartrack ridge cliffs were becoming more frequent. Suddenly the forest opened up to a vast meadow with views of the valley walls on both sides–complete with snowy cirques, glaciers and vertical waterfalls. It was glorious to escape the claustrophobia of the forest, and we reveled in the beauty and easy hiking for a bit until the uneasy feeling of walking through a hunting ground settled in. Ty said he saw more bear scat than he had ever seen in one place (much of it very fresh) and there were also numerous matted bear (or moose) beds. We filtered some water and ate dinner at a semi-enclosed spot with good visibility to the meadow, but decent cover at the same time, and relaxed a bit. While brushing our teeth we found fresh, still-warm black bear shit right next to the dinner site. With a strong wind blowing our sent north we had to backtrack south, into the forest to set up camp amid brush between the numerous game trails. We hid the food bag that night in a little alcove at the base of a tree that we covered up with moss and sticks to hide the scent (remember, we use doubled odor-proof bags as well, which we handle very carefully). It was raining again! But we realized thankfully that somehow it never rained during dinner!
Ty said we must earn our breakfast, but trekking along an overgrown trail, wading knee-high through a river and then across a swamp seemed a bit much! That said, we enjoyed walking through the cotton grass-filled meadows to our put-in point on the river: 11.6 river mi from the mouth, at 58˚40.941’N, 135˚46.970’W, starting about 12:30pm. Two-thirds of our float was class 1 with 7 or 8 portages (around fallen trees) and spectacular views of the Beartrack and Excursion ridges. This was what people call ‘big country’. Waterfalls were plummeting from the cliffs on both sides. In two separate places on Excursion Ridge, waterfalls appeared from the forest, plunged over a narrowly exposed cliff and disappeared back into the forest below with just that window to show it’s presence.
The first rapid came unexpectedly after 7 miles, class 2 (58°37.392′N, 135°46.315′W). This marked a change in the river bed from finer gravel to coarse rocks making rapids. We scouted that rapid and I [Ty] ran through first, then photo’ed Marielle. It was really easy and fun, and we naively didn’t expect it to get scarier, so the next section of rapids we just ran through skirting raft-munching holes and riding big fun waves. Then, rapid 3, the river braided and we scouted the right side (the one that didn’t end in a wall of rocks) and ran through easily on the left. The eddy out on the next braid was a bit tricky in a pile of rocks. Scouting rapid 4 required slippery navigation of the rocks coated in slick glacial silt around trees to the gravel bar. At this point, we were getting a bit nervous that the rapids would get worse and we wouldn’t be able to eddy out and portage. After that the river widened out and did not braid again, making the rapids easily navigable, continuous, and lots of fun. On the float we saw 3 moose, and lots of tracks of bear, moose, and wolf. Eddying out to hike to the Bartlett River we ran over salmon resting in the shallows; I (Ty) could actually feel them squirming out from under my boat!
No, there are no dogs in the park, they would be eaten.
The beautiful, moss-clad forest on the way to the upper Bartlett made ideal, open travel. We had a peaceful supper and then found an animal trail leading in exactly right direction–heading to the same lake we figured. We came off the trail to set up camp a short distance from the lake and used the throwbags again to hang the food bag in a bent-over tree. That’s a good method as long as you don’t get the damn thing stuck, considering that is your lifeline in the water!
I [M] wrote in my trip journal that night: Today’s river journey has been a highlight to our trip. Spectacular scenery, perfect river difficulty to take us up to another level. Both pretty high after floating rapids. Particularly special that we may be the first to float this river!
Up at 6:30 am (our times are getting better!). We put on soggy, cold, stinky socks and shoes for one last day! It seemed amazing that our trip was coming to an end already. The food wasn’t strung very high, so we were grateful to find it still there! We breakfasted listening to a single loon’s eerie cracking harmonics, and followed it to the largest lake in between the Beartrack and Bartlett Rivers. After admiring Excursion Ridge’s reflection and the lonely loon, we hiked around the lake and headed south to the Bartlett River.
A bit low on fiber, we decided to gnaw on a tree trunk, and got carried away.
A well used moose antler.
For the first time in the trip we had some scattered blue sky. At the Bartlett, there was a discouragingly large log jam at the first place we saw the river, but further down we found the debris to have cleared, and the river was running moderately fast and deep enough to float. We made jokes about putting on our helmets, not having learned from the last river how quickly it’s character can change. We soon encountered more exciting and technical rapids than the Beartrack! Although the rapids were not large, much more skill was required here to maneuver the constant shallow ‘rock gardens’, fallen trees and draping alder branches. Although a little stressful, the river was beautiful. In places, the alder grew in boughs right over the river, forming magical tunnels to float through, reminiscent of forests in the tropics. It was good maneuvering practice and certainly pushed our skills yet again.
These harder sections continued for about 4.5 miles from the put in, within which there were numerous portages (approximately 10 in all). Each portage presented a different challenge–navigating vegetation on the banks with our boats on our backs, hopping straight over fallen trees without leaving the water, or crawling up steep banks and plowing through sticky mud.
Portaging through the forest
The river opened up for the last mile or two and slowed down, giving us expansive combined views of the Beartracks, Excursion Ridge, and the rugged Chilkat Range. We followed a kingfisher downstream and marveled at the number of fish jumping straight out of the water.
An accidental taste of salt in a drop from a paddle told us the tide was still high, so pushed on towards “the cut”, the narrow channel between the coast and Lester Island, which is too shallow to run at low tides. Many inquisitive seals escorted us into Bartlett Cove. It seemed strange to be entering civilisation having become so comfortable in the wild. Boats were coming into view, as well as the lodge and other buildings lining the shore. The Fairweathers loomed over all, exposed by uncommonly fair weather.
We look forward to doing another such successful and satisfying trip, longer and even further out next time!
Finally, we seem to have found the right balance in terms of trip duration, day length, pace, nutrition, and most importantly, enjoyment! The shorter day length in southeast Alaska helped us a lot. We had to eat supper at about 6 or 7pm and find a camp site by 9pm in order to have time to hide our food from bears. We also managed to set more realistic goals in terms of daily mileage and took more food (and a greater variety, we even had Pringles this time!!). The cloudy, drizzly weather really helped us by lowering our chances of dehydration and allowing us to cover more miles faster, without getting exhausted.
We have more epics planned for the bay, and hope to take them on soon!