Kayaking in Glacier Bay National Park offers individuals with solid backcountry experience and moderate kayaking skills the opportunity to explore one of Alaska’s great wildernesses. Located a short plane ride or a 5 hour ferry ride from Juneau, the protected inlets of the rain forest, studded with glaciers, snow-capped peaks and waterfalls, are teeming with wildlife – humpback whales, orcas, sea otters, harbor seals, bald eagles and other birds and, of course, bears.
Exploring the park by kayak gives you the rare opportunity to have this vast magical landscape and its wildlife to yourself. Although the park is popular there are still times of the kayaking season and parts of the park that remain quiet.
We rented a tandem kayak from Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks and used the daily tour boat, operated by the National Park Service, to transport us to and from the drop off point at Scidmore, spending 7 days/6 nights exploring the West Arm of the bay on our own. Our itinerary, the first week of June 2021, included paddling to the Margerie, Lamplugh and Reid glaciers. The John Hopkins inlet is closed from May 1 – June 30 to protect baby harbor seals, but we could see down the inlet to the glacier from our campsite at Orange Point.
In this series of posts I detail our trip itinerary and experiences. The last post will cover logistics, tips and reviews of Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks and the Glacier Bay Lodge.
West Arm Itinerary
Day 1 – Scidmore to Ptarmigan – 9.6 miles, 3.5 hours without breaks
Day 2 – Ptarmigan to Vista Point (view of Margerie Glacier) – 11 miles, 4 hours with break
Day 3 – Vista Point to Orange Point (view of Lamplugh and Hopkins glaciers) 12.3 miles, 5.5 hours with break
Day 4 – Orange Point to Ptarmigan – 5.5 miles, 2 hours, Stop at Lamplugh Glacier not included
Day 5 – Ptarmigan to Reid Inlet (view of Reid Glacier) – 4 miles, 1.5 hours
Day 6 – Reid Inlet to beach near Scidmore – 3.8 miles, 1 hour
Day 7 – to Scidmore pick up site – 4.6 miles, 1.5 hours
Note about the Itinerary
I front ended the itinerary with longer-mileage days in case we had bad weather or needed extra time. This meant we spent time at Lamplugh and Reid glaciers at the end of our trip instead of the beginning.
Our first day in Glacier Bay may have been the wettest day of my life. Not that it rained a great number of inches but the sky continuously dripped, with sometimes larger or smaller drops. This is what the guidebooks warn you to be prepared for; have all you dry bags lined with garbage bags, wear wool or synthetic fibers that keep you warm when wet and wear a rubber fisherman style rain pants, jacket and boots. It’s all necessary.
Despite the weather we had great wildlife sightings and the glaciers were spectacular.
We started our 7 day/6 night kayaking adventure in Glacier Bay’s West Arm with the day boat tour, near the end of which they drop you off at Scidmore. Not only does this arrangement cut many days of paddling off your trip it also gives you a preview of the areas you will be kayaking to.
Day Boat – Tour and Drop off
The day boat left the dock at 7:30 on a particularly rainy morning with low clouds obscuring most of the views. The first sight of the day is South Marble Island, known for a wide variety of bird life, including puffins, and sea lions. Although the wildlife seemed undeterred by the weather, photographing them was next to impossible in the cold, rain and wind. Matt, the ranger and naturalist on board, makes the best of it with his enthusiastic descriptions of the birds and mammals and presents samples of their coats for you to feel.
Next on the agenda were small white dots on the cliff side, mountain goats impossibly high on steep rocky slopes. Matt explains that they’re not really goats but a species related to giraffes. I try to picture an awkward giraffe teetering on these cliffs.
With still minimal visibility the snowy mountain sides make an appearance streaked with low hanging clouds.
Along the beach of Russel Island we spot a brown bear effortlessly turning over boulders looking for small fish for breakfast. These bears occur throughout Alaska, and while genetically the same the coastal ones are called brown bears and the inland ones grizzlies. The boat approaches but not too close so as to not disturb him. A second bear is spotted a little further up the beach near a bald eagle sitting on a rock.
As we approach glacier country we see humpback whales from time to time, but the boat never stops or heads towards them. They are a highly protected species in these waters and they don’t want to take any chances on disturbing them during their crucial feeding time. They get most of their nourishment here in the cold waters of Alaska before heading to Mexico or Hawaii.
From across the bay, Reid Inlet and Lamplugh Glacier can be seen at a distance but we will get a better view of them on the way back from Tarr Inlet.
If the humpback whale viewing was somewhat disappointing the orca sighting was not. We were in the middle of a large pod of orcas, a type of whale killing porpoise. In every direction orcas poking their heads out of the water and then coming so close to the boat I couldn’t fit the beast in the frame with my long lens. He rolls a few times just under the water before he dives back down.
We continue down Tarr Inlet where the Margerie Glacier is the crown jewel. The water is like glass reflecting the snowy mountain sides. As we near the glacier icebergs litter the waterway. The boat stops before the rugged glacier allowing guests to snap photos of themselves before her. She calves a few times -nothing too spectacular. You hear the roar after the show of ice has already come down. The relatively clean icy face tells you this is an active glacier. In contrast, Grand Pacific Glacier just next door looks like any other dirt covered hillside. After we’ve had our fill of her majesty we head back along Tarr Inlet and cross the entrance of John Hopkins Inlet which is closed from May 1 to June 30 to protect the baby harbor seals.
Lunch is served – a turkey and cheese sandwich, chips, a granola bar and a bottle of water.
On the far side of the entrance to John Hopkins Inlet we find Lamplugh Glacier. While smaller than Marjorie she is an impressive sight with a deep blue color and many icebergs at her door step.
Lamplugh Glacier is the last sight before Don and I are dropped off at Scidmore. We have about 30 minutes to reorganize our gear for paddling. Nearing the beach the crew explains the drop off. They lower a ladder, a real 15ft ladder, off the back end of the boat and hold it steady while we climb down. Once down they pass you your gear bags, then the kayak and leave you there to start your journey.
Day Tour Boat – General Information
The tour boat holds about 150 passengers in large indoor seating areas on 2 levels. The upper area is smaller with an outdoor viewing area out the back and up top for a 360 view. With the rainy weather it was cold outside and difficult to keep the camera equipment dry and spots off the lenses. The crew handed out absorbent towels but bring some sort of camera rain jacket. This early in the season the boat was about 1/3 full. A ranger on board narrates much of the trip with information about the terrain and wildlife. Even in not great weather the wildlife and glaciers were spectacular.
Scidmore to Ptarmigan – 9.6 miles, 3.5 hours without breaks
We’re on our own. Sky still dripping, we quickly load the kayak. Low tide was at 12:40 p.m. For heading up the bay you want to start near or when the tide is coming back in, i.e., after low tide. This is less important in the bigger channels. Despite the drizzle it doesn’t feel as cold once out of the wind we had on the larger boat. Our gear fits easily in the kayak and we set off just after 2.
Visibility was still poor. The rain continued but, feeling plenty warm, it was pleasant on the water. Numerous harbor seals poke their heads up to say, “hello”, and dive back down. A couple of times we see humpback whales in the distance.
The water is calm and we make decent time, hitting Reid Inlet in under 2 hours. Our goal was Mary’s Beach, but when we reach it there is already a tent there, the only sign of people we’ve seen since we left Scidmore. (This turned out to be the only tent we saw the entire week.) We decided to have dinner around the corner at Lamplugh Glacier and check out the campsites there.
By now the fatigue and cold is starting to set in. We need food. Still raining we have dinner at the campsite on the left (north) side of the glacier. There are some nice spots above the beach but with the snow melt they’re currently under water. Warmed from the food we make the push back to Mary’s Beach but decide instead to retrace farther back to Ptarmigan where we can have the place to ourselves.
We reach the site at high tide and camp on the far right side of the beach. The snow line, with 18” to 2’ of snow, marks the highest tide line, but today and tomorrow it’s not as high so we feel safe camping just below the snow next to a great hangout rock. Cold and still raining we put up camp quickly and go to bed.
The rain finally stops and the sleeping bag is warm and dry. I would sleep well if I didn’t keep listening for bears. Thankfully it was a quiet night. Never did get totally dark.
For links to all the posts in this series see the Alaska page.
May 31, 2021