Glacier Bay National Park is a kayaker’s paradise, with generally calm waters in the fjords of the upper bay teaming with wildlife. It is a rain forest so it does rain, frequently, but it is most often a soft, pleasant drizzle that doesn’t impede kayaking.
We spent 7 days/6 nights on a self-guided trip through Glacier Bay’s West Arm. Renting a tandem kayak from Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks, we used the transport service offered by the National Park Service to get to the upper arm of the bay. While the park office, Glacier Bay Lodge and campground are located in Bartlett Cove, the Scidmore drop off point is located 40 miles up the bay. Using the transport service cuts days off the trip and avoids having to kayak in the more open and difficult waters of the main bay. The transport boat also does a daily drop off and pickup in the quieter, less visited East Arm of the bay.
While most of the suggested itineraries we saw start off with shorter mileage days we decided to start off ambitiously and then slow our pace as we headed back to Scidmore, the pickup spot, at the end of the week. With that in mind we visited the Lamplugh and Reid Glaciers on the way back to Scidmore instead of on the way out. This plan gave us more contingency time if we ran into bad weather or other unforeseen conditions.
For detailed information on particular locations see the journal entry post for that day.
6 of the 7 days of kayaking were on calm waters, sometimes so calm you could see the mountain sides reflected in the bay. One day the wind had picked up and the sea was a bit choppy, with 2-3 foot waves. Not being super experienced kayakers it made us a little nervous – traveling along in icy waters there is no room for error – but it wasn’t anything we couldn’t easily handle and we never felt unsafe.
Glacier Bay is in a rain forest and it frequently rains, sometimes all day. Thankfully, however, it is most often a light drizzle, not more than a drip, drip, drip. While the constant dripping makes photography more difficult, i.e., keeping the camera dry and water spots off the lens, it is delightful for kayaking. In the drizzly weather we had very calm sea conditions. I’ve read that sunny skies can produce katabatic winds that make kayaking much more challenging. Although we had one relatively sunny afternoon, we had no strong winds.
Rain and Cold
Do not underestimate the cold. While they say it only gets down in the 40s in the first week in June, it was a cold 40s with the constant drizzle. Make sure you have plenty of wool or synthetic layers to keep you warm even when wet. A good tent that will keep you dry is also important. Our tent stayed dry inside and our wet clothes did dry out some in the tent and when it wasn’t drizzling. Also keep yourself well fueled to avoid getting too cold.
One of the most important aspects of kayaking Glacier Bay is using the tide tables and understanding how tides work. In the bay water levels can vary 20ft from low to high tide which greatly affects where you should camp and put the kayak. The tide tables include both the time of the high and low tides for the day as well as the range of the tide from low to high in feet. When camping near glaciers you also need to consider tsunamis produced by calving glaciers in your calculation. With the long sloping beaches getting the kayak and your gear to a safe spot often involves long carries over rocks, cobbles or muddy sand.
We did find, however, that the tide didn’t affect the current much. Although we carefully timed our departure to the tide, heading further up the bay when the tide was rising and heading back down when the tide was ebbing, we really didn’t notice much of a difference. It may be because the tides were not super high during our trip. Generally the high tides were about 11-12ft with the highest one at 13.5 ft.
Finding a Campsite
We generally used Bahr’s guidebook for finding a suitable campsite. However, 2021 was a particularly snowy year and in the first week of June many sites had snow down to the highest tide line. Therefore it was sometimes difficult to find a level spot above the tide line and off of the snow that also gave enough room for a bear to pass behind the tent but not in the snow. Also, some sites had significant snow melt running through them, flooding potential tent sites, and then there is bear sign to consider. Our last night we had difficulty finding a beach without bear sign only to end up with a bear near our camp. It all worked out fine and the bear paid no attention to us. See Part 6 for details.
While some folks actually cook on kayaking trips, we used all commercially prepared dehydrated meals for dinner with added servings of instant mashed potatoes for extra calories. For breakfast we had Malto Meal with added dried fruit and nuts. Lunch was a combination of easy snacks – nuts, Triscuits, tortillas, jerky and a dried humus mix that we prepared for the day at breakfast. I tried peanut butter and jelly in Ziploc bags but that made a big sticky mess. I repackaged and individually bagged all the days’ meals so they would fit in the bear containers. Make sure to pack plenty of calories to keep yourselves well fueled and warm.
We had one bear encounter (see Part 6). A big brown bear appeared about 200 yards from our tent. I’m sure he knew we were there, we had been talking loudly and singing, but he remained unconcerned with our presence and was busily munching on some grass. He then took a nap and eventually wandered off. We did follow all the precautions – keeping all food and smelly items in the bear container, cooking in the tidal zone, carrying bear spray at all times, etc.
The wildlife viewing was one of the best aspects of the trip. We saw humpback whales every day. The campsites on the main channel, i.e., Ptarmigan and near Scidmore had the most activity with the whales passing back and forth feeding along the shore. We also heard them spouting during the night. Other wildlife sightings included frequent harbor seals and otters, though at a distance, brown bears, bald eagles and other birds and one orca pod.
This route does have glaciers – Reid, Lamplugh, John Hopkins and Margerie. While we had a beautiful afternoon in the upper Tarr Inlet in front of Margerie Glacier (see Part 2), my favorite glacier experience was the beach in front of Lamplugh (see Part 4). Although you can see John Hopkins from the campsites at Orange Point, the upper part of the inlet is off limits from May 1 to June 30 to protect baby harbor seals.
While in his guidebook (see below) Bahr describes many of the places we visited as being popular and busy, we saw very few boats or other kayakers. We never camped within sight of anyone and in fact we saw only one other tent the entire week. We saw 1 – 2 small boats a day which never overnighted near our campsite.
Because of Canadian Covid 19 restrictions and an antiquated US law there were no large cruise ships in Glacier Bay before August 2021. We saw only a couple of smaller cruise ships, maybe 1 a day but not every day. However, even the considerably smaller ships make a sizable wake for a kayak to handle, especially in the narrower sections of Tarr Inlet. Since cruise ships generally visit the Margerie Glacier at the end of Tarr Inlet in the morning, you may want to travel on the inlet in the afternoon.
Covid 19 Restrictions
As Gustavus is a small community, employees and visitors to Glacier Bay National Park are supposed to be vaccinated. However, we did not have to provide proof of vaccination. During our stay masks were still being worn indoors at the lodge, on the day tour boat, at the airport and on the plane. Outside generally masks were not worn.
I had an Olympus TG-5 waterproof camera that I clipped to my PFD (personal flotation device) and a wildlife camera – a Canon 7D with 70-200mm lens – with a rain jacket and hood that I kept in a dry sack with me in the cockpit of the kayak.
Getting to Gustavus
Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks booked our flight with Alaska Seaplanes. They have several flights per day between Juneau and Gustavus. On a clear day the views from the small plane on the 30 minute flight over the bay are spectacular. Alternatively, Alaska Air has a daily flight and there is a twice weekly ferry. To find the ferry schedule for your time period do a sailing search on the Alaska Marine Highway website.
To give you an idea of how much you can fit in the kayak, all our gear shown in the photo fit easily in the tandem kayak. If you took more time packing and used smaller bags you could fit more. Although we used dry sacks we lined every sack, except for the tent, with a heavy duty trash bag as recommended by Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks and had zero problems with leaks. We used trash compactor bags as they are quite strong and a bit smaller.
Blue 20L – 2 person expedition tent – Mountain Hardware Trango 2 (poles packed separately)
2 Green (35L and 20L) – Double sleeping bag with a heavier top and a lighter bottom
Yellow 5L – Miscellaneous hardware and fix-it stuff – wire, duct tape, cord, air mattress patch and glue, knife (kept handy in the cockpit with Don)
Yellow 13L – Wildlife camera – Canon 7D with 70-200mm lens (kept in the cockpit with me)
3 bear containers – all food, trash, toiletries, and first aid. You should put anything smelly in the bear containers. I leaned on the conservative side and included first aid and the dishwashing soap and towel.
Red – 2 large collapsible umbrellas
2 Nalgene bottles
2 4L water bladders – Generally enough for a full day, including to prepare dinner and breakfast
Gray 13L – 2 air mattresses and a small tent foot print for the tent vestibule
Small blue sack – Fuel
Orange 20L – Cooking equipment – stove, nested pots, bowl, cutlery, cups
Darker Orange 13L – Electronics – mostly batteries and recharging devices. The bag was not very full.
2 Gray 13L – We each had a bag of extra clothes and personal items.
Map and other papers
2 cans of bear spray
Not shown in the photo we also had 2 large mostly mesh bags with backpack straps normally used for scuba gear and a small duffle for smaller items. We used these bags to carry our gear to and from the kayak to camp. This saved several long trips up and down the beach each day.
The Kayaker’s Companion to Glacier Bay, written in 2020 by David Bahr, is a great resource. It includes detailed information about every aspect of planning and preparing for kayaking in Glacier Bay. Bahr, being glaciologist, also has tons of information on glaciology, geology and wildlife. While the guidebook is digital you can also buy his waterproof nautical chart. The highly detailed map is filled with notations and marks many of the campsites as well as fresh water sources.
Renting from Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks
The folks at Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks, Kara in the office and Leah in Gustavus, are great to work with. They run an efficient and professional office and are concerned about the safety of their clients. Aside from renting us the kayaks they booked our flights in and out of Gustavus from Juneau, our room at the Glacier Bay Lodge and the day boat transport to and from the pickup point. They also rent rubber rain gear and boots – essential for keeping dry.
The kayaks were in great shape and everything worked as it should. I’m not sure why but I find Leah’s tandem kayaks the most comfortable for my back. Every other kayak I’ve tried makes my back ache soon into the trip. The kayak was also the most stable feeling kayaking I’ve been in and it easily held all our gear including 3 bear containers.
Leah is adamant that you treat her kayaks well and don’t drag them over rocks which will put holes in the more delicate fiberglass shell. While this does require emptying the kayak before you move it, we managed to carry the 80lb kayak without too much difficulty.
Glacier Bay Lodge
Glacier Bay Lodge ,set near the Bartlett Cove dock, is the starting point for most back country adventures in Glacier Bay. You also have the option to camp at the nearby campground. The Park Service office is also right off the dock.
The lodge provides a comfortable setting with a lounge area in front of a large fire place, lit in the evenings, and an adjacent dining room. The dining room serves a buffet breakfast and an a la carte dinner. Sandwiches for lunch can be purchased in the gift shop.
On a clear day the snow-capped peaks are visible above the trees across the water. These same views can be seen from many of the guestrooms that face the water.
The guest rooms are simple and comfortable, but pretty dark and on the small side with two double beds taking up much of the space in the room. The bathroom is small but adequate. Internet is only available in the main lodge and even then it’s spotty when too many guests are trying to access it. Amenities include a coffee and tea service.
The breakfast buffet offers a choice of a hot breakfast or continental. The hot breakfast includes -scrambled or fried eggs, potatoes, bacon, biscuits and gravy, porridge, cut fruit, whole fruit, pastries, cereal, juice, coffee and tea. Food quality is average. The thick cut bacon, however, is particularly good.
The short dinner menu offers two soups; two salads; hamburgers and impossible burgers; entrees of salmon, chicken breast or fish and chips; and cheese cake or a brownie with ice cream for dessert. We ate here both before and after our kayaking trip. Most items were of average quality. I had the fish and chips twice. It was exceptionally good, served fresh hot and perfectly cooked on our return visit.
The lodge did not open in 2020 due to Covid 19 and had just opened the weekend of our stay. Staff was young and eager to help but service was a bit off. Our luggage, which we left at the lodge during our kayak trip, had gone missing when we returned to claim it. It turns out that it had gotten loaded on the bus taking guests to the airport and was found when the bus returned. That said, Zack at the front desk went out of his way to look for a SD card I had inadvertently left in our room and mailed it back to me.
There are a couple of hiking trails near the lodge but the main event is the day boat to Glacier Bay’s West Arm. Note that it is a good 2 hours by boat from the lodge to the majesty of upper Glacier Bay and therefore you can’t see much of the national park without some sort of boat trip.
For links to all the posts in this series see the Alaska page.
May 30 – June 7, 2021