National Geographic Adventures


NOAA Chart - 17300_PublicDr. Lauren Oakes and I first met while she was dog field research for her doctoral research on Chichagof Island. I was managing a wilderness research and stewardship program for the Sitka Conservation Society, running trips at the same time to the same places. Over the years we shared logistics for our respective projects: float plane flights, volunteers, and even interns. Just a couple of years ago we presented together at the World Wilderness Congress in Salamanca, Spain. So when Lauren told me she needed a co-guide for a trip with her in Southeast Alaska for National Geographic/Alaska Discovery, I was immediately on board. 

For the first leg of our trip, we were dropped off on Pt. Adolphus of Chichgof Island in Icy Strait. This is the place I spent many days paddling with whales and many nights listening to their calls when I guided for Spirit Walker Expeditions (Here’s a previous post I wrote about Point Adolphus). Point Adophhus is such a whale mecca due to the strong currents caused by the massive volume of tidal water that gets constricted in Icy Strait as it percolates through the northern Alexander Archipelago. The undulating bathography at the Point then creates upwelling that brings rich food nearer the surface. The result is a whale buffet just a few meters from the beach. 

We saw a fair number of whales, but I was more focused on the sea otters that were hanging out in the kelp (below). These otters were more tranquil than most, allowing me to see their eating habits close-up. Sea otters were hunted to local extinction by the Russian fur traders (and enslaved Aleut kayak hunters). So, most otters are understandably anxious around kayaks, tending to hie and scatter at any close approach.

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The marine layer was dense most mornings in Icy Strait. But sometimes I prefer the lack of visibility because it makes me focus on the sounds of the animals and currents we paddle alongside. 

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On the last day of our Point Adolphus leg, I stayed out to lead a day trip for another group while the others boated back to Gustavus. The wildlife highlight was a Bald eagle that pulled a Dolly varden out of the water and casually ate it within a stones throw of our boats.

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We had a full day to dry out gear and restock food before embarking on the second leg of the trip in Glacier Bay. In the short window, my dear friend and fellow Spirit Walker Guide invited me out on a trip to the Porpoise Islands on his new skiff. We only had a limited timespan to get out of the Gustavus small boat harbor and on the water while the tide was high enough. Packing was slapdash. I forgot food, a tent, rain pants. But we did remember to bring the fishing rods, beer, and a couple of oranges. It was almost 10pm by the time we got to the tiny island, just in time for sunset and some outlandishly vibrant rainbows (below). We passed the night telling guide stories and tossing cockle shells into wind before waking up to return the skiff at the next high tide: 10am the next morning.

Sometimes it’s the short trips that are the most memorable. (I wrote a whole separate post, with loads of photos, from this mini-adventure, so be sure to check it out!).

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After a short turnaround in Gustavus, The National Geographic trip prepared for the second leg of our expedition, up into Glacier Bay. Travelling up into Glacier Bay is like taking a tour of forest succession. Just a few hundred years ago, the Bay was not a bay at all. Vancouver described it as a wall of ice in 1794. Since that time, the ice has receded over 60 miles, exposing all of what we now know as Glacier Bay. Point Adolphus was never covered during the last Little Ice Age, so the forests there are climax, old-growth. As one moves north, across Icy Strait and up into the mouth of the bay, the forests get progressively younger because the ground has only recently been liberated from the ice. In most of the Bay, forests are nonexistent, superseded by shrubs and hardy, pioneering plants. Our crew headed right up to the most nascent shores in the upper West Arm where the glaciers are still actively shaping the landscape.

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Loads of wildlife along the way, including Steller sealions, brown bear, murres, and mountain goats.

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After unloading, we spent the day visiting Reid Glacier, with it’s two glacial spits guarded furiously by Arctic terns (below), before enjoying glacial margaritas and Scotch on the rocks.

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We spent one day paddling to John Hopkins Inlet, one of the most jaw-dropping glacial amphitheaters I’ve ever seen. After an hour and a half of paddling up the inlet, the glacier never seemed to get much closer. You can see the tiny kayak in the lower left of the photo (above) to get a sense of scales.

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On short hike near Lamplugh Glacier, a mother ptarmigan and her chicks popped out of the brush.

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Our final night in Glacier Bay was typically beautiful: low clouds, vibrant colors, and great company (above).

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On the boat ride back to Gustavus, we (somehow) spotted this bear coming out of the brush intent on scavenging the high-protein snacks of the intertidal zone. This male, like many of the largest bears, probably eats a tremendous amount of protein from barnacles, muscles, and crustaceans–not terrestrial meat sources as many people assume. Long before this bear sauntered down to the waterline, we spotted him in the grass. Just to illustrate how had it is to see wildlife (even a giant bear) I included the first shot I took of this bear (keep in mind this is fully zoomed in with a 400mm lens).

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Can you spot the bear? Here’s a little help:

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Want to see more posts about glaciers and Glacier Bay? Check out these posts:

Glaciers I’ve Come to Know

Glacier Bay

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