Thread: Glacier Bay
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Old 04-29-2016, 08:38 PM   #6
RCook's Avatar

City: Holladay, UT
Country: USA
Vessel Name: Dream Catcher
Vessel Model: Nordic Tug 37-065
Join Date: Oct 2007
Posts: 606
We've visited Glacier Bay many times. Here's an excerpt from my book on small power boat cruising of the Inside Passage:

For many cruisers a visit to Glacier Bay is a lifetime goal. Sitting right in front of a tidewater glacier in your own little boat, watching 100-200 foot chunks of ice calving into the sea, is an experience never to be forgotten. And critter-watching is super.

Chart: Chart 17318

Cruising Glacier Bay is no trivial undertaking. It is a very big place, and with its huge snow-covered mountains has some of the most challenging weather in Southeast. Distances are great, anchorages are few, and there are several restrictions.

Only 25 boats are allowed in Glacier Bay at a time, and you need an entry permit. Many cruisers make reservations ahead of time, and then find that weather or other difficulties make their schedule unworkable.

From our experience, the best way to get a permit may be waiting to call Park HQ at Bartlett Cove until you’re close by (say at Hoonah or in Icy Strait), and the forecast for the next few days looks reasonable. For best odds, call right at 6 AM (they’re open 6 AM - 10:30 PM) on either (907) 697-2627 or VHF 12. Chances are fairly good that a cancellation has freed up a permit, and you can take advantage of it if you’re nearby and ready. If no permit is available, ask again later – they don’t mind.

You’ll need a minimum of two days in Glacier Bay to make it to and from the Margerie Glacier. The Margerie, at the top of Glacier Bay some 60 miles from the entrance, is a spectacular and active calving glacier. You can get fairly close to its face, some 200-300 feet high. On the way north, the Lamplugh and Johns Hopkins glaciers are spectacular as well. With a third or fourth day, you could see quite a bit more, at a less frantic pace, and have better odds of dealing with uncooperative weather.

To start your Glacier Bay excursion, stop in at Park HQ and attend an orientation on do’s and don’ts. As of 2008 the lecture was given only at pre-scheduled times, so you’ll want to plan your first day accordingly. You might try entering the park very early, calling Bartlett Cove to check in when you cross the boundary. Tie up at the float, and catch the 8AM orientation (bring your National Geographic map of the Bay so you can see details). With good weather, you should be able to make it a good part of the way north, to an anchorage at North Sandy Cove, Blue Mouse Cove, or in front of the glacier in Reid Inlet.

Parts of the bay are considered whale waters, where boat speed is limited to 13 knots. Even with a fast boat, you’ll find that first day pretty full, getting through the entry process and on to an anchorage, unless you anchor right there in Bartlett Cove (the float’s limited to a three-hour stay, except for dinghies). If you do anchor in Bartlett Cove, be aware that it’s open to the west, and can get pretty lumpy in a west wind. You could also anchor at Fingers Bay without traveling too far – but remember to enter very carefully.

From North Sandy, Blue Mouse, or Reid, you could head north the next morning, spend 2-4 hours at the Margerie Glacier, and come back south to anchor again. As you slowly approach the glacier through fields of bergy bits, keep a sharp lookout for small ones called “growlers”, only a foot or a few feet long, and often nearly clear. These weigh more than you might guess, and can give your boat or your prop quite a thump. The smaller ones make great ice for the cooler.

If you get back to Bartlett Cove for your last evening, and are out of permit days, the following morning you can call and obtain a “transit permit” to leave the park that day.

If the weather sounds intimidating, or you’re able to get only one or two permit days, a nice way to see Glacier Bay is the Fairweather Express tour boat, operated by the park lodge.

For about $180 per person (2008), you can have a wonderful day tour, seeing some of the finest glaciers and lots of wildlife, with a friendly crew and on-board naturalist. For us, one ticket cost about the same as touring the bay in our own boat.

Even with only a single day’s permit, you could still enter Glacier Bay, get your orientation, and then anchor in Bartlett Cove. The next day, leaving your boat at anchor, row your dinghy in to the float (motor vessels may not be operated without a permit for that day) and catch the tour boat. On the third day, call for a transit permit when you’re ready to go, and exit the park.

If Glacier Bay doesn’t work out for your cruise, an excellent alternative is the Tracy Arm of Holkham Bay, south of Juneau on the east side of Stephens Passage. In fact, you might want to give it a tour even if you’ve already been to Glacier Bay. It’s a particularly beautiful steep-sided fjord, with two tidewater glaciers, lots of icebergs, far less challenging conditions, and few of the complications of Glacier Bay.

And another thought or two on getting close to glaciers:

When you're approaching the glacier, and get into a bunch of floating ice, go slow and keep your eyes peeled. Smaller chunks, a few few across, can be almost transparent, and weigh enough to give you quite a thump, and/or damage your prop. We try to avoid getting very close at all to the bigger ones, 5-10 feet across or bigger. 90% of the bergy is below the water, and they sometimes have parts sticking out to the side underwater that you don't see. Don't get very close at all to the really big ones - the part below the water is always melting, and they can suddenly lose their balance and roll over.

Sometimes it takes us an hour or more to go the last mile or two closest to the glacier, traveling at 3 knots or less. If you get to a place where there's no clear way through a line a small bergy bits, you could put her in neutral and coast slowly through the ice. A few minor bumps won't hurt you, and if the prop is not turning it likely won't be damaged. Also, if the tide starts coming in while you're well inside fields of floating ice, it could start to pack the bergies in around you - so stay aware, and don't get trapped.

Richard Cook
Dream Catcher (Nordic Tug 37-065)
"Cruising in a Big Way"
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