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Glacier Bay: The Big Picture

Rumbles and booms like a thunderstorm echo all night long in Tarr Inlet. It’s not a storm but our neighbor, the Margerie glacier, calving icebergs a mile away at the head of the inlet. Waves from the falling ice rock the boat, usually gently, but sometimes more vigorously, which I find a bit unnerving.

The next morning, the glassy bay has become a wonderland of icebergs, some quite large, floating all around the boat. Some are blue, others are pure white, and a couple have alternating white and black stripes like a zebra. Some are flat, and others look like the prow of a boat cutting through the water. One resembles a swan with an elegant, curving neck. A humpback whale effortlessly navigates the field of bergs, exhaling mist into the morning light.

We take the skiff to the beach, where I track semipalmated plovers and an oystercatcher with my camera. Drag marks furrow the beach from icebergs as they advance and retreat with the tide. Gulls and kittiwakes gather on the flat bergs just offshore, squawking at each, jostling for space. The only other sounds are the rushing water from a creek that empties into the inlet and the steady drip of melting icebergs on the beach.

I am gradually aware of a sound that doesn’t fit.

“Is that music?” My husband Brian looks at me, perplexed.

Not exactly. A cruise ship steams into Tarr Inlet with its public address system blaring, narrating the wilderness experience for its passengers. The only useful thing about the ship’s presence is how it highlights scale and distance in this place, something I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around. With the mountain behind it, the cruise ship looks like a toy in a bathtub.

The cruise ship stays at the glacier for its allotted few minutes, then turns around and heads out of the inlet. Just as its stern goes out of sight there’s a huge boom from Margerie, the loudest we’ve heard yet. The newborn bergs must be huge; the waves that hit the beach about ten minutes later are larger than any we’ve seen today. The cruise ship was an intrusion, but I’m a little sorry for those passengers: they missed the show.

The Margerie Glacier

We, on the other hand, have the luxury of time and a flexible schedule. We are here for a photography workshop aboard the David B., a 65-foot refurbished wooden boat. Captain Jeffrey charts our general course for the day, but the plan is subject to change when something catches our attention. This suits me fine. Of course I’m here to take photos, the more the better. But I also need a break from the 24-hour news cycle, constant screen time, and the political turmoil, all of which have me off balance. I just want to be quiet, immersing myself in the sights and sounds of wilderness.

My therapy here in Alaska is mountain goat and moose, black and brown bear, whale and porpoise, tern and kittiwake. It’s immense glaciers, no two alike, alive with thundering cracks and booms as they calve. It’s the crackling hissing sound, like hot oil in a pan, that newly freed ice fragments make as they enter warmer water. It’s storm clouds shot through with shafts of sunlight and flamboyant orange-pink sunsets.

I’ve taken photos of waterfalls cascading down ridiculously tall peaks, avalanches of ice crashing into the water as glaciers calve, and mountains capped with dramatic storm clouds. I’ve seen nesting oystercatchers, puffins nuzzling each other as they bob on the water, mountain goats with their young, a male grizzly pursuing a female as they slide down a rocky slope. I even got the iconic humpback whale-tail-streaming-water shot.

And then the porpoises showed up.

On our seventh day out, Brian calls down to me from the upper deck. “Porpoises!”  He isn’t a photographer, but he has proven to be an ace wildlife spotter, much to the delight of the rest of us. I bound up the narrow steps, cradling my camera and new zoom lens so it doesn’t hit the wall.

When I reach the deck, I can see porpoises effortlessly riding the bow wave. The water on both sides of the boat is churning with leaping and splashing Dall Porpoises. There are so many I don’t know where to focus. I want to capture the porpoises as they arc out of the water, but they are so, so fast. I’m getting lots of photos of spectacular splashes, with just the barest hint of porpoise.

Porpoise, rising. Photo by Shannon Finch

In my urgency to get the shot, I barely register their grace and athleticism, how they jostle and ride up over each other to get to the prime spot on the wave. The huff and whoosh of porpoise breath is background noise. I am unaware of the landscape around us. I am like a hound chasing eight rabbits, frenetic and undisciplined. That mindset I wanted to escape—obsessive, rushing, wanting instant gratification—has reared its ugly head here in Glacier Bay.

I know it takes many shots to get a few great ones, but I have to slow down and think. I want my photos to move beyond snapshots, to be more thoughtful and artful. I’m frustrated that my vision far exceeds my skill. It takes practice, practice, practice.

But how to convey the alarmed cacophony of nesting kittiwakes on a sheer cliff when a bald eagle appears?

Another bald eagle sits on the very top edge of the glacier, a sentinel backlit by blue-tinted ice. I can get a close-up view of him with my long lens, but I can’t show both him and that improbable blue ice together, at least with the equipment and skill that I have. His environment is part of his story, and I can’t quite fit it all in.

I can’t capture the moment when the porpoises vanish, the water suddenly calm, barely a ripple. It reminds me of kids being called in to dinner, scattering for home in the summer twilight. Such a mystery: how do they communicate it’s time to go? Who decides? Where do they go?

I get a second chance when the porpoises return a few moments later. This time, I slow down and track one porpoise at a time. I take a few shots, and then put the camera down. Usually taking photos broadens my view of a landscape or an animal, but not now. The camera lens is narrowing my focus, and I’m missing out on this experience.

Some things just aren’t camera moments. Sometimes, it’s about the bigger picture, the experience of being in the wilderness. Sometimes you have to put the camera down and just be.

I stand at the bow, feeling the cold spray on my face as the boat chugs along. I hear the huffs of porpoise breath. Bubbles dot the surface of the water. Porpoises rise up from the depths, their bodies outlined in iridescence. They come together in twos and threes, slip into the bow stream, and then peel off, vanishing into opaque gray water. I have time to marvel at their elegance and speed.

In a flash they are gone, this time for good.

Glaciers 101

Captain Jeffrey pilots the skiff past towering cliffs that block out the sun. Over the motor we can hear the yammering and squawking of hundreds of kittiwakes and gulls fighting for space on minuscule ledges. We are going to have a closer look at Margerie glacier and her neighbor Grand Pacific.

Margerie and Grand Pacific are two of seven tidewater glaciers in the bay, meaning they end at the sea. As warmer seawater undercuts the glacier, ice breaks off from the face, or “calves,” and crashes into the water. While the glaciers are beautiful to look at in their own right, what we really want to see is calving, preferably in spectacular fashion. Margerie has the reputation of being “active,” meaning she calves regularly.

Then there’s poor old Grand Pacific, which is barely active. Where Margerie is flamboyant, all electric blue and crisp white, Grand Pacific is Margerie’s country cousin, his coat drab brown and black debris. Margerie may be flashy, but Grand Pacific lives up to his name, an impressive two miles wide and nearly 35 miles in length, a good portion of which is in British Columbia. In 1992 the two glaciers had merged, but by 2004 they were again separate, as opposite as can be.

Brash ice in Tarr Inlet. Photo by Shannon Finch

Geology is usually measured in vast amounts of time, but with glaciers we can see geology in action. Changes can happen in the span of a couple hundred years, or even in a person’s lifetime. In 1750, Glacier Bay was all glacier and no bay. The native Tlingit called it Sít’ Tlein, “Big Glacier,” an understatement for sure. It was 4000′ thick and at least 20 miles wide, formed from many rivers of ice converging together and pushing clear out to Icy Strait. When George Vancouver sailed by in 1794, he noted a five mile indentation in the ice. By the time naturalist John Muir arrived in 1879, the ice had retreated 48 miles up the inlet. Just 37 years later, in 1916, the terminus (end point) of Grand Pacific was at the head of Tarr inlet, as it is today.

Margerie is not as large as Grand Pacific, but she’s not small at a mile wide, 250 feet high and 21 miles long. She unfolds before us as we motor along, all spires and columns of blue ice. She was born high in the mountains above, snowflakes piling upon snowflakes in a depression in the rock. Eventually, compressed by its own weight, the snow turned to ice. And then gravity took over, moving the whole mass downhill, shaping the land as she went until she reached the sea. The ice we see on Margerie’s face today is about two hundred years old.

Glacier watching is much like wildlife viewing, requiring patience and good observation skills. Being in the right place at the right time helps too. We decide that if someone sees some action, he or she should shout out left, middle, or right so everyone knows which way to look. What I shout out the first time I see ice tumbling off the glacier is “oh crap.” Everyone tells me this is not helpful, but I am so astonished at the sight that these are the only words I can find. Booms and cracking sounds are good indicators for impending calving, and I get better at seeing the smaller ice falls that mean something larger is in the works. The kittiwakes that hang out dangerously close to the face offer another clue, as they suddenly shoot upwards and outwards as the ice starts to fall, well before I see it. But I never get past saying,”oh crap!”

Ice sculpture

Icebergs form an ecosystem all their own. The animals that live here are completely at home in this world; many species of birds perch on the bergs, and otters and harbor seals haul out on flatter ones. The icebergs near Johns Hopkins glacier are a hotspot for harbor seals, where they gather in large numbers to rest and to give birth, prompting restrictions on boat traffic in the area.

The appearance of the bergs gives clues as to their origins and age. White ones are full of trapped air bubbles, while blue ones are dense, and probably recently calved. A greenish-black berg rests on the beach, likely calved from the bottom of a glacier. My favorite is a massive striped one that I name the Zebra because of its dark lines of rock rubble, picked up by its parent glacier as it moved downhill.

We watch the Margerie for a long time, skiff bobbing in the water as waves from ice falls reach us. It never gets old; each calving event is exhilarating. Trails of small pieces of ice hiss and pop, like a soda can being opened. This is “bergie seltzer,” and the sound is long-trapped air bubbles popping as the ice melts. The phenomenon isn’t as showy as calving glaciers, but it is just as mind-blowing, knowing that we are breathing in this exhalation of ancient air.

Ice fall in John Hopkins Inlet

Shannon Finch is a writer and aspiring photographer. She especially enjoys photographing birds, wildlife and landscapes. She lives with her husband on a small farm in Stanwood, WA, with many rescue animals.

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