Most people who visit Glacier Bay National Park never touch a glacier, but – with an icy breath – the glaciers reach out and touch them.
An estimated 80 percent of visitors come to the park by cruise ship, allowed into the bay one by one under National Park Service supervision.
Like educational pirates, the NPS staff pretty much commandeers the ship: Early in the morning the rangers boat out from Gustavus, Alaska, in the aptly named craft Serac, and climb onboard with maps, brochures, guest speakers, and the prized national park passport stamps. The ship shops are shuttered, the casino is darkened, and the vessel becomes a floating visitors’ center.
Not everyone on board is thrilled by this one-day change in their hedonistic shipboard life, but for those who book their Alaskan cruise precisely because it includes a trip into the fabled bay, it can be the highlight of the journey.
In mid-May 2009, the m/s Zaandam of the Holland America line cruised Glacier Bay on a bright but occasionally frigid day. The visit began with an introduction in the forward lounge, after which one ranger took over the ship’s intercom system, pointing out park highlights over the next 8 hours, while others stayed to answer questions. A guest speaker, Kevin Skeek of the Tlingit people, spoke in the auditorium about his life and the stories his people tell about the bay.
I’d paraphrase the story, except Skeek asks his audience to keep it to themselves. Only trained storytellers from the Tlingit are supposed to pass this kind of thing on – it’s a sort of folk version of a copyright -- and I choose to respect his wishes. Also it’s one of those things that make actually being there part of the value of visiting our national parks.
The day had begun mildly and – by Alaskan standards – even balmy, but as the ship pulled into Tarr Inlet at the top of the bay, the wind picked up and the icy glacial breath reminded everyone out on deck just where they were. For an hour the Zaandam hovered just beyond the Grand Pacific and Margerie glaciers, fighting the wind and the blowing till.
The sky was blue while Margerie was – as one woman observed – the color of Windex. But it was Windex with the sun shining through the bottle: The kind of strange and unexpected color you have to see before you believe it is natural. Margerie calved four times, not massive bergs but iceslides, which still produced a booming thunder that seemed to echo into the crystalline structure of the glacier itself. Another reason to be there.
Later in the day, after the ship had slipped into the much warmer Johns Hopkins Inlet and performed a neat 180-degree turn that gave us a slow pan of the landscape, NPS Ranger Janene Driscoll gave a farewell speech in the auditorium. Her address, deeply personal and moving, made a good bookend to Skeek’s welcome in the morning.
So I won’t tell you too much about what she said, either. Suffice it to say that some people are lucky enough to find the place on earth where they are happy. And where those places will be are often not where we come from or where we expect.