The cool of Alaska’s Glacier Bay

GLACIER BAY, Alaska -- Here’s a riddle: Why did more than three-quarters of the 448,861 people who visited this breathtaking national treasure last year never set foot on dry land?

The answer: They were seeing the wonders of southeast Alaska, including Glacier Bay, from the decks of huge cruise ships.

But to get kissing close to the scenery and to feel the chill breeze off a glacier, you need to cruise on a small ship equipped with kayaks. This is especially true in 3.2-million-acre Glacier Bay National Park, a fragile wilderness that 19th century naturalist John Muir considered the crown jewel of the Inside Passage. Because of concerns that mega-ships may disturb the wildlife, only two at most are allowed in the bay each day. Even so, most are too big and ungainly to enter Reid Inlet on the West Arm (headed by one of the glaciers that seems to be advancing), moor in glassy Beartrack Cove or get close enough to smell the sea lion colony on South Marble Island. Last June, on a six-day cruise aboard the 34-passenger Wilderness Explorer, I did all that as well as hike into the trackless back country and kayak every day.

For those who hate to sit still and can do without fancy staterooms and midnight buffets, cruising on a small ship answers the bigger riddle of how to get as close as possible to the flora, fauna, fiords and rivers of ice of southeast Alaska. Cruise West, American Safari Cruises and Lindblad Expeditions offer such small-ship excursions. But I chose Alaska’s Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises, part of Goldbelt Inc., a 20-year-old company owned by Native Americans, because it seemed to offer the least expensive, most active option.

The company has four small ships that cruise the Inside Passage and provide differing amounts of outdoor activity (chiefly kayaking): the deluxe, 49-passenger Executive Explorer, offering traditional, laid-back cruises with port calls; the 96-passenger Wilderness Discoverer, with some port calls and some active wilderness adventures; the 72-passenger Wilderness Adventurer, devoted to scenery, not ports, with daily kayaking excursions of one to three hours; and the Wilderness Explorer, affectionately known as “the Wex,” which serves as a cruising base camp, launching daily five-to seven-hour kayaking trips, with stops on shore for hiking, wildlife viewing and picnic lunches.

The cruise I took on the Wex started with a flight from Juneau to Gustavus, the settlement closest to Glacier Bay, followed by three days on the ship cruising in the park, a day kayaking with humpback whales in Icy Strait just to the south and another day cruising back to Juneau.

Because of the way the company has designed its cruises, offering various amounts of activity depending on passengers’ interests, you’re likely to end up in a self-selected, copacetic group. Fellow passengers commented to me several times about how much they had in common with one another and how well everyone got along. Most were in their 30s, 40s and 50s, though we had two older couples, including Ed Menning, a retired national park superintendent, and his wife, Jean, who were a thing of beauty as a paddling team.

The 12-person crew was uniformly youthful, including baby-faced Capt. Joel Trainer; cruise director Gina Moreno, who works as a snowboarding instructor at Mt. Hood during the winter; and rangy, curly-headed Mathias Perle, our shipboard naturalist. They were energetic and enthusiastic, but not as knowledgeable as big cruise ship lecturers and park rangers. At night after chores, some of them hit the books to study up on coastal Alaska, and on the last night, when they wore their dress uniforms, the dining room looked like the scene of a high school graduation party.

They made the cruise quirky, like a seafaring version of “A Prairie Home Companion.” For instance, while kayaking back to the boat, Matt Brown, my group’s guide, taught me how to steer close to the galley and bark like a seal to get the cook to throw me a chocolate chip cookie fresh from the oven (a practice everyone in my paddling group took up, scoring different kinds of homemade cookies each afternoon). Funny Mathias took a dunking one day while demonstrating how to roll a kayak (a maneuver for advanced paddlers that we never needed), and read us, appropriately enough at cocktail hour, Robert W. Service’s ridiculous, lugubrious poem ‘The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail,” about a group of wily Alaskan prospectors.

If you want to cruise on the 112-foot Wex, you mustn’t be too fussy. It’s about as lovely as a fishing trawler and more than 30 years old. The ship has 17 cabins (with tiny private baths), a modest but comfortable window-lined lounge up front (where there’s a small bar, books on Alaska and plenty of binoculars), a top deck open to the elements, a homey dining room and quirks of its own. For instance, the entrance to my cabin (which locked from the inside only) was through the bath, where the nozzle of the shower sprayed directly onto the toilet seat and yielded only lukewarm water during busy bathing hours. There wasn’t enough floor space in my dark, chilly cabin to do a sit-up. Painful experimentation taught me how to get into the top bunk. Once I learned this, I slept like a bear in a lair, without bashing my head on the ceiling. And don’t ask about room service; when I wanted coffee in the early mornings, I went upstairs to the dining room drink station in my jammies and got it myself.

Chef Steve Regian’s menus-baked halibut, broccoli, wild rice and blackberry mousse on one night; barbecued ribs, cornbread and strawberry shortcake on another-were well devised. But the food, served family style, wouldn’t have thrilled a gourmet. Rather, it suited and sustained all the hungry, exercised bodies on board. Among them was passenger David Beier, chef-owner of the acclaimed Walloon Lake Inn in northern Michigan, who barked for afternoon cookies with the rest of us and dug like a miner into cocktail-hour cold shrimp and nachos.

I met David, his wife, Linda, and his grown stepchildren Jason and Kristin Keiswetter the day before the cruise. We were at Glacier Bay National Park headquarters and lodge, 10 miles west of the Gustavus airstrip. The 56-room lodge, where I stayed that night, is a snug, well-run place that sits alone on Bartlett Cove, at the southeast side of the bay, like a space capsule in the wilderness. It has a good but expensive restaurant ($9.95 for the buffet breakfast, $24.95 for the Dungeness crab dinner), a deck with umbrella tables, a park information center upstairs and two eaves peering at the cove through spruce trees.

The sky was royal blue and the temperature in the low 60s when I arrived from Juneau aboard a Wings of Alaska six-seat airplane, a memorable 65-mile puddle jump over the Lynn Canal and Chilkat Range. That afternoon it stayed nice enough to stroll around the one-mile forest loop near the lodge, where I saw a moose, and sit in on a meeting for back-country camper-kayakers learning about riptides and bear-resistant food canisters. But fog rolled in the next morning, delaying three-fourths of the Wex passengers who were to fly in from Juneau. To get them to Glacier Bay as quickly as possible, the cruise company chartered a high-speed catamaran, so ultimately we were only a few hours late leaving Bartlett Cove.

The Wex crossed the bay overnight. The next morning we awoke staring at the toothpaste-blue tongue of Reid Glacier in Reid Inlet, a mile-long fiord flanked by the Fairweather Mountains.

When explorer George Vancouver saw the area in 1794, there was no bay, and Reid Glacier was part of a continuous sheet of ice, 20 miles wide, that ended near the entrance to Icy Strait. A little more than a century later, when Muir made his first visit, the ice had retreated 48 miles, forming the great two-armed bay. Since then it has rolled back 17 more miles, and Glacier Bay is now 65 miles long from north to south.

This is what makes the park special. Scientists gather there to study how the land revives after glaciation: A succession of plants takes root over time, culminating in the vast spruce forests that blanket the region. From the ice-locked head of Reid Inlet to the cottonwood-dappled arms of land at its mouth, we could see plant succession in action. Suddenly it became clear why Muir, who came north to research the building and shaping powers of glaciers, wrote in “Travels in Alaska” that what we call destruction is creation.

That first morning, after breakfast, Gina divided us into three groups for a kayaking foray. We were fitted with big rubber gumboots (the only suitable footwear for mucky beach and mushy forest walking), shown how to put on our spray skirts (which attach to the kayaks) and told to keep our life jackets on at all times. Then the crew launched us onto the bay in two-person fiberglass kayaks.

I always paddled with a group leader-Gina, Mathias or Mark-because I was on my own. Bundled up in layers of colorful water-resistant clothes to combat the drizzle and 55-degree temperatures, we looked like plastic bathtub toys. None of us was an expert paddler, but this kind of kayaking is easy, so we got on well enough, shrieking and laughing.

My group started by exploring the north side of the fiord, where there was a ramshackle cabin built by gold miners, and we saw two grizzlies foraging halfway up the mountainside.

Later we stopped for packed lunches at the head of the bay and investigated big blue icebergs that had broken off the glacier and lay stranded on the rocky beach in front of it. Occasionally the glacier cracked and groaned as a chunk of ice broke off and fell into the water with a titanic splash, a process called “calving.” The day was raw and wet, so most of us were happy to get back to the Wex.

The ship raised anchor late that afternoon, then cruised north past little Lamplugh Glacier and the mouth of Johns Hopkins Inlet, closed to boat traffic from May 1 to June 30, when seals are there giving birth. We moored for dinner at the spectacular, conjoined faces of Margerie Glacier and Grand Pacific Glacier, which has crossed the boundary between the U.S. and Canada many times during its periodic retreats and advances.

The next day’s exploration of Beartrack Cove, on the east side of the bay, featured tidepooling among barnacles, anemones, starfish and colonies of mussels, more bear sightings, rain squalls, kayak races against a stiff breeze (Jason and Kristin won) and fresh gingersnaps at the galley window.

The sky cleared and the sun made brief, fitful appearances on our third day in Dundas Cove, just west of the mouth of Glacier Bay. There we beached our kayaks, went for a two-hour back-country bushwhack and were treated to a hot lunch of grilled ham and cheese sandwiches when we got back to our boats.

Crossing Icy Strait in the cruise ship later that day, we saw flotillas of otters rafting on their backs, and we started scanning the horizon for humpback whales.

The gigantic, acrobatic marine mammals are common around Adolphus Point in Icy Strait, where we moored the next day. For many, this was the trip’s peak, because the weather turned warm and sunny (motivating about a dozen passengers to go swimming). Moreover, the humpbacks were out in number, circling our kayaks, spouting, slapping their tails and occasionally breaching.

But I was content just to gaze north to the Fairweathers, a wall of ice mountains that seemed to go on forever, hearing, like Muir, “‘Gloria in excelsis’ ... sounding all over the white landscape.”