13-Jul-2004 -- Perched on a small ledge 70 feet above the waters of Tarr Inlet [Photo 3], the intersection of 59N and 137W is seen, if not recognized, by thousands of visitors over the course of a year.
Less than a century ago, this confluence was hidden, though just barely, behind a massive wall of ice. One hundred years earlier, when sailing ships, already navigating by latitude and longitude, first reached this region, a monster glacier 4000 feet thick and up to 20 miles wide would have extended from the Confluence Point another fifty miles southeast to the mouth of Alaska’s Glacier Bay. Now, on any given summer day, tourists to one of America’s premier National Parks crowd the railings of mega-size cruise ships as they pass within a mile of the site on their way up the bay’s west arm to take in the wonders of Margerie Glacier [Photo 8].
Alaskans refer to their state as “the Last Frontier.” This is certainly true in terms of American Confluence Point hunting. In July 2004, unvisited land-based CPs in the “lower 48” states had been reduced to five, 6/10 of one percent of the total available. Meanwhile over 380 still remain to be visited in Alaska. And the current pace is less than staggering. In the past 12 months only five new Alaska visits had been recorded. Having traveled 2740 miles from home, the last 25 by kayak, we are pleased to submit our second Alaska CP…
After making two-week trips to Alaska in 2002 and 2003, we were still five parks short of our goal to visit all 22 units of the U.S.’s National Park System located in the country’s largest state. The first week of this year’s trip took us above the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Range. The second week we headed to Alaska’s southeast corner, with a highlight being four days of sea kayaking in Glacier Bay. After realizing a whole integer intersection of latitude and longitude lay tantalizingly close to the shoreline, 59N 137W became a focus of our planning.
As any traveler quickly realizes, a dry summer day in Alaska is truly a gift. Glacier Bay’s climate predicts only three sunny days in July, while on the average 17 days will have measurable precipitation. Average temperatures range from 48 to 63 degrees F. With the weather such a factor, the wise Alaska traveler plans plenty of flexibility around scheduled flights. The airport at the state capital of Juneau is particularly notorious for delays and cancellations. However, after being weathered in for four days at the mouth of the Aniakchak River on our first trip, we keep thinking we are owed a break, and this year’s trip was scheduled as tight as ever. In flying south from Gates of the Arctic National Park, a faulty hydraulic line on an Alaska Air plane, not the weather, almost “did us in” in Anchorage. The mechanical delay slowed us up so as we taxied in to the Juneau terminal, we passed Alaska Air’s only flight of the day heading out for the 60 mile hop to the newly incorporated town of Gustavus, the “gateway to Glacier Bay.” (Seems like there were a fair number of clouds gathering, and Alaska Air was afraid the weather might turn unflyable, so they wouldn’t hold the plane.) Less than excited about cutting our stay one day short, we contacted the good folks at Air Excursions
[ http://www.ptialaska.net/~airex/index.htm ] who quickly sent a Cherokee Piper Six to pick us up and provide us a spectacular wide-angle view into Gustavus. Our lodging hosts had a dinner of Alaskan king crabs waiting for us and we went to bed happy.
The next morning TLC Taxi [some more good folks to contact if you need travel information on Glacier Bay - http://www.glacierbaytravel.com/page4.html ] took us back to the airport for an Air Excursion flight-seeing trip to Glacier Bay National Preserve. Abutting the national park on its northwest corner, the preserve allows hunting and commercial fishing, activities banned in the park, and is a separate unit of the national park system. Making this visit gave us the chance to see some spectacular scenery, a rare glacier bear, more bald eagles than you could shake a stick at [although this also would have been an activity banned in the national parks!], and most important, several nearby confluence points from the air.
The weather was glorious. In fact, after arriving, we had six straight sunny days. However, with the calm conditions, the water-air temperature difference created a fair amount of haze. We could plainly see a very nice cove next to the CP. However, because of heavy bear activity along the shoreline, the Park Service does not allow camping on the west side of Tarr Inlet. We would have to camp on the east side and make a day trip the 1.75 miles across Tarr. As we made our second loop overhead, we observed another key factor in reaching this confluence: cruise ships have the right of way, and even if they didn’t, tangling with these big boys is something not recommended in even the most sturdy sea kayak. We decided the alluvial fan with the two glacial streams nearly opposite the CP would be a good place to land and make sure no cruise behemoths were in sight before attempting the crossing. Our pilot took us over the bay’s east arm and then back to the Gustavus airport. . [If you ever get to Glacier Bay, be sure you contact these folks: Air Excursions P.O. Box 16, Gustavus, AK 99826. They are most accommodating, and will treat you right!] Another TLC taxi ride and we were at the ranger station at Bartlett Cove.
We attended an NPS backcountry orientation session, picked up several bear-proof food canisters, set up our tents in the campground at the mouth of Glacier Bay [where that night, nestled among the trees, we listened to passing whales], and headed off for an instruction session with Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks who would provide the two double kayaks for our expedition. The 18-foot long Expedition Belugas we had reserved have a load capacity of 700 pounds, and the easier packing and extra carrying capacity seemed perfect for a group which had brought way too much food, and a lot of wet weather gear we would thankfully never needed.
Following a session where we discussed tides, distances, safety factors, and all of our other trip itinerary questions, we made a brief practice paddle to the dock to load our ‘yaks on board the "Baranof Wind," the concession tour boat that would double as our camper transport vessel to a drop-off point in Queen Inlet, thereby saving us 30 miles of paddling. Deciding to postpone “roughing it” for one more day, we adjourned to the deck of the Glacier Bay Lodge, where we enjoyed a lovely meal and a 10:30 p.m. sunset. At 7:30 the next morning we were on our way.
For the next three hours we played tourist, gazing at mountains towering on all sides, especially the peaks of the Fairweather Range, rising to 15,300 feet on the west and helping shelter Glacier Bay from strong winds off the Pacific. Whenever anyone spotted wildlife, the "Baranof Wind" slowed to a crawl so we could watch. Mountain sheep going up and down nearly vertical slopes were one of the best treats.
A little after 10 a.m., the twin-hulled "Baranof Wind" nudged ashore at a gravelly beach in Queen Inlet. In no time at all (and to the fascination of the day cruise audience who all gathered at the bow), the crew had off-loaded the four of us, the two tandem kayaks and a huge pile of gear, and headed back out on their trip up the bay. Setting up the kayaks and stowing our gear also went much quicker than expected, and with great exhilaration we pushed away from the beach, parents in one boat, kids in the other.
We paddled around the land side of Composite Island, stopped for lunch at the mouth of Rendu Inlet, took the requisite photo of the expeditionary party [Photo 6], then headed off for an afternoon of kayaking. We hugged the shoreline and were rewarded with views of eagles, waterfalls, and ice caves. We were passed by several cruise ships, but were so far from them, their wakes did not reach us until a half hour later!
In late afternoon we picked an ideal campsite opposite Russell Island, and carried the kayaks up well beyond the range of the 15 foot tides. By following Park Service camper guidelines [pitch tents in the woods, as beaches are heavily used by wildlife for travel and livelihood; cook and eat only in the intertidal zone, where food scraps and scents will be washed away by the next tide; and store food and garbage in a bear-resistant canister, at least 100 yards from your campsite], we assured ourselves we had minimized the risk of an unfriendly grizzly encounter. A good thing too, as right in the middle of dinner we looked up to see a grizz’ strolling between us and our tents! Alaskans say the way to tell the difference between the natives and the “lower 48ers” is when a bear shows up, the native Alaskans run to get their cameras, and the “lower 48ers” run to get behind the guide. Without a guide, we ran for the cameras, but did stand together to look as big as possible. Fortunately the bear seemed to be on a vegetarian diet for the day [Photo 11].
When we broke camp the next morning, we found our gear had miraculously expanded in size overnight, and finding room for all of it in the Belugas was much tougher than it had been the day before. We therefore got off later than expected and against a falling tide. Sticking to our plan, we paddled up the east side of Tarr Inlet, and put ashore when we reached 67N at the sandy beach we had seen from the air two days earlier. The best news was the day’s cruise ships had already come and gone, and we had Tarr Inlet to ourselves. We ate a hurried snack, during which half our group reaffirmed their desire to maintain a base camp while we attempted the final assault on the CP, still over 30 minutes of paddling away.
From studying the maps, we could tell only that the CP was above the high tide line and below 100 feet elevation. From about ¾ mile out, we began to get better idea of exactly where our destination lay [Photo 9]. But would we face steep rock or thick alder bush? Actually, it turned out to be some of each. With the CP to our right, we pulled up onto a fairly large protected beach [Photo 14], and found the point to be a little over 20 meters above us [Photo 10]. We located a natural path in a diagonal fissure heading up from the beach [Photo 9]. After that it was bushwhacking through the tangle of alder. I headed to the right. Steve correctly guessed the easiest route was to the left, and reached the point first [Photo 6]. Even with haze in the distance, the views to the east and south were worth the trip. After subdued celebration, we returned to the ‘yak and recrossed Tarr Inlet to reunite our party.
Two days later we were back at our original drop off point awaiting a pick up. We learned the "Baranof Wind" was temporarily out of commission with a bent propeller, but thankfully a backup had been put in service. Rejoining the tour, at a much faster clip we retraced our paddling route, then, like so many other visitors to the bay, headed on to watch large blocks of ice calf from the face of Margerie Glacier. On the way back to civilization we got one last look at 59N137W, which for once was both seen and recognized.