Among the glaciers: a 4,000-mile journey along the Alaskan coast on foot, boat, and skis puts the national parks in perspective.
Brown lumps speckled the shores of the narrow gravel island at the mouth of Glacier Bay, Alaska. Paddling past in a pair of five-pound yellow packrafts, we squinted at the island, puzzling out the forms. But the cacophonous grunting, bellowing, and roaring soon left no doubt as to what we were seeing. The island wasn't composed of gravel. It was composed of sea lions.
Crowded onto the same small patch of highly prized beach, the sea lions argued constantly, waving their massive necks from side to side, roaring in the faces of their rivals, waddling forward and backward on the ungainly flippers that seemed unlikely appendages for supporting such massive, blubbery bodies. Sea otters bobbed in the kelp beside us, the first we'd seen all journey. A flock of cormorants wheeled overhead. As we floated past with the tide, my husband Hig pulled out the video camera and began to film.
Perhaps they liked cameras.
A hundred sea lions reared up, all heads pointed toward us. A hundred sea lions charged down the beach, splashing into the water in an awkward rush that was faster than seemed possible. A hundred sea lions started swimming right toward us.
Their brown heads protruded from the water, pink mouths gaping wide with rows of sharp white teeth, letting out their honking guttural roars. They surrounded us in a great wall, a quickly contracting semi-circle of bellowing brown flesh and churning water. The head of one large bull seemed larger than my entire boat.
"Sea lions eat fish. Sea lions don't eat people. Sea lions eat fish."
Those were the words playing in my mind as the wall closed in--a hundred feet, fifty feet, thirty feet... I briefly tried to paddle away, before realizing there was no way we could outrun a hundred sea lions. We put down the paddles and picked up our cameras. Twenty feet away... And suddenly, they dove. In one giant choreographed splash, our encircling wall of sea lions was replaced by rippling, grey-blue water.
Backing off underwater, they reappeared, repeating their encroaching circle. Each time, they dared approach only to 20 feet. Sea lion faces are inscrutable, and it was impossible to tell if they were trying to drive us away or just wanted to play. The group slowly dwindled, but some of them followed us for half an hour. No longer terrified, we were free to be simply amazed.
Unbeknownst to them, these sea lions swam within the protected boundaries of Glacier Bay National Park. We had walked into the park from the Tongass National Forest. At Dry Bay, we would paddle across the northern boundary, back into the National Forest, and to Wrangell-St. Elias Park beyond. The border was a green line on our map, at first glance invisible on the landscape. But we were here to explore the truth on the ground, trying to learn about environmental issues along a 4,000 mile swath of coast. What was being protected here? What did it mean that this was a park?
Glacier Bay was one small piece of our year-long journey--about 1,700 miles into the 4,000 miles we would eventually travel. Four months earlier, Hig and I had walked out the door of our former Seattle apartment, seeking a journey that we hoped would bring both adventure and insight.
We envisioned our trip as a mission to explore environmental issues as they appeared on the ground, across thousands of miles of country. So we walked over thickly-forested islands, and through fresh clear cuts. We paddled tiny five-pound Alpacka packrafts through the Inside Passage's convoluted waterways, past sea lion haulouts and fenced-in salmon farms. By our own power, we were slowly making our way along the rugged Pacific Coast, headed to the Aleutian Islands--into both weather and terrain that seemed to grow wilder every day.
We'd long been anticipating our arrival at Glacier Bay with both eagerness and trepedation. The park sits at the northernmost edge of the Inside Passage--the intricate network of islands and passages that extends south all the way to Puget Sound. To the north and east, Glacier Bay National Park connects to the Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in British Columbia, Kluane Park in the Yukon Territory, and then to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, also in Alaska. Together they comprise over 24 million acres of protected land, and form a World Heritage site. It promised to be one of the most amazing places we had ever seen.
It's hard to describe this region in anything but extremes. Giant peaks of the St. Elias Range rise almost straight from the ocean, creating some of the highest relief in the world. Flowing down from their snowy ice fields, North America's largest glaciers spill onto the beach plain in huge, rapidly melting lobes. Storms whipped up in the Aleutians whirl down the coastline, funneled onto the narrow strip of beaches between the roiling ocean and the towering peaks.
And as we stepped onto the storm-battered outer coast of Glacier Bay Park in late October, environmental truth-seeking took a back seat to more immediate challenges, of pounding storms in unforgiving terrain, miles-long crossings of ice-filled bays, and the most remote stretch of ground we'd visited so far. I noted each day's challenges in my waterproof journal. Out here, everything was open, and weather was the fabric of the world:
10/22/07: Squalls of pouring rain alternated with spots of brilliant sun. One minute the surface of the lake was glinting with the reflection of brilliant icebergs, the next minute roughened by the heavy patter of bouncing raindrops...
10/23/07: We woke to a thick frost on the ground--icing our shelter, our shoes, the strings staking out our shelter. Dancing tiptoe on a frozen beach like a graceless ballerina, I tried to melt my shoes into foot shapes again as I licked the joints of my frozen kayak paddle...
10/24/07: We woke up to wind. A gust pulled out a poorly staked tie of our shelter and set the whole thing to a deafening flapping in the predawn moonlight....
10/27/07: Hard rain and sleet began to fall as we were packing, pounding down and leaving great two-inch-deep pools on the raft we'd been sleeping on, slushy white pellets melting into ice-cold water...
The weather was all-consuming. This was one of the most difficult sections of our journey. It was one of the wildest. It was one of the most beautiful. And in this vast region of connected parks and remote wilderness, we expected to leave some of the environmental controversies behind.
But in between snapping photos of snow-capped peaks and golden beach grass, we spent hours puzzling over our topographic maps--trying to make sense of a world of glaciers that were melting so quickly as to make the landscape unrecognizable. Old mining equipment rusted on winding bear trails, relics of a time before this was a park. But in the Yakutat Forelands, in a patch of land between Glacier Bay and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, a company has staked a mining claim to more than 76 square miles of the landscape.
As we had seen elsewhere on our journey, it's not only what is in the parks that matters, but what has been left out. Just beyond the Malaspina Glacier, the boundary of Wrangel-St. Elias National Park jogs back from the ocean, encompassing the mountains and ice, but leaving out the old-growth rainforests on the shores of Icy Bay. Here, we walked through one of the most wasteful logging operations I've ever seen--a vast area of clearcutting, where many giant trees still lay where they fell, not quite worth the shipping to Japan. Even the forests still standing are beyond the park's range, vulnerable to cutting.
What did it mean that this wild world we walked in, far beyond the visitors' center and long past the tourist season, was a national park? We know better than to expect the wildlife and the weather to be confined to the green areas of the map, and so we should understand that the biggest issues affecting these stunning landscapes stretch far beyond their borders as well. These parks are a part of the wilderness that surrounds them. Just as wild. Just as amazing. And in many ways, just as vulnerable.
Erin McKittrick is a writer and photographer who operates an environmental nonprofit called Ground Truth Trekking with her husband in Seldovia, Alaska, a small village just beyond the reach of the road system. This piece is adapted from her new book, A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft, and Ski, published by Mountaineers Books.