From the Field - John Hopkins Glacier on the Fourth of July

From Expedition Guide Ashley Bolwerk, Wilderness Adventurer


Glacier Bay National Park covers 3.3 million acres and contains over 20 glaciers, including such magnificent specimens as fast-moving Margerie, half-hidden Muir, and once-fjord-filling Grand Pacific, but none of them compares to the awe-inspiring John Hopkins Glacier.

On the 4th of July, we awoke just as we rounded Jaw Point and gained a view of John Hopkins for the first time of the season. In small groups, the passengers appeared on the top deck with coffee in hand, still embracing the quiet solitude of the calm morning. Their eyes bulged with awe as they tried to distinguish between dream and reality. The sky above matched the blues of the glacier, casting a stunning but ice-dappled reflection on the water before it.

Above and along its flanks stand marvelous, black mountain nunataks (sharp peaks) which narrowly escaped the grinding forces of the glaciers as they were above the glacial surface of the last major ice age. The mountains surround the centuries old ice, creating an amphitheater of grandeur.

Although fireworks and man-made sound are highly regulated within the park boundaries, John Hopkins provided early morning cracks and booms to kick our 4th of July celebration off in firework-style.

John Hopkins Glacier and Gilman Glacier are tidewater glaciers that are found at the head of John Hopkins Inlet: a full sixty miles from the park entrance/visitor center. These and other glaciers on the west side of Glacier Bay National Park flow down from the Brady Ice Field, some 4,000 feet above sea level. In addition to the tall spires, and massive walls of ice the inlet showcases drastic shifts in rock type, portraying the fairly recent tectonic activity of the region. A stark line is evident on the west side of the inlet as the light-colored granite shifts to dark schist. The entire inlet is a geological and hydrological marvel.

Our visit to John Hopkins Glacier was a day of celebration. During May and June trips, the inlet is closed to visitors to provide protection for harbor seal pupping season. Harbor seals gather in the inlet in massive number to give birth to their single seal pup. The mothers nurse the pups for 3-6 weeks at the head of the inlet, resting on ice that has calved from the glaciers.

Therefore, our 4th of July trip into Glacier Bay National Park was our first opportunity to explore John Hopkins. A few seals remained in the inlet, adding to the beauty of our visit. By late morning, as we turned to make our way back towards Lamplugh Glacier for a day filled with activities, the grill was already fired up for our all-American hamburger lunch, to celebrate our nation’s birthday.

Although birthdays are often loud and ruckus occasions, beholding such amazing natural grace, inspired quiet reflection, for all onboard. We contemplated our place and purpose in life, and as we sailed away from such a truly grand site, in the remote reaches of Alaska, all were instilled with a new outlook on our personal independence befitting this national holiday.