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A reluctant preteen accompanies his parents to Glacier Bay to witness nature's power

May 18, 1997|ANNE HILLERMAN | Hillerman is the author of "Done in the Sun," a book of solar energy experiments for children and "Ride the Wind USA to Africa," about a record-setting balloon flight from Maine to Morocco. She lives in Santa Fe, N.M

GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — Some people think families should work like democracies. Our family, however, resembles a benign dictatorship in which adults set the rules. This includes travel plans.

And so it came to pass that the three of us decided to spend our family vacation in Alaska's popular Inside Passage. The idea was mine, made possible by a gift from a travel-loving relative. My husband, Don, was also enthusiastic, though he pointed out that we could have gone to Europe for what we spent on air fare alone from our home in New Mexico. However, our son Brandon, who was 12 at the time, is a kid who lives for sports, and he had his own idea of a good vacation: Basketball camp.

Brandon was outvoted.

We worried he'd be bored, but we also knew that he had enough natural curiosity to enjoy the adventure. And in exchange for a minimum of whining, we promised to find places where he could play basketball so that he'd have a better chance of making the seventh-grade team when school started in the fall.

In late July last summer, we flew to Juneau, where we visited the Mendenhall Glacier and spotted salmon-hunting eagles (and where Brandon and his dad found a youth center where they could play one-on-one basketball). After two days there, we headed to the highlight of our trip: Glacier Bay.

From Juneau, it was a half-hour flight to the Gustavus airport, which exists mainly to accommodate visitors to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. The park, across the mountains from the picturesque community of Haines (famous for its bald eagle preserve) can be reached only by air or sea.

Explorer George Vancouver would have discovered Glacier Bay in 1794, when he arrived at nearby Icy Strait, except that two centuries ago there was no Glacier Bay. The site where the Park Service headquarters building now stands was then beneath a glacier more than 4,000 feet thick and up to 20 miles across. The ice floe extended more than 100 miles, stretching up into the Fairweather Range and across what is now the Canadian border.

Vancouver described what became Glacier Bay--a place whose beauty has since inspired the poet in many a scientist--as an nondescript indentation in a huge river of ice.

Most people from the Lower 48, about 200,000 a year, visit Glacier Bay by cruise ship. But we chose to spend a couple of nights at the park's Lodge at Glacier Bay, at Bartlett Cove, and explore at our own pace. The rustic inn, built in 1966 amid spruce and hemlock trees, has a restaurant, a gift shop, an inviting stone fireplace in the lobby, and an extended wooden deck looking out toward a dock. Elevated wooden walkways connect clusters of cabins and dormitories. When we arrived in the late afternoon, the waters of Bartlett Cove glistened through the lodge's main windows, and the air was rich with damp, green smells.

Our clean, comfortable cabin had two double beds, functional pine dressers and windows that let in a symphony of bird songs. Brandon moped a little because there was no TV, then spread out on his bed with a supply of sports magazines he had brought. He alternated between reading and jogging to the lodge and back. (He had also brought along a carry-on with 40 pounds of free weights, but he never unpacked them. He said he got enough exercise just carrying them through airports and hotels.)

Because the glaciation here is so recent in terms of geologic history, the park offers a living laboratory in which to study the ways that plants and animals begin to populate an empty area. If you stay at the lodge, the lab begins at your doorstep.

After we unpacked for our two-night stay, we took a short hike out to the water. The fern-like leaves on the tall trees glistened with spider webs. Moss hung from the branches and, here and there, cream-colored fungi clung to the bark. We encountered two hikers who told us they'd seen a black bear eating berries just off the trail. Brandon volunteered for an important job: making noise to warn bears that we were in the area.


As we moved out of the forest, a thick undergrowth of berries and flowering plants gave way to waist-high grass. The trail disappeared into a broad shore of slick, rounded rocks--smoothed by the glaciers' force. Brandon found a treasure, a piece of thick amber-colored kelp as long as a garden hose. It made a perfect whip.

After a tasty but expensive dinner of smoked salmon and halibut, fish and chips, seafood chowder and salads ($95 for three!), we took a look at the visitor information center. I hoped for a preview of what we'd see on our trip to the glaciers in the morning.

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