Thomas Bay. June 22, 2013
05 July 2013 | posted at Juneau
Photo: Baird Glacier from the Glacial Outwash Plain
We entered Thomas Bay and sunshine gave way to clouds. A cold wind from Baird Glacier sent us below for heavy jackets and gloves.
We had come to Thomas Bay to walk the glacial outwash plain of Baird Glacier. Steve and I had made this trip twice before, in 2007 and 2011, but this year we looked forward to sharing it with our friends Karen and Dave of Seattle, who had joined us for the leg of our trip north from Petersburg to Juneau.
What I like about walking the glacial outwash plain is seeing plant succession in action. In 2007 we'd seen lupines and tiny pink foxgloves. In 2011 we'd seen moss-covered rocks. What would we see this year?
We anchored in Scenery Cove, around the corner from the glacier, dressed ourselves in warm waterproof clothes and life jackets, gathered cameras and a radio and set off in the dinghy. It felt like we were going on an expedition. Few other boaters take the time or effort to walk the plain and we needed to be able to communicate with the outside world if something happened.
In their guide, Exploring SE Alaska, Don and Reeanne Douglass say there's no place to store a dinghy on the tide flats, but we have found that if we approach the plain at half-tide-rising tide, we can find nooks along the banks of the two rivers that flow on either side of the glacier or at the mouth of the left hand river.
We motored through water brown with glacial flour, past a shoal covered with birds, and up a river we assumed was the left hand river. But when we beached the dinghy on that river's bank, we were surprised to see not the plain but another river. We retreated to the dinghy and motored back across what we had assumed was the right-hand river and beached the dinghy in another nook. This time when we walked up the bank we were rewarded with a view of the plain and the glacier beyond. Since we had been there last, the topography had changed.
We walked across the plain. At first, small pink glacial flowers and larger blue lupines dotted the plain with an occasional low growing alder. But where two years ago we had stumbled across fields of small boulders covered with moss, this year the boulders were covered with a layer of glacial flour, making for easier walking. We crossed the plain, walked past the hump of an old terminal moraine and up a small hill. From there we looked down a scene of barren rock, sand and small pools of water. Beyond was the long thin snout of the glacier coming down the mountain. And above the glacier, the sides of a mountain scored with gouges from past glaciation.
I scraped the ground with my foot and discovered a layer of dead moss just an inch or two below. A flood had changed the terrain, putting a layer of silt on the plain. A good reminder that biological changes aren't always orderly but can be interrupted with other natural events.