History Behind Alaska’s Most Famous Glaciers 

View of glacier in Alaska.

Alaska wouldn’t be Alaska without its glaciers. These massive rivers of ice are responsible for the shape of the landscape—and that’s just the beginning. Learn the history behind the state’s most famous glaciers.

Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

A cruise through Glacier Bay is a journey through natural and human history, back to the Little Ice Age. Truly a remarkable place, it has acted as a living laboratory for scientists, such as botanist William S. Cooper, who studied how plants react to glacial retreat. It is the muse for poets and a beloved wild playground of naturalists, like John Muir.

It’s the ancestral homeland of the Huna Tlingit, who called it S’e Shuyee or “edge of the glacial silt.”

Glacier Bay’s Most Popular Glaciers

Johns Hopkins Glacier: Harry Feilding Reid, a glaciologist, seismologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University, named this glacier in 1893.

Margerie Glacier: This was named after French geographer Emmanuel de Margerie, who visited in 1913.

On cruises to Glacier Bay, rangers and Huna Tlingit guides bring the history of this extraordinary place to life with engaging talks.

College Fjord

As you cruise College Fjord, you’re traveling in the path of the 1899 Harriman Expedition that rounded up the world’s leading naturalists, botanists, photographers and nature writers on a two-month voyage from Seattle to Alaska and Siberia.

You’ll notice that many of the glaciers are named after prestigious universities. Glaciers on the left are women’s colleges and the ones on the right are men’s colleges. Some of the more famous glaciers in the College Fjord are Amherst, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Harvard, Smith, Vassar and Yale.

Fun Fact: It’s believed that as an ice-cold snub, the scientists didn’t name a glacier after Princeton.

Hubbard Glacier

Even at 400 years old, Hubbard Glacier manages to stay active. As many glaciers thin and retreat, Hubbard Glacier is advancing at a rate so fast it’s nicknamed, “the Galloping Glacier.” Hubbard’s massive ice chunks regularly calve off and thunder into the sea. It also caused the largest glacial lake outburst flood in recent history.

Fun Fact: Hubbard Glacier was named after Gardiner Hubbard, one of the National Geographic Society founders.

Tracy Arm & Twin Sawyer Glaciers

Tracy Arm is a 30-mile-long fjord, accessed through Stephens Passage and part of the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness. It was named after the Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Franklin Tracy. At the fjord’s end lies the Sawyer Glacier, a glacier with two separate parts, North and South.

See the Twin Sawyer Glaciers on the Tracy Arm Fjord & Glacier Explorer shore excursion.

Fun Fact: Spectacular red-tree corals inhabit Tracy Arm. These corals are typically found in much deeper waters but favor Tracy Arm’s current and cold temperatures.

Valdez Glacier

Valdez Glacier is a winter wonderland with a storied past. Prospectors came to Valdez in the late 1800s to follow the “All-American Route” to the goldfields over the glaciers. However, the gold seekers were misled. There was no town or real trail.

Between 1897-98, thousands of stampeders came to the new city. Some set up shop and some braved the harrowing journey over the glacier.

Fun Fact: Valdez is one of the snowiest places in the United States! The snowflakes can get as big as apples.

Mendenhall Glacier

John Muir originally named this glacier Auke (Auk) for the Tlingit Auk Kwaan. In 1891, it was renamed for Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, an American physicist and meteorologist. Sadly, the Mendenhall Glacier has receded 1.5 miles since 1929. A stop into the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center is the best way to learn more about its history. Or view the glacier and enjoy a salmon feast on the Mendenhall Glacier & Salmon Bake excursion.

Fun Fact: The Juneau Icefield is more than 3,000 years old.

Alaska Glacier Discovery

Learn more about Alaska’s glaciers by visiting Your Guide to Glaciers in Alaska.

Article by Amanda Halm


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