11-Jul-2004 -- A special report from the Alaska Virgin Confluence Trip Planning Service - "We’ve done all the legwork... Now you go grab the glory!"
Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park [www.nps.gov/glba] contains three degree confluence points – 59N136W, 59N137W, and 59N138W. In the same order, one overlooks the east arm of the Bay (Muir Inlet), one the west arm (Tarr Inlet), and one the Gulf of Alaska on the park’s western coast. On a flight-seeing trip out and back from the airport at Gustavus AK to visit Glacier Bay National Preserve, the national park’s less strictly regulated neighbor to the northwest, I was able to conduct an aerial inspection of all three. My thanks to the good folks at Air Excursions, LLC ("Charter Service throughout S.E. Alaska"), who made the trip possible. We found them to be quite accommodating, and I heartily recommend them to anyone wanting to travel in the Juneau – Glacier Bay region [www.airexcursions.com].
Compared to typical summer weather in Alaska, July 11th was a glorious day to be up in a small plane; but the calm conditions, combined with the temperature difference between land and water, produced quite a bit of haze, as is evidenced in the accompanying photographs. However, as two of these CPs have had no previous activity, I will post these pictures as an aid to someone with the time and money to get "up close and personal" with some spectacular Alaskan scenery.
Exactly 263 years [less four days] earlier, recorded history of this area may have in fact begun with a hunt for this very degree confluence point. Certainly the grid system was on the minds of the crew of the Russian packet boat "St. Paul," commanded by Alexis Tchirikov. As the ship caught sight of the then unnamed Fairweather Range of mountains, their log for July 15, 1741 records: "This must be America, judging by the latitude and longitude." Now as then, the Glacier Bay coast is characterized by a number of high peaks quite close to the shoreline. Mt. Fairweather, at 15,300’, is barely 15 miles from the ocean’s edge.
59N138W sits just west of the Fairweather Fault, which splits off land from Icy Point to Russell Fjord north of Yakutat. The CP sits about half way up the slope of an unnamed hill which rises sharply to 2058 feet above sea level, less than a mile inland. Just to the north, the Grand Plateau Glacier spills across the fault valley and down to the sea. In early July the mostly landlocked bay at the foot of the glacier was still filled with chunks of ice. By August the bay should be clear, and allow the confluence hunter a water route to within three quarters of a mile of his destination.
The Fairweather Fault is a feature similar to California’s famous San Andreas rift. A geologic examination near the CP would reveal the bedrock is out of alignment along opposite sides of the fault, as the oceanic plate has collided with the continental plate, heaving up the huge mountains that mark this coast. The power of this process was demonstrated in July 1958 at Lituya Bay, just to the south of the CP. A quake along the Fairweather Fault dislodged rain-soaked rubble from the bay’s steep headwall. The resulting wave reached an elevation of 1,700 feet [525 meters] wreaking havoc all the way to the mouth of the bay, seven miles distant; destroying one boat and sweeping another out to sea. Flying over the area a half century later, the devastated Lituya Bay cliff scar is still prominent.