Hutchins Bay, Beardslee Islands

Hutchins Bay, Beardslee Islands

by | Dec 13, 2021

Hutchins Bay is on the eastern shore of Glacier Bay, partially surrounding the Beardslee Islands, in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, about 155 miles (249 km) southeast of Yakutat and 8 miles (13 km) north of Gustavus, Alaska. The bay was named by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1942 for the large numbers of Hutchins geese nesting in the bay. The Beardslee Islands are a group of over 22 islands, islets, and reefs, bounded by an area about 9.5 miles (15 km) long and 7 miles (11 km) wide between Bartlett Cove to the south and Beartrack Cove to the north. During the Last Glacial Maximum about 18,000 years ago, a massive ice sheet covered the Icy Strait region and spread out onto the continental shelf. The ice retreated before 14,000 years ago and withdrew far up the Y-shaped fjord of Glacier Bay during the relatively warm temperatures of the early Holocene. During the subsequent Neoglacial period, from 6,000 to 1,600 years ago, the ice in Glacier Bay readvanced almost to the present day Beardslee Islands, followed by more than a millennium when the glacial front was nearly stationary. Beginning about 1700 AD during the Little Ice Age, which lasted from 1300-1900 AD, the long-stationary glacier surged forward, overrunning the Beardslee Islands, with the ice front protruding into Icy Strait by 1770 AD. The immense mass of the Little Ice Age glacier caused isostatic depression and a corresponding increase in relative sea level to about 13 feet (4 m) above its current height in Ice Strait. In 1794, Captain George Vancouver noted the ice front protruding into Icy Strait, even though by that time the glacier has started receding. Post-glacial rebound has been underway since the beginning of glacial retreat and as a result, relative sea level in Icy Strait, lower Glacier Bay, and the Beardslee Islands has been declining at a rate of 0.6-0.8 inches (1.4-2.0 cm) per year. The gradual re-emergence of coastal land over the last two centuries is evident by the changes in the vegetation, shoreline configuration, and seafloor bathymetry.

In 1879, John Muir was the first white man known to visit and explore the glaciers of the bay, traveling by canoe with the Reverend S. Hall Young of Fort Wrangell as a companion. In 1880, Captain Lester A. Beardslee on the USS Jamestown was serving as the commander of the Department of Alaska, the designation of the territory following the Alaska Purchase in 1867. During the department era, Alaska was variously under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army until 1877, the U.S. Dept. of the Treasury from 1877 until 1879, and the U.S. Navy from 1879 until 1884 when it was reorganized as the District of Alaska. In September 1880, Beardslee chartered the steamer Favorite, taking advantage of the steamer’s monthly visit to trading posts on inland waters, and along with Major William G. Morris and Lieutenant Frederick M. Symonds, attempted an exploration of the harbors and passes exposed by the receding glacier. Beardslee named the fjord Glacier Bay, and the islands were later named after Beardslee. In 1882, one of the first charts of the bay was produced from the survey, but was limited in detail and only alluded to a navigational challenge on the ‘unsurveyed’ eastern side of the bay. In 1916, the U.S Coast and Geodetic Survey produced a new chart based on work by the International Boundary Tribunal in 1899 and the surveys of several glaciologists such as Harry F. Reid. In 1922, William S. Cooper wrote a paper for the Ecological Society of America in which he proposed that Glacier Bay be protected as a national monument, and in 1925, President Calvin Coolidge signed a proclamation creating Glacier Bay National Monument under the Antiquities Act. But the new national monument was limited to the glaciated portion of the bay mostly north of the Beardslee Islands. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to expand the monument by transferring lands from the Tongass National Forest to the National Park Service. This expansion included the Beardslee Islands, and that same year, the USC&GS Westdahl conducted the first hydrographic survey of the Beardslee Islands over a period of 5 months using sextant fixes, hand deployed lead lines, wire drag surveys, and the Dorsey Fathometer No 3. In 2021, the NOAA Rainier conducted multi-beam surveys of the Beardslee Islands and other parts of Glacier Bay, and each survey area revealed significant changes in seafloor bathymetry. The most prominent changes are related to post-glacial rebound elevating the land and seafloor resulting in significant shallowing such in Hutchins Bay and several shoals throughout the Beardslee Islands. Much of the emerging tidelands have created an expansion of salt marshes and wetlands used by migrating birds such as the Hutchins goose.

The Hutchins goose, also called the cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii), was named after Thomas Hutchins, to commemorate the English surgeon and naturalist who was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Prior to 2004, the cackling goose was considered the same species or a subspecies of the Canada goose. The American Ornithologist Union redesignated the cackling goose as a separate species, with five subspecies based on differences in size, voice, habitat, timing of migration, and genetics. The cackling goose is a short-necked, stubby-billed goose, slightly larger than a mallard, and very similar in plumage to the Canada goose. They often form flocks with other species of geese, grazing in fields or gathering in wetlands. The subspecies of the cackling goose are Bering, Richardson’s, Taverner’s, Small, and Aleutian. The Bering cackling goose was last seen either in 1914 or 1929 and is considered extinct due to predation by humans and Arctic foxes, Richardson’s is most common in central North America, Taverner’s is the largest subspecies and usually pale, the Small is darkest and usually with no neck collar, and the Aleutian breeds in the Aleutian Islands and winters along the west coast of North America and is typically dark overall with a bold white neck collar. Cackling geese were abundant and reported nesting in Hutchins Bay in 1942, but are now considered uncommon in Glacier Bay during the spring and fall and very rare in the summer. Cackling geese migrate north through Southeast Alaska in the spring to nesting areas in coastal Southcentral Alaska and some of these birds will fly over the Gulf of Alaska instead of along the coast. In 2018, a bird survey in Southeast Alaska reported the subspecies Small at Gustavus in March, five Aleutian in May at Echo Cove near Juneau, and also in May, a northbound flight of hundreds of unidentified cackling geese observed from the cruise ship Emerald Princess off the west coast of Chichagof Island. Read more here and here. Explore more of Hutchins Bay and the Beardslee Islands here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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