Beartrack Cove, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Beartrack Cove, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

by | Nov 29, 2021

Beartrack Cove is an estuary about 3 miles (4.8 km) long and 1.6 miles (2.6 km) wide situated at the mouth of the Beartrack River in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, about 46 miles (74 km) south-southwest of Haines and 14 miles (23 km) north-northwest of Gustavus, Alaska. The bay was named in 1923 by William S. Cooper who was an American ecologist with the botany department at the University of Minnesota, where he taught from 1915 to 1951. During the Last Glacial Maximum about 18,000 years ago, a massive ice cap covered the Icy Strait region and spread out onto the continental shelf of the Gulf of Alaska. The ice retreated before 14,000 years ago and withdrew far up 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 advanced to the northern Beardslee Islands and blocked the outflow of the Beartrack River creating a glacier-dammed lake that filled present-day Beartrack Cove and extended far up the river valley. The glacial front was nearly stationary for more than a millennium, and during this period of relative stability, a northward mi­gration occurred of ancestral Tlingit people, from the Pacific coast between the Nass and Skeena Rivers. They became the northern Tlingit clans from Icy Strait to Yakutat Bay. By about 1000 AD, they established a settlement near present-day Bartlett Cove called ‘L’awshaa Shakee.aan’ on the broad outwash plain near the front of the quiescent glac­ier they called ‘S’e Shuyee’. Beginning about 1700 AD, during the Little Ice Age, the long-stationary glacier surged forward and by 1770 AD, the glacier terminus protruded far into Icy Strait. The glacier inundated the Tlingit settlement and the clans survived by dispersing throughout Icy Strait, establishing new settlements at Excursion Inlet, and northern Chichagof Island at a village in Port Frederick known today as Hoonah. In 1794, Lieutenant Joseph Whidbey, during Captain George Vancouver‘s expedition, reported that his exploration of this part of the coast was blocked by a wall of ice 2 miles (3.2 km) wide and 3,900 feet (1,200 m) thick. The immense mass of the Little Ice Age glac­ier caused isostatic depression and a correspond­ing increase in relative sea level of about 13 feet (4 m ±1 m) above its current height. The glacier was already retreating when Vancouver visited, and subsequent recession exposed a landscape greatly altered by ice inundation and devoid of vegetation, but the recolonization of plants soon followed and was carefully studied.

Plant succession studies are one of the old­est pursuits in ecology. In 1859, Charles Darwin was one of the first to observe that temporal patterns in community organization are often predictable. The rapid retreat of glaciers over the last 200 hundred years has exposed land with no vegetation, and at the same time, climate change is extending plant ranges into higher latitudes. Plant succession studies are finding renewed utility in climate change research, but given that succession and community change occur at much longer time scales than typically observed directly, inferences are often made from indirect approaches. While these inferential methods have been informative, it is well understood that confirmation of the results of inferential studies requires monitoring single locations for long periods. In 1916, William S. Cooper established a monitoring plot network within the recently deglaciated terrain of Glacier Bay including Beartrack Cove. He was attracted to the area because of the rapid retreat of the glaciers, the pristine nature of the terrain, and the detailed dates of retreat documented through accurate mapping by a number of researchers and visitors, starting with George Vancouver in 1794 and John Muir starting in 1879. Cooper was interested in how plant communities assembled and he developed the foundation of pri­mary succession ecology with repeated visits to Glacier Bay. Cooper counted, measured, and mapped individual plants, quantifying the demography and community ecology of the early successional community. The plots were estab­lished between 17 and 37 years after glacial retreat and have been followed to the present day, over 100 years after establishment. These plots represent the longest permanent, post-glacial plant succession plot net­work in the world and uniquely follow the development of a natural, untrammeled ecosystem from a bare, post­glacial landscape. Cooper grouped the vegetation of the area, which was laid bare by the final retreat of the glaciers, into three communities; the pioneer community characterized by mosses, perennial herbs, and willows; followed in time by the willow-alder thicket; and finally, the conifer forest characterized by a nearly pure growth of Sitka spruce. Cooper’s travels in Glacier Bay compelled him to lead scientists in nominating it as a national monument, leading to President Calvin Coolidge proclaiming the area Glacier Bay National Monument under the Antiquities Act on February 25, 1925.

In 1949, Ansel E. Adams visited Glacier Bay and made a famous photograph in Beartrack Cove called Rain, Beartrack Cove, Glacier Bay National Monument, Alaska, that captures a small peaceful stream that cuts across a uniform meadow of grass. In the foreground, the light reflecting off the tall, bending grass highlights the detail between each blade. The meadow extends out to the horizon, showing the immensity of the land before it meets dark trees and dark mountains shrouded in clouds. Adams was an American landscape photographer and environmentalist known for his black-and-white images of the American West. He helped develop an exacting system of image-making that achieves a final print through a deep technical understanding of how tonal range is recorded and developed during exposure, negative development, and printing. The resulting clarity and depth of such images characterized his photography. Adams was a life-long advocate for environmental conservation, and his photographic practice was deeply entwined with this advocacy. He developed his early photographic work as a member of the Sierra Club and was later contracted with the U.S. Department of the Interior to make photographs of national parks. For his work and his persistent advocacy, which helped expand the National Park system, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. His photography puts the American wilderness on display, highlighting its enormity and beauty through dramatic black and white photos. Read more here and here. Explore more of Beartrack Cove here:

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