Voices of Glacier Bay: An Adventure in Sound

Alaska writers and naturalists Richard Nelson and Hank Lentfer are nearing the end of a two-year project recording the “Voices of Glacier Bay.”

The project is a collaboration between Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, University of Alaska Southeast and Cornell University, which houses the world’s largest collection of natural sounds.

Nelson and Lentfer hope to change how others experience the world through a dimension beyond what we can see. They want us to listen and listen closely.

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Of the more than 1000 recorded sounds, each comes with a set of data, like species, date, location, weather condition and equipment. (Photo by Debbie Miller)
Of the more than 1000 recorded sounds, each comes with a set of data, like species, date, location, weather condition and equipment. (Photo by Debbie Miller)

In May 2013, Richard Nelson and Hank Lentfer set out into Glacier Bay armed with recording equipment and a wish list of sounds. They spent up to ten days at a time camped in the park, often waking up at 3 a.m. to a soundscape of birdsong.

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Since then, they’ve collected more than a thousand sounds of the park, including about a hundred bird species. Lentfer says they captured the gamut of marine mammals, a range of terrestrial mammals “and we got things like glaciers and streams and rivers and melting ice bergs that pop and bubble as they’re melting.”

The duo hopes to inspire others to experience the world through sound. (Photo by Debbie Miller)
The duo hopes to inspire others to experience the world through sound. (Photo by Debbie Miller)

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“Just all kinds of crazy sounds,” Lentfer says.

The Voices of Glacier Bay project was born from the premise that society has stopped listening.

“We live in this world that’s just filled with beautiful sounds. The spring choruses that we can hear in the forest, and the wind and the waters. We’re constantly surrounded by sounds,” Nelson says.

But, he says, we grow up in a culture that doesn’t pay attention to them.

In the field, the duo used sensitive mics and a parabolic dish that gathers and amplifies the sound. Often the best technique was proximity.

Lentfer says “the real joy of recording is that it locks you into the present moment. There’s nothing but that sound.” (Photo by Debbie Miller)
Lentfer says “the real joy of recording is that it locks you into the present moment. There’s nothing but that sound.” (Photo by Debbie Miller)

“If you can get close to a single animal talking and get all the nuances and textures of its voice, it makes for a great recording,” Lentfer says.

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But there are times when this doesn’t work.

“Like a thrush sounds best if you back off from it a little bit and get the rich melodic sounds bouncing off the surrounding trees,” Lentfer says.

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Nelson says the forest acts as the thrush’s natural amphitheater and helps create a cathedral sound. An optimal time to capture this effect is after a rain or in the morning “when everything is wet with dew and you have all these wet reflecting surfaces. So you might have a million little reflectors that that bird is singing into and all that comes back into your microphone and creates this amazing resonance that you just can’t get if it’s in a wide open place.”

Of the more than a thousand sounds they captured, Nelson and Lentfer each know instantly what their favorite sound is.

“For me,” says Lentfer, “it was coming down the bay in the skiff late in the evening in August, flat calm. The sun was going down and we got into a channel between a big bedrock mountain and a large bedrock island probably mile and a half apart, and there were maybe 30 whales in there in three different groups.”

Lentfer heard the whales breathing and what followed was the biggest sound he’s ever heard.

“So, of course, I get out the microphones. I get set up and– there’s a boat in the background. It’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I can’t record. I wait and wait and wait. The boat goes, I get ready– another boat. But the whales keep making the sound, keep making the sound, and finally the bay gets quiet and they’re still doing it. I hit the record button.”

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“The real joy of recording is that it just locks you into the present moment. There’s nothing but that sound and you’re just reveling in the beauty of it and the great fortune to be there in a place where those sounds still exist,” Lentfer says.

The men often used kayaks to get around the park. (Photo by Debbie Miller)
The men often used kayaks to get around the park. (Photo by Debbie Miller)

Nelson’s favorite experience recording in Glacier Bay took place in June on a day when he and Lentfer decided to go in separate directions. As Nelson kayaked into a small cove, “I saw an animal on the beach. An animal turned out to be a wolf. I didn’t have my equipment ready and apparently the wolf didn’t care. It started to howl.”

Nelson moved toward the shore very slowly. He sat in his kayak about 50 feet from the wolf. It laid down, and Nelson waited and waited and waited. Finally –

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Nelson says both he and Lentfer feel an incredible sense of privilege for getting to do this work.

“We are able to go into these places and hear the original voices of the North American land. And hopefully future generations will be able to hear our recordings and in a perfect world, people will be able to go back to these same places and hear these same voices, a hundred years from now,” says Nelson. 

For both men, there will always be the sounds that got away, like the earthquake in June that originated in Glacier Bay as both men slept in a tent miles from the epicenter. Or like the elusive wolverine. There are sounds they’ll be chasing for a long time to come, possibly for the rest of their lives.

Nelson and Lentfer spent up to ten days at a time camped out in the park. (Photo by Debbie Miller)
Nelson and Lentfer spent up to ten days at a time camped out in the park. (Photo by Debbie Miller)