From the National Geographic Sea Bird in Alaska, Saturday, May 22, 2010
What a rare treat to combine the lushness of a temperate rainforest with a dry sunny day in one of Alaska’s premier wilderness areas! Early risers were met with brilliant sunshine. It gleamed off the snowy peaks and scintillated on the surface of the water as we entered Endicott Arm. We observed a few harbor seals, a variety of birds and a few stray icebergs that had made their way down-bay by wind and currents from the Dawes Glacier at the head of the inlet.
We entered a small fjord off of Endicott Arm, anchored the vessel and ventured in the Zodiacs through a narrow constriction that opened up to a grand glaciated canyon. We explored fissures and cascades right up to the terminal meadows at the head of the bay. We have but a short window in this inner gorge before the narrow entrance becomes a raging torrent during tidal changes. It is known as Ford’s Terror for its first historical explorer, who was unaware of its bipolar character. Our Zodiacs easily slid in on benign flat water at slack tide and exited before the appearance of standing waves and whitewater rapids.
Some large icebergs that had floated down from the Dawes Glacier added to the scenery at our anchorage outside of Ford’s Terror and made for a beautiful environment in which to kayak. The steep high walls, with thin veneers of fresh snowmelt dwarfed the wee vessels, inspiring awe and respect. Currents from the ebbing tide streaming from the narrow opening increased, carrying icebergs and debris and forming crazy eddies and up-wellings.
The National Geographic Sea Bird repositioned near the head of Endicott Arm. On the way, we found a chocolate-colored black bear very intently feeding on barnacles and other goodies in the intertidal zone. Having recently emerged from its den after a winter of fasting, bears are driven by hunger to the shoreline until more food is available in the forest and streams.
In water too deep to anchor, our mother vessel floated out of reach of large icebergs while the Zodiacs were lowered and embarked for a journey to the face of Dawes Glacier. Maneuvering around icebergs we scouted for harbor seals so that we would not disturb them during the sensitive pupping season.
The glacier was active today, rewarding us with tons of ice breaking off the face and crashing into the sea. This process, known as calving, is perhaps more aptly expressed with the Tlingit term, translated as “White Thunder”. Ensuing waves gently rocked our Zodiacs and rattled the bergs that surrounded us.
With all the activity, it was difficult to leave the glacier, but a call from an advance Zodiac alerted us to a whale that was approaching the ice. This turned out to be a gray whale! While common in migration along Alaska’s outer coast, grays are all but unheard of in the Inside Passage. This was a remarkable sight indeed!
Our day was a full one, but one more experience was in store. Though our luck over the week had been exceptional, we had found no killer whales. And at last here they were! People emerged in pajamas, slipper-clad, to see these cleverest of whales. As sunset faded to dusk, the whales spouted around us, gradually coalescing into a group that swam off into the night.
Our day was filled with extraordinary sights and sounds that surpassed even the warmest expectations. As such, it was an apt reflection of our week exploring Southeast Alaska.
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