From the National Geographic Sea Bird in Alaska, Monday, May 24, 2010
Southeast Alaska is glacier country. Every waterway, every valley, every hill has been shaped by ice. But even ice, a brilliant sculptor, must contend with different materials. And in Tracy Arm, deep in the Coast Range, ice finds its finest medium. Granite and gneiss, the result of a fiery genesis, are impressively hard, and so can be shaped into spectacular topography. As we made our way up Tracy Arm, great cliffs soared above us. Broad valleys beckoned from the shore. And rounded forms, the result of glaciers’ smoothing power, slouched on every summit.
Nearing the fjord’s end, ice became increasingly abundant. It began with a few bergs, impressive, yet distant, and ended as the ship crept though water choked with bergs of every dimension, from fist-sized chunks to blue monsters. We hopped into Zodiacs to get closer to the glacier. We needed every bit of the Zodiacs’ nimbleness to weave our way through a berggy maze. On the way, we encountered seals, quite at home in this dauntingly chilly world. Shy but curious, they scrambled into the water at our approach, but then, when we least expected, they appeared nearby.
And at last the glacier. South Sawyer tumbles down from the frozen crest of the Coast Range, carrying the impenetrable chill of the mountains’ core to an otherwise beneficent Northwest Coast. It terminates in a blue wall, from whence icebergs tumble with a roar the Tlingits call “white thunder.”
While retuning to the lower reaches of Tracy Arm, we found both black and brown bears. True to form, the black was in wooded country, and the browns were in a comparatively open landscape.
At Williams Cove we went ashore. This was our first chance to walk in the rainforest that softens Alaska’s dramatic landscape. We strolled under hemlock and spruce, savoring the scent of chocolate lily and admiring signs of the presence of those that had created our trail.
Some explored Williams Cove by kayak. A few big bergs were floating in the cove, and it was impressive to see imposing ice from these most intimate of watercraft.
A wandering whale added interest to Williams Cove, and after dinner we found more of its kind in Stephens Passage. As nacreous clouds deepened from rose to charcoal, we enjoyed the company of creatures that rendered a fitting end to an incredible day.
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