Alaska Cruise Report: Tracy Arm, North Sawyer Glacier

From the National Geographic Sea Lion in Alaska July 2, 2010

Our final day of exploration took place in one of the most spectacular fjords in Southeast Alaska, Tracy Arm. Navigating the National Geographic Sea Lion through the narrow fjord has been likened many times to a marine equivalent of Yosemite National Park in California, but the low, wispy clouds and the watchful eyes of bald eagles and harbor seals make this a genuine Alaskan experience. Devoid of crowds, tour buses or even hiking trails, the Tracy Arm Ford’s Terror Wilderness Area has serenity worth traveling thousands of miles for.

Cruising up the Arm, we placed ourselves in the prime viewing spot to marvel at the hundreds of waterfalls cascading into the fjord. With positions staked out on the bow and a warm beverage in hand, we scanned the shore for creatures winged and furry. Luckily watchful eyes spotted a large land omnivore, a black bear, feasting on intertidal creatures at the foot of a classic ice-carved U-shaped valley. Rolling over rocks and scraping off small animals for breakfast, the black bear was easily identified by its large, round ears and conical head. Since the valley is so steep-sided and narrow, this bear must call this place home and know every potential location for food. Feeling that the intertidal foraging was completed, the bear slowly walked out of sight to our whispered admirations of “Good bear.” 

Hanging valleys from long-gone tributary glaciers and polished granite walls serve as evidence for the thickness and power of an ancient glacier. Occasionally a nunatak, or horn, would peek from the low clouds showing what used to be a rock island in a sea of ice. With every mile traveled into the Arm, we stepped back in time to more recently exposed rock substrate. All the players in vegetative succession could be spotted as we neared closer to the glacier as if videotape was played in reverse from a mature temperate rainforest to ice-locked bedrock beneath a glacier: Western hemlock and Sitka spruce gave way to alders and cottonwoods. Alders shrank in size and were sprinkled with goat’s beard and fireweed. Fireweed became less dense as mosses and lichens became featured players. Ultimately, the true star of the story and of today and the force behind the topography of this land, North Sawyer glacier came within view. However, to see the most recently exposed rock and the slow-moving river of ice from a truly impressive perspective, a more maneuverable vessel was needed.

Zipping amongst bergy bits, growlers and icebergs, the ship’s fleet of Zodiacs brought the true size and power of this glacier to us in smooth fashion. Towering 200 feet from the water line, the blue and white face of North Sawyer glacier was abuzz with concussive sounds. Chunks of ice much larger than our 18-foot Zodiacs slammed into the still water below sending a torrent of seawater skyward. Crumbling ice became our search image as we hoped for a large calving event. Eventually we got just that. All around a precarious-looking spire the telltale signs of movement were obvious. A piece 200 feet high and nearly double that wide began to move in slow motion. Starting at the base, small pieces of ice sounded their separation from the face with a splash and boom. They even reached a slow crescendo as the monolith of ice plummeted to the water followed in slight delay by an explosion nearly drowned out by our cheers of exhilaration.

Feeling that the day could not get any better and agreeing that a warm drink was in order, we slalomed back to the awaiting ship with a grand new story to tell. Searching for words to describe the size of the splash, the sensation of the wave or the feeling of being overshadowed by raw nature will be a difficult task. But after a week immersed in the grand scale of Southeast Alaska, it is our duty to find a way to do just that. Because it is through the travelers’ tales, that inspiration for exploration is born.


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