Alaska Cruise Report: Tracy Arm

From the National Geographic Sea Lion in Alaska, July 4, 2010

Today we explored one of the most intense fjords of the Northwest Coast and the glaciers that carved it.

Southeast Alaska is a fjord-rent landscape. Waterways are long and narrow, and the hillsides have been rounded by the recent polishing of glacial ice. Ice is a fine sculptor, but can be only as good as the material it has to work with. Tracy Arm penetrates deep into the Coast Range. Elsewhere, Southeast Alaska’s rock is mostly metamorphic, much shattered by the accretionary process that scraped it onto the North American shore. At Tracy Arm the rock is granite and gneiss, hard rocks that the glacier has wrought into magnificent forms.

Some centuries ago, glacial ice filled Tracy Arm. Like a huge conveyor belt, it moved rock from the mountains to the sea, and built a wall at the entrance to the fjord, at breakfast, we crossed the shallows over this wall. At once the water deepened again, and soon reached depths of well over a thousand feet. Deep below and high above – steep walls towered over us, reaching peaks often of 6000 feet. The sides of Tracy Arm are deeply marked by striations – the grooves gouged by the glacier’s stony belly. Waterfalls everywhere tumble down the steep mountainsides. Confident of deep water, we were able to nose the ship right up to a couple of frothy cataracts. Though the scenery was grand, the weather was somber – rain was light but steady. We had to console ourselves that this was “glacier-making weather.” Soon the mood was brightened by the arrival of two forest rangers that patrol the area by kayak. Once aboard, they talked about their work, their lifestyle camping in the wilderness, and about management of this increasingly visited area.

By afternoon, icebergs were crowding around us. We had neared the glaciers. Dropping Zodiacs, we went off for an intimate view of the ice. Bergs vary endlessly. Some are hen-sized, some are as big as city parks. They are linen-white, grey and stony, or the most remarkable shades of penetrating sapphire. The imagination finds swans, whales, castles and mountains. After negotiating a maze of bergs, we neared the glacier. South Sawyer glacier tumbles from the Stikine Icefield. We saw the stair-stepping, undulatory slope that has helped fracture the glacier’s surface into a chaotic metropolis of icy towers. We waited for the glacier to calve… and there it was, the deep boom, the huge flare of white spray – what a show of “fireworks” to celebrate the Fourth of July!

The frozen world at the glacier’s terminus seems an impossible place to survive, yet it brims with life. Harbor seals gather to give birth on the icebergs, sure of safety from bears, wolves or killerwhales. We saw scores of them. Shy but curious, they often approached our Zodiacs, circling and drawing ever closer, then diving in an explosive splash of self-induced panic. Meanwhile, flocks of Arctic terns circled overhead, or perched daintily on icebergs. Even the least-likely seeming creatures, hummingbirds, are common here – drawn by the rich flowery hillsides that surround the glacier.

From great hulking bergs to tiny birds, from soaring peaks capped in ice to inky depths, Tracy Arm provides remarkable scenery and fascinating wildlife, and thus is an apt introduction to the beauty and intricacy of Southeast Alaska.

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