Alaska Cruise Report: Tracy Arm

From the National Geographic Sea Bird in Alaska, July 17, 2010

Southeast Alaska’s beauty takes many forms. It has vast untouched wildness, bountiful oceans, enormous snow-covered mountains and raging rivers, but the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness may be the crown jewel of this northern land. From 110 to over 250 million years ago, volcanic islands collected sediments before being buried to depths that geologists estimate to be 18 miles below the surface of western North America. These intense pressures combined with temperatures up to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Plutons intruded and formed incredibly dense granitic rocks. After most of the surface material eroded away, glaciers transformed the landscape, and finally we have arrived on the scene to take a look at this dramatic scenery shaped over time. The sheer cliffs of granite and metamorphic rock have been scraped by ice into nearly vertical walls that rise up thousands of feet. Many of the mountain tops reach over 7,000 feet. Tracy Arm’s scenery is so stunning it does more than dazzle you, it devours you.

We spent our morning poking about in Zodiacs looking at dwarf fireweed, arnica and columbines hanging to the rocks, but most of our day was spent exploring ice. After all, ice is the hand that holds the rock that continues to carve this place. We threaded our boats through thousands of growlers and bergie bits left over from lost battles the ice had with the sea. Adventuring closer to these frozen glacial fronts, we watched them ever so slowly flow out on to the water to be destroyed by the relatively warm sea. Sawyer Glacier was especially active today. At times the ice fell like white waterfalls, or pieces tumbled and rolled over the rocks below the lateral moraines. Once a column the size of a 30-story building parted from the wall and appeared to be sucked downward almost without a splash. Slabs broke off and tumbled and triggered adjacent ice to fall. It was “way cool” to watch, especially when the large chunks fell.

A rock island juts up in the center of where the fjord branches between Sawyer and South Sawyer Glaciers. It was here that we launched kayaks for another exciting experience. Floating ice appears larger at water level. Little pieces were like clear sculptures bobbing along in the green water. A waterfall also beckoned us to explore. We paddled in close until splashes turned us to other sights. Flowers, mosses and squiggly quartz lines covered the rocks with patterns that never repeated.

Part of the way out of Tracy Arm we found two adult black bears. They were foraging in the vegetation on a band of rock about 600 feet above the ship. We drew closer and enjoyed views of these glossy coated bruins.

We had much to talk about during our cocktail party and dinner as we crossed out of Holkham Bay and headed for Juneau. This was our last dinner aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird, at least for awhile. More adventures will always await us when we return.

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