Alaska Cruise Report: Dawes Glacier

From the National Geographic Sea Lion in Alaska July 18, 2010

Today we explored one of the most intense areas of the Northwest Coast. The Endicott Arm is a deep cut into Alaska’s flank. Elsewhere, Alaskan bedrock is oceanic or island rock, smeared onto the continent’s margin in the process of subduction. But here, granite, barely fractured by tectonic forces, is almost a match to the erosive power of glacial ice. Ice has shaped all of Southeast Alaska, but in granite it carves its finest features.

Early in the morning, we entered Endicott Arm. Deep green forested mountains rose around us, and a pure blue sky smiled above. Deeper into the fjord, we found grander topography. Broad, U-shaped valleys alternated with dome-topped peaks, and near-vertical cliffs soared everywhere.

After breakfast, we dropped Zodiacs for an up-close look at Endicott Arm. We made a slalom course through icebergs. The bergs were of every shape and size – some called to mind swans, some ramparts, some marine mice, and some mountains. Roaring waterfalls tumbled from the hills. With little to give a sense of scale, it was hard to gage the size of these falls until we neared them. At close range, they became enormous, with an overpowering roar and spray. But they were nothing compared to the glacier. Perhaps thirty stories tall, a hoary face of ice rises from the sea, forming a wall three quarters of a mile wide. Beyond snakes the Dawes glacier, in a fang-topped river of ice. Though imposing, the glacier is quickly melted by seawater. Undermined, its face regularly shatters into tumbling bergs. We waited close to the glacier. All saw some calving, and some were lucky enough to see great pinnacles fracture and fall, casting fountains two hundred feet into the air! Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail, or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail.

The Dawes Glacier is in the Tracy Arm – Ford’s Terror Wilderness Area of the Tongass National Forest. Two Forest Rangers joined us for part of the day, and spoke about forest management and wilderness values. As they departed in their kayaks, we spotted a bear! Gingerly approaching, we got a great view of a black bear, feeding characteristically on barnacles. A fine looking beast, his black coat glistened in the warm sun.

The Endicott Arm has a hidden treasure, rarely visited. Ford’s Terror is a deep fjord guarded by a shallow entrance, through which fierce tidal currents race. Occasionally, we can time a visit for slack tide, when currents are manageable. After an early dinner, we hopped into Zodiacs to explore. Once through the fjord’s narrow entrance, we found a landscape even more extreme than the Endicott Arm. Again, granite cliffs soared above us, seemingly weightless, yet imposing. Falls skittered down rocky facades. Some were tucked in secret clefts, others tumbled boldly over the hillsides. Some were slick ribbons, others, frothy cataracts. Though precipitous, the slopes of Ford’s Terror are rich with life. We found delightful flowers, families of otters, and a black bear.

Ice has shaped the bedrock upon which all of Alaska’s richness reclines. After this superb introduction to its foundations, we were hungry for more of Alaska’s natural and cultural finery.

Interested in this Alaska cruise? View itinerary details…

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