Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
Far back in the deep and winding Fjords southeast of Juneau, the first of the glaciers that fill the mountain backbone of Alaska finally reaches the sea.
There are glaciers as far south as California, but they are high up in the Sierra Nevada. But the further north you travel, the lower the glaicers reach, until one, just east of Petersburg, finally reaches the salt water to calve icebergs big enough to become hazards to navigation.
Tracy Arm just 40 miles south of Juneau is often visited by ships. These often enter Tracy Arm around 6 a.m. so they can get to Juneau for a port call in time for passengers to go on their shore excursions. If yours does: get up early! The entrance, particularly that first right angle turn is truly spectacular, as the light can be exquisite at that time of day.
Much more than Glacier Bay with its many arms, Tracy Arm is a true fjord, carved by Sawyer Glacier that once reached all the way out to Stephens Passage. Traveling up Tracy Arm is like going back through geologic history. The fjord’s dramatic walls lose their vegetation until they become bare shining rock, shaped and ground smooth by the ice. In many places the mountains plunge vertically into the water, which is more than a thousand feet deep.
Have a look along the sides of the fjord for parallel horizonal lines or striations where stones embedded in the glacier ground their way along the walls.
Early glaciologist and naturalist John Muir came here in 1880 by canoe with native paddlers. Muir was genuinely moved by the power and the beauty of the glaciers, and he was able to communicate some of this enthusiasm tothe nativews who were paddling. Once, when they had paddled most of an afternoon up Tracy Arm, frustrated with the narrow and ice-choked channel, they turned yet another corner and found what he had come to seek, the glacier itself. While Muir stood in the canoe, sketching the glacier, several huge icebergs calved off, thundering into the water of the narrow fjord. “The ice mountain is well disposed toward you,” one of the native paddlers said to Muir. “He is firing his big guns to welcome you.”
When Muir visited, the face of the glacier was much closer to the mouth, west of the place where an inlet leads back to North Sawyer Glacier. Today the glacier has retreated east and north, splitting in two and becoming two separate glaciers each with its own inlet.
And it was here that I first experienced the ice with my wife and our dog, in our little 32′ fishing boat in 1972. We were so naive then. There was a recently calved iceberg twenty or thirty feet high and we jumped into our little 8′ dingy with no lifejackets and paddled so casually around it. Never understanding that such bergs, melting rapidly, were notoriously unstable and apt to capsize without warning.