Facing the Big Ice

Visitors feel the excitement of a Tracy Arm excursion

By: Christopher Batin

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Tour boats get up close and personal with
the Sawyer Glacier and its many icebergs.
The passengers of the M/V Yukon Queen searched the distant Tracy Arm high country for mountain goats and black bears, unaware that ambivalence in this area can be dangerous.

The fiord gradually funneled our boat into what was a mere crawl space between 3,000-foot mountains. The passengers oohed and aahed at the geological formations and colorful striations of mountainous rock, but the hazard was at our feet. I knew this modern tour boat was well equipped to handle these waters; nevertheless, I sensed this was not your standard, passive Alaska glacier tour. Ford’s Terror was named after a naval crew member who in 1899, rowed into these waters and was caught in surging whitecaps, crushing ice and tidal currents that almost capsized his boat. For six hours he fought wind and wave until the tide change drifted him back to his ship.

In 1980, Congress created the 653,000-acre Tracy Arm-Ford’s Terror Wilderness. They were wise to do so because this coastal jewel has become one of Southeast Alaska’s most exciting destinations. According to the U.S. Forest Service, cruise-ship traffic in Tracy Arm increased steadily between 1999 and 2002, with an average of less than 40 visits per year. In 2003, cruise-ship traffic more than doubled to 108 and then tripled to more than 143 visits in 2004.

On my visit, our captain held the course to the middle of the fiord. Spellbound, I felt the massive grasp of fiord walls reach out and embrace me in ageless time, titillating me with flashbacks of an Ice Age that once was.

From the deck, I gazed at the smooth rock walls, shimmering from a millennia of wind and rain, and the mountaintops high above, their colored granite forming a rocky meringue. The ship’s bow sliced through the surface and we sampled the natural treasure that is South Sawyer Glacier. Only smaller tour boats can offer these up-close-and-personal sensory delights that passengers on larger cruise ships seldom experience.

One edge of South Sawyer Glacier towered over 10 stories high, its length winding and weaving to the massive alpine snow fields that fed it. Groundwater here gushed out of the mountain with the pressure one expects from a 2,000-foot fire hydrant.

The onboard naturalist taught us to be connoisseurs of ice. We felt its slippery touch, heard it crackle like embers in a fire and marveled at its gorgeous, sapphire-blue shimmer. Floating on the bay around us, ice chards glittered like a raft of diamonds. On the lower deck, I was toe-to-toe with huge icebergs, and with several I had to lean back to see up their peaks. The two other tour boats in the distance positioned themselves strategically. They were like water wolves, and the glacier was their prey. They took turns darting in between calving events that could possibly damage or swamp them. We waited our turn, and made a move.

The skipper eased the boat through surface ice that popped and hissed an ancient language. The ice released a refreshing bouquet of air bubbles that had been trapped for hundreds to thousands of years. Unlike the air we breathe today, this layer of new air is pure, maybe addictive. Each passenger breathed in deep and for a moment, we were connected with another time.

But Tracy Arm’s secrets are not to be taken lightly. Sawyer Glacier rumbled from its sleep. The other boats resembling dime-sized toy ships in a washtub of party ice maneuvered away from the face.

The big ice dwarfed everything and intimidated all but the skipper. After a close look, we backed out. I saw beauty give way to a dangerous power that can pulverize mountains into dust and gouge deep fiords out of solid bedrock.

Sawyer shrugged off three icebergs, each larger than a house. Waves of atomized ice unfurled from the glacier face and twirled toward us. The rumbling grinded in our ears and our legs sensed the earthquake-like vibrations pulsing up through the hull of the boat. The ice that calved off the glacier and dropped into the sea rose up eerily from the depths like a sea monster rearing its head.

The displacement wave grew as it neared our boat. The other tour boats bobbed high on the wave, and disappeared behind it. Now at 10-plus feet, our boat lifted on the huge swell and dropped suddenly, the ice grating and crunching against our hull. Anyone in a smaller boat or kayak would have been capsized.

The glacier continued to calve. Booming thunder of shearing ice echoed down the fiord. The bay filled with ice from the size of a quarter to bergs as large as a semi-truck. We remained for over an hour, doing nothing but waiting and absorbing this continuous display of raw power.

On the journey out of Tracy Arm, the skipper motored into a waterfall cascading down one of the fiord walls. There was no danger of hitting shallow ice here as depths were in excess of 900 feet. Passengers stood on the ship’s bow and soaked themselves in an icy cold shower, cooling down from the record 90-degree temperatures.

I embraced this final misting as something both existential and spiritual, a baptism into the many wonders and power of Sawyer Glacier, one of Alaska’s greatest wilderness treasures.


Goldbelt Tours

Departure time for the cruise is 9 a.m. with a return time of 5 p.m. Tours run from mid-May through mid-September. Adult price is $148 and children are $103. Commissionable.