As much as we enjoyed flightseeing the Misty Fjords National Monument, I think the Hubs and I agree that the highlight of our trip was a journey through Tracy Arm Fjord. To think we almost missed the best part!
We got up early that morning. Our itinerary was clear: 6:00 – 10:00 a.m. Tracy Arm Fjord, en route to Juneau. The ship would pass through a very narrow channel to enter the fjord. I wanted to be outside, front and center at the bow, to witness “threading the needle.” I had a moment of doubt at 5:30 a.m. I was tired. It was still dark outside. What was there to see?
Dawn was breaking as the ship approached the Tracy Arm Bar, a buildup of glacial silt at the mouth of the fjord. Currents are swift and conflicting; the v-shaped channel shifts with the tides. Red and green channel markers on either side indicated a narrow pathway through icy water, small bergs floating silently past. In the distance, dim outlines of mountain peaks contrasted the slowly brightening sky.
A cold wind whipped over the bow and nearly took my breath away. I was almost oblivious, intent on capturing the imagery. Out of nowhere it seemed, a dense fog rolled, completely obscuring Harbor Island on our starboard side. It formed up fast into a menacing wall of white, sure to overtake us. I tucked my camera under my jacket and held my breath.
Just then, the ship swung to port side, threading the needle to enter the fjord. Perfect timing! Almost silently, we sailed onward. Daylight strengthened steadily to reveal steep walls, glacially-carved, on either side. It’s difficult to convey the immense scale, 1,500 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon at its deepest, granite walls towering above and more than a thousand feet of water beneath us. Our fifteen-deck ship was dwarfed.
I snapped away, fingers numbing in the Alaskan elements. Gratefully, I guzzled a hot chocolate and Kahula concoction the Hubs purchased topside. I could not tear myself away from the panorama unfolding. For more than an hour, we worked the outer deck with camera and hot beverages. We turned the Big Bend, skimmed The Wall, and navigated its unique 90 degree S-turns heading for South Sawyer Glacier, ‘bergs building in size and quantity as we sailed. When it seemed a relatively safe bet, we scurried to our stateroom to freshen up for breakfast. A warm meal with a window seat sounded quite appealing.
Fortunately, it occurred to the Hubs to take an extra moment just then to check our tour tickets. That one small boat pulling alongside in a few moments? We were expected to be on it! Hearts pounding, we gathered gear and essentials and were back out the door in a flash. Breakfast smeckfast! Who needs it? Protein bars work in a pinch. The mad dash was so worth it.
We were incredibly privileged to spend the next several hours exploring Tracy Arm at sea level, in a catamaran. The glaciers of North and South Sawyer flowing from the Sitkine Icefield into the fjord were the fantabulous blue of intensely compressed ice crystals, hundreds of years in the making. Eons of ice are dragged by gravity toward the sea at a rate now exceeding the accumulation of new ice. It was startling to realize that Sawyer Glacier, once a single face, has receded 200 feet per year in the past 10 years.
We sailed within feet, sometimes inches, of granite cliffs and icy waterfall spray, within clear view of harbor seals hauled out on ice floes and rocky islands. There were birds and more birds, everywhere birds. Rock and ice, flora and fauna, sea and skies of grandeur. It was a more than we could possibly take in; a glorious day.
It was hard to believe it could get any better. Indeed, traversing Stephen’s Passage en route to Juneau, we came upon a group of humpback whales feeding. What a treat to observe these gentle, endangered giants.
We had learned a bit about them through the onboard lecture series. Their stats, like most in Alaska, are impressive. Humpback dorsal fins are sixteen feet long and flexible like hands. Their lungs are the size of VW Bug! Ninety per cent of lung capacity is released in a mere half-second blow. It is awesome to behold, a few yards distant, exhalations at 200 miles per hour. The humpback emits a distinctive morel mushroom-shaped cloud mist with each great burst. Suddenly, we were in their midst.
After the blow, the dive: a distinctive bump of curved backbone gracefully enters the sea. Be quick then to frame the grande finale: a showy display of flukes, the underside of each as unique as fingerprints. Again and again the humpbacks blew and dove and flashed their flukes around the boat, as if to say, “Did you catch that? And that? How ’bout that?” We were mesmerized. And humbled.
Famed naturalist John Muir said of Tracy Arm, “I felt as if I was leaning up against the cheek of God.” Indeed.
~ René Morley