I am so excited to share these photos and words with you! This was my favorite part of our trip.
Alaska has hundreds of fjords, but the Tracy Arm Fjord, about 60 miles southeast of Juneau, is a monument to the power of ice. It is “bordered on each side by monstrous sheer, rugged granite walls that extend heavenward hundreds of feet.” ~ Kathy Slamp, Rendezvous With Majesty
First let me tell you what fjords are: fingers of water extending into mountainsides that are fed from one direction by salt water and the other by freshwater created from glacial runoff. As glaciers grind their way down toward the sea, they drill through solid rock, creating these u-shaped valleys that eventually fill with water. That’s what I mean by “the power of ice.”
We were among the few who chose to leave our cruise ship (that’s it above – doesn’t its gargantuan surroundings make it seem tiny?) for a smaller high-speed catamaran and the opportunity to get much closer to the twin Sawyer Glaciers, the many waterfalls, and the turquoise tidewater. Our hours aboard that boat were the best of our entire trip. We were incredibly fortunate to see (and get to stop and observe for 45 minutes!) orca, who are very rarely spotted in this fjord. (Definitely more on that soon… and photos!)
“The landscape was carved by its unimaginable force, a dynamic process that continues to this day. Picture a solid block of stone… 35 miles long and 5 wide – billions of cubic tons, up-thrust into jagged, soaring peaks. This was the raw material from which this fjord and its setting were cut by a wall of ice more than a mile thick, and by the grinding power of the rock in moved. During the height of the Pleistocene Age, the current glacial epoch, this ice monster shifted relentlessly across the land. It lumbered seaward, pulled by the force of gravity, gouging and shaping as it went, the weight so immense that it bowed the underlying bedrock. When it met the ocean, its front face, undercut as it was shoved forward, calved in immense blue shards.” Nick Jans, Alaska’s Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness
“The journey up Tracy Arm is more than a 32-mile voyage; it’s a passage back into time, to a world our Pleistocene ancestors must have known intimately. In a matter of miles, we pass through centuries of change…. Near the Arm’s mouth, the world is comparatively soft and green, with broad patches of spruce and hemlock. As we travel inland 10 miles, … these evergreens diminish in frequency and size and gradually give way to pioneering pands of birch, willow, and alder. As we near the Arm’s head, barren, striated granite walls predominate, and we end our journey at shifting walls of ice: Sawyer and South Sawyer glaciers. Each is bordered by newly exposed rock that lay under a cold, shifting mantle of ice for untold centuries.” Nick Jans, Alaska’s Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness
Sawyer Glacier, 8 miles long, rises more than 200 feet above the water’s surface and extends 300 feet below the water level. It looks like we were fairly close to it, but when I looked at my pictures and zoomed in on it, I noticed that the tiny specs of brown in the above photo are…
… seals. Wow. Sea vessels stay at least 1/4 mile away because of calving. Glaciers flow outward under their own weight. When the edge of a glacier advances into the water, the ice crumbles off and form icebergs. This is called calving (the locals call it “white thunder” and it IS loud). Most icebergs usually calve underwater.
“No words can convey anything like an adequate conception of its sublime grandeur – the noble simplicity and fineness of the sculpture of the walls; their magnificent proportions; their cascades, gardens, and forest adornments; the placid fiord between them; the great white and blue ice wall, and the snow-laden mountains beyond. Still more impotent are words in telling the peculiar awe one experiences in entering these mansions of the icy North, notwithstanding it is only the natural effect of appreciable manifestations of the presence of God.” ~ John Muir, Travels in Alaska
When a glacier calves, enormous chunks of ice plunge into the sea, giving birth to icebergs. Calving displays range from a car-sized chunk to over hundreds of thousands of tons (house-sized!). It is awesome. They can also come up from underneath the water, which would seriously put a damper in a ship’s plans.
The massive weight of the ice pushes out the tiny air pockets between the crystals, producing an extremely dense ice. Light absorbs all the colors of the light spectrum except blue, which is refracted. Anywhere between 2/3 and 9/10 of any iceberg is beneath the water’s surface.
“Our vessel glides inland, away from the sweep of ocean wave, threading between icebergs that shimmer blue and white. On either side of the narrowing passage, walls of sheer granite tower skyward, cut by waterfalls and cascades. Through binoculars, a distant speck above becomes a mountain goat; farther along, seals sunning on a raft of ice regard us with dark, liquid eyes. Carved glacial domes and ragged nunataks a mile above us reflect on the water’s surface, and below our hull, the cold, green depths of the fjord whisper a tidal pulse old as time.” Nick Jans, Alaska’s Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness
South Sawyer Glacier is 24 miles long, rising 200 feet above water and 900 below. I love this photo for it’s sense of perspective.
“No ice work I have ever seen surpasses this, either in the magnitude of the features or effectiveness of composition.” ~ John Muir
It really is a pure spectacle of ice. Yes, the tidewater really is that color due to the richness of oxygen and nutrients in the water. It felt like being in pristine wilderness.
“The green waters of the fiord were filled with sun-spangles; the fleet of icebergs set forth on their voyages with the upspringing breeze; and on the innumerable mirrors and prisms of these bergs, and on those of the shattered crystal walls of the glaciers, common white light and rainbow light began to burn, while the mountains shone in their frosty jewelry, and loomed again in the thin azure in serene terrestrial majesty…. [we left] feeling that, whatever the future might have in store, the treasures we had gained this glorious morning would enrich our lives forever.” ~ John Muir, Travels in Alaska
As if this day weren’t already perfect, my husband and I went on a helicopter tour of a few area glaciers and got to walk around on one as well. I’ll share that majestic experience soon.
Can you tell I have been reading up a storm about Alaska? I particularly loved John Muir’s Travels In Alaska and One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey by Sam Keith, based on the journals of Richard Proenneke. Right now, I can’t put down Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby. And up next: Alaskan Travels: Far-Flung Tales of Love and Adventure by David Hoagland and Orca: The Whale Called Killer by Erich Hoyt. (One day I will update my book list.) I will share a separate post soon about the whales… so exciting!
In case you missed it, you can see what equipment I took with me to Alaska here and see Monday’s post about Ketchikan here. You can view more Alaska photos in the gallery here. Many more still to come!
Have a fabulous weekend, friends!