July 17, 2012
Imagine a 30+ mile long Yosemite Valley flooded with 600 feet of water with 6000 foot peaks rising straight up out of the water. Imagine more Yosemite Valleys breaking out along the length of this first one, each with 8000 foot peaks rising above the valley floor. Imagine all this Yosemite Valley with the glaciers that carved it still in place and hundreds of waterfalls tumbling down the cliff faces. This is Tracy Arm in Southeast Alaska.
I took the boat tour with about 25 other visitors on the 56′ vessel Adventure Bound operated by Adventure Bound Alaska out of Juneau, Alaska. First we sailed 40 miles south for 2 hours, spying one humpback whale in Stephens Passage. Then, after passing through swirling currents in the shallows of Holkhan Bay, we turned back north into Tracy Arm. We then pulled up alongside our first large iceberg for a close look, circling it twice within about 30 feet.
About 16 miles up-ford, Captain Steve dipped the nose of the boat into Hole in the Wall Waterfall to get drench a few adventurous guests up on the bow.
Just across the channel, at a drainage with no name, someone spotted a brown bear rolling rocks over on the shoreline. We maneuvered to within 100 yards, clearly causing no disturbance to the bear who didn’t seem to even acknowledge our existence.
Finally, we reached the end of Tracy Arm at the face of the South Sawyer Glacier. After picking our way through the field of icebergs at the face of the glacier, the engines were shut down and we sat for a good hour and half watching ice calve from the glacier. A few dozen seals floating on icebergs paid little attention to the calving until a larger chunk finally broke loose. This chunk of ice caused a significant wave and triggered a “shooter” to pop up from below the face of the glacier. A “shooter” is an iceberg that releases from the face of the glacier below the water line. The water is 500 feet deep at the glacial face, and the ice rises another 200 feet above the water, for a 700 foot total wall of ice. The large waves generated by these two events rolled towards our boat. “Everybody hold onto something” was the command from crew. Another large iceberg nearby was upset by the wave enough that the whole thing rolled over. A second large berg next to the boat started rocking heavily back and forth in the wave. Children in the boat started to panic. It was all quite exciting.
After this, we motored another 20 minutes over to Sawyer Glacier, where we saw a few small calving events over 45 minutes.
The South Sawyer and Sawyer Glaciers have retreated “2.1 and 2.3 km respectively from 1961 to 2005”, according to Wikipedia.
On the way back, we tucked into another waterfall, again sticking our bow and then the stern into the falls. The 8 hour adventure arrived back to Juneau at about 4pm with smiles on everyone’s faces.
A couple of words of advice for Alaska summer boating excursions, whether by small boat to Trace Arm or up Glacier Bay, or even on the Alaska ferries:
- Be sure to dress a little warmer than you might think, including wind parka, gloves and hat. It is quite chilly out on the deck when the boat is moving, even on sunny days and especially near the glaciers.
- Binoculars will get a lot of use.
- My favorite camera lens was the 70-200 mm. This is great for picking out icebergs or photographing the face of glaciers. It is also not too bad for wildlife when close to the boat, or for digitally cropping into the subject. A 100-400mm zoom would have been better for wildlife.
- Image stabilization on the camera or on the lens really does helps to steady the shot when the boat is rocking, rolling and vibrating.
- Bring plenty of memory cards and a spare battery for your camera. I shot 322 photos in Tracy Arm, using 9.2 GB on my flash card.
- Positioning yourself at the center of the stern often provides good unobstructed views once the boat has nudge past wildlife or other subjects of interest. Plus, the boat’s cabin will often protect you from wind and spray.
- A GPS device or smartphone app that tracks your route and geotag your photos is fun. I use the Geotag Photos app on my Android phone to plot my routes on this blog, to embed coordinates into my photos and to remind me where each photo was taken.