There are a number of places on earth where the human ability to comprehend scale become distorted. Tracy Arm is one of those places. The normal ratios and comparisons our minds draw between everyday things in the everyday world simply do not apply in this immense chasm of rock and ice.
As we motored into the mouth of the fjord the forested slopes lining the water’s edge began to steepen and draw up into the clouds. Dark bare rock began to show as the trees struggled for purchase. The recent rain roiled down the walls, forming into a thousand small waterfalls which shown like dew covered spider silk. In some places the streams intersected, forming larger cascades which often joined others still larger, forming great torrents of white water which shot horizontally from the clifftops and fell crashing into the sea, into water 600’ deep just inches from shore.
During the many ice ages which coursed over this area, southeast Alaska was covered in ice miles thick. As veins of ice were pulled inexorably towards the sea by gravity they cut a relentless path, gouging this place from solid granite. The surface of the rock tells the tale of the ice that shaped it. Its surface is polished into graceful curves. Scalloped declivities and long horizontal grooves are scars of the boulders the glaciers carried with them. Even now the process continues. Ice from the 500 sq. mile Stikine Ice Field is still marching to the sea. The Sawyer Glaciers, even in their comparatively diminished state, are an impressive sight. Their tortured sapphire faces jut vertically 200’ from the sea, even as they continue 800’ below it to the bedrock. As we drifted between the icebergs in their shadow with our engines shut down, the thunderous pops and cracks of shattering ice filled our ears. Every few minutes a piece of ice would break free and plummet into the water. Although some are as large as or larger than train cars, the falling pieces are dwarfed by the ice faces from which they calve.
As we leave the South Sawyer Glacier to move to the North the naturalist Greg spots a group of seven or eight Mountain goats high on the rocky walls. They amble nonchalantly along the precipice, stopping now and again to browse on the stunted vegetation.
After several hours in front of the glaciers which we share with only a couple others boats, we turn and begin the return trip towards open water. Lead boat Deception stops briefly below a waterfall, and Captain Rich and First Mate Rowan are drenched by the freezing waters as they stand on the bow pulpit, much to the amusement of everyone else. Beams of sunlight begin to poke through the clouds and illuminate mountaintops and bits of rock and forest.
We left the last bergs of blue ice stranded on sandbars in our wake as we entered Stephens Passage and made for Taku Harbor, a snug cove two hours north. The small following seas helped us along and by 6pm we were all tied up along the floating dock, tired but satisfied by our long day. As crews prepared their dinner a band of River Otters foraged at the shoreline and a Bald Eagle fished off our stern, snatching herring from the surface.